At our junior camp this year, we had a boy who liked to ask a lot of questions—questions in the middle of our lessons, questions about completely different subjects, questions that evolved into stories, etc. I gently responded each time, “that would be an excellent conversation to have after our lesson.” Finally, when I started to say this yet again, he cut me off, “I know… that would be a good conversation to have later.”
Realizing this could have been discouraging for him, I caught up with him later in the day. I said, “I want you to know that I LOVE all the amazing questions you have… and I don’t ever want you to stop asking them, because your questions are a gift from God.” I image the lessons from camp are probably long forgotten now (even by me), but his experience of camp and his experience of Christian leaders and volunteers remains.
Knowing and loving God
Richard Rohr says, “God cannot be known; God can only be loved. And that loving becomes its own way of knowing.” This idea comes from St-John of the Cross who taught that God could only be truly known through spiritual experience.
It’s like this—You can study and learn all about the Louvre Museum in Paris, but you will know it in an entirely different way if you actually go there and experience it. Rohr is pointing out this difference, and how God cannot be known or loved, outside of personal experience.
What we’re getting wrong about children in church
Children between the ages of 7 and 12 are also more concrete than abstract thinkers. Adolescents (12 and older) can handle more abstract concepts at church, but younger children need concrete experiences and concepts.
Regrettably, churches often focus more on what we want children to know (ideas) rather than what we want them to experience (practices) or what we want them to be able to do (skills).
Even as adults, I believe our thinking and behavior are shaped by (1) information, (2) relationships, and (3) experiences… but often, plain old information is the least formative.
This is why we love to quote the Scripture, “Taste and see the Lord is good!” We use this verse during communion as we offer children grapes. We hope to make a positive and sensory connection with communion and with the redemptive work of Jesus.
Another great example is how we use ashes at the end of the Lenten season. Rather than ‘impose’ ashes on their forehead (as do adults in our church), we invited them to touch the ashes in a bowl and see what they felt like. We then put the sign of the cross on their hand where they could see it, saying “this cross reminds us that we all need Jesus.”
What a blessing it was to overhear one of the children repeating this message to her parent after church, “Mommy, I know why you have that mark on your forehead… it means that we all need Jesus.”
Being intentional about what children experience
As we plan children’s activities, our goal is not so much to fill their heads with ideas, as much as to surround and immerse them in positive relationships and experiences. These positive memories, practices, and skills, will give them roots and it will give them wings.
With that said, here is a list of 10 concrete experiences and skills we aim for. We foster an environment where children will…
- Enjoy being still and quiet before God
- Participate sincerely in a time of worship
- Pray a written prayer; pray a spontaneous prayer
- Find and read a passage of Scripture
- Recognize there are different parts of Scripture with difference styles and voice
- Express their own spiritual idea; listen to others express their own spiritual idea
- Affirm others with thoughtful words
- Recognize the value of confession
- Recognize and appreciate liturgy and church seasons (*this one is a goldmine in itself!)
- Share our love for God and our desire to follow Jesus with others
One Sunday this year, we interrupted our normal worship had all the children gather around the church organ. They were so intrigued by all the sounds, stitches, and buttons. It was a great reminder that children are never an interruption from what we do at church. If anything, some of what we do, might be distracting them from engaging spiritually with God.
Jesus is calling children as well as adults to know him, to grow with him, and to go with him. It is our exciting job to create an environment full of experiences that foster that call.