2018 will always be the year of the child in my mind.

It began in early February when I was challenged to imagine a curriculum that would bring the concepts of our Life with God journey to children. Since that time, children’s formation and spirituality have not been far from my thoughts. Through study of secular research psychologists, child development specialists, brain development experts, as well as Christian researchers and practitioners working with children in the church, I have a new appreciation and respect for the vital role that children play in the field of spiritual formation.

Not only has this knowledge expanded my depth as a spiritual formation minister, it has excited and re-energized my passion for seeing spiritual formation implemented in the church. The following article gives a taste of what I have learned and what we are integrating into our Whole Life Discipleship project at Grafted Life.

Three realities that excite me about children’s formation:

1. Children have an inborn and fully present capacity to connect with God.

Children come hardwired to relate with the divine. Dr. Lisa Miller calls this “natural spirituality” and correlates this human capacity on par with EQ and IQ.[i]  She writes, “Science now tells us that this spiritual faculty is inborn, fundamental to the human constitution, central in our physiology and psychology. Spirituality links brain, mind and body…the capacity for a felt relationship with a transcendent loving presence is part of our inborn nature and heredity: a biologically based, identifiable, measurable, and observable aspect of our development, much like speech or cognitive, physical, social and emotional development.”[ii]

In one sense, this well-studied and now scientifically proven reality of human beings did not surprise me. It fits perfectly with biblical revelation and my spiritual theology—we are a people made in the image of a relational God who created us to live and abide with Him. We need the spiritual capacity to know Him, to sense our relationship with Him, to dialogue with Him and perceive His guidance. Much of what we do at Grafted Life is designed to help Christians develop and deepen this God-given spiritual capacity to relate with Him in everyday life.

But in another sense this information created new categories for me because, until this year, I had not appreciated or fully understood young children’s capacity and need to have relational experiences with God. Much of what I had been exposed to in early Christian education focused on character and moral development, as well as giving children biblical knowledge and theological foundations.

There is value in religious training, but most of it is missing the intentional nurturing of a child’s spiritual connection with God.

Throughout this year I have enjoyed the discovery of many Christian spiritual formation colleagues who have focused their study, research and practice on children’s spiritual journeys. I have learned so much from our friends and partners at Kidz at Heart, and from the research and writings of Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May. Each of these have contributed to the body of knowledge about the spiritual capacities of children and how to engage with children to nurture their relationship with God. Children are ready, willing and able to connect with God in a personal and profound way.

The more I learn about the potential for creating spaces and experiences in churches for children to meet with God, to dialogue with Him, to learn to listen to Him, to know and grow to love Him as they learn about Him, the more excited I become. Providing opportunities for children to reflectively engage with God and for God to meet with children will be the hallmark of the curriculum that we are developing in our Whole Life Discipleship suite of products.

2. When we share spiritual experiences with children, we create a foundation for thriving.

All of us who love children desire for them to live up to their potential. We nurture children in biblical truth, moral development, social skills, academic achievement, athletics, arts, etc. so that they will thrive. We want them to have a solid and well-rounded foundation for life.

In the last two decades, researchers have been studying life factors that contribute to thriving and guard against hereditary and environmental tendencies toward human dysfunction. In the late 1990’s, a comprehensive study looked at the issue of depression (the most common form of mental suffering) in women and their offspring, evaluating different life factors that may counter the high risk these children faced to struggle with depression like their mothers.

One of the factors evaluated in the research was the effect that spirituality had on protecting these children from depression. The data showed only a marginal level of protection if only the child reported being spiritually engaged, with similar low impact if only the mother was spiritually engaged. But something extraordinary showed up in the data when the researchers asked if a shared spirituality between the depressed mother and her child counteracted the generational transmission of depression. “If the mother and her son or daughter both reported the same personal relationship with a religion then there was a dramatic positive effect—shared spirituality was over 80 percent protective in a sample of families otherwise at very high risk for depression.” The researcher concludes, “Neither biology nor relationships, education, socioeconomic situations, pills, or supplements could compare with this. Nothing radically lowered the risk for depression like a shared spirituality.”[iii] To put this another way, nothing contributed to thriving in these children as profoundly as a shared spirituality with their mothers.

What does this mean for us as Christian parents, grandparents, children’s workers, youth leaders and those who love and desire to nurture children in the church? We need to recognize that our spiritual connection/relationship with God—shared with the child we love—is the most profound gift we can give him or her that contributes to their flourishing in life.

Children need adults who will walk with them in shared relationship with God.

Children are nurtured as we talk about God and pray together, as we serve with God together, as we enjoy God’s gift of nature together, as we seek God together in our struggles, as we trust God together while we wait to see what God will do in our lives. When we are present with children in loving relationship, we want them to know that God is present too, that God is loving them as well. When we share this spiritual awareness and journey with children, they receive a strong foundation that stays with them the rest of their lives.

One of the products that we will be creating for parents is the Spiritual Families Playbook. This activities workbook will equip parents with ideas for how they can create a shared spiritual environment in their home in which they can engage with God together with their children. I am excited about the potential to impact and encourage families in this spiritual practice that contributes to thriving.

3. Adolescents have increased interest and capacity for spiritual relationships and experiences.

In the spring I was listening to a series of DVD lectures by Dr. Karyn Purvis.[iv] Dr. Purvis was a child development researcher at Texas Christian University who studied issues of attachment in adoptive children. Part of her research documents that when children are given good/loving attachment experiences, there is a correlation with positive brain development. But when children experience trauma, abuse or neglect, their brain development is negatively affected and their neurochemistry is often abnormal. In one of her lectures, she was talking about major brain growth stages in the life of a child in which loving relational connections, or the lack thereof, have profound impact on brain development. As she described the different growth stages, I was intrigued to learn that the adolescent years are one of the brain growth stages.

This information about the teen years seemed important to me and generated several questions: Do teens have a unique window of opportunity for deeper relationship with God and others in the church? Can positive/loving encounters with parents and other adults in the church set teens up for thriving in young adulthood? Could loving relational encounters with God and adults/parents in the teen years begin to repair brain deficits from earlier negative experiences in childhood?

This fall I discovered some additional research that began to speak to my questions and excite me about the possibilities of ministering to teens. These studies conclude, “With physical puberty comes a biologically primed surge in natural spirituality. Teens are propelled like clockwork into an accentuated hunger for transcendence, a search for ultimate meaning and purpose, and the desire for unitive connection…The development of spirituality occurs in tandem with other forms of maturation, including sexual, cognitive, social and emotional development.”[v]

What this means is that during the teen years, youth feel a biological surge of motivation to participate in the difficult process of understanding their inner world, to connect with God, to find meaning in life that is bigger than they are, and to claim that meaning and connection with God as their own.

Just stop for a minute and think about how God has created us so perfectly. If you have ever worked with teens, you know how hard it is to get them to do something they don’t want to do.

God has created a biological time clock that motivates us in our teen years to engage more deeply with Him.

Teens have an inborn incentive to find a place in God's kingdom that holds deep meaning for their lives and to claim their true identity as His children. How exciting is that!

The opportunity for parents, grandparents, church youth workers and loving adults in these years--to walk alongside teens and guide them through this spiritual awakening--is profound. But often teens are left to figure this season out for themselves. In a decade long project that interviewed hundreds of teens, Dr. Miller reports, “Adolescents are profoundly spiritual, they are experiencing spiritual stirrings as the momentous and wondrous, and they are surprised that for the most part, nobody has talked to them about this experience. Nobody, even people they love dearly, have asked, or commented, or said something to make spiritual development part of a conversation, shared words that would make their inner life a spoken reality.”[vi]

Being in relationship with teens can bring up fears and insecurities for parents and others and tempt us to simply hold on and survive until they reach adulthood. But contrary to just surviving, God has primed teens to become spiritual thrivers.

Because the teen years are so important for spiritual, relational and brain development, we will create a specific workbook for parents of teens as part of Whole Life Discipleship. We want to encourage parents in their own walk with God during this time and guide them in ways to meaningfully engage with their kids during this momentous spiritual season. In addition, we will be writing a student addition of our Life with God study series to give teens a place to explore their relationship with God, process their spiritual questions and engage with safe adults from their church who are committed to share and support their spiritual journey.

Three Reasons You Can be Excited, Too

1. Children can help you connect with God in fresh ways.

Often, as adults we get fixated on what we need to do for children—what we need to teach them and what programs we want to create for them. While “doing for children,” we can forget that children are an important part of the body of Christ and that they have something to contribute to the health of adults.

When asked by His disciples, Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus responded this way:

“Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 18:2-4 (NLT)

I believe that part of children’s humility is their openness to the spiritual world around them, their easy acceptance that there is something/Someone bigger in the universe that connects us, their innate sense of God and their excitement to connect with Him.

Have you considered what you might learn if you observed and listened to children relating with God? If you had relationships with children so you could follow Jesus’ advice to spiritually become like little children?

How might Jesus want to put a child in your life, not necessarily so you can teach them, but so he/she could teach you?

2. God puts great value on children. He has a heart and time for them.

Children were not a bother or nuisance to Jesus. They did not distract Him from His mission. In fact, Jesus explained the value of children to His disciples this way:

“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

“Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father.

If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish.” Matthew 18:5-6, 10-14 (NLT)

In the church, we want to value children because God values children.

When we attune our hearts to God’s heart, we find great joy and purpose. If there is a curse associated with harming children, can you imagine the blessing for those who help bring children to Jesus to find a relationship with Him?

How might God be asking you to bring a child to Jesus so that you can share in His blessing?

3. A generation of children raised to connect with God, not just know about Him, could change the world.

While 2018 has been a year for me of study and reflection on children’s formation, I have also been writing a daily reflection called The Invitation. This year’s theme of The Invitation has been “hope.”

As I come to the end of this year, I see that these two projects are more connected than I realized. My hope has grown through the year as God has opened my eyes to the potential of impacting children through our work. Our children are the future of the church. We can do a better job of spiritually nurturing them, of understanding and shepherding them through seasons of life when they are particularly open to God. We can learn how to truly bring children to Jesus in relationship. 

Can you imagine what God might do with a generation of children spiritually nurtured in this way? How might the Kingdom be impacted by thousands of spiritually grounded, relationally thriving, deeply loving youth? How might their witness change the world?

How might God be asking you to actively hope for the future of the church?

 © Grafted Life Ministries. All rights reserved.

[i] Miller, Lisa, and Teresa Barker. The Spiritual Child: the New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving. Picador/St. Martins Press, 2016. Pg. 6. (Though Dr. Miller’s perspective is secular and interfaith in nature, the scientific conclusions she reports generously support the work and thought of Christian formation scholars.)

[ii] Miller. 26.

[iii] Miller. 87-88.

[iv] Purvis, Karyn. Trust-Based Relational Intervention - DVD Lecture Series. Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development, child.tcu.edu/store/lecture-dvds.

[v] Miller. 64.

[vi] Miller. 71.

Additional Resources

Stonehouse, Catherine. Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey: Nurturing a Life of Faith. Baker Books, 1998.

Stonehouse, Catherine, and Scottie May. Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey: Guidance for Those Who Teach and Nurture. Baker Academic, 2010.