‘Adventure into God’ – developing the spirituality of children and families

Revd Elizabeth Pope from St Lawrence, Denton led this session in October 2014 helping us to think about the spirituality of children and how we can help both children and their families to grow in relationship with God.  Elizabeth spent a recent sabbatical exploring children’s spirituality and gave an inspiring talk about how we as churches maybe need to think differently about how we engage with children. Here are notes from her presentation and at the end you can find details of a range of resources.

children images

Children – what do we see?

When we look at a child what do we see?  The question is important because what we see affects how we respond to the child.  Jesus called a little child to him and placed the child amongst a load of people, grown ups who were asking  questions of the sort they loved to debate.  We can look at the same child in different ways depending on sorts of things, not least our relationship.  What do we see?

And what does the child want us to see?

A child has the ability to relate, to concentrate, to infuriate, to enjoy, to delight and be delighted, to explore.

Children relate – from the start of life they are in relationships with all sorts of people, even the loners.  Yet each one different from all others.

School buses have ‘future doctor, future lawyer, future marine biologist etc’ written on the side.  We ask children what they want to do when they grow up.  Of course it’s good for children to have hopes and aspirations, but who they are now must be affirmed.

Children now have the ability to be creative, to be utterly absorbed in awe & wonder, to feel all sorts of emotions – and deeply,

But they are all in a relationship.  No one tells a baby how to relate to its mother/father.  It’s something the parent and baby do together.  And it’s not all one way.  Ask any Mum or Dad and they will tell you things the baby taught them, even though the baby cannot speak.

What did the disciples see?

sunday school

See Matthew 18.1-5, Mark 9.33-37, Luke 9.46-48

  • childhood as a stage of development to be grown out of
  • children as having little status

So, what sort of child did Jesus call to him?

?clean, quiet, serious?    ?grubby, exuberant, full of mischief?

What do I see?

Question is important because the answer has far-reaching consequences.

What might others see? – eg those from other cultures, from within our own society who may have an interest – good, bad or indifferent – in a child.

  • someone valued and loved
  • someone valued as necessary to economic survival, well-being, heir in whom family will live on after death
  • potential earner
  • expense
  • someone with no rights, subject to parents
  • divine gift, sign of God’s blessing, member of God’s covenant
  • someone ignorant, capricious,
  • someone originally sinful, essentially wicked
  • someone innocent
  • someone with original goodness (made in image of God)
  • someone with potential (? but only potential)
  • someone to gratify desires
  • someone in whom to live out another’s dreams
  • potential spender
  • family property with a debt to parents of obedience, honour, reverence, service (literature praises absolute filial obedce)
  • immature, incomplete, imperfect, irrational
  • not yet human
  • dependent (with the implication that parenthood is a most holy calling, obligation)


Childhood may be seen in different ways, and has been through history:

  • State of immaturity to outgrow, state of not being fully human, vulnerable ignorant, mentally deficient
  • time of training for adulthood (not valuable in itself, which says what to the parents whose child has died)
  • necessary in the life-long journey to perfections

Art can reflect thinking about childhood – the child as cherubic, innately innocent, or dressed in adult-style clothes adopting an adult pose of lord of the manor.

John Chrysostom: (c 347 – 407 AD): ‘Though a parent may lead an otherwise virtuous life, if he or she neglects the needs of the child and fails to instruct the child in godliness, then that virtue does not count for much in the eyes of God.’  (Can we ‘instruct’ a child in godliness like we would maths or geography, or are they led into it?)

Augustine:  (354 – 430 AD) deplored basic inequity between child and adult.  ‘Both adults and children play games, but children are the ones who get punished for playing them.’  (How many children simply want adults to take them seriously?)

Thomas Aquinas: (1224 – 1274):  Good fathers appeal, exhort, encourage children, rather than commanding and ruling them.

Luther: (1483 – 1546): saw parenthood as noblest of work, to bring children up to worship and serve God. 4 duties of parent were to provide sacrament of baptism, to form children in faith as they grow up, to attend to their education for vocation, to provide with a suitable spouse in timely fashion (!!!)

 John Calvin: (1509 – 1564): considered youngest infants capable of not merely manifesting, but indeed proclaiming God’s glory

 Psalm 127: Children are indeed a heritage from the Lord . . . like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.

 Jesus: Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

These reflect a variety of thinking about what a child is and what childhood is and suggest that children need, among other things:

  • discipline
  • will to be broken
  • baptism – Augustine (354 – 430 AD) believed that  Holy Innocents died unbaptised and therefore were condemned.  Newborns are in grasp of Satan until baptism and Christ’s repossession of the child.  Although they have committed no personal sin, they are clearly infected by some evil
  • protection
  • teaching

Of course, some of these ideas we today would clearly reject as wrong (eg Augustine’s view) while others are ones we would still see as important.

Children in the gospels:

“People were bringing little children to him order that he might touch them” (Mark 10:13).  We can see that Jesus blesses them, makes them models of entering the Kingdom of God, makes them models of greatness in the Kingdom of God, calls disciples to welcome them and as he does this he gives the service of children ultimate significance   as a way of receiving him and therefore the one who sent him.  Jesus was angry with the disciples for turning children away.  This incident speaks of the seriousness of excluding them from blessings of the Kingdom of God: ‘let them come, don’t stop them’!

Where are we stopping them?  We, as individuals or as a church, may not tell them outright not to come, but do we tell them in other ways they’re not welcome,   by excluding them from our worship and our churches by not being accessible to them?

We are legally obliged to be

  • accessible to disabled – wheelchair, blind, deaf,
  • welcoming of all colours, cultures, sexual orientation, . . .

We spend a lot of money ensuring this – disabled access, disabled loos, loop system, Braille books, place for wheel chairs, so why do we put children in different room from rest of us.

What about children?

We sometimes hear people talking about ‘dumbing things down’ if a service is to be accessible to children and yet children are capable of some of the most profound insights.  There is a place for teaching Bible stories, but please don’t think telling story followed by colouring in is addressing children’s spiritual needs – this can be as insulting to them as it would be to us. Jesus intends them to be recipients of reign of God and he doesn’t do dumbed-down versions of this.

Children are to be welcomed, received – words used for hospitality of guests.  This starts from when children arrive in church for service.  Do we ever welcome the parents but not acknowledge the children or not give children a hymn book / prayer booklet.  Do we automatically ask children to share if there aren’t enough copies?  Adults can share but when you’re still learning to read you need your own copy.

What is Spirituality?

Snap 2014-12-12 at 17.45.04Some definitions of spirituality can make it difficult for us to understand what we are talking about.  For example, spirituality is ‘the state or quality of being dedicated to God, religion or spiritual things or values esp. as contrasted with material or temporal ones the state or quality of being dedicated to God, religion or spiritual things or values esp. as contrasted with material or temporal ones.’!  Much more helpful to think of spirituality as being about ‘the relationship between the whole person and a holy God.’

 Exploring faith together

togetherOur challenge:

  •      children not only subordinate, but share with adults in life of faith
  •      children not only to be formed, but to be imitated
  •      children not only ignorant but capable of receiving spiritual insight
  •      children not only ‘just children’ but representatives of Christ himself.

Jesus invited children to come to him, not so that he could initiate them into the adult realm, but so that they might receive what is properly theirs– the Kingdom of God.

It’s not about having answers and showing the right way, but exploring together.  Faith is now and personal and about relationship.  No one grows in their relationship with another by colouring in, doing a word search.  Nor does it grow by hearing stories about them (we can all tell stories about the Queen, but how many of us have a relationship with her?)  If these activities are to help children relate to God there needs to be something more to them.

 Times and Seasons

There are many ways in which children and adults can explore spirituality together and the seasons and times of the day offer a variety of opportunities for this. For example,

  • spring, summer, autumn, winter – seasons to thank God for the gift of creation
  • Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary times – joining in with the rhythm of the church’s year
  • weekdays, weekends, holidays – different opportunities throughout the week/year to involve God in the activities of each day
  • anniversaries, birthdays, – times to celebrate or mourn together and with God
  • life events: births, christenings, weddings, bereavements (pets, family, friends)
  • daily events: meal times, bed times, story times

There are lots of online resources that can help families celebrate times and seasons together including Faith in Homes.  Other resources that might be useful are listed below.


Other Resources

Revd Steve Dixon, Diocesan Children’s Officer suggests the following resources as being helpful:

*  These books are available in the Church House library.

Steve also makes this comment about Messy Church: “Messy Church, if it’s done in the way its originators intend is a great resource for families to develop spiritual conversations in a Christian context. Families are supposed to attend together and do the activities together, talking as they do so. Jane Leadbetter, one of the national  Messy Church team, talks about having run a ‘spirituality zone’ at Liverpool Cathedral years ago that was activity based and she was amazed at the number of parents who commented that they never got time to talk to their children about anything, let alone spiritual matters, but the activities had given them time, space and a stimulus to do that.”  You might find the book ‘Messy Lyfe – Living life with Jesus’ helpful to explore this further.






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