“Children do not have a junior Holy Spirit.” I love this meme that has been circulating on the internet. It serves as a simple reminder that we too easily belittle the spiritual lives of children. As Rebecca Nye says, “Children’s spirituality is like a child.” Child-like, not childish. We have as much to learn from children about faith as they have to learn from us.
In Adelaide and in Ulverstone, Tasmania recently I have been speaking about nurturing the faith of children in a digital world. Both events were ecumenical, state-wide training events hosted by passionate enthusiasts for ministry with children and families. Here’s a bit of a summary of my sessions.
As a parent whose oldest children have just moved out of home, I suddenly know the feeling of “where did those years go?” between birth and adulthood. Within the gratification of seeing well-adjusted, fairly mature and happy young adults is a feeling of loss -“What if?” and “If only?” and “I regret…” The nurture of children takes places very slowly AND overnight!
The little moments matter. John Westerhoff said that faith is caught more than taught. Who we are matters as much or more than what we know. That doesn’t mean that the substance of faith is meaningless; rather it reminds us that God sent his child, not a chapter, to save us.
Here is a priceless record of Lotte, filmed by her father every week since her birth. (You can see her brother Vince here.)
One of the difficulties for the church is that we often have very limited contact with children through church programs, at best an hour or two a week. So on the one hand, we need some understanding of what it means to nurture the faith and spiritual lives of children, and alongside that we need a ‘whole of life’ approach that goes beyond occasional events.
“A very simple definition of children’s spirituality might be God’s ways of being with children and children’s ways of being with God.” Rebecca Nye’s book Children’s Spirituality (London: Church House Publishing, 2009) is a brief but excellent introduction. She begins by reminding us that first and foremost, the spiritual life of a child begins (and ends) with God. It isn’t something that we create or manufacture for them. God made us all for relationship, in the image of God, to know, love and serve God. Perhaps the best place to start is to attend to the child and what is going on for them and in them. They are not empty vessels to be filled, nor putty to be moulded. Perhaps a seed growing to fruit is a better metaphor, yet even that can cause us to focus on the coming harvest and not on the seedling itself.
Both James Fowler and John Westerhoff have written about the faith development of children. Fowler’s stages and Westerhoff’s styles/pathways remind us that the faith of young children is experiential. Children experience the faith of those around them, through relationship, senses, symbols, stories, rituals and language. It is good to ask ourselves about when children are with other people who pray (other than in worship). By the way, if children leave worship to go out to Sunday School, they probably never hear a congregation praying for others.
Rebecca Nye offers a simple “SPIRIT” acronym for thinking about fostering the spiritual lives of children:
- Space – crafting special places and times for prayer, including symbols, and providing suitable emotional space and listening space
- Process – exploring what happens when we pray and honouring the child’s own prayer processes
- Imagination – moving beyond rote prayers to wondering, creating, imagining, openness
- Relationship – exhibiting and modelling respectful, caring relationships with all ages
- Intimacy – creating and supporting the opportunity for children to be close to God in their own ways
- Trust – stepping back and trusting in both God and the child, not manipulating prayer
- What aspect of the spiritual life of a child might this describe?
- Tell a story or give an example of this aspect of children’s spirituality.
- What are some ways of supporting, resourcing or guiding children in this aspect?
- What questions do you have about this aspect of children’s spirituality?
[Children’s ministry training weekend, Ulverstone, Tasmania]
So, let’s turn to media and technology. The pace of technological change in our lifetimes is unprecedented.
However, the introductions of the telephone and the television bore a remarkable number of similarities to the introduction of home computers and internet access. Carolyn Marvin, in “When Old Technologies Were New,” looks at the introduction of the telephone. Check this list against the TV and the Internet.
- a foreign/alien technical device is installed in the home
- no-one understands how it works
- there is outside communication that disrupts our family time
- people are more and more drawn to this device
- we don’t always know who they’re talking to (or what they’re watching)
- some of us out of the information loop – if we’re not on it, we miss out
- we’re concerned about privacy – who is listening in?
- we can’t even fix it. we have to pay someone to come and do it.
The main thing here is that many of our concerns about computers and the internet aren’t new. In fact, the growth of science fiction in the 20th century parallels the growth of science. Radio and early television told stories of invasion, and there were many occasions when audience members thought the fiction was real-life news! As we reach out into space and reach out across our world technologically, we can also feel today that we are being invaded more and more by technology in homes and daily lives.
- What technologies were introduced during your childhood?
- How did they affect your family life?
- How did you feel about them at the time?
- Are they still part of your life, or how have things changed?
- What is easy and what is difficult with technological change?
We might not like some aspects of technological change, but as a church we can’t ignore it. The issues are not just about young people. Those over 55 are big users of mobile devices and of social media, particularly Facebook. I suggest that our fears about technology are grounded in two dimensions that are also the strengths of technology, and in fact of human nature – our desire for intimacy and our desire for transcendence. (See my article, Young People, Technoculture and Embodied Spirituality in Interface: Theology and the Body, ATF Press.) Communication technologies can serve these innate human yearnings in positive ways, and of course they can also be used inappropriately and harmfully.
John Roberto of Lifelong Faith, has done more than anyone in recent years to help churches come to terms with what faith formation might look like in the 21st century. His book, “Reimagining Faith Formation for the 21st Century” and accompanying training materials and websites (see below) offer a wealth of guidance and resources.
- Faith Formation Learning Exchange website – research, practices and approaches
- Reimagine Faith Formation website – rethinking and designing faith formation
- Curating Faith Formation website – online resources for faith formation
Roberto charts a number of significant developments that can help us rethink the scope and nature of faith formation
- The proliferation of smart mobile devices – phones, tablets, watches
- The interconnectedness that such devices provide 24/7
- The boom in social networking tools
- The shift from group-centred life to network-centred life
- Information is now portable, participatory and personal
- Social networks are key to people discovering and sharing information
A design for 21st century faith formation addresses the places and times when people are beyond church buildings and programs, as well as the times when they are gathered. Roberto suggest using a network model to think about how we do this. How might we design a faith formation network that blends face-to-face and online engagements?
- Work with parents on family media habits. You can partner with a local school to do this. An excellent resource is Bex Lewis‘ Raising Children in a Digital Age
- Use digital media in gathered programs. (I’ll post some stories and examples about this shortly)
- Encourage children to be creators and teachers.
- Curate (gather) useful resources for mobile devices. See this previous post on Faith Formation and Blended Learning
- Promote helpful mobile apps for parents and children. I’ve started collecting links to this on a Pinterest page here.
John Roberto will be in Sydney 23-28 August, 2016 running a teaching intensive (23-25) and presenting keynote addresses at a national conference (26-28) that the UCA Assembly is co-hosting with the NSW-ACT Synod. Program and registration information will be available shortly at reimaginefaith2016.com Download a flyer here.
Other useful WWW links