The Gauteng Hub (South Africa) hosted a Children’s ministry training day in early August 2019. Nicky Fetting, who heads up the children’s ministry at Advance partner church, Stirling Baptist delivered a superb plenary session outlining a rationale and framework for fruitful ministry to the next generation. We asked her to prepare a transcript of her talk, in lieu of an audio recording…
In this post we’ll examine the posture of Scripture, the contributions of psychology and education theory, as well as a few of my own experiences to lay a foundation to guide children’s ministry conversations and practices.
What does the Bible say about Children
Scripture has a lot to say about children; children in the context of family, the world and the church. To begin with, Jesus welcomes children. He calls them to himself (…let the little children come to me… Matthew 19:13-15). Jesus values their nature and character, upholding the child-like approach to life as an essential quality for all believers (…unless you come like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Mathew 18:3).
God speaks directly to children and uses them for His purposes
- Samuel is around 11 years of age when God speaks directly to him for the first time (1 Samuel 3:1-21), establishing his call; the last judge and the first prophet.
- David begins his relationship with God as a shepherd boy. He is anointed as king and then defeats Goliath (1 Samuel 16-17) all before his 16th birthday; the age at which he would have qualified for military service. Already he is man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).
- Naaman’s slave girl boldly shares her belief in God’s power to save. Her words generate hope and create an opportunity for God to bring healing and salvation (2 Kings 5).
God has a plan for children
This plan includes
- Family. From Genesis onwards, God creates families, he chooses and establishes Abraham’s family of promise (Genesis 17:4-5). Even in the New Testament, salvation come to and in families.
- Training in the Word. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training (2 Timothy 3:16). This mandate is found throughout Scripture. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Proverbs 22:6 are well known passages which hold a great promise for parents who train, disciple and teach their children the Way …even when she is old she will always know the truth.
- Corporate worship. The biblical pattern is for family, old and young to come together in worship and praise (Psalm 148:12-13), prayer (2 Chronicles 20:12-13), repentance (Ezra 10:1) and to hear the reading of Scripture (Nehemiah 8:2). Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, written to a gathering of believers, addresses children directly (Ephesians 6:1).
- Salvation. There is no age limit set on the gift of salvation. And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your childrenand for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39).
The Bible says that Jesus welcomes children, He values their nature and character. God speaks directly to children and uses them for His purposes. God’s plan for children includes family, instruction and discipline. Consequently, Scripture includes children in all aspects of faith, from corporate worship to encounters with the Holy Spirit. These truths culminate in a foundational element – God’s plan of salvation for children and the Holy Spirit is a gift to all who believe.
The contributions of psychologists and educators can be drawn onto this foundation. Their research and conclusions help us to evaluate and build age appropriate and spiritually significant children’s ministries.
What do psychologists and educators say
The 4:14 window
The majority of evangelical Christian adults look back to childhood to set a date on their conversion. 43% came to faith before the age of 13 and this percentage rises to 64% by the age of 18. (Barna Group)
Everyone is on the same journey
Spirituality is an aspect of humanness. Developing faith is a part of every child’s natural growth. John Westerhoff compares this faith development to the growth of a tree. Just as trees develop rings within the trunk, so faith grows from a core outwards in 6 distinct stages.
- Self-centred, faith-less (birth to age 2)
- Experienced faith (preschool and early childhood)
- Shared or Community faith (around 10 years)
- Searching faith (late teens and early adulthood) *While Westerhoff delays searching faith into the late teens, the 4:14 window would suggest that this stage begins much earlier.
- Personal faith (adulthood)
- Fully mature faith (old age)
At this point it is necessary to make two comments:
- Firstly, Children raised in actively Christian homes, with parents who live out, speak of and share their faith, often journey through stages 1 to 4 quite quickly.
- Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be overstated. Theory cannot account for the shifts from stage 3 and beyond but what we read about the Holy Spirit in Scripture can.
Each faith stage can be summarised in a couple of core questions. Answering these questions helps Next Gen ministries to make choices around curriculum, program, even volunteer culture and staffing which facilitates the nurturing of faith towards maturity.
Stage 1. To begin with, children from birth until the age of around 2 years have just two questions. They ask “Am I safe” and “Am I loved?”. Safety and love are the foundation for all development, not just spiritual. These questions remain the core of faith throughout life and so should remain core to all ministry.
Stage 2. Once safety and love are secured. The focus shifts to an experience of spirituality. From around the age of 2 until children leave the foundation phase (8 or 9 years of age), God is anthropomorphic. Their thinking is literal, concrete and logical. They ask “What do we do here?” and “How do we act here?”. This can be quite an intimidating question within the context of church. Especially when one considers the types of faith experiences presented to preschool children. The simple Bible stories taught to pre-schoolers take on a far greater significance when one becomes intentional in teaching spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, praise and worship. Every moment with a pre-schooler becomes a teaching moment. Ministry teams need to include mature believers who demonstrate their love for Jesus and others through actions and words.
A key question for any pre-school ministry leader to ask would be “what are our children imitating?”
Stage 3. The quality of the experience of church remains a key faith factor throughout life. However, experiences are not the final faith destination. From around about the age of 10, our children begin working to assimilate and link all the experiences of their world (home, school, church) into a unified belief system. Community or shared faith grows out of shared experiences. Next Gen ministry succeeds when our children feel a sense of belonging and so settle into community, developing a sense of ownership – they say “This is our church”. This sense of community establishes a new question, they ask “what do we believe?” and so faith goes deeper, to understanding the why behind our corporate and personal actions.
Answering the questions around belief becomes key. Spiritual experiences and disciplines should continue to be taught and highly valued. However, to meet this stage 3 desire for community and understanding, a slight shift in focus for ministry to children in the intermediate phase of primary school is necessary. The church needs to be a place of stability and safety. Any change needs to be carefully managed and growing community ties need to be protected. Intermediate phase ministry should provide opportunities for children to serve, to integrate their faith into everyday life. This results in a high level of involvement in church life and solidifies a sense of community.
Church can no longer just be about the experience. We need to recognise that we are preparing our intermediate phase children from the onslaught of cultures they are facing in their world beyond the church. Teaching clear doctrine and application of Scripture to everyday life sets up foundations for the Searching stage to come. Strong and consistent role models become key.
A key question for any intermediate ministry leader to ask would be “who are our children imitating?”
Stage 4. A stage of questioning and searching is a natural and necessary part of every individual’s faith journey. Searching faith, (usually in the teen years) can be a difficult time for the church to lead teens through. It is now that the truth of 2 Timothy 3:14-17 settles into ministry. Ministry has a three part focus, for teens to know the truth, to equip teens for good works and to make them ready to answer for their hope.
They ask “What do I believe?” Answers can only come from within and individuals critically examine all belief systems. The foundations set in childhood, the sense of community, the relationships and role models, the connection between Scripture, belief and life all create safe environment for teens to questions and process faith for themselves. Understanding and mentoring through this phase are key – “Am I safe” and “Am I loved” remain at the centre of their developing faith.
Personal faith and mature faith
Stage 5 & 6. The faith journey does not culminate in a personal faith (stage 5). It is often tempting to make this “I believe”, owned faith the end goal of Next Gen Ministry. Yet it is important to lead and mentor believers even further, into mature faith (stage 6), where an individual is comfortable with paradoxes and mysteries of faith. This maturity is an encouragement to those who shared the journey. It is also at this stage that the believer shifts their focus back into community. They become the ministry leaders, the mentors and disciplers of the next generation.
The importance of a faith community
Next Gen teams have the amazing privilege of sharing the faith journey with children and teens. Sharing a journey of faith with those whom God has entrusted into our care should remove the barriers often in place between children and youth specific ministries. The stages of faith are not bound by ministry demarcation – a faith community is built on faith experiences. Community creates a safe place for searching and personal faith. A smooth transition and continued relationship must be valued over our position or role. Shared responsibility trumps prestige or function. They ask “Am I safe and loved here?” and we answer with truth, “God loves you more than you can ever know, you can safely explore His Truth with us. He is offering you Salvation, a life of meaning and purpose.” We say “God’s plan for you includes a faith family, instruction and discipline, you will find these things in our community.”
No ministry, no position, no age group is more important, more valuable, more spiritual than another. Some plant the seed, some water. Both have one purpose. It is that shared purpose and a shared experience of fruitfulness which will solidify unity across all ministry areas. After all, the One we love and serve, God himself makes it grow. The Holy Spirit brings the harvest. We are all simply co-workers in God’s service (1 Corinthians 3:6-9). Our prayer is that they will say “I believe” and then live out their faith with us, joining the team who plants and waters, asking together for growth, harvest and maturity.
Contact Nicky Fetting on firstname.lastname@example.org / East London, South Africa