[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Mennonite Educators Conference
September 22-24, 2005
Workshop: Practices for Nurturing Children in Faith
Presenter: Dr. Sara Wenger Shenk
What do Anabaptist Mennonites believe about the nature of childhood?
- Nature of childhood: children are developmentally immature, as distinct from “good” or “evil”
- Menno Simons on children: There is a “complex innocence” with children, and a recognition of the absence of both faithfulness and sinfulness in children; an “innocence” tempered with the acknowledgement of an inherited nature predisposed toward sinning.
- Grace covers a child’s sinful nature, with children taking increasing responsibility for their actions as they age. Simons was reluctant to identify a precise age of “discretion” or “accountability.” He is concerned for spiritual maturity which may not always coincide with chronological maturity. (Simons interpreted by Graber Miller)
- The Anabaptist/Mennonite faith tradition anticipates a gradual embracing of and maturing in faith through steady, integrative modeling and nurturing.
What’s faith got to do with childhood?
- “If families just let the culture happen to them, they end up fat, addicted, broke, with a house full of junk and no time.” (Pipher)
- We and the children we teach need something more in our lives than the stuff and the fantasies that companies want to sell us. We yearn to connect with a more satisfying source of purpose and meaning. How do we nurture a relationship with God and the faith community that will endure and resource an abundantly good life for our children?
- Some developmental “experts” argue that children younger than twelve years old are too young to engage in the spiritual life in any meaningful way. These “experts” tend to define “true spirituality” as adhering to a set of beliefs or values. Such an approach overlooks the spiritual nature of “wonder, experiential interpretations, and intuitively grasped insights into the mystery of God.” (Yust)
How can we risk embarking on a spiritual quest with the children in our care, seeking faithfulness together, creating a faith oriented culture with faith-infused practices?
What is faith and faithfulness?
- Faith is a gift from God. It is neither a particular set of beliefs nor a well-developed cognitive understanding of all things spiritual. It is an act of grace in which God chooses to be in relationship with humanity. It comes to us through all our senses.
- Faithfulness is a human response to God’s gift of faith. It is a disposition that welcomes God’s presence and seeks God’s teaching. It is our age-appropriate attempt to let God’s love permeate all of our senses and guide our thoughts and behavior. A faith tradition helps us recognize God’s presence and respond faithfully.
- The scriptures emphasize a multisensory relationship of the divine with humanity. Persons encounter God physically (through the senses), emotionally (through feelings), and socially (through one’s culture, family, and tradition).
- Adults who work with children introduce and support spiritual practices that enable them to respond to the gift of faith in ways appropriate for their age. Such practices include: worship, prayer, contemplation, study, confession, reconciliation, witness and service. (Yust )
How do responses to faith change over time?
- Faithful responses to the gift of faith are affected by physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development of the persons involved. In order to meet people where they are in terms of their present structures of faith, it is helpful to be aware of how persons grow and develop over time; how people are, in some important and regular ways, similar to others who are “at the same stage.”
Age-Related Aspects of Faithfulness
Birth to Three Years
- Experience God’s love embodied in caregivers
- “Overhear” and “oversee” the life of their spiritual community
- Develop a spiritual sense of community and personal identity in relation to the signs and symbols around them
- Relate to the idea of God as they relate to a beloved stuffed animal or blanket: as something that provides security
- Provide an image of the mysterious and creative power of God for adults
Three to Eight Years
- Interpret their spiritual experience using perception and intuition
- View God as a miracle worker
- Apply their growing awareness of the social structures of their environment to religious ideas
- Use pretend play to explore the ideas and symbols of their spiritual community
- Are deeply responsive to religious narratives
- Need the freedom to discover and create images that express their evolving connections between their spiritual experiences and their social world
Nine to Twelve Years
- Interested in investigating the claims of religious traditions and naming their own beliefs
- Aware of multiple and competing social and religious perspectives from which to choose
- Need adult assistance to develop a thoughtful inquisitiveness in relation to their spiritual experiences
- Highly sensitive to adult hypocrisy and expect those around them to live by their values and commitments (Yust )
How do we cultivate faithfulness in children?
- Help children develop a bi-cultural identity. We live in two cultures—our local community/neighborhood and our religious community. Both cultures contribute to a child’s understanding of what the world is like. One has much greater potential to dominate a child’s thinking. Children need help to negotiate the overlaps and tensions between these two worlds so they become genuinely bi-cultural and bi-lingual, able to speak their “primal language” and the “language of the empire.” (Brueggemann)
- Immerse children in the bibilical/faith tradition stories. Who are the people in our children’s “neighborhoods”? Children relate to characters and images they see frequently. Media images are everywhere. How do children develop a relationship with the images and characters of their faith tradition? How can we immerse children in singing, dancing, re-telling, drawing, dramatizing the stories so they form a deep imaginative identification with David, Miriam, Daniel, Mary and others; so they can “try on” these roles and become familiar with them? The experiences children have, the images they see, and the stories they hear become lasting frameworks on which they construct their perceptions of reality. How can we enable children to receive, hear, celebrate, tell and become “the story?” (Brueggemann)
- Assist children in naming God’s presence in their lives Nurturing a life of faith requires the vocabulary necessary for naming one’s experience of God and faith. Both children and adults need familiarity with the “grammar of the religious life” so they can participate meaningfully in conversations about faith. How do children learn religious language and what is essential for it to benefit spiritual formation with clarity, richness, concreteness and critical awareness? (Dykstra)
- Teach children to pray and form an affective relationship with God Engaging children in our prayer heritage is good for us all. We can’t give what we don’t have; we can’t pray with children unless we pray. For many of us, education has been highly cognitive which is fine as far as it goes, but it is inadequate for developing an affective relationship with God. Children experience God. They are marvelously open to being taught to pray. How do children learn to pray?
- Prepare a place: a prayer room with plants, big pillows; a welcoming space with music, quiet, and artwork.
- Teach children the value of silence; that God can befriend us in silence; that with intentional cultivation of silence in their lives, children can remain in touch with their spirit and the Spirit that animates them. Perhaps pose a question for children to ponder (with a candle lit in the middle of the circle) or play music, or pass out balls of clay to knead; and then invite children to share quietly what came to them in the silence or write in their journals.
- Teach various kinds of prayer: centering prayer with a chosen word such as “Abba” or “shalom” to repeat while quieting one’s spirit and body to listen to God; meditative prayer prompted by a poem, artwork, musical selection that provides a loose structure within which children can ponder the mysteries of life, their commitments...; using a biblical story for guided meditation, pausing to ask prayerful questions that invite imaginative engagement at various points in the story; praying a lament, modeled on the biblical psalms; prayers of praise, confession and forgiveness, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and discipleship.
- Teach bodily gestures for praying: bowing, kneeling, sitting, standing, clapping, making the sign of the cross, raising our arms and faces to God. What may begin as imitation becomes habituated is us, deeply forming attitudes and beliefs as well. Our bodies come to “know” and make known what we believe is important. (from Yust and elsewhere)
- Act out our spirituality with a balance of action and reflection Children need to learn the connection between spiritual experience and intentional choices about how we will live and work with others. Our quiet, meditative times lead to new insights about how we will live and work with others. Times of prayer must be balanced with times of active service. Robert Coles says that “character is ultimately who we are expressed in action, in how we live, in what we do...”
A full spiritual life for children will combine elements of reflection and action in a never-ending movement of “journeying inward toward God and outward toward neighbors.” Children can grow up seeing the world as a place where their actions make a difference and are integrally related to their spirituality—the call of God and their faith community.
Primary source: Real Kids: Real Faith—Practices for Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Lives by Karen Marie Yust, Jossey-Bass, 2004
Other sources: Will Our Children Have Faith, by John Westerhoff, Morehouse Publishing, 1976
Puddles of Knowing: Engaging Children in Our Faith Heritage by Marlene Halpin, Wm. C. Brown, 1984
The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding our Families, by Mary Pipher, Ballantine, 1996.
Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development by James Fowler, Harper 1981
“Complex Innocence, Obligatory Nurturance, and Parental Vigilance: ‘The Child’ in Menno Simons” by Keith Graber Miller in The Child in Christian Thought edited by Marcia Bunge, Eerdmans, 2001
The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child by Robert Coles, Random House, 1997
Growing in the Life of Faith by Craig Dykstra, Geneva Press, 1999.
Belonging and Growing in Christian Community by Walter Brueggemann, Presbyterian Church US document, 1979
“The Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic: 2 Kings 18-19, by Walter Brueggemann in Education for Citizenship and Discipleship edited by Mary Boys, Pilgrim Press, 1989