Nurturing the Youngest Disciples

The Church's Ministry with Children

by Hope Andersen

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esus valued children. In the Gospel of Matthew, he says to his disciples, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." (19:14 NRSV) What was it that he saw in them that caused him to make a statement such as this?

Dan Rift, a Princeton M. Div. graduate in the Class of 1984 who now serves as associate director of global service and witness for the PCUSA, recalls an incident that took place in a church in Virginia four years ago when hordes of Curds fled from Iraq to seek refuge in Turkey. "The media was filled with images of mothers and their children trudging through the snow," he says. "A kindergartner in the church saw these pictures; shortly after, he found a penny on the ground. Having heard the phrase 'find a penny, make a wish,' he made a wish. 'I wish I could help the Curds,' he said. Lo and behold, the church became involved and sent needed relief, even set up a school after the Curds returned to their homeland.

"What it means to be a child is to believe that making a wish on a penny can make a difference," Rift concludes.

Three-year-old Anna, daughter of Nancy Lammers Gross, a visiting lecturer both in speech communication in ministry and in Christian education at the Seminary, accompanied her parents to real estate offices, visited innumerable residences, and checked out school districts as they were house hunting in the Princeton area. One day, while driving on the Quaker Bridge overpass, Anna asked, "Mommy, when we die and go to heaven to live with Jesus, will we have a house to live in?" Lammers Gross's impulse was to answer the question; instead, she shared with her daughter what Jesus told his disciples: "In my Father's house are many dwelling places." (John 14:2 NRSV) After a long silence during which her mother could only imagine what Anna was thinking, the little girl said, "Well that's good, because when Jesus was born there was no room for him in the inn."

What it means to be a child is to make sophisticated connections.

According to Carol Wehrheim, a writer, editor, and consultant in Bible curriculum who periodically teaches courses for both Princeton's Center of Continuing Education and Institute for Youth Ministry, children‹ even very small children‹are capable of understanding much more than most adults imagine they can.

It is in this spirit that the Presbyterian Church (USA) will celebrate the Year of the Child between June 2000 and June 2001. The Presbyterian Children's Advocacy Network looks forward to the event as "a great occasion to educate 2.6 million Presbyterians and others about the needs and special gifts of our children." What do children need? And what special gifts do they bring?

Despite the affluence of the United States, this country ranks behind most others in providing for its children. According to statistics from the Children's Defense Fund, more than 12 million children in the United States live in poverty. America and South Africa are the only industrialized nations that fail to provide universal health coverage and child care for children. American one-year-olds have lower immunization rates against polio than one-year-olds in fourteen other countries. Polio immunization rates for non-white babies in the United States rank behind the overall rates of forty-eight other countries, including Botswana, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Jamaica.

As Freda Ann Gardner, Princeton's Thomas W. Synnott Professor of Christian Education Emerita, says, "Too many of our children are stunted in terms of what they can become."

Children are not only physically neglected; many of them receive little or no spiritual foundation to help them develop a life lived with an awareness of God. Thus, they enter adolescence without a sense of a trusting, loving power outside of themselves. At a time when they are most in need of something to turn to, they have nothing. Hence, they turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, and crime.

What are the elements necessary to developing a spiritual life?

Wehrheim maintains that three elements are essential for children to grow spiritually. First, the recognition that children are born with a sense of the spiritual; they come into the world already in a relationship with God. If parents and teachers listen more and talk less, she asserts, that relationship will become apparent. Wehrheim recalls that while sitting outside one summer night with her granddaughter, the five-year-old child remarked, "God made the lightning bugs, but I turned them on."

Second, since much of children's spirituality centers around their sense of wonder, the adults in their lives need to work toward allowing that sense of wonder to emerge. Wehrheim encourages parents and teachers to take time to notice the small, everyday things‹frost patterns on the windows, emerging buds, wind. "One way we can help the 'hurried children' of whom psychologist David Elkind speaks is to teach them how to breathe prayers," says Wehrheim, who teaches young children this technique of repeating a mantra to each breath and encourages them to use it anytime they need to connect with God.

Third, Bible stories can connect God and wonder. Wehrheim, who uses the stories as a starting point for meditation, emphasizes that children need books that are both visually appealing and age appropriate. "There are Bible story books for each developmental stage," she says, "from five-sentence board books to The Children's Bible in 365 Stories."

Storytelling is also an important facet of Lammers Gross's ministry with children. "We need to tell the stories in an interest-ing, passionate way without tremendous embellishment or changes," she says. "We need to let the children interact with the stories... to trust the children and to trust God ... that something significant will happen."

So what impedes this process in the church? Lammers Gross notes that the church is often viewed as an institution that squelches the wonder and creativity inherent in and necessary to children's spiritual development. Sunday school teachers generally untrained in child development tell children what is important to know and give information rather than wondering with and listening to the children explore the stories. Sunday school curricula lose track of the Bible stories as they rely more and more heavily on gimmicks to interest the children.

The best curriculum will present the stories in a variety of ways incorporating, for example, music, movement, language, and logic in order to accommodate diverse learning styles. Wehrheim cites The Great Parade (Friendship Press) and The Inviting Word (United Church Press) as two good resources, both of which are available through the Seminary's Reigner Reading Room. (According to Kima Pachaua, a Ph.D. candidate who has worked in the Reigner Reading Room since January 1996, the most popular curriculum among Princeton students is The Whole People of God, a non-denominational curriculum published by Logos Productions Inc.)

Likewise, the most successful children's messages or sermons will not rely on gimmicks that detract from and overshadow the object lesson.

"I remember one time a Seminary intern unrolled a whole roll of paper towels down the aisle," says Lammers Gross. "Then he took a tube of toothpaste and squeezed it out in a long line down the towels. The kids were wild! Then he asked them how to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Of course they shouted out 'You can't!' And then he said something about how the toothpaste was like hurtful words, how once they're out you can't put them back. How many of those kids do you think remember that lesson five years later? But I bet they all remember the toothpaste!"

Rob Morrison, who graduated from Princeton with an M. Div. in 1969 and is now pastor of Santa Fe Presbyterian Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, approaches the Christian education of his congregation's children foremost "with an understanding of and sensitivity to the stages of a child's development." He and his colleagues at Santa Fe use a unique approach to bring the Bible to children. Together, children and teachers read the Bible stories and explore the faith through at least four theologies (neo-orthodox, story, feminist, and liberation). Teachers help the young people examine how the church interacts with their world, their school, their home, and their community. In addition, they integrate the four main influences in the child's church life (worship, Christian education, music/choir, fellowship activities) and develop spiritual growth in the most creative and broadest ways (verbally, visually, experientially, and actually).

Even greater than the role of the church in developing a child's spiritual life is the role of the parents. Richard Osmer, the Sem-inary's Thomas W. Synnott Professor of Christian Education, and director of the School of Christian Education, says, "According to current research, parental modeling is the most important factor in nurturing spiritual growth in young children. Children need to see their parents pray, to hear them talk about God, to watch them live out lives of faith that include conscious decisions about how to spend money and time."

Gardner agrees. "The family has characteristics as a social organization that others don't have," she says. "It exists over time. It doesn't go away. In it, we live in close proximity with one another, and yet we are unique individuals." She points out that in the past children of religious parents saw their parents in the act of praying, while today many parents are afraid to think about prayer because they don't know how to pray. "But," she says, "modeling is important. It is important to make prayer visible."

Both Osmer and Gardner believe that the church can play a more significant role in supporting parents. "The church needs to help adults reclaim their faith," says Osmer. "It needs to help adults move away from a purely moralistic, reduced sense of God's providence toward a more vital, personal spirituality." That vitality, Osmer continues, is grounded in opportunities provided by the life cycle. "Life is full of teachable moments," he says. "To be a parent and to nurture a child's spiritual development is to claim responsibility for those moments."

Gardner echoes the need for parent education and support. "Raising children takes time and effort," she says, "and the church ought to provide and support parents' groups." But, she goes on to say, the development of trust between parents and children is equally as important as education.

"Children learn from what they experience rather than what they hear," says Gardner. Thus, she encourages parents to be intentional both in their actions and in their language. "Don't make promises you can't keep," she says. "And be willing to make amends when you have made a mistake."
Mike Baynai, a Princeton senior with two grown children of his own, agrees. "I am careful.... I try to be very intentional with the words that I use." Baynai, who has worked part time at the Seminary's Center for Children for the past two years, believes that what children require most of all is honesty and deliberate, personal interaction. "When I get down on one knee with a child and listen and respond, I am saying, 'You are important to me.' "

If the planners of the PCUSA Year of the Child hope to explore what children need, they also intend to celebrate the special gifts that children bring into the world. To Rift, this means in part recognizing that how we provide for children in our own churches and all over the world plays a critical part in what it means to follow Christ. "Children instill in us a sense of hope for the future," he says.

For Baynai, the rewards of working with children are more earthy. "It's been invigorating to run around and play and laugh and crawl on the floor," he says. "As seminarians, we don't do enough of that. Last year I wrote a letter to Dian Wisdom [the director of the Center for Children] and told her that I ought to pay her for letting me work here. It's been a gift."

Although he initially took the job at the Center because of its proximity to his housing, he has grown to love working with the kids. "They are sincere and honest, innocent and naive," he says. "They don't have any pretenses yet. They sort of blunder into things.

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PTS M.Div. senior Mike Baynai nurtures and is nurtured by
Tess Gallagher, an infant in the Center for Children.

"I keep telling people that when I leave Princeton I probably won't remember much of the history or theology or anything else, but twenty years from now I will still be preaching on the things that the kids did and said at the Center."

Recognizing that children are naturally spiritual beings, and that they have much to teach the adults in their lives about God's kingdom, may well be the most significant and necessary step in promoting their spiritual growth. As Jesus said, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3 NRSV)

Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
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