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Children and Spirituality

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

What does it mean to be spiritual, to have a spiritual life - and how might it relate to our ministry among the under 11s? In 1995, some people at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority were trying to pin down what 'spiritual and moral development' might mean, if schools were trying to do more than simply push pupils through a series of exams. They suggested it was:

'... to do with relationships with other people and, for believers, with God. It has to do with the universal search for individual identity - with our responses to challenging experiences, such as death, suffering, beauty and encounters with good and evil. It has to do with the search for meaning and purpose in life, and for values by which to live.'
(Spiritual and Moral Development discussion paper, SCAA.)

Read that definition again, and then ask yourself whether, in the last week, you or the children you work with might have faced a spiritual experience like that. I wonder if the children had a chance to discuss it with anyone at home or at church?

Quite naturally, we try to explain our faith to children as clearly as possible - but I wonder if sometimes, we fall into a trap of thinking of the child's mind as an empty bucket needing to be filled with child-sized bits of adult truth. Alternatively, we can see the child's mind as a dynamic place where ideas can be planted and encouraged to grow (compare Jesus' image of the sower), and where developing faith needs to be given room to express itself through a variety of experiences. Yes, our children need to know what we as Christians believe, but they also need to explore it for themselves. And we don't often learn by being told what to believe - it has to connect with something we know already.

When was the last time a child in your group...

Please don't start beating yourself up if you can't think of anything - but do ask yourself why this might be the case. I wonder if the demands of running a successful children's programme have turned us into a collection of people desperate for things to do, who naturally have to keep an eye to the calendar and the clock to run things smoothly, who frantically buy books of teaching material and slip into thinking that children's work is about doing things to children and not meeting them as people at their own level. Of course we must be the responsible adults who have to plan thoughtfully, but there's a danger that the children simply become receivers of a timetabled programme.

So, what's the alternative? Perhaps we should think a little more deeply about what spiritual growth could entail. Instead of creating a tick-list of doctrinal statements to work through with children, how about providing a series of experiences that deliberately spark spiritual responses? What could help the children in your group to experience a sense of...

Here are a few suggestions below for doing this. Always include time for children to respond with a purposeful reflection on what the experience meant for them. Prepare to be surprised.

1. Awe and wonder (What's out there?)

Take the group outdoors and, standing still, ask them to notice as many different natural things as possible. Once back inside, share the list, writing it up as a display on a whiteboard. Play some calming music, ask children to do a few deep-breathing exercises with you to aid relaxation, and then show a few pictures of our planet, solar system and galaxy, asking what all this says about God our Creator. Then give each child a hazelnut. Ask them to notice its shape, weight and patterns on its shell. Then read this quote from Julian of Norwich, a wise Christian woman who had a vision of God and who afterwards remembered this.

'In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it
was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and
thought "What may this be?" And I was answered: "It is all that is
made." I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have
sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my
understanding: "It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it."'

Ask the children to draw/model/write about what is for them the most amazing natural thing in the world and the universe. What would you want to thank God for? Allow time for this, share/discuss the finished work together, and finish with a reading from Genesis 1.

2. Connection with others (The church is me)

Ask three older Christians to come in and talk about how they became Christians when they were small. Limit each one to five minutes, tops, during which they answer these three questions:

Compare and contrast their different stories in discussion, with children being encouraged to offer further questions. (Use a question dice marked with Who/Why/Where/I wonder/What if/When to spark discussion. Who can generate the most interesting questions about what these people have said?) Then set the children the task of drawing / modelling / writing / acting out 'What being a Christian means to me'. Finish with a Bible reading of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13), with the added question - what kind of soil are you?

3. Holy mystery (What does God mean to you?)

To a calming musical backing, show a variety of Christian artwork that display aspects of God's character. Ask the children to talk about what they notice about each picture. What do you think the artist is saying about God? Share the story of Elijah's encounter with God in 1 Kings 19, drawing out how at the beginning of the story, Elijah is extremely stressed and confused about who God is. Set the task of drawing/ acting / modelling what God 'means' for them. Afterwards, display the work - and consider sharing it with the rest of the church at a future date.

Where to go next?

Thinking about children

Talking about a Bible story

A Wondering Cube

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