Those of us who were raised in the church remember Sunday school or children’s church as a predictable place to sing songs, play games, hear lessons, and make crafts. We sang “Father Abraham,” and shook our arms and legs, and nodded our little heads into dizziness. I remember these antics with nostalgia, but I’m not sure they had any direct impact on my spiritual journey.
In recent decades, children’s ministry has become increasingly louder and more action-packed in an effort to grab the attention of today’s youth. We’ve heard startling statistics about large percentages of young adults leaving the church, and many churches have reacted by borrowing from the entertainment culture in hopes of being “relevant” and “engaging,” making church “fun” to stem the tide of attrition.
We at BeFree Dover have the same desire to disciple children toward lifelong relationships with God. But we’ve chosen to pursue that mission in a counter-cultural way, out of the conviction that children of all ages are capable of experiencing meaningful encounters with God.
In DIG, we aim to create an atmosphere for meeting with God, carving out space in our harried world for quiet and stillness, so children can listen to God himself speaking to them, and grow to recognize the voice of their Shepherd.
Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May, in their book Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey, explain:
We do want children to know basic biblical facts, but our ultimate purpose is so much bigger. We long to see them meet God and get to know God, not just know about God. Children experience God as they enter the stories of Scripture and see God in action, discovering God’s character as the story unfolds and as they hear their self-revealing God speak to them in the narrative.
The following are distinctives of the reflective engagement method we practice in DIG:
Atmosphere of Worship
In preschool through elementary school, our classroom schedules imitate the Order of Worship repeated weekly in the regular service.
- We welcome children; we introduce ourselves; we come to know and be known.
- We sing praises.
- We quiet ourselves in this special place so we can listen to God.
- We hear God’s voice through his Word.
- We respond as individuals (using art materials).
- We share in community what God has taught us.
- We pray.
- We break bread with our snack (or join the service for communion).
- We avoid games and one-size-fits-all crafts because we want the focus to be on God’s Story and our individual places in it. We don’t want kids to rush through any part of worship to get to the “fun stuff.”
Central to our worship with children is God’s story, as revealed in scripture. God’s story teaches children what God has revealed to humanity about his character and his redemptive purposes. It also shows them that they are a part of God’s Great Story. The Holy Spirit is the real teacher here as the Word of God speaks.
God’s Spirit is the Teacher. As adults our role is to set the stage so that young learners and worshipers can enter the story, be open to God’s word, and listen for what the Spirit will reveal. (Stonehouse and May)
Wondering Responses and Sharing
After God’s Word is read, we invite wondering questions about the story. This practice communicates to children that they can actively engage with the story AND with God! They’re not just a passive audience. Teachers and children alike share what the story stirs in their hearts. As we listen to children, we’re given a window into their encounters with God. As they share their reflections, they participate in Spirit-led community with one another. No one is forced to share, but they are acknowledged and affirmed as they do.
Listening and Reflecting
Our quiet time of private reflection in DIG gives children an opportunity to listen to the still, small voice of God, as they work out their response to him using art materials. This practice is a realistic reflection of what our relationships with God are actually like outside of the weekly church gathering (see 1 Kings 19:11-12). We listen to God, and we respond to him.
Jesus demonstrates in the Gospels a counter-cultural way of being with children. When his disciples bickered over who would be the greatest in his kingdom, he said,
I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matt. 18:3-5)
The reflective engagement method assumes that we have something to teach one another – adults and children alike. Some of our finest teachers in the DIG program are older adults whose wisdom and humility have guided them toward children’s ministry. As these adults lead worship in their DIG classrooms, they show respect for the children, and children respond in especially rich ways when they sense that they are a valued part of God’s kingdom.
Parents, I invite you to come worship with us some Sunday and experience spiritual fellowship with children!