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How Kids Grow Spiritually

How Kids Grow Spiritually
October 12, 2015 Holly Allen
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People used to call it “faith development,” but now it’s typically referred to as “spiritual development.” Whatever you call it, it’s still the process of children’s growth in faith—and pinnacle to our ministries as Sunday school leaders. But the change in name may have to do with a shift in perspective or focus.

In the past, faith development had to do more with believing certain things about God, the church, the Bible, and other theological issues. But now it has more to do with being in relationship with God. So the two are interrelated—kids have to know about God to be in relationship with him—but it seems that the ultimate goal has changed. Let’s look at the two interrelated goals with the higher goal of “spiritual development” being to grow kids in their relationships with God.

Basics of spiritual growth

As you look into the methods and approaches you’ll use when pointing kids to Jesus, you’ll have to decide with your team where God’s leading you. But it doesn’t hurt to look at what some experts in the area of spiritual growth have determined.

In the book Young Children and Spirituality, Barbara Kimes Myers writes, “Spirituality is a ‘web of meaning…connecting self, other, world, and cosmos.’ ” And Rebecca Nye writes in The Spirit of the Child that children’s spirituality is the child’s consciousness or perceptiveness about “how the child related to things, other people, him/herself, and God.”

The common elements of spirituality that experts pull out have to do with the relationships between a child and self, others, the world, and God. When I combine these common elements, I come up with a working definition of children’s spirituality from a Christian perspective.

God has created human beings as relational spiritual beings; so a child’s spirituality is his or her innate desire and need to connect with self, others, the world, and God (including each personality in the Trinity). And faith communities are God-designed places for these self-child, others-child, world-child, and God-child relationships to be uniquely nurtured.

Once you have a definition, you can use it to steer your Sunday school ministry. Your definition is foundational and will help you know how you’ll set up your program, what curriculum you’ll use, and so on. With your definition as your compass, you can create opportunities for kids to grow spiritually.

Spiritual growth and Sunday school

First off, growing kids spiritually is a multifaceted task. And all of it can’t be done in Sunday school. Mission trips can do things Sunday school can’t; parents can model faith to teach kids things Sunday school can’t; intergenerational small groups can provide opportunities Sunday schools can’t; worshipping as a congregation can reach kids in a way that Sunday school can’t.

But Sunday school does play a unique and powerful role in spiritual development. So there’s some relief there—it’s not all on the shoulders of your Sunday school ministry, which leaves you room to focus on the things that a Sunday school ministry can do to develop kids spiritually.

Action steps for spiritual growth

These action steps are important to add to your Sunday school ministry.

  • Cultivate cross-generational Christian experiences where older people can interact with younger kids.
  • Help kids understand and remember verses from God’s Word. This isn’t memory for memory’s sake; it’s about helping kids glean understanding of how God’s Word matters to them.
  • Expand kids’ knowledge and understanding of the Bible and the truths and history imparted through it.
  • Foster genuine worship opportunities.
  • Share quality children’s literature related to the Bible and faith concepts.
  • Allow time for wonder, silence, and contemplation in each meeting time.
  • Pray—during your time together and for kids throughout the week.

Sunday school is where kids go to learn the Bible, right? If you’re like most teachers, that’s your goal—and it’s a crucial one. But why do you want to teach the Bible to kids? For years, I taught the Bible for two reasons: so kids would know God’s Word and so they’d know how to live. And these are good reasons, but I don’t think they’re enough.

Now my goal has changed. My long-term, ultimate purpose is to help kids know God on an intimate level. I share Bible verses and passages with kids—but I do it now to show kids who God is. This way kids come to know the Bible and how to live, but all in the context of their relationships with God.

The God-child relationship

While Sunday school ministries can contribute to the self-child and others-child relationships, I see the God-child relationship as the key responsibility of Sunday school ministries. Sunday school is an ideal place to teach kids God’s truth—who he is, who we are, where we came from, why we’re here, and how we’re to live as his followers. As kids absorb these things, they begin to understand how God related to his people throughout the ages. As you work through your lessons and activities, I suggest you always ask:

What does this Bible passage (or this activity) tell kids about God—what does it teach them about who he is and what he’s doing?

When kids are able to respond to this question week after week in Sunday school and in the context of different Bible passages and experiences, their relationships with God grow deeper and become more meaningful and real. As they see how God drew people like Abraham, Leah, Rahab, David, Josiah, and Paul to himself, they begin to understand how God can relate to them, too. Because the nature of Sunday school ministries creates consistency in kids’ lives, it opens the door for kids to walk with God continually. And the consistency builds a foundation for kids to know that God is a real, living God they can have a relationship with, rather than just a distant figure they don’t know how to relate to.

God’s desire for relationship

The Bible leaves no doubt that God wants to have a relationship with his people. Consider these passages.

  • “I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7).
  • “I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:12).
  • “You will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jeremiah 30:22).
  • “You will be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:28).
  • “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Hebrews 8:10).

And finally, one day in heaven:

  • “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them” (Revelation 21:3).

Sunday school ministries have traditionally done two other things to foster those God-child relationships: teaching Bible verses and modeling and promoting prayer. And although Scripture memorization as an exercise has fallen out of favor in recent years, kids’ ability to recall certain verses has an important place in a child’s spiritual development. In human relationships, we remember or memorize certain things—like birthdays, favorites, sayings, and so on. Remembering these details helps our relationships grow stronger. Of course, it’s not just the knowledge that makes the relationships strong, but it’s the connections that we make through these memories.

So in Sunday school, as we promote spiritual growth in our kids, some Scripture learning has to take place. Make it meaningful, and don’t disregard it completely. Simply knowing certain verses has the potential to help children feel like they know God, that they can trust him, and that he loves them. The verses I learned as a child have helped me through life’s storms. When our faith community was torn apart and my husband lost his job 15 years ago, the future seemed desolate and empty. But Romans 15:13, “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit,” anchored my heart. So encourage kids to learn and know verses in meaningful ways.

As for prayer, Sunday school ministries are a place where kids can see others’ relationships with God modeled. If kids see genuine prayers led by adults and other kids, it encourages them to reach out to God in prayer, too. Consistent modeling also gives kids the language to speak to God when they don’t know where to start. And if prayer isn’t modeled in the home, then Sunday school is the only place they’ll see it.

The others-child relationship

Kids’ spiritual development is dependent on their interaction with others. Part of how people view themselves has to do with how others treat them. And that makes a Sunday school ministry an integral part of a child’s spiritual development. It opens the door for teachers to build positive and true beliefs into kids’ hearts and minds. As Sunday school teachers and leaders, we get to treat children as Jesus would; we get to show them what it means to be loved and cared for as God loves and cares for us. We also get to model for and encourage kids the way God wants them to treat each other.

It’s this safe environment and these cross-generational relationships that develop kids’ views of God and people. And even when children come from strong Christian homes, their interaction with people outside their home influences these views. Think about it: Sunday school can be one of the few places that children have opportunities to regularly interact with adult Christians.

Throughout the Bible, Christianity is displayed as a communal thing; in other words, following God isn’t a solitary thing. God knows we need communities where we can share our beliefs and struggles. And Sunday school ministries are key places to form these relationships as kids develop spiritually.

The self-child relationship

Helping kids come to know themselves hasn’t always been a priority or focus of Sunday school ministries. The most important thing Sunday school ministries can do is help kids know God as their own personal God and see themselves as part of God’s people. But the self-child relationship is closely connected to the God-child relationship. So when looking at kids’ spiritual development, the self-child relationship has to play some part in our programming. As we share Bible passages about God’s work on earth, we can ask open-ended questions that nurture the self-child relationship.

Here are examples of questions to ask.

  • What was Joseph afraid of? What kinds of things are you afraid of? How were Joseph’s fears like or unlike your fears?
  • Why might Jacob have loved Rachel more than Leah? Tell about a time it seemed you weren’t as loved as someone else. How were you like or unlike Leah? Why is it sometimes hard to believe that God’s love is enough?
  • When Rahab hid the spies, how was that a way to show she believed in God? How have you shown God you believe in him?

Questions like this help kids process information in the Bible and apply it to their lives—whether they answer aloud or silently. And offering questions to contemplate gives kids get the space they need to consider who they are and who they’re becoming. I’ve found that Sunday school ministries don’t generally allow much space for stillness and contemplation; typically, kids have very few opportunities to wonder about themselves or about God. But this time of wonder and contemplation is an important part of the spiritual development process, so it’s critical that we don’t overlook it.

Sunday school ministries aren’t responsible for everything when it comes to growing kids spiritually. Parents and the body of Christ also play an important role in it. But for many kids, Sunday school is the only place where they systematically learn who God is and how that relates to them. The God-child relationship can’t flourish if kids don’t know these things.

Children begin life with a sense of the inexpressible mystery of God. As adults, we’re called by God to nurture that sense in children. It’s a remarkably audacious task—helping kids seek the indescribable—but Sunday school ministries have a lot to offer. They play a surprisingly powerful and unique role in nurturing kids on their spiritual journeys.

Holly Allen is professor of Christian ministries at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where she directs the child and family studies program in the biblical studies division. Holly’s areas of interest are children’s spirituality and intergenerational issues. Her most recent book, written with Christine Ross, is Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship. Her first book, Nurturing Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives and Best Practices, was updated and released in 2008.

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