Equip The Children

written on 28 June 2021 by Cheryl Johnson

Art by Nat Iwata

I came to faith in the early 1970s during the Jesus Movement in Southern California. It was a time of change in the Church, much like today. Young people were looking for a place to belong, to think through their own faith, and experience authentic relationships.

In this past year of unrest in issues around race, social justice, and how we deal with a global pandemic, I have taken a hard look at the way the church has “discipled” their young people. For years many Christian parents and churches have been more concerned about protecting their children from the outside world, rather than preparing their children to be lovingly active in a world that is increasingly post-Christian. This “birth to college” bubble of protection for their children and youth (Holy Post) can cause anxiety in parents and children that the outside world is a “scary place” and foster an “us vs them” environment. This can be dangerous if it breeds separation, hatred, and builds a false narrative about the world we live in. The data shows that close to 70-80% of our youth are walking away from the church as it is today (Nick Blevins). I wonder if there is another way for the Body of Christ to equip our children and youth to be witnesses that bring hope to a hurting world? The question I’m pondering is ‘has the practice of overprotecting our children, instead of preparing them for the world they will be entering into been effective?’

As I reflect on my study of child development, I see that each child is beautifully created and grows into maturity in various stages in their own time, on a continuum, particularly in the areas of emotional, social, and spiritual development. If teachers or parents are more focused on behavioral outcomes, they tend to want the child just to “be a good child” or “look good” by all the rules and knowledge they are imparting on the child. This concept of leaving your brain at the door and just believing what a teacher or parent tells you can arrest spiritual development. My experience as a parent and the training in my career challenged me to be an observer before I taught anything. I wonder if it would benefit the next generation if the significant adults in their lives would take the time to understand each child individually, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, guide them in the steps of growth they are ready for?

God gave us a brain to process information. If given opportunities to engage in thoughtful and meaningful experiences, social, emotional, and spiritual development can grow and deepen. This is the power of equipping like Jesus. He had His followers come and see and explore with their whole beings. It was not a sit and listen and be passive, while I pour knowledge into your human brain.

I see the need for young people to learn what it means to be human, to wrestle with the Divine, to practice living out their faith in the world they live in. I desire for children to have opportunities to think critically, to fail in a safe, low-risk environment. A place where they are loved and guided to learn from their mistakes with grace not shame. Where children are given opportunities to process how to love their neighbors and develop discernment and empathy. I believe this will equip children to become leaders for the next generation.

With the church growth movement that led to large megachurches, the practice of separating the children/ youth from adults became the norm. I do advocate for a developmentally appropriate curriculum that addresses the needs of all learning styles with opportunities to practice and apply Biblical truths. I hope churches never isolate children with the main goal to give them knowledge of the Bible without bringing the application into their very real lives. When this happens, children tend to only recall stories about whales swallowing people, a boy killing a giant with a stone, etc. rather than discovering how they can tackle challenges in their personal lives with God’s strength. Teens attending large youth groups often experience more of a hype-fest, where the church is trying to give an alternative to the “scary world”. If there are no opportunities to discuss real-life issues and how to apply Biblical truths, many youths end up questioning the relevance of faith. By always isolating children/ youth off into subgroups, they are missing opportunities to interact with intergenerational, mature Christ-followers. Meaningful experiences where children are activity-loving, laughing, learning as they work side by side with adults, can be some of the most beautiful times to live out Jesus’ teachings in a real world context for both youth and adult participants.

Coming out of COVID seems like the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate how the church is functioning. It is a time to reflect and dream big. What else could we be doing in all aspects of church life? I think there is a fear that many people will not return to church. What if church was more engaging, more meaningful, and more effective for humans of all ages? My prayer is that we would consider being a community of Christ Seekers and followers growing together as we learn to listen to God and one another. This would better prepare children for the world they will be walking into.

One of the most important skills that helps us learn to understand where a child is in their social, emotional, and spiritual development is to become observers and active listeners. Here are a few tips for how to actively listen to children:

  • Ask open-ended questions, “What’s going on?” “How did you feel about...” “What is God saying to you?” Then patiently WAIT for the answer.
  • Ask for the Holy Spirit for discernment. Children don’t always have the ability to articulate their feelings about a situation. God can show you the next steps if you're actively listening to the Holy Spirit for guidance.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. Try not to take it personally if you feel the child is being critical about you. If possible just listen.
  • Actively re-phrase what you hear the child say. “It sounds like ...” “What I hear you saying is....”
  • Ask permission of the child to share something about yourself at their age. Then with honesty and vulnerability share a situation that the child could identify with.

The goal is to encourage the child to process and internalize what they are learning about themselves, God, and life. To take ownership and responsibility for their actions.

Often, we cannot fix all the problems for our children. Wouldn’t it be nice if a magic wand could erase all trauma and pain? We want our children to be resilient and to overcome their struggles. They were born with the creativity and facility to grow into maturity. As we come alongside, we can engage them in real and relevant ways and set them free to discover how God has made them capable. The Church can equip parents with confidence and include children as a relevant part of the community.