Yes, we believe God is at work, “telling a better story” in all our lives—whether we’re adults, youth, or children. But often, especially with young people, we live out a tacit belief that all learning and discovery flows one way—we expect adults to pass on the work of God to children and youth, but not to receive anything back that would transform our own experience of God. A few weeks ago I joined Vibrant Faith’s Director of Research Dr. Nancy Going and Executive Director Rick Lawrence in a video conversation about children and youth faith formation. Together, we embraced a guiding truth…
The theological task of ministry leaders is to journey alongside children, youth, and their families as we open our hearts and minds to God at work in these youngest members of the Body of Christ.
Children and youth have all they need to do the important work of making meaning as they grow in their love of God and neighbor. If we are to encourage children as disciples of Christ, then we must honor all that God is doing in and through their lives, right now.
Now is an essential time in the church for us to pay attention and to make note of all we are hearing and learning from children and youth—it’s vital that we grow in our ability to connect, nurture relationships, and listen. And in this call to pay attention we are invited to slow down and shepherd children as they begin to make meaning out of their experiences with our Creator. In my book, Holy Work With Children, I open with this story:
“It was a normal Sunday morning. The children’s minister at a United Methodist church, I was scurrying around making sure everything was ready for that morning’s ministries. As I raced up the stairs to check on the copy machine, I saw a family (Mom, Dad, Son) standing in the hallway looking slightly lost. I slowed my paced, walked up to the family and introduced myself. The parents look at each other, then at their son, and finally at me. The mom took a deep breath and said: ‘He has a question for you’ (motioning to their son). I quickly got down on eye level with the young child and said: ‘Hi, I’m Tanya, I’m the pastor for children here at this church. I’m so glad you’re here. Do you have a question for me?’ The child looked down at the ground, shuffled his feet, and asked, ‘How do I know I believe in God?’
The world seemed to stop for a moment as I considered the serious nature of the boy’s question… I took a deep breath, looked into the child’s eyes, and said: ‘That is a big question.’ I took another deep breath and said: ‘You know, I wonder about that too.’ Finally, after gathering my wits for a moment, I responded to his question with another question; ‘I wonder when you have felt God?’
This young child responded, looking around the building: ‘Sometimes when I am in a special place.’ ‘Me too,’ I replied. ‘Sometimes I feel God’s presence when I am in worship in the special place we call the Sanctuary. I wonder how else you might know about God?’ He responded: ‘When people tell me about God and I hear stories.’ I smiled and said: ‘You know, I also learn about God from other people. When people share their God stories with me, I learn how they experience and know they believe in God. This helps me when I am unsure.’ The child nodded and looked at me and smiled. Sensing his mother’s growing impatience, I knew our time was up and ended by saying: ‘I am grateful for other people who help me know God exists.’ He responded: ‘Me too.’ ‘Thank you have having this important conversation with me.’”
This is how we explore with children, helping them make theological meaning out of their experiences with God. My research reveals how children participate fully in God’s transformative work in the world. Children are theologians—making meaning out of God’s presence, grace, and love. Children make meaning by engaging in the life and work of the faith community, recognizing God at work in their lives and the lives of others, claiming their experiences, and finding ways to respond.
When we pay attention, slow down, and listen carefully, we hear an invitation to reimagine how we journey with children. We hear a call to journey with children as they move through this meaning-making process and discern their individual and communal response to God’s grace and love. As we reimagine, these are important “wondering” questions for us to lean into:
- How do we invite children to engage as full participants in our faith communities?
- How do we encourage them as they recognize Jesus in their daily lives?
- How do we create space for children to share their stories—proclaiming how God is at work in their lives?
- How do we equip and support children as they discover ways to respond to Jesus’ call to love God and neighbor?
These wondering questions help us frame our ministries in a way that honors children and their work to reflect theologically and respond faithfully. We pay attention, we slow down, and we join God in all that God is doing in the world through children and the adults who journey with them.
The Rev. Dr. Tanya Eustace Campen is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and currently serves as the Director of Intergenerational Discipleship for the Rio Texas Conference. For a more in-depth reflection on how children make meaning, and a practical exploration of the tools they use to do this work, register for Dr. Tanya Campen’s MasterClass: Learning the Practice of Faith Formation with Children. And check out Holy Work With Children: Making Meaning Together.