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What Can We Expect from Children in a Church Community?

By Lorna Jenkins.

How much spiritual insight might we see from children who are growing up in the community of the church? I suspect it is a great deal more then we expect or encourage. Some parents and leaders seem to think that children will be spiritually inactive until well into their teenage years. This idea is based on the well-known stages of intellectual understanding, which are taught in our education systems.

However, spiritual understanding is not the same as intellectual understanding. Long before children can explain or rationalize their own feelings and aspirations, they can experience thoughts and pictures, which draw them towards God with increasing clarity. This inner life makes it possible for children to worship and pray in direct encounters with God. Their imagination is their God-given tool, bypassing the rational tools of explanation. They know He is there and they want to talk with Him.

If we can regard Jesus as a natural growing child at the age of twelve, we may get some clues about what we may reasonably expect from our children, especially those growing up in a community of faith. In Luke 2.41-51, we read the curious and unique story of Jesus as a child. He was not a superhuman child. He had set aside his Godhead to accept the limitations of human life, even the restrictions of childhood.

The occasion was Jesus’ first trip to the Temple at Jerusalem. According to local custom, it was his Bar Mitzvah, his religious coming of age. For Jesus it was not just a formality, but a serious commitment to his faith. When the time came to go home, he wanted to stay in the Jerusalem, learning more and soaking in the experience. For once, his driving inner passion for God over-ruled his routine obedience.

What did he do during his three days of seeking? He listened to the teachers. He could understand and assimilate what they said. He asked them questions. He was hungry and thirsty to know more. They must also have asked him questions for we read that they were amazed at his understanding and answers. They didn’t expect so much from a child.

Neither did his parents. Obviously his behaviour was different from anything they had experienced before. They were centred on the pain and anxiety they had felt at losing him – a very natural reaction – most of us would be covering our fear with anger. It never occurred to them that his response to God might overrule his normal duty to parents.

Jesus’ reply reflects two important issues about his spiritual maturity. He told them that it was right that he should be seeking after his Father. This was an unusual phrase for a child to use of God. He had found a relationship with God that was so close and personal that it would mark his whole life. He knew God at the core of his being and he wanted to know more.

The other translation of verse 49 is also valid. He must be about his Father’s business. He had a sense of mission. He knew that he had a destiny from God and he had to keep that in focus. He seemed to be surprised that his parents were unaware of that. He thought they would know that he had a relationship with God and that he had a purpose on his life

We might not expect so much spiritual understanding from a child of twelve either. Perhaps we have underestimated how the Holy Spirit can call a child to a lifetime commitment. Based on Jesus’ example of spiritual maturity, I would expect that by the age of twelve, children in a church community might have a personal relationship with their Father God, through Jesus. I would also expect that they might have the beginning of an idea that God has a purpose for their lives. It may be a shapeless and unformed picture at that moment, but they expect that one day the Holy Spirit will make it clear. 

With those two ideas in their minds, children can continue to explore, to talk to God as their friend, to seek his help and forgiveness when they need it, to look for opportunities to talk about him and to pray for others. That kind of personal vision will hold them close to God for many years to come. It cannot come second-hand. They need to know it for themselves.

In the course of my ministry to children and children’s leaders around the world, I have seen this miracle happen. Many children consider it normal for God to participate in their lives. They know how to pray with expectation and faith. They are not at all surprised when he answers. They love to talk to God personally in worship and praise. They think that the story of Jesus is a vital element of their lives and they are ready to tell other people about it whenever they get the chance. They live in a Christian community where they learn the Christian life-style from the people who surround them. They have never seen it any other way.

No amount of instruction can create a relationship. A child may be a champion at Bible information, and still not know God as a daily friend. We need to introduce them to Jesus and let them observe his “Daddy relationship” with the Father. Other people in their family or spiritual circle can demonstrate what it means to know God and to walk with him. They need to know that the Holy Spirit is their permanent companion everywhere they go. Every day they can witness the relevant modern fact that God is real, He did enter our world and he is still saving and changing people. He can talk to them and direct them. Best of all He loves them very much, whatever happens. He is trustworthy in a very insecure world.

Lorna Jenkins

Writer of books for children and ministry with children

Ministry Today

You are reading What Can We Expect from Children in a Church Community? by Lorna Jenkins, part of Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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