Spiritual and faith development
Children as young as five, or even younger, may make declarations of faith. We know from the Bible that God uses children of all ages (consider Samuel, 1 Samuel 3 and Joash, 2 Chronicles 24) and the Holy Spirit can work in the lives of young children today. However, as children grow and develop mentally, they will need to expand their spiritual understanding and re-examine their commitment. Some will seamlessly move though childhood, readjusting their understanding of salvation and eventually coming to a strong, personal commitment to Christ in their teens. Others may falter and even drift away from an early commitment. Other children may hear and learn about Jesus from an early age but may not make a commitment of faith until they are adults, or may never make a commitment at all. Yet others may not hear about Jesus at all until they are older. This begs the question of someone ministering to five to nines – are they an evangelist or a pastor?
Children’s spiritual development is in some ways closely tied to their mental development. What can five-year-olds understand about God? They can know him as the creator of all the things they see. They can understand that Jesus, and other Bible characters, were real people. They can have a simple understanding of sin, knowing that we can choose to do right things or wrong things. And they can have a basic awareness that Jesus took the blame for all the wrong things that we do, died, came alive again and will return to earth again one day. Five-year-olds can also pray – they will model patterns of prayer that they see and will be far less self-conscious in group prayer than will older children.
By the age of five children are beginning to understand that some of the stories they have heard as younger children, for instance Father Christmas or Cinderella, are fantasy and it is important that they don’t begin to put God in the same category. They may begin to ask questions about who made God and where is God, but remember their level of mental development is such that they can not cope with long, theological replies and they will accept that you may not know all the answers yourself – being honest is most important.
By seven or eight children are looking for information in every area and they will have an active interest in finding out more about God and Jesus. They can understand that Jesus is God’s Son and as they grasp the concept of time they can start to put Bible stories into sequence and begin to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. As reading skills develop they can start to look up verses and read passages for themselves. Their strict sense of fairness will often lead them to question why God let Jesus die for the wrong things that everyone else does.
By nine-years-old children may be discerning right from wrong by their own conscience, rather than on the say so of adults. They will want to be good and will feel shame when they do wrong. They will also be seeing that adults can’t always solve every problem for them and answer every question they have, and so they will start to realize that they have a need for an omnipotent God. They may well be ready to accept Christ as their personal Savior.
Generally, a child’s development is a natural progression dependent on growth, brain development and nurture. Their physical, emotional, social, mental and spiritual growth starts at birth and, unless they have specific disabilities or suffer from severe lack of nurture, they will all pass through the same stages of development at roughly the same age.
Faith development is not so easily defined. Children may not grow up in a family where faith is acknowledged or where God is mentioned, except as a swear word. They may come to your church club at eight-years-old having no idea who Jesus is or what prayer means. However we know that faith does progress and we can look at faith development as a pilgrimage where we all have a path to travel and where, at some point along that path, by God’s grace, we can meet him personally.
The children that you minister to may have experienced faith at home and in the church community since birth, or they may be coming to you completely deprived of faith nurturing. With the first group, you will be helping them along their pathway of faith recognizing that, even with this group, some will have traveled further and explored more deeply than others. With the second group, you will need to provide basic input about Jesus and God’s love for them, enabling them to start out on their own journey of faith.
Excerpt from Children’s Ministry Guide to Tailored Teaching for 5-9s by Sue Price