Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Defining Children's Spirituality . . .

 . . . with a little help from Rebecca Nye.

I pretty much devoured the book pictured above by Rebecca Nye, Children's Spirituality: What it is and why it Matters. When I look back on books that have significantly impacted me, I am sure that this book will be high up on the list.  Not only is it helping me to understand the children around me, but it also helps me to look at my own childhood in a new light.  I hope to write several posts about thoughts in this book.

What spirituality and children's spirituality are can be a difficult thing to nail down or even recognize.  Nye begins the book by listing psychological, educational and theological definitions to spirituality. Then, she moves on to defining Christian spirituality and more specifically children's spirituality in a Christian context.  In a nutshell, spirituality seems to be an awareness of transcendence and connectedness to something beyond our  individual ourselves. In Christian spirituality, this is a connectedness to the triune God: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And in Christian children's spirituality, it is how children "be" with God and how God in turn can "be" with them.

During my time in Russia in the early 90s', I often heard the Russian word, "duchovni", that literally translates as "spiritual".  In my own language, I had only heard that word used in a narrowly defined religious context. I, of course, assumed that the Russian word carried the same connotations. However, I soon came to realize that "duchovni" encompassed something much larger.  It described everything from the words of the poet, Anna Akhmatova, to the majesty of an Orthodox church to the serenity of standing on the shores of Lake Baikal.  It described experiences that combined artistic expression, concentrated thought and an attempt to reach out to something greater than one's self. Having somewhat grasped the broadness of the Russian term has helped me these days to recognize children's spirituality in everyday life when I see it and then to encourage it in a Christian context. (So interesting how God uses our past experiences like building blocks to prepare us for the present!)

I have to admit that early on as a children's pastor, I completely missed the boat sometimes when children were "being" with God and I interpreted their responses as mere play. This is because spirituality in children can easily be overlooked or dismissed in the church when it doesn't look like what Nye terms "fluent Christian".  Their spirituality takes many playful forms and often does looks silly or like nonsense to adults.  For example, suppose a child draws something in children's church that appears to have  absolutely nothing to do with the lesson/theme that has just been presented.  An uninformed children's worker could easily dismiss the work as irrelevant, because it doesn't make a direct connection to the lesson.  Nye points out, however, that children have a more holistic approach to things because of their limited analytical skills.  Therefore, the child who draws a dinosaur after hearing a lesson on Abraham and Sarah may well be making a connection with God that is not readily visible to an adult.  Only the child and God know what is really happening.  And something truly amazing can be taking place! (And sometimes we get lucky enough that the child can at some point verbalize what has taken place.)

What does this mean for us as children's workers and parents?  It means that we have to let go of some control and trust that the Holy Spirit is working in our children. We have to make church less like a school in which we offer something from God's Word and expect the children to regurgitate it back to us in a certain way.  Don't get me wrong, I think memorizing Scripture and other "frontal" teaching methods are appropriate at times.  But what I am getting at (and I think this is Nye's point) is that we have to make room for the unexpected moments and ways that God extends friendship and revelation to children and follow his lead even when we don't fully understand what is taking place.

Nye also writes of a study by Kalevi Tammenin in Finland about spiritual experiences in the population there. Eighty percent of the 7-years-olds surveyed spoke of having moments where they were aware of God's presence.  Then, 60% of 11-year-olds were aware of his presence.  By stark contrast, only 30% of adults could point to such moments.  This tells us something very important about faith and spirituality: children are spiritual beings from the beginning and we have to nurture this capacity to connect with God or it will in time be lost.

Okay, those are my thoughts for now.  I invite you all to please join the conversation so that we can learn from one another!

How do you observe spirituality in the children around you?
What are ways that you encourage them in this?

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