Robert Coles, author of the award-winning The Spiritual Life of Children, spent several years talking to and asking children of all ages about God. When Coles asked children to “draw a picture of how you would represent God,” the response from many children was that God is “beyond.” They found it difficult to draw God, but found it much easier to draw those things or people who represent the characteristics of their understanding of God. We see through their responses that how God is communicated to them is more important than what God “looks like.” One way to help children of all ages to think about and to understand God is through our own Wesleyan heritage.
Children love stories.
The primary way that we teach children about God is by telling our story, which comes out of the Bible. We are a people of the story, and we possess a specific type of language. Take time to not only read Scripture to and with children, but give them the opportunity to talk with you about their understanding of what they hear and read. Be open to their thoughts and responses.
Children learn through experience.
They are not born as “empty vessels”; as children grow and develop, they collect experiences that shape who they are as people and as members of the community. As their teachers, it is our responsibility to guide them in living out their lives through Scripture – holy living. Listen to and respect their stories, while helping them to see how their choices and actions reflect upon who they are as children of God.
Share Our Story
Rituals speak to children.
Children look forward to and anticipate celebrations like birthdays and life’s other milestones. Teach children about the traditions of our church community. Our forefathers and foremothers of the Christian faith committed to spiritual practices, including gathering as a faith community, offering prayers of thanksgiving and supplication, helping the “least of these,” and sharing our stories of faith. Supply children with ongoing and relevant ways to participate in these and other acts of mercy, piety, and means of grace.
Children are naturally curious.
While memorizing Scripture should be respected and expected, we can guide children in interpreting Scripture and the impact it has on their lives as children of God. As Bishop Scott Jones reminds us, reason helps us to see if our interpretations of Scripture “make sense” in everyday life. Take the time to relate Scripture to the real life occurrences that our children experience and to support them in navigating life’s challenges while deepening their connection with God.
How many times will we see this on the evening news?
Our children live in a world of disharmony, one that the prophet Isaiah prophetized that a little child would lead into the peace and harmony of a new creation. How can our children lead if we fail to build a strong foundation for them so they will understand the true meaning of doing no harm? If children continue to see the adults responsible for their care and nurture non-responsive to the violence in this world, what kind of leaders will they be in our world and in our congregations? According to The Children’s Defense Fund, there are more gun dealers in our nation than there are houses of worship. Every day in our nation, five children are killed by abuse or neglect. Our children’s exposure to violence via technology, and our children’s potential as victims of violence stand as two issues before us today.
Although gun violence is prevalent in the media today because of senseless mass shootings like today’s school shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon, violence comes to our children in a number of ways. Every day our children are faced with violence. We may not want to believe this, but take a moment and ask, and then listen…deeply. Our children are victims, bystanders, and yes, our children are perpetrators of violence. This is not a new phenomenon, but definitely one that is growing.
In our responsibility to our children, we are charged with providing safe spaces for them to live and thrive. This encompasses the children in our congregations, our communities, and in the world. We must DO something. What will you do?
UMC Ministry with Children Resource List
Building Character from the Start: 201 Activities to foster creativity, literacy, and play in K-3 by Susan Ragsdale and Ann Saylor uses nearly 100 books like The Keeping Quilt and Wilifrid Gordon McDonald Partirdge to help young children learn more about people who are different from themselves. Several of the books are listed on our recommended book list: http://ministrywithchildren.wordpress.com/childrens-books/
Chapter 8 of Raising Children to Love Their Neighbors by Carolyn C. Brown offers great activities and projects for older elementary students to learn about justice issues. This includes The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles.
Starting Small – Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and the Early Grades is a free resource from the Teaching Tolerance Project that includes a chapter on using the natural sense of wonder in early elementary students to help them learn about facing prejudices and finding their voices.
In addition to the children’s books listed above, I recommend Peace Begins with You by Katherine Scholes and Amos and Boris by William Steig.
Let Us Pray
What does prayer look like? How do you pray? The concept of prayer can be particularly vague for children. How do we speak to their concrete, yet very imaginative, minds to let them know that God is listening? At Allen Memorial United Methodist Church in Oxford, Georgia, the children know how to pray.
One way that they have learned to pray is through using the ancient prayer form of prayer beads, a simple chain of beads that children can make. As children hold and feel the beads, they are reminded that God is with them and listening to them. If their minds wander while in prayer, they can squeeze the beads to help them refocus on what they are saying to God and what they hear God saying. The beads can each represent a person for whom they want to pray or something specific they want to tell God. They can use each bead to offer a blessing to people they care about or for people they don’t even know. The beads make prayer more accessible to children who are tactile learners.
The families at Allen Memorial UMC are using prayer beads with their children as a way of helping their children stay connected with God. Parents have discovered that when their children use prayer beads they are more likely to initiate prayer and develop their own ideas about how to pray. In one family, after spending devotion time making beads with other families in the community, one of the young daughters chose beads to represent different people she wanted to pray for. The next day she told her mother that “the red bead was to pray for you, but now it is also love; the green one was to pray for the dog, but now it means creation.” The beads expanded her prayer life and gave her a concrete way to talk about her experience of prayer. In what ways could congregational prayer be enhanced to be more engaging to children and others who are tactile learners in your congregations?