Framing the Faith

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Elementary-age children have the potential to hold deep
conceptions of God and can have a greater personal faith than most
adults assume they can, according to researchers in the
International Journal for Psychology and Religious Education.

What this means is there’s not necessarily a correlation between
children’s cognitive development (perception, memory, judgment, and
reasoning) and their spiritual development. My survey results agree
with this: There is a significant difference in how kids age 10 and
older scored compared with those 9 and under when it comes to
understanding the more abstract details of our faith. Older kids
scored higher in my survey when it came to questions focused on
salvation, the Trinity, and biblical truth. While 85 percent of 10-
and 11-year-olds demonstrated understanding of these things, almost
73 percent of 8- and 9-year-olds could. Specifically, 83 percent of
10- and 11-year-olds understood salvation concepts, while 70
percent of 8- and 9-year-olds did.

* Building Faith: Much more may be going on
spiritually in children than is evident on the surface. Even so,
how you teach younger elementary children-and your expectations of
what they can comprehend — have to be different than with older
children. Research shows that older children have a grasp of facts
and may be ready to go deeper with more abstract concepts. With
younger kids, however, focus on stating the basic tenets of the
faith again and again in different ways so kids hear repetition and
a reinforcing message — or the framework.

The Right Words

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I figured that many people grow up with confused understanding of
biblical events and a few moral lessons as the sum of their
experience of Christianity. This was for a few reasons. First, many
curricula focus on teaching traits such as honesty, obedience, and
love. Though God desires all of these from us, this approach seems
to aim to improve children’s character rather than increase their
knowledge of God. The lessons expect children to “do good” and “be
good” rather than giving them a sense of their true condition and
utter need for God. In addition, my discussions with peers and
experts seemed to reinforce the argument that many practicing
Christians may not have a concrete, accurate understanding of the
basics of Christianity and are therefore more at risk of walking
away from their faith. And because today’s families are more
transient than past generations, kids may travel through many
different children’s ministries with many different philosophies –
and fewer opportunities for consistent teaching and learning that
sticks.

Kids understood a lot about who God is, though they struggled most
with the abstract, Trinity-focused questions. Seventy-four percent
of 12-year-olds demonstrated comprehension of the Trinity, while 64
percent of younger children did. Despite lower scores on the
abstract nature of God, the survey revealed a very encouraging
point to note: Kids could accurately use the terminology they’d
heard used to describe salvation, even if they didn’t fully grasp
the meaning of the words. So for instance, they knew terms such as
grace, savior, and Holy Spirit, even if they couldn’t give a
textbook definition.

* Building Faith: Language is a key component
of our faith’s framework for children who are learning about
Christianity. By providing kids with the correct language and using
that language frequently, you can give them a context for concepts
they’ll grow to understand later. For teachers, it’s critical to
acknowledge the importance of using faith-accurate language and to
use it correctly, based on Scripture and tradition.

The Right Approach

The results of the survey data confirmed for me that our role as
Christian faith educators is to provide a standard for content and
a language for experience. Here’s a radical idea: Children don’t
have to graduate from our ministries knowing all the content of the
Bible, all the events that took place. They should, however, walk
away with a plum line by which to measure their growing knowledge
and experience. It’s our responsibility and honor to provide them
with this tool. Shifting our mindset and re-evaluating our goals
and definitions of success in ministry may prove necessary. Where
before we may have felt a sense of failure if kids confused the
facts of Noah’s experience or thought Job was really Moses, it’s
important to remember that it’s not Bible trivia we’re teaching,
but Bible truths. So if kids walk away thinking, God stayed with
Noah, and he’ll stay with me when I’m afraid, too, you’ve scored a
major win for your ministry. Our mission is relationship with Jesus
– not trivia.

* Building Faith: We don’t create faith — we
frame it. Don’t get me wrong; becoming a “framer” doesn’t mean
lowering your standards. In fact, the opposite is true. Framing
faith for the kids in your ministry means you challenge yourself to
learn anew the language and truths of our faith. It means you try
even harder to articulate those complex truths in a way that’s
kid-friendly and biblically and theologically sound. This is a huge
task — and good reason for children’s Christian educators to be
some of the best-trained people of your church.

Jill Williams is the director of children’s ministry at
National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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