How you can model Christ's love to children upended by
Children's ministry, like children's lives, is more than just
fun and games. When life throws weighty issues at little ones,
their balance of faith can tip dangerously away from God. These
tipping faith points can leave children vulnerable and
And you're in the perfect position to help them find equilibrium
when they're tipping. When children are tottering on the brink and
doubting Gods love for them, your main message of the scope of Gods
love gives them stability.
Children's Ministry Magazine spoke with several experts to
discover what puts kids faith at risk and how you can help restore
The loss of a parent, through death or divorce, is the top
stressor for children. Other biggies include abuse or neglect,
illness or physical trauma, unemployment, frequent moves, death of
any family member or pet, a new extended family, racism, and
exposure to violence or threats.
But many seemingly lesser incidents can also trigger a faith
crisis, says Kevin Lawson, director of doctoral programs in
educational studies at California's Talbot School of Theology.
These incidents include not receiving a positive answer to prayers,
being ridiculed for faith or Christian behaviors, and even
discovering that Santa Claus isn't real.
I suspect more children have a faith crisis from these lesser
things than from the more traumatic ones, especially if their
parents and church teachers don't seem open to their questions and
doubts, Lawson says. This can start at a young age 6 or 7.
At the heart of trauma is broken trust in some form, says Judy
Medeiros, administrative director at Andover Newton Theological
School in Massachusetts. Showing children that the adults in their
life are trustworthy can prevent lifelong unresolved emotions,
fear, and mistrust.
Perils They Pose
Any tipping faith point can have deep, lasting impacts on a
child's development. Areas affected include:
Perception of God
Children are trying to determine what God is like and whether he's
loving and protecting. Lawson says major events challenge
children's basic understanding of a God who cares for them and is
watching out for their good. The danger, he says, is that children
may conclude that God doesn't love them enough to act or that God
Pennsylvania children's pastor Larry Shallenberger points out
that many traumas involve children's parents which affect kids view
of God. That's significant, he says, because we know that children
develop their sense of what God is like from interactions with
Formation of Faith
Crises threaten the developing faith of younger children who
haven't been exposed to spiritual struggles yet. Alice Bell-Gaines,
a children's pastor in California, says Sunday school teachers
often use their limited time with children to focus on Gods
goodness. Were so sensitive to their young minds and emotions that
we don't go in-depth into the wickedness of the devil and the ways
he tries to steal, kill, and destroy, she says.
This, combined with limited processing abilities, can put a
roadblock in children's spiritual paths because they think if God
is good, then only good things will happen to them.
Perception of the World
Loss can make children view the world as unfair and unjust, says
Medeiros, who is also the author of Through My Eyes: A Child's
Journal Through Illness. Exposure to violence, Medeiros says,
undermines children's ability to form trusting relationships with
the world around them and the adults to whom they turn for
Healthy Emotions and Relationships
Stressors create emotional static by triggering the release of
brain chemicals that make relational connections more difficult,
says Shallenberger. And what is spirituality anyway but friendship
with God? he points out.
Potential risks vary according to a child's age. Lawson says kids
are especially vulnerable during two major cognitive and social
transitions: (1) when moving from intuitive to concrete thinking
and entering school (roughly ages 6 to 8), and (2) when moving from
concrete to more formal thinking and entering adolescence (roughly
ages 10 to 13).
When children are part of any family crisis, they feel as
out-of-control as adults do. This leads to feelings of inadequacy
and inferiority, Medeiros says. On the other hand, when children
feel included and their abilities are recognized, she says, they
learn to cope with what life throws them and develop
resourcefulness and a sense of competency.
Recognizing Tipping Points
To help children in need, you must be tuned into their lives and
changing situations. By incorporating the following into your
children's ministry, you'll more easily notice any threats.
Listen and talk. Make time to listen to children, and invite
conversation regarding their fears or wonderings about God, advises
Lawson. Listening helps us discern if there may be something
bothering a child or something troubling her as she thinks about
her relationship with God.
Ask for prayer requests. Bell-Gaines remembers visiting her
church's 3-year-old classroom and inviting children to pray. I was
amazed at the raised hands and the prayer requests that followed,
she says. I prayed a very simple prayer for each need, letting
children know that God heard our voices and will take care of those
Watch behaviors. There's generally little
guesswork that something's bothering children, says Medeiros. As
they're primarily sensory beings, behaviors will be the first
evidence that something's wrong. Watch for defiance or aggression,
sadness or withdrawal, regression, diminished interest, and
Make time for kids. Children's ministries must
have the time and personnel to allow children free access to caring
adults who will take their questions and concerns seriously, Lawson
says. We need to build in relational time off task to give ministry
leaders access to the inner lives of children as they're willing to
Ask questions. Building a relational ministry
is crucial to staying in touch with children's lives, says
Shallenberger, who is also the author of Instant Puppet Skit's:
Big, Hairy Issues Kids Face (Group Publishing, Inc.). Create
sharing times where kids can talk about their weeks, he says.
Throughout a lesson, ask feeling questions to get children used to
talking about their emotions before the hard times come.
Consult parents. Conversation and brainstorming
with caregivers helps provide insight into what may be causing the
trauma, says Medeiros. Establishing a relationship with parents
early on helps you more easily turn to them for advice when their
children are struggling.
Setting Kids on Solid Ground
Responses to an event can often be more influential than the event
itself. Because children are still developing, they're profoundly
impacted by the behaviors of the adults around them, says Medeiros.
How we relate to children may well affect how they view the church
and God for the rest of their lives.
When responding to a crisis, remember to:
Stay shock-proof. When a child reveals a trauma
or stressor, remain calm. Children look to adults for emotional
cues on how to react, says Shallenberger. If you react with shock,
pity, or horror, you're letting children know something's wrong and
they'll assume they're out of whack.
Give love and acceptance. Medeiros advises
always keeping in mind, How am I reflecting the image of God to
this child? Reassuring children you love them no matter what
they're going through models Gods unconditional love. Tell them
they're not to blame for what's happening.
Seek help, if necessary. Children's ministers
volunteer and staff are mandated reporters in cases of suspected or
disclosed abuse. Shallenberger recommends consulting your pastor
for advice in this situation. If you sense you're in over your
head, get help, he says. Don't play therapist.
Seeking a Safe Haven
When children's lives turn upside down, they have many short- and
long-term needs. The biggest include:
To Feel Loved and Reassured
The most immediate needs are loving and nurturing people to help
children process the event and feel that there's hope and a
solution, says Bell-Gaines. They need to know they're not
Because children fear God is punishing them for doing something
wrong, says Lawson, it's crucial for them to hear and experience
the love of others to be reassured of Gods love for them.
To Feel Safe
During a crisis, Shallenberger says, children's big questions
include, Is someone looking out for me? and Who's going to take
care of me?
A stable environment and consistent relationships with caring
adults are crucial for children as events happen around them,
For the long-term, says Bell-Gaines, children need to know they
have a safe place to go and some form of structure where they'll
know what to do every day, such as school, home, church, and
To Feel Understood
Once children know they're safe, Shallenberger says, they need to
know they're being understood that a caring adult understands their
Adults must be willing to talk about the trauma, not deny or
keep it a secret, or placate a child with false information, only
making matters worse, Medeiros says. Adults also must confirm
children's perceptions, meet them exactly where they are, and
remember that children may lack the language and processing skills
to share what's bothering them, she says.
When children face loss, Lawson says, they need someone to grieve
with them, they need to know that grieving is okay, and they need
to know they're not experiencing this alone. Don't try to cheer
them up too soon, but cry with them and love them, he says. Sharing
a verse of hope can be appropriate, but don't make children feel
guilty for grieving.
To Have a Support System
Children who are surrounded by loving adults get through tough
times better than children who don't have healthy, extensive
support systems, says Shallenberger, noting that Sunday school
teachers can play important roles.
All children -- especially those facing difficulties at a young
age need a sense of belonging to a caring group, says Bell-Gaines.
Provide mentors who will stay with children for a long time, who
will spend time with them and be honest with them.
Shoring Up Children's Needs
Your staff can provide a bulwark against tipping faith points by
helping children in the following ways:
Pray, and teach prayer. Because we often lack the wisdom to know
how to help children, Lawson says, prayer for them and ourselves is
essential. Often, insight comes over time as we bring these needs
to our Father, he says.
Medeiros says teaching prayer should be a children's ministry's
#1 priority because it's so empowering. Even a two-word prayer such
as Help, Jesus! can comfort a child, she says.
Provide extra attention. During group
activities, encourage struggling children to fully participate, and
give extra attention and hugs as needed, Lawson says. Remind little
ones that God is loving and faithful even when we cant see or
understand it, he adds.
Have a relational classroom. Children's
ministry workers can make a huge impact on helping children
developing their relational repertoire, says Shallenberger. He
recommends creating prayer groups and helping children connect with
the emotions of people in the Bible. Identifying and expressing
ones emotions is an important skill for children to develop before
a crisis erupts, he says.
Get kids talking. Games and activities can
reveal what children are thinking, feeling, perceiving, deciding,
and experiencing, says Medeiros. The more we know about their
internal world, the more effective we can be in our pastoral
She recommends playing Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down (children
agree or disagree with statements such as "People get sick because
they're bad"), Sentence Completions (children finish
statements such as "I get scared when..."), and Draw a
Feeling (children draw faces to match emotions).
Reach out. Check in with children during the
week, and let them know you're available to talk. Lawson suggests
meeting on a regular basis until a crisis passes, sending notes
reminding children of your love and prayers, and giving your cell
phone number for when children feel their worst.
Share your story. Sharing your own faith
challenges, losses, or crises can greatly encourage a child who's
feeling doubt or guilt or loss of hope, says Lawson. He recommends
telling a child, Sometimes I don't know what to say when I pray
because something hurts too much. So I just tell God that, and he
says that's okay; he understands. (See the Big, Hairy Issues
sidebar for more ideas of what to say and not to say.)
Watch for relapses. During each major
developmental stage, children often emotionally and spiritually
revisit a past trauma, Shallenberger says. They'll need to rethink
what they believe about God, their parents, and themselves as their
capacity to understand the events changes, he says. Be prepared for
this rehashing of old wounds, and minister to children at each
Building a Firm Foundation
Don't give up on children who've experienced a tipping faith
point, says Shallenberger. Little ones are incredibly resilient,
and, with the right support system, will regain equilibrium.
When in doubt about how to handle a tough situation, follow
Bell-Gaines advice: Let the fruit of the Spirit continually be the
guide of how we treat the children. They're so trusting of what we
say, and we must be careful to use words of encouragement and hope
at all times.
Stephanie Martin is a freelance writer and editor in
Big, Hairy Issues
Because your responses to children in crisis are so crucial,
weave collected examples of both hurtful and uplifting
What Not to Say
- God took your mom because he needed her in heaven. She's happy
there now. (This makes God the enemy, says Professor Kevin
- If you're good, God will help you and you'll see your mom again
- Don't cry. Be a big boy/girl.
- Don't cry. Instead, trust God. Things will be okay.
- You should feel...
- Sometimes God lets these things happen to test our faith.
(Children's pastor Larry Shallenberger says, Gods wisdom is often
hidden from us for years after a traumatic event if he chooses to
reveal it at all.)
What to Say
- Mommy is with God.
- When you give your heart to Jesus, you'll see Mom again.
(Explain what that entails in an age-appropriate way.)
- It's okay to miss Mom. God gave us a time to cry and remember
people we love. (Children's pastor Alice Bell-Gaines then suggests
gently reminding children that God also gives us joy to remember
the funny things [he/she did] and asking Do you remember any of
- I'm so sorry.
- I love you and care about you and so does God.
- This didn't happen because you were bad.
- I don't know why this is happening, but God still cares for you
and comforts you.
- Whenever you'd like to talk about it, Id love to listen.
- Can I call you this week to see how you're doing? Maybe we can
get some ice cream and talk.
- Ill be praying for you this week. (Do so, remind the child
you're doing so, and follow up, says Lawson. Tell him how you
specifically prayed for him.)
Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change.