Tipping faith points can cause a child’s faith to go tumbling. Here’s how you can model Christ’s love to children upended by crisis.
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 questioning.
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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 balance.
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.
Any tipping faith point can have deep, lasting impacts on a child’s development. Five affected areas 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 doesn’t exist. 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 their parents.
- 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 safety.
- 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.
- Developmental Challenges–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.