Children and Spiritual Growth: Are Kids Growing in Faith?
Published: March 22, 2017
How do you figure if children are growing spiritually? Use 2 Peter 1:3-8 for a faith that figures.
He was the rock, the disciple who was always first to proclaim his faith and then leap out on it. When he was with Christ, Peter faithfully walked on water, hot-headedly slashed an ear in Gethsemane, and cowardly denied Christ. Yet after all that, Jesus tenderly and mercifully asked Peter, “Do you love me?…Then feed my sheep.”
Peter knew faith, and he knew forgiveness. More than that, though, Peter knew what it meant to grow by the divine power of God. As he discipled God’s children, Peter wrote a guide for growing faith in 2 Peter 1:3-8 that stretched Christ’s followers and still challenges us today. God’s promise is that if we follow this guide, it’ll keep us from being “ineffective and unproductive” in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
How do you evaluate if children are spiritually effective and productive? Do you measure Scripture memory, faithful attendance, good behavior, bringing a Bible to class, or something else? While these may be outward expressions of inward realities, we must look deeper to ensure that we and our children are truly growing.
With Peter’s guide, we can cultivate qualities that add up to spiritual growth. Start here, and then dive into the passage for exponential possibilities in faith.
Start With Faith
In 2 Peter 1:5, Peter calls us to start with faith — the act of believing in Jesus Christ. Peter doesn’t explain how to get faith or find faith; he just assumes that there’s at least a small seed of trust somewhere in his readers. For growth, he says, start with that seed.
Peter explains that through God’s glory and goodness, we receive his “very great and precious promises.” Faith, as Hebrews 11:1 states, is being sure of the promises we hope for and certain of God’s answers that we do not see.
Building faith in children is perhaps the simplest thing to do because kids are trusting creatures. Newborn babies instinctively know that trusting mom and dad is paramount for survival. For kids, faith is a way of seeing the world. And it’s that trusting and unpretentious faith that Jesus calls all of us to emulate — to become like children.
Sum It Up
Since faith hinges on the person and promises of Jesus Christ, be intentional about presenting the claims of Christ to children. Help children understand that they must respond in faith to what Jesus did for them on the cross. For growth to occur, we must start with faith.
Beyond that initial step, introduce children to God’s “precious promises” — not just Bible stories. When children receive and believe the promises in the Bible, they’ll grow in faith. As children share their needs and prayer requests, encourage them with promises from the Word of God. Then each week ask them which of God’s promises they relied on during the previous week.
As children’s ministers who long to make a difference in children’s lives, we may lose faith at times in the One who brings about growth. We may begin, instead, to trust ourselves and our abilities. If so, we’re operating in unbelief. The weight of a child’s spiritual growth rests not on us but on God. We must never forget that God is the one wielding the power to open little hearts and give children the discernment and courage to do what’s right.
On Mount Sinai, when Moses asked God to show him his glory, God responded, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
God’s very nature is goodness, yet the lavish mercy and compassion we experience are still only a hint of his glory — a glimpse of his “back” as he passes by us. Even with those glimpses of mercy and compassion in our lives, something in us doubts God’s goodness when our circumstances don’t make sense. In the garden, the serpent persuaded Eve to believe that God was denying her something. She didn’t believe that God had the best for her in mind because she couldn’t see it. She didn’t trust that God’s heart was good. It’s our Christian journey, in part, to remember that God’s heart is good and worthy of trust.
God promised his people, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” That soft heart and new spirit enables us to trust God’s goodness and grow in goodness. When we realize that we can’t cultivate goodness on our own, we rely on the Holy Spirit to bear that fruit in us.
Sum It Up
As God interacts with us, mercy and compassion are two of the ways we can see God’s goodness. To help children have an accurate perspective of God’s goodness, help them see God’s mercy and compassion. When circumstances in kids’ lives don’t make sense in light of what the Bible says about God, acknowledge their doubts and then dive into the Bible together to find examples of God’s goodness. Encourage kids that God’s love for them is more powerful than anything else in the world.
Children’s growing goodness can be demonstrated through obedience as they learn to do what’s right. Teachers and parents can more easily teach children goodness if they first cultivate obedience. Cheri Fuller, in her book Opening Your Child’s Spiritual Windows (Zondervan), writes, “Parents want obedience from their children. Not an outward ‘I’ll obey because I’ll lose privileges or get punished if I get caught’ obedience, but obedience from the heart. To a parent, obedience from the heart says, ‘I know that what I want to do isn’t what my parents would want, and it’s not good for me anyway, so I’ll make the right choice and not do it.'” When children learn to respond with obedience, they not only learn to practice goodness; they learn how to respond to God with obedience as well.
Knowing God is certainly a lifelong, unconquerable task. And children daily add bits and pieces of knowledge to their understanding of God. Reading the Bible, knowing the biblical accounts, relating to other Christians, understanding how God interacts with humanity — all these things contribute to a knowledge of God.
Yet in her book With All Their Heart (Moody Press), Christine Yount writes that we’re at risk of becoming immune to God’s Word simply because of familiarity. “That’s a risk for our children as well,” she writes, “especially if as Christian parents we have surrounded them with quality Christian education at home and church. The stories they’ve heard from infancy may be just that — stories.”
We must help our children know the Word and understand it. They must see behind the actual words to interact with the Author of the words. Christine writes that we must teach our children to listen to the Word of God. “What does it mean to listen to God’s Word?” she asks. “The obvious answer is obeying what God’s Word says, but a more subtle agent that hardens hearts is simply not getting it. Missing the point. Not understanding fully. It is listening to biblical accounts and walking away entertained but not affected by the real truth revealed.”
To help kids fully understand biblical truth, we need to avoid teaching the Bible as mere stories. Rather, we need to present accounts of God’s encounters with his people that reveal the truth about who he is. As teachers, we need to ask God to reveal truth to us first. Then we can discuss with children what each biblical account reveals about who God is so they truly grow in knowing God.
Sum It Up
As teachers and shepherds, we can never underestimate how much impact the Word of God might have in a child’s life. Help your kids understand one piece of the puzzle at a time. Occasionally, you’ll be blessed to see a child have an “aha” moment — large or small. Those moments give you a little window into the work God is doing in a child’s heart.
Four-year-olds’ “aha” moments aren’t quite epiphanies, but they’re cause for praising God just the same. In our class of 4- and 5-year olds, we made a collage banner of all the things Jesus is Lord over. Jacob called me over to show what he’d drawn by his section of the collage.
“This man is Jesus,” he explained. “And this is a heart by Jesus because I love him.” Sunday school teachers, parents, and loving family members certainly plant seeds, but I’m convinced that God takes full responsibility — and glory — in those “aha” moments.
Self-control is a virtue of faith that adults sometimes expect of kids automatically, even when some types of self-control aren’t realistic for certain ages. Children need rules and structure to help them ultimately develop self-control. However, what you can expect from a preschooler in the area of self-control is much different from what you can expect from a preteen.
When you introduce rules to your children, don’t forego the opportunity to introduce grace too. Cheri Fuller writes that “Obedience and grace fit together like a hand in a glove. You can’t teach one without the other. Exemplifying obedience to God without communicating a reliance upon God’s grace portrays a law-oriented gospel that will obstruct your child’s spiritual growth, making her unable to move on to serving God from the heart. Heart obedience develops only within the context of a firm grasp of the grace of God.” Be consistent when enforcing consequences and rules for children, but be lavish with grace.
Parents implement all sorts of systems to reduce and prevent bickering between siblings, and mine were no different. In one system, our family drew a grid on a bulletin board. When we started, my brother and I each had a colored push pin in the center of the grid. For each time we fought, our pins moved to the left (and toward grounding), and for each day we went without arguing, we moved toward a reward on the right. Although my parents were consistent with discipline and the reinforcement of consequences, there was no grace in our system. There were no “do-overs,” no chances to start in the center again. All my life, I’ve had to struggle against this graceless understanding of the world to offer grace to myself and others.
Sum It Up
Children need logical consequences. If a child throws a fit in class about a toy, don’t deny her a snack as punishment. That’s not logical to the child. Instead, remove the toy and quietly explain why the child’s behavior isn’t appropriate. Giving instruction after a logical consequence helps the child make the right choice next time. Children ages 2 to 3 may not understand concepts such as sharing, so it’s better to remove the child or the object in question than to punish the child for something he doesn’t understand is wrong. For preschoolers and kindergartners, explain why behaviors such as hitting or throwing food aren’t okay, and children will begin to incorporate appropriate behavior. Finally, elementary-age children can help create rules because they know what acceptable behavior looks like and can more adequately control themselves.
Peter knew that Christians would need incentive to keep believing when things got tough. Perseverance means not giving up on God and not giving up on faith, even when what you expected or wanted didn’t happen.
Because we’re each broken by sin, God starts with gentle persuasion to change us. But sometimes conversation isn’t enough, says Larry Shallenberger, a children’s pastor in Erie, Pennsylvania. Sometimes God has to reset some of the broken bones of our character. This involves a re-breaking and a re-healing. Perseverance is trusting that God acts out of love toward us even when our circumstances seem to tell us otherwise. It’s the confidence that on the other side of suffering, we’ll begin to think and behave a little more like Christ.
The book of James teaches that perseverance comes from the testing of our faith. As Larry notes, “That’s a euphemism for old-fashioned pain.”
Sum It Up
True perseverance is a tough concept for most American children to understand, since they live in a fast-food, microwaved world. Prayer, knowledge of Jesus’ suffering, an understanding of others’ stories, and opportunities to debrief feelings can help children learn to persevere.
Get kids out of their comfort zone so they can see what life is like for other people. Take them on a mission trip to a third-world country or to an inner city. Introduce them to people with disabilities who’ve overcome obstacles. Then talk about what it means to persevere daily as Christians.
You might be surprised at what kids are experiencing at such young ages. Larry realized recently that he had two children with a terminally ill father, a girl whose father is in jail, and several children with divorced parents.
“I think that as children’s ministers and teachers, we need to allow time for children to talk about their pain and respond to it,” Larry says. “We need to create shepherding experiences in which children can share their frustrations and challenges.”
Growing faith is a lifetime pursuit, but there are moments in our lives when we see our growth in godliness. To be like Christ, we must know Christ. And we must see ourselves through his eyes. Although we’re created in God’s image, we still live in a fallen world. Seeing ourselves for who we really are means recognizing our sinfulness and seeing God’s glory working in us.
Jesus knew who he was, and out of that knowledge, he could see straight into other people’s hearts. He often asked the questions that seemed most obvious but most important. “Do you want to get well?” he said to the man at the healing pool. His question pierced to the very core of the heart of a man who’d been disabled for 38 years. Jesus helps us know how much we’re in need of a Savior, how powerful he is, and how we’re to respond to him.
Larry notes that in walking with Christ, we begin to discover that God’s laws are like lines on a map that direct us to understanding God’s nature. Cultivate godliness in children by helping them understand the moral reasoning behind the rules we teach them.
“We need to trust children’s capacity to be motivated to want to please God because they love him and want to be like him,” Larry says. “We need to give them a heart for godliness that will endure.”
Sum It Up
Godliness can’t happen without God at work in us. Glynis Belec, a children’s minister and author from Ontario, Canada, says, “I truly feel godliness is a condition of the heart and cannot be absorbed from the words of parents or teachers…I do think, however, that an ‘apprenticeship program’ begins when a parent or teacher is a godly example for Christ. When a child observes adults living lives consistent with what they’re learning through the Bible rather than through worldly example, wonderful things happen.”
Glynis recommends that we ask ourselves these questions:
- Is my perspective from the world or from God’s Word?
- Do I show a lack of restraint in my life, or do I control myself and strive for upright living in the eyes of God?
- Does my life and teaching impart a vision of sacrifice and serving the Savior, or do my needs come first?
Beyond providing an example of godliness, Glynis encourages us to remember that godliness is a heart issue. “I really feel it is more important to develop the hearts of our children,” she says, “than to develop a rigid set of rules in our homes and Sunday school classes.”
Mysteriously, godliness comes when we stop trying to make ourselves holy and instead let the Holy Spirit do the refining work in us. As Paul said, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” — that’s godliness.
Add Brotherly Kindness
Brotherly kindness, or kindness toward other Christians, in part involves compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. All three work together to represent Jesus’ character in the body of Christ and is important to faith. Children can more fully understand Jesus’ sacrifice by interacting with other believers in compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. When a child comprehends how others feel and explores how she might feel in a similar situation, the foundation is laid for empathy. Out of this empathy comes compassion for others and a desire to forgive and be forgiven.
Children first learn what forgiveness is by experiencing it firsthand. As children experience the feeling of being forgiven, they can begin to forgive those around them. Eventually compassion will compel them to forgive as Christ calls them to — whether the people who hurt them are sorry or not.
Sheila Walsh, in her book A Love So Big (WaterBrook), tells a story about her son, Christian, learning to forgive his friend. “Perhaps my son would find it easier to forgive his friend if Trevor were really sorry, but it galls Christian to be expected to forgive someone who isn’t sorry at all. I find that galling, too. But how sorry are we? I am convinced that most of us have no concept of what we have been delivered from or what our sin cost Christ. And it is impossible to appreciate how much we are loved unless we realize how much we have been forgiven.”
Sum It Up
We teach children to say “I’m sorry,” but forgiveness is a bit more. Forgiveness costs us something, just as it cost Christ something on the cross. When we forgive, we resist our urge to retaliate, to get even, to make someone pay for their mistakes. We step into vulnerability as we allow that person back in. And that’s a big part of loving others.
Help children understand that unless they obey Jesus’ command to forgive, they can’t fully experience his forgiveness. Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
The Apostle John gives us a clear picture of what love looks like in 1 John 3:16-18: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth.”
In many classes and clubs at school, children are learning the importance of service. Because our society values philanthropy, teachers and parents — Christian or not — encourage service and charity. In fact, service has nearly become its own religion: While I cause good for others, I feel good about myself. In faith development, however, service is an act of worship rather than an end in itself.
Sum It Up
Encourage children to serve at school and in their community. Organize service projects they can get involved in at church as well. Distinguish the service you have kids do with the cause of Christ. Feed the homeless with physical food and spiritual food. Clothe the poor with sweaters and grace. Share your care and Christ’s love with the elderly. Use service to develop in children not only generous hearts but also a viable understanding of Jesus’ selfless acts of love — especially his sacrifice on the cross.
Peter writes, “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We’re to possess the qualities Peter names in increasing measure — constantly growing in our faith.
Years ago, Benjamin Franklin, who countered Puritan thought and might well have been the father of what is now the modern self-help movement, intended to acquire 13 virtues. He attempted to master one at a time in succession by marking in a little book each time he failed to be committed to the virtue of the week. Ultimately, his graceless system led him to say that he hadn’t achieved moral perfection: “While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another…I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping.” Our desire to be like Christ doesn’t make us holy; despite his promise of redemption and heaven, we’re still sinful.
Peter’s call to possess these qualities in increasing measure stands as the antithesis of Ben Franklin’s aspirations. Peter doesn’t say we should master faith before we master goodness — in fact, he speaks nothing of “mastering” anything. As children grow physically and socially, they also grow spiritually, and they can daily increase their understanding of what it means to be like Christ. Our joy is to labor with God to add these qualities to children’s lives — and multiply their faith.
Misty Anne Winzenried is Dean of Teaching and Learning at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.
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