Although pollsters can’t seem to agree on the exact percentage of kids who are dropping out of church in the “gap” between children’s ministry and youth ministry programs, we all know that the number is high. Too high!
While many ministry leaders have used creative ways to prepare kids for the transition by overlapping leadership teams or visiting each other’s classrooms, for years there has been a critical element missing: relationship. But we’re not talking about “relationships” with other students and ministry leaders. We’re talking about that most significant relationship of all, the child’s personal and transformative relationship with God.
We say that “true Christians” have a “relationship with Jesus.” But let’s be honest. For most evangelicals, “relationship” simply means some unique standing I have that will get me into heaven for free. That kind of relationship falls far short of the intimacy that we would want with any beloved human in our lives and will never be transformative in the child’s life, nor mine.
That’s where “spiritual formation” comes in. For a few decades, leaders and ministries have focused on equipping volunteers to teach kids about God in the most effective ways possible. While this is good, teaching kids “about” God is only one piece of the puzzle. Spiritual formation engages kids with God. That’s very different.
The principles of spiritual formation are ancient and involve practices that have been exercised by God’s people before and after Jesus’ day. When we set aside time for scripture reading, prayer, fasting, solitude…in ways that slow us down long enough to listen to what God is saying…we are opening ourselves to the transformation process.
Children can encounter God personally through spiritual formation practices, too. If we trust kids to want God and we strip away a few minutes of the “noise” at church so that our students and our Lord have time to talk.
In their book, Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey, Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May share their research involving children who had engaged in spiritual disciplines in their regular children’s worship. Sam, a five-year old boy, tells them: “He just talks! He talks to us overnight, he talks to us, he never stops!” (p. 47).
Let’s not just change the name of our Christian education and discipleship programs to go with the new trend of spiritual formation. Let’s expose ourselves to the same spiritual transformative disciplines that helped Jesus as he grew in wisdom and stature. Then let’s share them with our children and students, trusting that a real God can and will speak to children who can and will listen. That relationship will keep kids coming back.