Several years ago, while serving as a children’s pastor, I had one of the most interesting and unexpected conversations that I have ever had with a child. It was one of those unanticipated meetings that sticks with you for a long time and leaves you pondering its significance. The encounter caused me to reflect and actually wonder if this could be one of those subtle life-changing moments. I cannot attest to whether or not this occasion changed my life, but what I can tell you is that it radically changed the way I view teaching children and my ministry philosophy in general. Through the words of a 10-year-old boy, I caught a glimpse into the Kingdom of God and what I believe God intended it to be for each and every one of us.
I was relatively new to serving as a children’s pastor. We were working through a series of lessons on the Kingdom of God and how Jesus described it in parables. In detail, we discussed the various illustrations and then talked about how they applied to us in the real world. Most kids seemed to have a pretty good understanding of the big picture and eagerly answered each question as expected.
One 10-year-old boy in particular seemed to grasp the concept of the parables more than anyone else. In fact, later that week he stopped by my office to ask a few very specific questions about what we talked about. I asked him some questions as well, and from his responses he seemed to understand exactly what Jesus was talking about. I was so impressed with his understanding that I asked him to elaborate on what he had learned. He smiled, paused for a few seconds, and then gazed around the room as if in deep thought. I assumed that our conversation might be over, and then he said something that I will never forget.
“Hey, I’ve got one!” he said eagerly. “What if the Kingdom of God is like this!” And, in full sermon mode, he stood up and with great authority declared, “The Kingdom of God is like an animal shelter. A person walks in looking for the perfect dog to adopt. The first dog barks and snaps at the person because he’s angry. This dog has been abused since he was a puppy and doesn’t trust anyone. The next dog just lies there, doing nothing but lazily gazing at each person that walks by. When a person takes interest in him, he does nothing because he doesn’t think anyone will ever adopt him or love him. The third dog just barks at the other dogs next to him, in the cages to the left and the right. He’s so concerned about the other dogs and that they may be adopted first, that he never even notices the person who might want to take him home. Finally, the last dog immediately notices the person and leaps up against the cage, happily barking, wagging his tail and licking the person’s hand. He scratches at the latch on the cage and at the floor, doing everything he could to get out. He wants the person to know that he is the perfect dog, and he’ll do anything possible to get adopted and go home with that person.”
Wow! Needless to say, I was speechless. I sat there for a few seconds, unable to say anything because I was trying to take in the depth of this story. Did this 10-year-old boy really grasp the concept of the Kingdom of God as clearly as it seemed? Finally, I leaned forward and said, “How did you come up with that?” Without hesitation, he replied, “I just understood what Jesus was talking about in the other parables. So, I put it into a story that made sense to me.” “Explain it to me,” I enthusiastically urged him. “Tell me what all this means and how does it show us what the Kingdom of God is like?”
“Well, the first dog is like people who are always angry. They’re angry at people, their jobs, and just about everything in their life. So naturally, they’re angry with God too. The second dog is like lazy people. They don’t get excited about much, so they don’t get excited about God either. They’re …”, he paused for a moment, searching for the right word, “apathetic! They’re apathetic! The third dog is like people who worry too much. They always care more about other people and what others think. They worry that other people might be better than them and don’t stop to think about what God thinks, and therefore they miss Him in their lives. The last dog is like someone who just wants to be loved by God. They will do anything to be loved and accepted by Him. That’s all that matters to them. They put Him first in everything. That’s the Kingdom of God, right?” Duh! How do you respond to that kind of theological insight?
After he left my office, I pondered this story and what had just happened for quite a while. I played the parable out in my mind a few times and then it hit me. There was nothing terribly deep about what this boy shared with me. In fact, his illustration was quite simplistic. It wasn’t because of his wisdom, knowledge or deep theological grasp of the scriptures. He understood because his imagination and creativity took him to a place that was vivid and clear to his understanding. He listened to the simple stories told by Jesus, and translated them into a setting and picture that he understood, which is exactly why Jesus told parables in the first place. Jesus creatively painted a picture and wanted people to envision something that would transport them to a simple and illustrative place. That’s what this boy did and that changed my understanding of the Kingdom of God.
Creativity is the catalyst that drives the kind of insight that came from this boy. Children need to have as much freedom as possible to express themselves creatively while they are learning and growing within God’s framework. Parents, teachers, pastors and other leaders of children not only need to encourage creativity within the learning process, but we need to set an example of creativity in our teaching methods as well. Far too often, lessons are presented in a regimented, systematic and predictable manner. This not only discourages children to remain engaged, but it hinders the learning process as well. When you think about it, how can we expect children to think creatively and get excited about God’s Kingdom when we have trouble doing the same for ourselves?
When we fail to encourage creativity in kids, in many ways we are essentially stifling the working of God in their lives. Whether intentional or not, when we place unnecessary restraints on kids, it makes their sphere of imagination and creativity much smaller. Unfortunately, I think this is what happens to most of us as we get older. When we were young, we looked at life with endless wonder and imagination. Through a broad filter, we could create almost anything that our minds could conceive. Boxes became spaceships, gardens became battlefields, bathtubs became oceans, empty fields became sports arenas and animal shelters became parables. Creativity and imagination are limitless within the mind of a child and essential to his or her understanding of God.
Let’s face it—faith in God is not finite, manageable or easily definable. It’s different from one person to the next. The older we get, the more barriers we construct that affect our spirituality. Life becomes more rational and less imaginative. We limit ourselves because we begin to attempt to rationalize our faith and God in general. When Jesus confronted this way of thinking He responded with, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15). Basically, what He was saying is something like, “Stop trying to rationalize all of this! Accept faith for what it is and be blown away by the mystery and wonder of it all!”
When we begin to look at God and faith through a much simpler perspective, we open the unlimited door of imagination and creativity and, in essence, expand our view of God. God is not tangible or easily understood. As hard as we try, He won’t fit into the compartmentalized boxes that we build for our lives. Kids see the world through eyes of wonder, and if they are going to develop a healthy view of the wonderful world around them, they have to see God with wonder as well. Let us not allow ourselves to limit the imagination and creativity in the minds of the kids in our lives. And, if we pay attention, we might learn something from them as well. We might not only catch glimpses of the Kingdom of God, but freely live within it as well.