Kids experiencing a relationship with their Creator
Within the evangelical tradition I grew up in, I would often hear from pastors, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and even professors that the Christian life was all about a relationship. The puzzling thing to me then … and now … is how little we talk about what having a relationship with God is really like. Adding to that puzzle is how little of church is dedicated to allowing kids to enter into this relationship and meet with Jesus. As parents, leaders, practitioners, and volunteers I oftentimes wonder if we’re focusing on the right things. We may have the most conducive and dynamic ministry space, the most excellent volunteer teams, the best curriculum on the market, or the latest and greatest in technology, but at the end of the day if our kids trade knowing God for a knowledge of God, and have no idea how to listen and hear His voice, then I believe we’ve missed the mark.
Right now, I’d like us to focus specifically on small groups and the key role of a small group leader or Sunday school teacher. With these key leaders in mind, Catherine Stonehouse gives us a quote that is essential for us to ponder and wrestle with. She says,
“Children are born with the potential for spiritual exercises, and God is the one who stimulates the activation of that potential. We have the privilege of becoming partners with God by assisting children in finding what they long for—experiencing God. A child’s encounter with God is not in the control of parents or teachers. We may provide a place, stories, and materials for the children. The form of religion and the relationship with God that they observe in us may influence some of their perceptions. But their relationships with God will not be cookie-cutter versions of ours, because God initiates the experience with the children, and they process, experience, and respond uniquely.”
This quote reveals three key components we must keep in mind as we lead small groups and minister to kids. First, it is God who initiates the relationship and awakens the heart. We see this initiation in Genesis 3 when God went looking for Adam and Eve. We still see this today as God awakens and captures the heart of His people towards relationship with Him. Yet, we quickly forget that this is God’s role and we take it upon ourselves.
Secondly, if God is the initiator, our primary job is to become a partner—to attentively join with Him as He forms the inner heart of the child. You and I are not meant to take the lead in the spiritual formation process, but are invited to join Him and be used by God along the way.
Lastly, as we join with what God is doing in the life of a child, our role then practically becomes creating environments where God through His Holy Spirit can meet with and bring about the formation process. By doing this, we provide kids with what they long for most—to experience God.
As we embark in creating these environments, we have the same goal that Paul had in Galatians 4:19 where he said, “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you.” It is vital that we be mindful of two potential pitfalls.
The first is that the soul learns differently than the mind. We’ve made the goal of too many ministries, and especially our small group times, about information. We have adopted a modern approach to education when it comes to training the soul. In many ways we have defined success by a set of learning objectives where the kids in your small groups can recite the books of the Bible, or we ensure that everyone knows what type of wood Noah’s ark was made of. The pitfall here is not the information, but what we do with it. Do we allow the information to lead to a place of relationship with God? Or, do we simply stop short and define success by making scripture a bunch of facts and figures to be memorized? Information is vital … God’s Word is vital … but are we using it to create an environment where kids can know God, trust God, and be in relationship with Him through it?
The second major pitfall for our small groups is to simply have them focus on behavior or right living, where behavior modification or sin management (as Dallas Willard refers to it) becomes our priority. If this is our main objective, we are essentially creating little Pharisees … whitewashed tombs that look great on the outside but are missing the life Jesus intended for them altogether—life to the full. What we see in scripture is radically different from this. The call is to remain in the vine (as we see in John 15) and to keep our focus on Jesus (as we see in Hebrews). Once in that place, the relationship will produce much fruit. As small group leaders this is a tension we must always remember.
We can’t define success by focusing solely on information, nor can we define success by focusing on behavior modification. Our aim is to join what God is doing by: (1) receiving information, (2) allowing that information to inform who God is, (3) talking and interacting with Him, (4) learning what it means to trust Him, and (5) understanding how each person can hear from Him. Then, from this relationship, allow the Holy Spirit to be the One who brings about transformation. That will happen as He produces evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and forms each child to look more and more like Christ.
In assessing your small group time with kids, do you error more on informational and behavioral? Or do you allow information to flow into relationship and relationship to produce transformation?
A theologian and professor, Jon Westerhoff, studied how we encounter and experience God developmentally throughout our lives. His research showed that in childhood, children primarily came to encounter and experience God in two ways—through the faith community (parents, small groups teachers, friends) and through direct revelation by God Himself.
Considering Westerhoff’s research and confirming our primary goal is to facilitate environments where kids can be in an experiential relationship with God, we found it essential to establish three main goals for every small group time with kids.
3 Goals of Small Group Time
- Create intentional time and space for each child to dialogue, process, observe, and experience what it means to know God.
- Ensure that each child leaves their small group feeling more known and more loved.
- Engage parents in the spiritual formation process of their children.
As these goals lay the foundation of our time in small groups, the small group leaders must be resourced in a way that prepares them to lead and helps them in the process. The following list serves as a constant reminder and provides areas where further growth and development is continually needed within small groups.
- Be attentive. Where is the Holy Spirit at work within a kid or your group? Join Him there.
- Stop teaching and get your kids talking. People understand what you say. They remember what they say. They own what they discover. They act on what they own. We desire a generation that owns their faith.
- Ask open-ended questions. Propose questions that are marked by a genuine curiosity, attentive listening, and a willingness to risk and ask the next follow-up question.
- Withhold application. Before jumping to application, let the kids flex their “prayer muscles”, asking God to inform their next steps or how they should apply scripture. God loves to meet with His kids. Our job is to help them apply all that He is telling them.
- Create a safe place for kids to come out of hiding. Faith and relationship with God is oftentimes messy. Are you willing to be in it with them, modeling the way?
- Don’t forget Mom and Dad. Nothing will be more beneficial than partnering with parents and placing kids with their spiritual parents.
- You’re not alone. The Spirit of the Living God is within you. Trust, listen, and depend on Him.
Altogether these observations and teachings can serve as the basis for transformational small groups. The desire is to create small groups on Sunday mornings, mid-week, or in the home where environments are established that simply let kids get to meet with Jesus. Whether you are a pastor, ministry leader, parent, or small group leader, you have the unique opportunity to put these elements into practice and introduce kids to what they long for most—a real experiential relationship with their Creator. To this end may you never grow weary and never loose hope.
Kit Rae is the co-campus pastor at ROCKHARBOR Church in Costa Mesa, CA. He loves playing with his two kids Ryder (3) and Eden (1), avoids Kit Kat candy bars at all costs, and loves a good iced Americano.