Scottie May believes children can have a real and growing relationship with Jesus. In Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey (IVP 2010), May and co-author Catherine Stonehouse describe how children express their experiences with and growing understanding of God. They suggest ways that parents and ministers can aid children's spiritual growth. Leadership's Brandon O'Brien interviewed May, associate professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College (Illinois), about how understanding of a child's faith development affects the way we minister.
How do different Christian traditions understand the beginning of a child's faith?
There are fundamental theological differences among faith traditions regarding how children come to faith in Christ. Some churches in the sacramental tradition baptize infants in order to eradicate original sin. Churches in the conversional tradition teach children to accept Jesus as their personal Savior in order to overcome the sin problem. Churches in the covenantal tradition enfold children into the faith community, teaching them the Christian faith until they claim that faith for themselves. Many churches combine these elements and allow children to respond as the Spirit leads, whether through a gradual process or by a point-in-time decision.
How do the different views affect children's ministry?
A key factor can be summarized by prepositions: some churches do ministry to children; others do ministry with children. In my research, I've found that this difference is even more significant than a church's official theological positions. Children that felt as welcome at church as they did in the family home usually came from a faith community that saw them as respected, gifted, valuable members of the Body, and provided opportunities for them to serve and interact with multiple generations. That's ministry with children. Children who grow up in a church that tends primarily to do ministry to children—whether it be infant baptism, confirmation, or praying the sinner's prayer—without these with factors, often develop a distorted, pejorative view of themselves, God, and even life itself.
How else can a church minister with children?
Besides the elements I just mentioned, ministry with children depends a lot on the faith of the parents and how it is lived out in the home. This means that pastors and ministry leaders must help parents be transformed by their own faith so that their children see it. Christian families need to be equipped to practice confession, forgiveness, and celebration corporately as a congregation and at home.
In order to help families do this effectively, church leaders must be willing to break down the age-graded silos that have developed in our churches so that there are times when the whole congregation shares together a life of faith.
What kinds of churches are most successfully ministering with children?
I find that it is usually small churches (under 200), and often ones starting from scratch, that are most intentionally seeing the value of children and the importance of the faith community in their spiritual formation.
What threatens this kind of ministry?
Another preposition: the little word for. Many churches, particularly large churches, do ministry for children. Children sit and watch, often viewing elaborate sets, staging, lights, and music. It seems entertainment based, with "fun" being a high value. Fun is great and important in a kid's life, but not at the cost of diminishing the presence of the living God. A sense of awe and wonder at God's majesty and love has been lost in many churches today.