It’s a typical reaction in workshops with Christian teachers – I usually get some blank stares and very few hands raised when I ask the question, “How many of you have had any training in student faith development stages?” Most or all hands go up when I ask similar questions about study of Piaget, Erikson, or Kohlberg in their college courses. From these kind of anecdotal experiences, one could conclude that teachers in Christian schools have been well versed in Piaget’s cognitive development theories, Erikson’s psycho-social development stages, and Kohlberg’s moral reasoning thoughts in their college courses, but know very little about research relating to children’s spiritual development. It simply has not usually been part of their training.
Yet, if we see our mission in Christian schools and churches to equip students to transform the world for Christ, shouldn’t we at least have a basic understanding of how religious beliefs develop in adolescents, how children perceive God at various ages, what practices are most effective in working with children, how parental images impact children’s thinking, and even what types of differentiation may be needed to challenge children at different stages? What is our understanding of how children’s faith has been perceived and developed throughout history by church leaders and what recurrent themes and practices may be seen and built on to instruct our experience? (Marcia Bunge’s book, The Child in Christian Thought is an excellent resource here.) What can we learn from contemporary leaders such as Kenda Creasy Dean, Chap Clark, Catherine Stonehouse, Craig Dykstra, and others as to how to best engage adolescents and encourage their faith?
We live in a time when our understanding of child/youth development is still emerging and changing. When we see the seriousness and trust of youthful faith expressed by our children in our Children in Worship settings at church or in worship experiences at Christian schools, we gain respect for the level of faith and engagement with the Spirit that our kids demonstrate. Our level of respect for kid’s capabilities continues to grow when we see them mastering areas such as language acquisition or technological proficiency at very early ages. I hope we are moving toward seeing children as real people, rather than in ways that underestimate or diminish who God has created them to be.
While some would argue we live in a culture that is too child centered, our lack of understanding and desire for study of children in this critical aspect of better understanding faith development may ultimately diminish our effectiveness in nurturing their faith and meeting our missions. We need to demonstrate positive attitudes toward children that will serve to counteract a society that views children as consumers to be manipulated, economic burdens to be endured, or as aliens we must fear in the teen years. If we are taking seriously our responsibility to train teachers in the best discipline knowledge and professional pedagogical practices, then let us also give our teachers working in Christian education the kind of training they need in our colleges and seminaries around how students develop spiritually. In the end it is what matters most.
*(For an explanation and definition of Faith Enhancing Practices see my post of February 3, 2007 entitled “What’s the difference between teachers?”) If you are interested in seeing all 12 Faith Enhancing Practices modules at once, you can go to the Member Community Center and access them there.