It is time to seriously consider the faith experiences and spirituality of children. These topics have been neglected by theologians and theoreticians for far too long. Butespecially in the past five yearsscholars and researchers have begun to produce work that paints a rich and full picture of children's spirituality that is informed by church history, grounded in theology, and motivated by an increasing understanding of children.
Two new books contribute to this growing field. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity by O. M. Bakke (Fortress Press) and Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents by Rich Lusk (Athanasius Press), both published in 2005, consider the faith of infants and children using biblical texts and sources of church history, implicitly raising sociological and anthropological questions for the reader.
Bakke, a church historian in Norway, begins his examination of children and childhood in the early church and continues through the patristic writings. He uses data from both Christian and non-Christian sources from A.D. 100-500 to draw attention to the fact that Christians, from the time of Jesus on, apparently viewed and treated children differently than did the surrounding dominant cultures. He explores the difference Christianity made in the view and treatment of children in that era.
On the other hand, Lusk is a Presbyterian pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, writing to today's "covenant" parents. He seeks to encourage them to be vigilant and faithful in their covenantal parenting task, because "the promises of God to our children apply even from the point of conception," and to clarify the issue of "whether or not infants of Christian parents can have faith." Lusk argues from the Psalms and the Gospels and then the Reformersfrom Calvin on to contemporary Reformed writersthat the covenant promises of Scripture are no different for children than for adults.
Children in the early church
Bakke wisely informs the reader that ancient patristic sources were almost exclusively written by educated, elite males and tended to be prescriptive rather than descriptive of actual practice. Still, the first section of his book addresses the fact that the Greco-Roman culturethe non-Christian cultureoften allowed the harsh and immoral treatment of children.
The second half of the book underscores Christian views and practices during that period. He notes that until the fifth century, some Christian subcultures apparently viewed children as innocent or at least "morally neutral," though incomplete. Yet other groups of early Christians believed there was no apparent difference between children and adults regarding their relationship to God. Some took it for granted that children had the necessary ability for practicing a comprehensive life of religious devotion.
The longest chapter in When Children Became People addresses the need seen in early Christendom to make or form children as "athletes of Christ." The Christian education of children was expected to result in obedience, with parents being the prime educators. Indications are that Christian and pagan children were schooled in the same settings, but Christian children were expected to reject teachings that did not support their faith. Children also were active participants in ancient corporate Christian worship.
"Christian theology and ethics protected children's life in a way not found in the Greco-Roman world," Bakke says. Children were significant to the patristic writers, says Bakke, though there is no theological consensus regarding children, nor is there evidence that their first consideration was what was best for children. The fact that the patristic writers had so much to say about children, even infants, indicates their concern. Fifty pages of footnotes attest to the depth of Bakke's own concern for the subject.
The Covenant Child
Though both authors explore historical aspects of children's spirituality, Lusk, in eight compact chapters, approaches the task through a different process. He starts with an unapologetic assumptionthat paedofaith is grounded in the covenant promises of Scripture. (Paedo is the British spelling of the prefix referring to child.) After expounding passages from the Psalms (especially Psalm 22) and the Gospels, Lusk recognizes the "mystery" of paedofaith in that the intellectual level of the child, even an infant, cannot limit their "knowing" the Spirit of God. God is, after all, sovereign and unlimited in ability. Lusk describes paedofaith as "relational trust," just as it is for adults, though not all infant faith (which he calls "seed faith") is persevering faith.
Next Lusk, after introducing Calvin and others, discusses the eternal destiny of infants who die. He argues for the covenantal position but also presents the views of the revivalist tradition. Along with paedofaith, he discusses paedobaptism and paedocommunion. Lusk shares the story of a 5-year-old explaining why she went to the Lord's Table: "To say hi to Jesus." This is a delightful response, in Lusk's view, to the oft-assumed superiority of a more intellectual explanation. Lusk also addresses Christian parents for whom a crucial task is to identify their role in developing their children's faith: Is it a calling for conversion or for discipleship? From the covenant position, not surprisingly, it is a call to discipleship. Lusk instructs covenant parents that infant faith is to be expected and that they should consider their children to be Christians.
Challenges for today's churches
Both Bakke and Lusk provide helpful resources for understanding children's spirituality from a Christian perspective. Bakke defends the unique sensitivities of childhood that need to be protected, while Lusk points out how he views children and adults as theologically comparable. Today's children's minister needs to read Bakke's work seeking relevant insightsasking questions such as: Does Christian faith make a difference in the life of today's children? In what ways, if any, does the church view children differently than the popular culture? How is the church equipping parents to help children obey and be able to resist contemporary culture? Lusk forces the reader to wrestle with the concept of faith in children, whether or not it is possible and, if it is, what is the nature and quality of that faith.
The implicit issues raised in these books make an impact on life in the faith community, since every theology has a corresponding sociology. As Lusk outlines Reformed covenantal theology, the reader begins to see that churches adhering to a conversional approach will systemically view children and their participation within that community very differently than churches with a covenantal theology. Do these differences need to be resolved? If so, how? Scripture does not definitively describe how a child comes to faitharguments from the text can be made for several views. This topic is especially significant because of the spate of independent, non-denominational churches today that have no tradition upon which to rely, so each individual church must decide what position to hold regarding children. How should that decision be made? What questions should be asked? What difference does it make?
Lusk also questions the effect of rationalism on assumptions made about children's faith. Christian education adopted a schooling model a couple of centuries ago, and this model implicitly teaches that knowledge is essential to faith. With Lusk's explanation of faith as "relational trust," that relationship is somewhat of a mystery, defying intellectual explanation. "One doesn't understand a mystery; one experiences it." On this point, Lusk concurs with the findings of several researchers in children's Christian spiritualitythat children need to know God, to experience God, before (or at least at the same time as) learning about God. What might this mean for parents and church ministries? Evangelical churches are experienced in teaching children about God, but do these churches help children experience God?
The historical perspective of Bakke's work begs the question of the effect of today's contemporary culture on Christian education and the church's children. The church seems to be looking around more and more at cultural practices for ministries with children. Generations ago, contests and prizes were introduced into children's Christian education. More recently, children's ministers have begun to emulate contemporary media in order to attract children to their church's programs. In many settings, the leadership now realizes that a "wow"-filled program for children is an effective way to entice parents to attend, often resulting in rapid church growth. All too often, this is an uncritical adoption of current cultural practices with children. As Bakke mentions, it makes one wonder if seeking what is best for children has been abandoned for the sake of what children seem to want.
Children's spirituality is currently receiving considerable attention by researchers in academic circles. Numerous theologically grounded and theoretically sound books addressing issues of children's faith are being published. Both Bakke and Lusk cite The Child in Christian Thought, edited by Marcia Bunge, a book that fills in the thousand-year gap between the patristic writings and the Reformation and beyond. There are also focused conferences addressing the issues of children's spirituality. One example is the second triennial Children's Spirituality Conference: Christian Perspectives, which meets this June in the Chicago area. At this conference, approximately 500 scholars and practitioners will consider research findings and ministry models relevant to the spiritual formation of children. The tide is turning indeed.
The works of Bakke and Lusk aid the study of children and faith. There is progress, but more work must be done before we adequately understand children's faith and their ability to relate to God. Scholars must engage practitioners in ways that enable theology and theory to inform practice. Until then, two things will undoubtedly help all parents and children's ministers: Watch and listen to the child. Watch the child; watch closely to see what evokes wonder and awe in the child. And listen to that child; listen carefully as the child attempts to speak of things for which she or he may not yet have words. Then, when the child asks, it is time to teach.
Scottie May is assistant professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College and co-author of Children Matter.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Paedofaith: A Primer on the Mystery of Infant Salvation and a Handbook for Covenant Parents is available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.
When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity and Children Matter are available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
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