We’ve been told that we should have a child-like faith. But what does that mean? How can an interpretation of this idealized child be harmful to children and adults?
The Ideal Child (Part 1 of 3)
We should have faith like a child. Children are the future of the church. We want more children in our church.
These, and statements like these, are common in our congregations. While they are not wrong (completely), they can certainly be misconstrued and used poorly. Over the next three weeks, I’ll be reflecting on what I consider the problem of the “ideal child” that we sometimes subconsciously hold, personally, and in our congregations.
A caveat: My perspective is that of a theologically educated parent of two. I am not an expert in child faith development, that’s why I have extraordinarily experienced Christian education professionals in charge of our product development. My reflections here are against a fairly common (but usually subconscious) tendency to idealize children in our congregations, not specifically about children’s faith development.
People, including parents, can sometimes have two visions of children. First, they can have a realistic view of children from their personal experiences dealing with or observing actual children. Children can be messy, loud, frustrating, and energy-draining. These are not actually signs that children are bad, as I think many are natural developmental behaviors and their interactions with adults. And children can be wonderful, often at the same time.
The second vision is what I think can be problematic. This is when children—or childhood—are idealized. In some instances, this can be seen in nostalgic statements, such as: “I wish they could stay babies forever” and “Enjoy this time (of your children being young) because it flies by.” It’s probably self-deception on my part, but I feel that I’m relatively immune to this as a parent. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) each stage of my children’s development and cherish them. But I have no desire to go backward in time. Like fine wine, my children have improved with age.
Faith Like a Child?
Of more concern to me is how we often hear explained Jesus’ words, such as:
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”Luke 18:17
This is often interpreted as that we should have faith like that of an innocent child. I don’t want to get into different interpretations of this and similar verses. Instead, I’m looking at the potentially problematic results of this common understanding.
If we need to have “childlike” faith, we first need to define what that means. Sometimes, people see this as innocent and unencumbered with doubts and skepticism. This is, of course, not what everyone believes, but I’m not concerned here with what everyone believes (as if there is anything that “everyone” believes).
In my experience, children do not always have an easy faith. They often go along with what their parents or other authority figures tell them to believe. This can be anything from Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, happy endings, perfect parents…and Jesus. As Christians, we see that one of these is not like the other. But do children know this, or are they just going along with what they’re told (even if it’s a well-intentioned lie)?
And, if we idealize the faith of a child, how does this impact our views and treatments of children, consciously or subconsciously? Setting up unrealistic expectations is rarely good for anyone. And if children (child-like-ness) is the ideal, then growing up is a movement away from this ideal. Does rejecting the myth of Santa Claus signal the fall from grace? Are children who struggle with faith broken? From this perspective, getting older and maturing are bad. [Our culture’s unhealthy obsession with youth is a different story and not one I’m going to touch.]
I don’t know if it’s true, but could this relate to one aspect of our congregations’ focus on children’s ministry, often over youth or young adult ministry? It’s something to think about.
I would like to point out one more time that my problem here is with the risks of one potential interpretation of “faith like a child.” This is not a reflection on children’s faith development in general.
Faith Formation Connection
My faith formation connections here are fairly simple and probably obvious to anyone experienced in faith formation: meet your participants where they are, no matter the age. Be aware of any assumptions or idealizations that might be lurking in your subconscious. And be careful how you teach and preach upon Jesus’ statements about children!
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
VBS, Summer, and 2022-2023 Faith Formation Resources
At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we have many resources for your faith formation needs:
- Learning Together: Five-lesson topical units for VBS, Sunday school, children, and intergenerational classes.
- Resources for the Narrative Lectionary (products for all ages)
- Resource for the Revised Common Lectionary (intergenerational classroom)
- Cross+Generational Confirmation
- Worship and Liturgy Education