Robert Fulgrum, in his poem “All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten,” says that wisdom for living, doing and being was not found at the top of a graduate school mountain, but rather in a sand pile at Sunday School.
In kindergarten, Fulgrum learned to share, play fair, not to hit people, put things back, not to steal, ask for forgiveness, be creative, find time for rest, be aware of his surroundings, stick together and to be aware of wonder. Children that learn and internalize the lessons of justice, respect for others, care for their environment, reconciliation, self-care, collaboration and wonder grow to see and act in the world with trust, hope and goodness.
Erik Erikson, a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst famous for coining the phrase “identity crisis,” believed that children learn how to trust or distrust the world in the first 18 months of their lives based on the environmental conditions in which they are nurtured. If a child is nurtured in a loving and secure environment, they learn to trust the world. Children that start off in life with a trusting view of the world develop a secure sense of self. By the age of 6, they develop a sense of purpose and the confidence to take initiative. By age 12, they form industry and a growing sense of self-confidence that motivates their learning and performance. By age 20, they are fully secure in their sense of self and ready to enter into lasting relationships with people, causes, institutions and creative efforts. On the other hand, if children are nurtured in an environment of violence and instability, they learn to mistrust the world. The distrust turns into shame and self-doubt by the age of just 3.
Research shows that 80 percent of the people in our churches today made a commitment to follow Jesus by age 18. Fifty percent of them decided to follow Jesus before the age of 12. It becomes rarer and more difficult for a person to make a decision to follow Christ after the age of 18. That is why we must continue to focus our energies and resources on reaching and teaching the children in every place.
When we reach the children, we connect with their relational networks. The business world knows that children are relationally tethered to other siblings, to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. If you do not believe it, just ask to see the marketing strategy of amusement theme parks, fun-oriented cruise companies, youth sporting leagues, or the marketing plan for the fast-food, gaming-software and movie industries. Businesses know that if they can reach and get the children, they get the interested participants from the child's network of relationships.
Reaching and spiritually forming children with the gospel and seeking their whole welfare in our communities is a key strategic missional initiative for the Great Plains Conference. Intentional ministry with the children in our congregations and in our communities gets to the core of our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ that trust God so that the next generation will know and tell about the wonders of God grace and love to their children’s children (Psalm 78:6-7).
Each context within our Great Plains mission field varies in opportunities to reach and disciple children. However, with prayerful discernment and congregational support, we can all find ways that fit our context to intervene early in the lives of children in our communities to build transformative relationships with them in “all places.” We can do this as an elementary school reading mentors, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts leaders, Sunday school teachers, directors for children’s church dramas and choirs, after-school program organizers and volunteers, mid-week Bible teachers and backyard kids Bible club organizers. In these ways, and others, we can support and positively influence the spiritual and social development of the next generation. We must be respectful but intentional and innovative in our efforts to create inviting and welcoming discipleship pathways that bring children beyond outside the walls of our church into the life of the church and into faith in Christ before age 12.
Jesus valued the faith of a child, and it is indeed the innocent faith of children that can lead entire families to faith. Children are super-evangelists and relational drivers. They can teach their parents the things they learned through the ministry of the church. Eventually, Christ will break through to the whole family and bring them to faith. Children have faith, and their prayers can move mountains.
It was crucial for the future of God's life-giving influence on individuals and societies that the hearts and minds of children be informed with attitudes and knowledge of God's precepts (Deuteronomy 6:1-9). Cultivation of faith began in the home and continued through the shared faith of the people and through religious life and instruction. It is also crucial today that the principles and attitudes of personal piety and social holiness in the Wesleyan tradition that will help shape our future also will be taught, and we should begin with the youngest of children.
One of my guiding missional principles when I pastored a local church was undergirded by Matthew 19:13 – “One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them.” – In Spanish, the saying is, Cuando tocas la cabeza de un nino, tocas el corazon de un padre. That is, “When you lay your hand (by drawing near and blessing) on a child’s head (mind and as a whole, dignified and accepted person), you touch the heart of a parent.” Our mission is to transform the world. And we are right to invest our time, energy and passion for working to resolve existing social problems.
We are faithful and right to commit our time, energy and passion for working to address existing symptoms and concerns in our society. But if we are going to transform the world really, our vision must include the intentional spiritual formation of the next generation of citizens who will know and trust God and who live out of the truth, beauty and goodness of Christ.
Let’s keep a hand on the present issues and concerns of our day, but let us also keep an eye toward the future. Bless the children in your mission fields by finding respectful and context-sensitive ways to share your faith, your knowledge, your accompaniment and your care with the children so that the next generation may know.
En el Camino … On the Path
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr.