In the early Church, there was a group of Christians known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers. To escape the frenzied pace and cultural warp of Roman times, these ammas and abbas withdrew to the wilderness of Egypt and Syria. Their aim was total, loving surrender to God, and they experimented with ways to overcome anything that got in the way of that goal. Their life stories and words of wisdom have been a source of guidance for Christians ever since.

Six years ago I started a little experiment. I began a conversation (in my imagination) with these Mothers and Fathers of the desert — asking them for a word” of wisdom on an unlikely topic: how to help children form an enduring and beautiful friendship with God. Something about the parental nomenclature of amma and abba, plus their prophetic vision and determination made me think their wisdom — ancient and remote as it may seem — could help us respond to the challenges facing today’s kids.

The spiritual wellbeing of children is our corporate responsibility — not just parents and ministers, but the whole faith-family of the Church. We need to be wise shepherds to the youngest in our flocks. The Desert Parents can give us a clear view of spiritual dangers and open our minds to new strategies.

The Danger of Distraction

During a recent visit to our favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant, we sat in a booth surrounded by three wide screen TVs, with clashing images from three different shows. Neon signs flashed over the bar to our left, and behind us the constant shuffle of people and menus and cash register sounds played in the background. Our waiter wiped sweat from his forehead as he hurried between noisy tables with crying toddlers and birthday party guests.

A friend spotted us and stopped by our table to say hi. She could see Henry, my 9 year old, was glued to a basketball game on one screen so she asked him which team he was pulling for. He didn’t answer. He didn’t even acknowledge her question. Henry,” I said, waving my hand in front of his glazed eyes, did you hear Ms. Kim asking you a question?” He half nodded. I apologized to the friend, but she laughed it off. I get it!” she said, these screens are tough competition.”

Competition is exactly the right word. The great rivalry of our day is between the forces that vie for our attention. Not just in bustling restaurants, but in the plugged-in and decked-out environments of school, home, and church, we are inundated with sights and sounds and hypnotic technology.

The atmosphere is hard on us and devastating for our kids. Shorter attention spans, poor interpersonal skills, and epic anxiety levels are some of the side effects in today’s young people. But the most serious threat chronic distraction poses is its ability to drown out the still, small” ways that God reveals himself and communicates with his children of all ages.

Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in contemporary culture,” writes Richard Foster.1 When we are distracted we bob around on the surface of life in a million directions and cannot enter deep, focused communion with our Maker. What hope can there be for our children in such a climate? When attention-grabbing forces keep growing exponentially? When tech companies specifically aim to override their users’ self-control? The struggle has an epic, powers and principalities” edge that we can’t ignore.

But we are never without hope. Every enemy of our spirits and our children’s spirits can be overcome with the help of God. We need God’s wisdom about how to help little ones build the capacity for sustained attention that is so crucial to a flourishing life with God.

A Word from the Desert

One of the simplest lessons the desert Christians can teach us is that our surroundings can help or harm our spiritual health. If your focus is fractured, seek a change in environment.

For the desert mothers and fathers, retreat to the desert was a desperate attempt to kill the things that are killing us,” as patristics scholar Chris Hall puts it.2 They recognized that some environments dull our senses and our hunger for God, while other environments sharpen them. Where our attention goes, our hearts follow.

Abba Moses famously said Go, sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” How can inanimate space teach? It provides the physical conditions in which we are able to hear God and participate in the soul-training exercises he has for us. Space can reshape our appetites and be a counterpoint to the muchness and manyness” of the world.3 This is one of the reasons the early Christian monks sought the desert and made simple cave dwellings their homes. Here they found a space that supported deep, focused communion with Holy God.

The backdrop matters. This is a basic truth we’ve more or less incorporated in adult formation. But there’s a recurring gap in the spiritual formation movement when it comes to applying wisdom for life with God to what we do with children. For some reason we are still more likely to take our cues from cultural patterns than from what we’ve experienced as disciples.

Maybe it’s because we find it hard to translate this wisdom into the realm of childhood. You can’t very well send a child off on a solo retreat, or tell them Stay in your room and your room will teach you everything.” (Although kids need the opportunity to visit expansive, natural settings like deserts and coastlines. And I am a big believer in prescribing alone time for kids. Much creativity and self-awareness grows in the soil of childhood solitude and even boredom).

With a little creative thinking, we can adapt the desert dwellers’ principles of space to our shepherding work with little ones. We aren’t imitating the particulars of the desert landscape so much as the qualities of the space.

Looking at Children’s Spaces with Our Desert Friends

If we could invite the Desert Parents to peek over our shoulder at the spaces where we hope to nurture children’s souls, what would they see? The answers will be different for each reader, but I believe there are some general, cultural trends we can observe. Imagine we are looking together with the abbas and ammas at a typical Sunday school room, for example. What have we done well? What do we need to change?

Maybe on the plus side we could say that our lavish and expensive rooms show how highly we value our little ones. While big spending misses the mark of what children need, high regard for children is a good thing.

But beyond that, do you see a space where kids can form meaningful connections with God and others, and build skills for a life of communion and discipleship?

Notice the loud colors, the walls cluttered with posters and decorations. Notice things that flash, beep, or glow. What are the toys and objects and furnishings selected for the room and what purpose do they serve? What has been omitted from the space? What are the objects in the room made out of? What do they symbolize?

Often, our spaces expose an underlying assumption that children thrive in environments loaded with sensory stimuli. Maybe we assume that to compete with the cacophony of entertainment elsewhere and hook” kids into church we need to pump louder music and flash brighter special effects. But is this approach helping children enjoy life-long fellowship with the Trinity? Or is it only reinforcing poor habits of attending to the loudest and flashiest thing?

I want to offer two simple, wisdom-honed guidelines for creating spaces that support a child’s connection with God. They can be accomplished with any budget and any size or shape of space.

1. Pare down

In general we have way too much going on in our spaces for kids. The way to help children have fellowship with God in an increasingly distracted world is not to imitate the world but to create counterpoints to that chaos, where children can catch their breath.

Edit down the number of objects in the room. Limit the color palette. Remove screens — especially personal handheld devices, which can become a substitute for intimacy that is brutally isolating. Turn down the volume. See if you can sweep the whole space clean of all unnecessary clutter and overstimulating elements. The space should help children answer the question: Where should I focus?

The goal isn’t to completely shield children (or ourselves) from visual and auditory noise which we will encounter if we choose to live in the world,” but to allow a child’s beleaguered attention to rest and refocus.

2. Curate

Once our space is cleared out, we can introduce visuals and sounds that support story, discovery, prayer, awe, and worship. Imagine that you are the curator of a museum selecting just a few pieces that will help children understand God and His kingdom and invite them to interact with God. Don’t bring out your whole collection all at once… rotate the exhibits. Let things from nature shine — a collection of shells or a branch whose buds are just opening to the light. Make it ordinary, not spectacular. Remember that loving attention to God thrives when we learn to hear God’s vocabulary” in the small as well as in the big.

Practically speaking, what furnishings will support what we are trying to do? Sound-muffling carpet and fabric hangings, comfortable and homey elements that invite reading and resting in God’s presence, spots to connect with other kids, and surfaces where they can process faith stories in creative ways and investigate evidence of God’s goodness all around.

The space should help kids answer these questions: What is God drawing my attention to? How does God speak?

Shocking but Good

I once visited a boy scout camp just outside of New York City. Driving out of the boroughs and over the bridge, the billboards and traffic gradually subsided and a 143-acre oasis appeared.

A light rain was falling as an elderly camp patron gave my family a little off-season tour of the property. He showed us cabins and a lake, and he told us a bit about the troops from the city that come here for retreat.

I’m not a New Yorker, but I could guess what a contrast this place would be for a born-and-bred city kid. I imagined it would be a great gift — but I hadn’t considered that it would also be a challenge until our guide said something that struck a chord for me. It takes about 48 hours for the kids to relax,” he explained. A lot of them are really tense at first… frightened, I guess. If you’ve never experienced silence before, it can come as quite a shock.”

The principles of space that the desert dwellers commend to us can come as quite a shock. But it’s a shock that functions for our good — resuscitating our frenzy-worn souls and awakening our senses to the invisible Presence of God.

Stepping into this wisdom could look as simple as taking kids outside with beach towels and spreading out on a lawn with enough space and distance from the world’s distraction to notice a cardinal or wonder at an ant’s determination.4 It can look as simple as paring down our indoor gathering spaces. It ought to include thoughtful curation that opens little windows into the kingdom of God. We have very little control over the world around us, but with effort and wisdom we can carefully use space to help our children come away from the world’s distraction to connect with God. 

  1. Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster. Preface to the special anniversary edition. ↩︎
  2. Desert Spirituality, the Atonement, and Spiritual Formation.” Lecture by Dr. Christopher A. Hall at the Experiencing Life with God Academic Conference hosted by the Dallas Willard Center at Westmont College in May 2018. ↩︎
  3. Celebration of Discipline, Chapter 2: The Discipline of Meditation. ↩︎
  4. It’s said that Yared, the 7th century father of Ethiopian hymnody, had given up on learning, until one day he watched an ant ascend a tree branch after 6 failed attempts. According to hagiography, this tiny creature’s victory inspired Yared to go back to his studies, eventually becoming the first person in history to develop a system of musical notation. ↩︎

Art: Charlotte and the Turtle, by Charles R. Pate. Oil on canvas. Used with permission.

· Last Featured on April 2023