The children I meet with at Haven House are often unchurched.1 What these children know about God is comprised of what they’ve gleaned from popular culture, what they’ve heard others say and do, the children’s interactions with their dominant parent and the ways they’ve experienced the Spirit themselves. The Spirit reaches out to children in many different ways, but the three I will mention here are: goodness, beauty, and truth. There is nothing good, beautiful or true in the world that didn’t originate or come from God. Nothing. Not one thing. Where there is goodness, beauty or truth, you can bet God’s fingerprints are all over it.

So when children who have little language for God or knowledge of God sit with me in spiritual direction, I ask them when or where they have experienced goodness, beauty or truth.

Often I hear stories like,

I was walking home and there was a huge beautiful tree and the branches of the tree reminded me of arms that were reaching up protecting me. So I sat in the shade for a while.”

At this school I don’t have any friends and I wish I could skip lunch. But today, a girl in my third period class sat by me and shared her chips.”

It’s not that we were doing anything so bad, but I felt bad about it. I felt like, Whew!” when Jane (an adult) came in and said we couldn’t do that anymore.”

Do you remember when you told me to ask God for what my heart really wanted and I wanted to stay here and not move on — so I told God so. Well, guess what? We are staying!”

Sometimes when I’m having a bad school day, I go swing. I can feel the wind all around me and it makes me feel not so freaked out. I talk to whoever, the Wind, and I think I can hear someone saying, I love you.’”

These are excerpts of stories I hear regularly from children. Rest assured these children are in good company. Samuel heard God call his very own name (1 Sam. 3:1 – 10). The Quaker Abolitionist, John Woolman wrote in his journal, “…before I was seven years old I began to be acquainted with divine love.”2 Twelfth century Christian Mystic, activist and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena had her first mystical vision at seven years old in which she saw Jesus with Peter, Paul and John.3Teilhard de Chardin’s spiritual seeking began when he was five. More recently, in her dissertation research on Emergent Church Leaders, Lori Haynes Niles, found that all of the leaders had some experience of God when they were children.4

Clearly children are experiencing the touch of the Spirit. This brings us back to our original question: How do we, adults, work with the Spirit, who is already working?”

Three Steps to Fostering a Child’s Life with God:

  1. Listen
  2. Acknowledge
  3. Encourage

Ask open-ended questions. Forgo the Yes-or-No question in favor of ones that encourage sharing. Questions like:

  • When did you see goodness or beauty today?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you heard God speak to you or when you told God something?
  • When is a time when you knew everything was going to be okay?
  • Tell me about something that happened that made you so happy.
  • When did you feel very safe?

Create a safe space for the telling of her or his story. This means suspending judgment in favor of hearing. There are times to teach and correct, but don’t do it at this time. Just be present and listen.

In someway communicate that you have heard. Retell what you heard and ask if you retold it correctly. Make sustained eye contact. Ask curious questions, not to evaluate or judge, but to understand better. The action of acknowledging conveys honor and respect. The telling and retelling of our experiences with God form us. It reinforces the memory and helps children to recognize the movement of the Spirit when it happens again.

Offer an affirmation that says, I hear you and am excited about what God is doing in your life.” This may be something simple like a hug and a Wow, God really does love you.” In your encouragement invite the child to respond to God. Eli did. Eli encouraged Samuel to say, Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” You might invite a response to God through prayer by drawing or dancing or singing. Perhaps just practice with this young one in whom God dwells and delights breathing a heart felt, Thank you.”

  1. Haven House is a transitional facility for homeless families in Olathe, Colorado. ↩︎
  2. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, p.23. ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. Lori Haynes Niles, Understanding the Experiences of God through the Lives of Emergent Church Leaders” (Ed.D. diss., George Fox Evangelical Seminary, 2006). ↩︎

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

Text First Published July 2017 · Last Featured on June 2023