The Contemplative-Reflective Model
To watch a group of children gathered in hushed reverence because they sense the presence of the holy is an experience not soon forgotten. In a contemplative environment the careful observer is able to watch the children transition from ordinary time and space to a special time and space that reveals deep contentedness on their faces and in their posture. This transition does not happen quickly but rather subtly. It seems as if the spirit of the child is communing with the Spirit of God. The Contemplative-Reflective Model of children's ministry seeks to facilitate experiences such as these.
The aim of the Contemplative-Reflective Model of children's ministry is this: to help children encounter God in ways that result in a sense of awe and wonder, to help them consider things of God with continued attention. The model seeks to assist them in finding the quiet place within themselves—a place that all children have—where they can sense the presence of God and hear his voice.
What is a Contemplative-Reflective Model? What would it look like? Is it possible for children to contemplate, or is it even desirable? A helpful starting place for exploring these questions is to define the word contemplation. According to Oxford English Dictionary, to contemplate means "to give long and attentive consideration, especially of spiritual matters." In a similar vein, to meditate means "to focus one's thoughts or to ponder, to engage in contemplation." As the dictionary defines these words, in ordinary usage, the two words are essentially interchangeable.
Scripture does not directly contain the word contemplate but makes references through equivalent words. Meditate and meditation are used numerous times. Genesis 24:63 states that Isaac went into the field at night to meditate, but it does not describe the process he undertook. The book of Psalms contains more than 75 percent of the "meditate" references in the Bible. It is obvious that meditation was a significant part of David's spiritual life. Psalm 119 is especially rich in those references. Yet none of the references involves children.
Therefore, one might conclude that the words children and contemplation do not belong in the same sentence. The past experiences of many may deem a Contemplative-Reflective Model as incongruous with each other because children are assumed to have short attention spans, to be unable to reflect, and to be uninterested in spiritual matters. But perhaps those people have acted on assumptions based on what children say they want rather than carefully observing what the children actually long for—yearnings for which most children do not have words. In fact, children indeed are spiritual beings and are able to engage in deep reflection even as young as preschool age.
Why should awe and wonder, as was mentioned earlier, be goals for children in our ministries? North American children frequently use the word awesome to describe the newest ride at a theme park or the latest electronic game. But when awe and wonder are found in Scripture, they almost always refer to God's laws, his actions, or his character. Advocates of the Contemplative-Reflective Model desire this type of response from children because these advocates have experienced what God is like; they have seen the wonder of his great love (Ps. 17:7).
Additionally, Adrian Van Kaam, in his two-volume work Formative Spirituality, states that "awe has a primordial place in the hierarchy of dispositions of the heart." Awe, he states, is transcendent to sensory perception and has mystery formation as its object. "The disposition of awe may give rise to an experience so profound, fascinating, and overwhelming that it seems to inundate our full field of consciousness." The reader may be asking how Van Kaam's views relate to children's ministry. Hopefully, the relevance will soon become evident.
This chapter introduces and examines a model that is unfamiliar to many. The contemplative approach intentionally creates an environment that enables children to move at a slow pace, in relative quiet, so that they can reflect on a story from Scripture that helps them know who God is. The acceptance and application of the model may be affected by factors such as the tradition of the church, the value a congregation gives to contemplation or meditation, the views of the place of children, and the willingness of church leaders to examine the theological and philosophical foundations of the model.
We begin by considering children's spirituality and some of the references to children in the Bible. We will then review the history of the development of the model, the foundational framework and its unique character; present the implications and outcomes of the model; and describe ways the model has been implemented.
The spiritual nature of the child is one of the prime considerations of this model. Spirituality is complex and multifaceted.In some traditions the concept of the age of accountability lends itself to the erroneous idea that children, before they reach a certain age (an age which differs widely between groups that hold this view), are not spiritual in the sense that they do not have a relationship with God. But spirituality also connotes a broader meaning, in a sense, a universal spirituality, though not all spirituality is Christian. This model validates that all children are spiritual and have the potential for Christian spirituality as do all people.
The word spirituality is hard to grasp with a simple definition since contemporary society uses and misuses it in various ways. Spirituality is described by some as awareness beyond the self, personal or impersonal, and may be named God, a power, or a presence. The spiritual is the nonphysical aspect of self, yet it is related to self in that we are physical beings.
Rebecca Nye, a British researcher of children's spirituality, uses the phrase "relational consciousness" to describe this quality in children. This consciousness possesses an existential awareness, a sensing of mystery, as well as aspects of the value of the meaning of life.
"'Spiritual' is not just something we ought to be. It is something we are and cannot escape, regardless of how we may think or feel about it. It is our nature and our destiny." It is part of our human nature because we are all created by God in his image. The spiritual life may be described as the "sum total of responses which one makes to what is perceived as the inner call of God."Whether Christian or not, "the individual is increasingly aware of a spiritual craving within. He or she is drawn by one of the aspects of being... which leads to a profound personal conviction that one possesses a spark of the Divine."
In the New Testament the most common Greek word for spiritual is pneumatikos, meaning "noncarnal or nonphysical," although the context may lead the reader to deduce accurately that the meaning may indicate godliness, Christlikeness, or the influence of the Holy Spirit. According to Benedict Groeschel, the Franciscan director of an office of Christian Development located in New York, "The center of Christian spirituality is the Incarnate Word of God" in the person of Jesus Christ.
Catherine Stonehouse supports the work of other Christian scholars who regard children as spiritual beings. She writes: "With ease [children] grasp the reality of the transcendent and are even more open to God than many adults.... Children are born with the potential for spiritual experience, and God is the one who stimulates the activation of that potential."
The landmark research of Robert Coles on the spiritual life of children involved intensive interviews of many children spanning several years. He writes the following about the subjects of his study:
To be sure, we talked with a lot of children whose specific religious customs and beliefs came under discussion; but we also talked with children whose interest in God, in the supernatural, in the ultimate meaning of life, in the sacred side of things, was not by any means mediated by visits to churches, mosques, or synagogues. Some were the sons and daughters of professed agnostics or atheists; others belonged to "religious" families but asked spiritual questions that were not at all in keeping with the tenets of their religion. Such children... have expressed visionary thoughts, thoughts sharply critical of organized religion.
Many of these children summarized the effect of their perception of spirituality this way: "It's up to God, not us."
The Christian spirituality of children is nurtured through openness to the Holy Spirit as mediated by life within the faith community. It is strengthened by corporate uses of Scripture, forms of prayer, hymns, ritual and sacraments, retreats, and the cycles of the liturgical year, which include feasts and celebrations. This nurture cannot happen in isolation.
If the context for the child is not Christian, the child still has the quality of spirituality with accompanying questions about life, self, and meaning. The environment then strongly influences the direction that spirituality takes—whether a child finds her or his life in Jesus Christ or not.
Spirituality is an aspect of all children in that they consider and ponder aspects of themselves that are less physical—non-physical concepts that are "other" than themselves. Therefore, a Contemplative-Reflective Model enables the spiritual aspects of the child to be nurtured. When the adults caring for the children are Christian and actively involved in the spiritual life of their community of faith, the children more readily realize the power and vitality of the spiritual. The child is then freer to receive the work of the Holy Spirit.
People often assume that the Bible is a book for adults about adults. This is true, but there are also many references to children in both Old and New Testaments. In fact, Scripture has a surprising number of things to say about children once the reader begins to look for them.
The attitudes of the Lord Jesus toward children are especially significant for this discussion. What he taught the disciples regarding children is relevant to ministry today. All three Synoptic Gospels relate a familiar incident involving a child. As the story begins, the disciples are bickering among themselves about status (Matt. 18:1-6).
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
This scene is also described in Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 9:46-48. Jesus put a child among them. Some translations say he put the child "in the midst of them." His action was a direct response to their initial question. When the disciples asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom?" Jesus immediately gave them a visible illustration by placing a child among them. Clearly he recognized the issue couched in their initial question: their power plays appear to have come from selfishness and pride. Ironically, Jesus uses a child to reveal their spiritual immaturity.
Through his actions and words, Jesus reveals the value he holds for the child as a significant part of the faith community. So precious to God is the child that he uses this little one to teach the disciples by simply placing this child before them. Jesus elevates the lowly status of a child in the culture of his day, and he reveals the value he places on humility over status. Jesus' actions must have stunned the disciples. He has the audacity to tell the disciples to change and become like little children or they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Not only will they not be the greatest; they will not even be part of the kingdom. Christ explicitly states that whoever humbles himself like that child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus continues: "Whoever welcomes a little child... in my name, welcomes me." In so doing, he reveals his heart toward these little ones. It is as if he is saying that the disciples should treat children as they would treat him. How one treats the weakest, most impressionable part of society matters to Jesus. Also, in contrast, if someone neglects or harms one of the children, there will be a just, serious punishment. At another time, while he was praying, Jesus declared praise to his Father because he had hidden certain things from the wise yet revealed them to little children (Matt. 11:25; Luke 10:21). Their attitude was that of childlike trust, enabling him to reveal himself to them easily.
Given Jesus' words and actions, how should we respond to children? We are to include and embrace them just as he did. We are to avoid anything that might cause one of them to sin. We are to welcome children in such a way that they are able to sense the presence of God.
A contemplative approach to ministry with children will facilitate that process, helping to keep the child from a spirituality based solely on "self and parental images," leading them to a spiritual life "derived from an actual encounter with the living God." Since to contemplate means "to look with continued attention and to observe thoughtfully," the environment for this model enables that to happen because the focus is on God himself, often initially through the parable of the good shepherd. The model intentionally guides the child to linger in the story, to gaze upon the good shepherd, to wonder about him.
After beginning with a look at an incident involving Jesus and a child, further insights about children and their spirituality can be gained from other passages of Scripture that refer directly to children. Scripture clearly states that children are sinful (Gen. 8:21), yet there are distinctive qualities about children. They must be carefully taught (Deut. 11:19-21), and they are to gather and learn with adults (31:12). They are also to be present with adults for many aspects of congregational life (1 Chron. 20:13; Ezra 10:1; Neh. 12:43). Several proverbs state that they need discipline and training (Prov. 13:24; 22:6; 23:13), yet even young children can praise God (Ps. 8:2; Matt. 21:15-16).
Although it would be inappropriate to assume that the following examples should be construed as normative, aspects of some of these biblical children's spirituality need recognition. The boy Samuel "grew up in the presence of the Lord" (1 Sam. 2:21b), having been given to the Lord after he was weaned (1:24). In Psalm 22:9, David acknowledges God from birth and declares that he trusted God even as an infant. The prophet Jeremiah realizes that he was appointed by God prior to his birth (Jer. 1:4). John the Baptist, while still in his mother's womb, was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:15) and responded actively when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, greeted Elizabeth, John's mother (1:41). Even Paul was set apart from birth and called by God's grace (Gal. 1:15). And Timothy knew the Scriptures from infancy (from preschool age) that made him wise for salvation (2 Tim. 3:15). The children in the above examples all had encounters with the holy as young children or as yet unborn children.
As demonstrated, Scripture relates the spiritual encounters of several children in biblical times. It also articulates the significant position the Lord Jesus gives children, and there are many references to meditation, awe, and wonder. Biblical support for the Contemplative-Reflective Model may be drawn from this evidence.
The development of an intentionally Contemplative-Reflective Model has taken place over the last century and a half. It begins with the rich, innovative work of Maria Montessori, Italy's first female physician. Born in 1870, she found that the gender bias of the day made it difficult for her to practice medicine in a traditional way. She chose instead to focus on children, specifically mentally retarded children. She established Casa Bambini where she amazed government officials by teaching literacy skills as well as life skills to these children who previously had been "warehoused" in institutions. Her high view of children, including those devalued by the culture, enabled her to envision an educational setting that prepared any child for life and learning. She equipped the learning environment with child-sized furnishings. She developed materials that, after an initial instruction, children could manipulate at their own pace, helping them understand concepts that would otherwise have seemed appropriate for much older children.
A devout Catholic, Montessori also believed that every child is a spiritual being, whole and complete—a belief that was in opposition to the popular position of that day. Her personal faith, her view of children, and the learning principles she was exploring led naturally into religious education. Though not known as a religious educator, she wrote The Child in the Church and Spontaneous Activity and Education, works that lay groundwork for a contemplative approach to ministry with children. Part of her approach was to help children prepare their first communion by harvesting the wheat, baking the bread, and marking the hosts for communion with appropriate symbols. She wrote, "The Montessori Method was furnished with a long-sought opportunity of penetrating deeper into the life of the child's soul, and of thus fulfilling its true educational mission."
Sofia Cavalletti formalized Montessori's approach to religious education though she never met Montessori. The connection happened through Gianna Gobbi, a student of Montessori and a competent Montessori educator in her own right. In the 1950s shortly after Montessori's death, Gobbi was drawn to her friend Cavalletti's ability as a noted Hebrew scholar, skilled in the translation of the biblical text. Cavalletti was not skilled in working with children, nor did she have any interest until Gobbi asked for her help as a Bible scholar. Soon, with Gobbi guiding her in the Montessori approach, Cavalletti began a journey of more than fifty years to help children attain what Cavalletti views as the "real goal of the Christian life: to live a life hidden with God in Christ."
In time she developed Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based, contemplative approach that helps young children meet and fall in love with the good shepherd. The experience happens in an atrium (not a classroom), led by a catechist (not a teacher). The different terminology is intentional because the design and use of space and the role of the adult leader are not typical.
Cavalletti developed three three-year levels: three to six years, six to nine years, and nine to twelve years. Each level has a different focus based on her research as to what most draws the child into the biblical story. For the first level, it is the parable of the good shepherd; for the middle level it is the concept of the vine and the branches; the third level focuses on redemption history. This results in a carefully developed, nine-year curriculum with clear emphases. Though based in Italy, catechesis has been offered in the United States as well as other countries since the late 1970s, primarily in Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches.
Next in the development of a contemplative-reflective approach comes an American-based adaptation of the Montessori-Cavalletti work. Kansas-born Jerome Berryman traveled to Italy in 1971 for advanced Montessori studies. Before this he had been working in Arkansas, and his preschool-age children attended a Montessori school. The approach fascinated him; he wanted to learn more, so he took his young family to Italy to study in the place where the Montessori approach was birthed. That year he met Sofia Cavalletti and began a long-term relationship with her as his mentor/tutor. The result is what he calls Godly Play.
In the late 1980s, Berryman collaborated with Sonya Stewart, producing the helpful book Young Children and Worship that explains their application of the Contemplative-Reflective Model. This useful book contains more than thirty presentations and explains how to implement their approach. Since then, Berryman and Stewart have worked independently. Berryman established the Center for the Theology of Childhood in Houston, Texas. Stewart taught at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Both have continued writing materials for their similar approaches: Stewart with Young Children and Worship; Berryman with Godly Play.
This latter contemplative approach is gaining in popularity in the United States. It requires a less elaborate, more flexible environment than does catechesis. Also, it may be self-taught more readily through the writings of Berryman and Stewart. Catechesis requires extensive training for each level but results in highly qualified, committed catechists.
The principles identified through the thorough work of Montessori, Cavalletti, Berryman, and Stewart enable children's ministers to draw on their insights and shape a contemplative-reflective approach appropriate for their setting.
If the Lord Jesus' instructions to the faith community are to learn from children, to change and become humble as they are, and to welcome children into the congregation, it is critical to examine any ministry approach to make sure it aligns with the mission Christ has given. Many activities, attitudes, and ways of thinking may facilitate what God wants to accomplish, yet there are those which may be counterproductive to what God desires to achieve in children and ultimately in the faith community. There is no perfect model of ministry with children, but our gracious God is at work in lives and in ministries in spite of flawed approaches and human shortcomings.
In the introduction of The Child in Christian Thought, editor Marcia Bunge identifies themes regarding children drawn from Scripture and Christian history. Bunge deduces that children are whole, complete human beings made in the image of God who need instruction and guidance as they are developing; that children are gifts of God to us and are also sinful creatures and moral agents; that children are models of faith for adults; and that they are also orphans, neighbors, and strangers who need justice and mercy.
If Bunge's themes rightly characterize the nature of these little ones, what implications do these themes hold for children's ministry? What tasks lie ahead? What personal work did Jesus model for us in the lives of little ones? What tools must be used in our ministry efforts? The contemplative-reflective approach begins to address some of those questions. As we explore this approach, four issues emerge: (1) We must know the child. (2) We must know the story, and that story must be the center of all that is taught. (3) We must know the culture and the context. (4) We each must know our God. Our approach to these issues determines the manner in which we go about God's work with children.
Because children are different from adults in many ways, they act and react differently from adults in similar settings. Their imaginations are engaged in ways that adults often do not understand. In many church settings, children become restless, exhibiting short attention spans. But sometimes, from my own observations, in settings that are slow and gentle, filled with rich symbols and visual objects, children settle calmly, even reflectively. For the young child, "imagination may be the vehicle of powerful religious experiences."
Language. In the biblical references to specific children mentioned earlier, many of the encounters of the child's spirit with the Spirit of God took place when the child was prelanguage, before articulation of the event was possible. Language is not therefore a precursor to spiritual experience. The emotional component of those experiences must be distinguished from the ability to speak about the experience. Too often spirituality has been associated with correct language. Words and deeds don't always match in religious life. In the same way feelings and experiences are often disconnected from words, especially for children.
In Godly Play, Jerome Berryman writes about the significance of language and experience for the young child. His carefully prepared, contemplative environment seeks to create space to allow children to begin to formulate and ask existential questions at church or at home—questions such as, "What happens when someone dies?" "Mommy, what if you don't come back?" or, "What should I be when I grow up?"
The environment must create opportunity for interplay between experience and language that the child lacks at first. If experiences of God are provided, language to describe those experiences may develop. Language shapes experience, and experience shapes language. But helpful language must be used. The language of religion, of spiritual formation, is the language of mystery and of relationship. As the child enters into symbols, parables, and narratives, the child may experience the presence of God. But language may also be spiritually deforming, introducing fear or mistrust of God or even irrelevance. Language can keep children from drawing closer to God if God is defined with detail and precision; if self is described in conditional terms, such as "if you can be good, then..." or "God doesn't love you when you're naughty"; or if the sense of awe and wonder is not part of worship.
Ways of Knowing. The separation of language from spiritual experience highlights an important distinction between connatural knowing and speculative knowing. Connatural knowing is an encounter with what is to be known. In a way it is the desire to know because of interest, longing, even love of the object. Initially infants learn language and sounds in this manner. Speculative knowing is detached, rational, theoretical, propositional—the more traditional "schooling" approach. It seeks knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
A study showed that children disengage from the learning process if speculative knowing is used extensively in teaching them things of faith. The study suggests purposefully altering traditional religious education by introducing connatural knowing to young children so that they may encounter God rather than initially being taught about him. Consistent early experiences with God may allow the desire to know about God to grow. This proposed sequence of knowing seems to parallel a child's knowing about her parents: connatural knowing comes first, with the desire for speculative knowing gradually coming later. Thus, a relationship with God, certainly the chief goal of children's ministry, might be established with positive emotional grounding.
Other scholars concur with this study, noting that the child's relational experience precedes the development of spiritual narrative. In other words, if a child has a relationship with God first, she or he will in time be able to articulate a faith story. The nonverbal "inner speech" may become the foundation for spirituality. As speech is linked with an internal experience of God, the child is slowly then able to personalize spirituality. The child uses symbols from narratives or a concrete experience as the basis for relational consciousness with Other (God) not unlike the concept of bonding. As the child integrates the meaning of the symbols with circumstances in life, identification with God as Other and with self may take place in relational terms.
The emphasis in recent generations on "speculative" knowing, driven by the assumed importance of cognition for children, demands careful study by practitioners and curriculum developers in children's ministry. David Hay, Rebecca Nye, and Roger Murphy write: "Over the past thirty years the dominance of cognitive developmental theory in the field of religious education has led to a severe neglect of the study of the spirituality of the child and to a distortion of what goes on in the religious education classroom." This undoubtedly is caused in part by the challenge of finding appropriate methodology but also in part by the narrowness of developmental stage theories that come "near to dissolving religion into reason and therefore childhood religion into a form of immaturity or inadequacy."
If cognitive development and facility are viewed as necessary for the spiritual development of children, they also force a question about the faith of mentally retarded children. The logical human conclusion—that mentally challenged children are not able to learn enough about God to really know him—would be most unfortunate and also undoubtedly wrong. For effective formational education to take place in children's ministry, the child must have both connatural and speculative experiences, but, if the research is correct, connatural knowing should happen first regardless of the age of the child or the child's cognitive ability.
Recent ongoing scholarship examines some of the work of noted cognitive theorist Jean Piaget. Piaget argues that a child's early concepts of God are shaped by perceptions of her or his parents, a position that is not fully supported by the current research. Current research suggests that young children have conceptual abilities to reason about God that they do not use regarding humans. The study of Barrett and Richert suggests that children have a "preparedness" or "sensitive" period for learning about God. If their hypotheses are valid, "contrary to common, Piagetian-derived assumptions, it should be possible to teach children about many seemingly sophisticated aspects of theology at a very early age. Particularly, preschoolers seem capable of reasoning about God as an immortal, infallible, super-powerful being.... Teaching children about divine attributes at a young age could have more robust consequences with less investment than at a later stage in development."
Children's Brains. God's design of the human being is amazing. From the newborn infant to the geriatric person, the workings of the body fill one with awe at the work of our Creator. The brain is among the more remarkable organs of the body, and it is the object of increasingly intense study, given the exploratory abilities of recent technology. The two large cerebral hemispheres (neocortex or cerebrum) are familiar to many. Some people reductionistically think that the left hemisphere regulates thinking while the right one influences creativity. Not many are as familiar with the midbrain or limbic system. These three major parts of the brain (sometimes called the triune brain) are interacting with one another all the time.
An interview in Discover, a journal of science, presented the findings of researcher Antonio Damasio, head of neurology at the University of Iowa. Much of his work focuses on the role of the brain and emotions. Damasio, among others, discusses the amygdala, an important part of the limbic system. It plays a crucial role in emotional response and is, in that way, significantly tied to rational decision making. Historically, particularly since the Enlightenment, rationalism has been a dominant aspect of Western society, so much so that emotions are often considered suspect. Emotions do not make the decisions, but they do influence how persons make decisions and how persons feel about the decisions that have been made. According to Damasio, the emotional processing that takes place regarding decisions a person makes is connected to the resulting conviction and also the morals and values used while making that judgment. In addition, and very importantly, this processing cannot be hurried.
Damasio suggests that all parts of the brain do not work at the same speed. The neural pathways associated with cognition have a myelin coating that allows for faster and faster processing through training and experience. Damasio reports that the fibers of the amygdala and other parts of the midbrain are unmyelinated so that the conduction of those impulses is constant and slow. He states, "The risk of emotional neutrality becomes greater and greater as the speed of cognition increases." The implication is that as we develop, we may rely more and more on cognition, and then we risk losing our emotional and moral connections regarding decisions we make. Electronic technology and media enable children to multitask with greater speed and with what appears to be increased efficiency; but if Damasio is correct, that speed comes with the price of short-circuiting emotional connections.
It will be beneficial to look at ways to help children connect emotionally and relationally with God, with other children, and with the significant adults in their lives. These neurological findings shed insight on the role of the midbrain in emotional processing and the need to allow adequate time and space for children to process spiritual things in an unhurried manner even more so than for a cognitive response. Berryman says that an awareness must be developed that recognizes nonverbal limbic responses in children as well as verbal, neocortex (more cognitive) responses because falling in love [with the Lord Jesus] through grace happens through the limbic system, whereas it is spoken about through the left hemisphere of the neocortex.
For generations language has been the focus in ministry with children, relying on the cognitive left hemisphere of the neocortex. In recent decades the creative right hemisphere of the neocortex has received increasing attention. Given Damasio's position about the limbic system presented here, it seems crucial to take seriously the possibility that children's experiences or encounters with God can be facilitated by preparing environments that allow connatural knowing and relational consciousness to emerge. Nye's concept of relational consciousness is powerfully relevant for ministry praxis in the spiritual formation of children. The Contemplative-Reflective Model attempts to have the child's spirituality influence the form ministry takes rather than letting the stage of a developmental construct or a cultural trend shape the ministry.
Repetition and Routine. Another key to understanding children is their fascination and contentment with repetition. Because of this, ritual and symbols can help provide formational stability and familiarity. Have you noticed how little ones love songs, rhymes, and ditties? Children are often not content unless the tunes are repeated ad nauseum. This love for routine can be seen in bedtime rituals, daily routines, and in liturgical worship. Rituals from my own elementary school days gave security, telling me, "It's a new day, and all is well with my world." Repetition and routine support children's need to know that they can trust those responsible for caring for them. Without these consistent patterns, children may perceive their own world as chaotic and their well-being at risk.
Often as adults we may assume something is boring for them or that they need "fresh" creativity. In fact, repetition may well be one thing for which children yearn. G. K. Chesterton expounds on this point beautifully. He writes:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up does it again until he is nearly dead. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite for infancy; for we have sinned and grown, and our Father is younger than we.
It is interesting to note that all liturgy, the work of the people, has a rhythm to it. Through liturgy, ritual, and repetition, when experienced among adults who participate with conviction, children learn the language of faith. "Forever and ever" leads to "Amen," and "Alleluia" leads to the gospel.
Children's ministers recognize that children are capable of knowing God at any age in ways appropriate for that age. That means children must come to know and experience God's redemptive story intimately to provide the language for their faith and relationship with God. It must be the focal point of all that is done. This knowing should be first connatural then speculative. Children need particularly to know that they are in that story.
A value of the Contemplative-Reflective Model is to be able to enter into the story so that it is real and comes alive for them rather than only knowing about it in an informational way. This means that Scripture must be central: the whole redemption story taught without letting it become a "kiddie gospel."
The story has the potential of drawing children into it, depending on how it is presented. (Two examples of children's teaching models that maintain the story as the center are Berryman's Godly Play and Cavalletti's Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which will be described later in this chapter.) The story is at the center while the child is respectfully, wholly among those gathered. The child is not the center; the biblical story is. Instead of the story being an object to be studied as in speculative knowing, it becomes the subject to be entered and with which to be engaged. Using the terms of Jewish theologian Martin Buber, the story is no longer It but Thou. When the story is center and when the leaders or presenters have experienced it personally, they can tell it in such a way that the children are able to enter into it and experience it.
Not only is knowing and keeping the story essential, but another core value of the Contemplative-Reflective Model is to enable children to participate in authentic worship. In order for that to happen, the culture and context of the children must be considered. This model, in most every way, seems in opposition to contemporary North American culture. It is, in fact, and that is one of its intended strengths. On the surface this may seem contradictory, but the model attempts critically to retrieve what has been lost in recent generations regarding the thoughtful nurture of children and their ability to worship.
It is a challenge to try to distinguish children's needs and yearnings from their wants. Marketing through various media creates wants that are obvious, resulting for many children in a form of impoverishment—a poverty of affluence—since many parents desire to meet children's wants. Yet children also have yearnings and needs for belonging, feeling welcome, being secure, having quietness, understanding, meaning, and connecting with God. The Contemplative-Reflective Model is intended to meet some of those needs.
One place many of the yearnings of little ones are met is in the charity and security of a reasonably healthy family. It can be a safe haven from the thundering assaults on children that exploit their lack of strong defenses. Thus, the significance of the family must be recognized and supported within the faith community. But for children from families that are less than healthy, the support of the faith community is even more important. The Contemplative-Reflective Model provides a setting where the Lord Jesus becomes deeply significant and comforting for such children.
Ritual separated from the story may become empty, lifeless, boring, and meaningless. However, thoughtful, intentional, worshipful settings can provide rich opportunities to help children encounter God. Frederick Buechner describes worship in practical, concrete terms that can be appropriate and meaningful for children. He writes: "To worship God means to serve him. Basically, there are two ways to do it. One way is to do things for him that he needs to have done—run errands for him, carry messages for him, fight on his side, feed his lambs, and so on. The other way is to do things for him that you need to do—sing songs for him, create beautiful things for him, give things up for him, tell him what's on your mind and in your heart, in general, rejoice in him and make a fool of yourself for him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love."
To use the word worship as a noun describes an encounter with God. In light of Buechner's comments, much worship in the Bible is also described in terms of verbs that children do. The following excerpts from 1 Chronicles 16 present many of these verbs:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.
Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,...
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength,
ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name.
Bring an offering and come before him;
worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
Tremble before him, all the earth!
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved....
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Cry out, "Save us, O God our Savior;
gather us and deliver us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
that we may glory in your praise."
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting
(1 Chron. 16:8-12, 28-30, 34-36).
Children can do all these actions with meaning and pleasure. A Contemplative-Reflective Model takes these actions seriously as ways to let children worship authentically and as ways to teach them the vocabulary and culture of faith.
Underlying all that has been said is the foundational value that the leaders of the ministry, regardless of the model being used, must also know the character of God and encounter him regularly. This knowing must be connatural knowledge of him as well as speculative. When I experience God and his ways through the Holy Spirit, I myself am letting Christ be formed in me (Gal. 4:19). Only then am I able to help the children in my ministry do the same. All the while, in the context of this personal experience, I can critically retrieve the theology and practices from Scripture and history that will enhance my ministry and the spiritual formation of the children in it.
Some time ago I was reflecting on why, after decades of ministry with children, I have embraced the Contemplative-Reflective Model in recent years as a vital approach for children. I identified unique characteristics in this approach that are interrelated and, I believe, necessary for the nurture and formation of children. The following is not a list to be read linearly but characteristics that interact with one another in encounters with God at the hub:
Encounters with God
Developing a sense of awe and wonder
Knowing his character and actions
Knowing and being formed in the character of God's people
Owning an identity as part of the people of God
Engaging in service and mission
Envision these characteristics as a circle to which entry may be at any point. Each of the "leading to" phrases represents the work of the Holy Spirit and a need for some type of conversion—a new or renewed turning toward Jesus, a deeper way of allowing Christ to be formed within. They also highlight the fact that as I create ministry opportunities, the Holy Spirit is the one who leads the child, and I need to get out of the way.
Different church traditions may tend to emphasize some characteristics more than others, maybe even neglecting some. A balance, however, is ideal. Some denominational traditions emphasize the "knowing" characteristics, often in a cognitive way, and neglect the aspects relating to "encounters" and awe and wonder. Other traditions may tend to do the opposite. Still others may diminish the importance of service and mission. Balance happens when every characteristic is intentionally present for all ages of the faith community.
Not surprisingly, no two children's ministries are identical, and a Contemplative-Reflective Model of children's ministry used in one setting may look different from another. In spite of those differences, common qualities are evident in the child and in most contemplative environments. The thoughtful work of Cavalletti observed and named the following characteristics of the child in such an experience:
Here are some of the characteristics of the environment:
Space will not be taken here to describe in detail Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or Young Children and Worship or Godly Play. All three are well-established models with extensive resources. The best source for information is www.cgsusa.org, Web site of the National Association of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Sonya Stewart and Jerome Berryman's book, Young Children and Worship, carefully presents a plan for setting up and executing their model in a church setting. Stewart's Following Jesus does the same, presenting stories focusing on the Gospel of Mark. Berryman's Teaching Godly Play: The Sunday Morning Handbook is also a guide for his Godly Play. A search of the Web site for his Center for the Theology of Children provides a list of the additional resources he has developed.
Following the pattern of Montessori education, minimal staffing is required for the above models when the staff is familiar with the model and has been adequately trained. These roles are essential: a greeter who sits at the door to welcome each child on her or his eye level and to prepare the child to enter the space; a circle person who is the storyteller but also sits in the circle to engage the children in appropriate conversation; and a general assistant who helps manage the resources, supplies for the feast, and helps with any disruptions that might occur.
Because of the thoroughness of the aforementioned resources, it may be helpful to consider ways those models have been modified. To do so, I would like to explain how my interest in Contemplative-Reflective Models has unfolded. It all began with my increasing awareness of the effectiveness of experiential learning and "participative knowing."
A Bible-Time Museum. More than fifteen years ago we (church leaders and myself) began experimenting with how those active learning concepts might be used in a church setting. Drawing on principles from school field trips and from children's museums, we established a hands-on, Bible-Time Museum as the setting for Sunday morning learning. We wanted the children to be able to enter into the story, whether it was visiting in Esther's court in Susa, walking through events in a New Testament village, or constructing the tabernacle during Moses' day. We developed a Sunday morning learning experience in which the children spent time doing authentic, contextualized tasks, hearing a first-person story about what God was doing in and through his people, and then discussing in small groups the implications of the story for life today. It was working well. The children loved what we were doing. They were engaged and focused. We still use this approach, constantly tweaking it for improvements, but with one significant change—the introduction of contemplative elements.
One Sunday, a visitor spent the time observing what we were doing. Later she came to me and said, "Scottie, the children have a wonderful time. They are learning. They have fun and enjoy themselves. But Scottie, when do they meet God?" I was startled. I did not realize what we had been omitting.
From then on we began to be intentional about contemplative activities. During the story time when all the children are together, we changed the type of music we used. We eliminated the camp-type music with wild motions—music that's just for fun or to "get the wiggles out"—and there was an immediate change in the children's behavior. As we introduced music that addressed God and directly related to the theme, the children became more settled and calm. We also began having a call to worship. With reverence we lit a Christ candle to remind us all that Jesus, the Light of the world, is present. Sometimes we had moments of silence. These simple changes, for the most part, also helped the small group leaders lead the children to be more reflective in their discussion time with the children. The vital experiential elements were preserved, but contemplation was added.
Assessment is one of the biggest challenges about a contemplative-reflective approach and experiential learning in general. A common question is two-pronged: What are the children learning, and how do you know that is happening? It seems many people, parents and staff alike, assume that only speculative knowing is true learning. An accompanying concern is that if the learning cannot be objectively evaluated then learning has not happened. These issues are difficult to address directly because of the pervasive power of the assumptions present in traditional schooling. Helping children encounter the Lord Jesus and fall in love with him—in other words, the making of disciples—is virtually impossible to assess objectively without simply quantifying behaviors. There is a measure of validity in observing behaviors, but it easily falls into the legalistic categories of the religious behaviorism of the 1940s and 1950s. It seems more important to watch for transformation in the children—for attitude changes, for reports that their faith sustains them during the week, for an increasing love for God's Word, and for a desire to pray and to listen to God. After all, this is what children's ministry is all about.
After observing Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Young Children and Worship/Godly Play many times, I became curious how young children who only had experience in a preschool-type learning setting would respond to a contemplative environment. With some graduate student assistants, we melded principles from the Catechesis and Godly Play models, also adding elements of our own. For ten weeks on Wednesday mornings, we had two hours with children ages four and five in groups of fifteen to twenty. These children had no experience in a contemplative or a Montessori environment. We chose a nine-week curriculum written by graduate students based on attributes of the Good Shepherd. Through the parable of the good shepherd, a story that profoundly satisfies the young child's hunger for relationship with Other, according to Cavalletti's extensive research, the young child is struck that the shepherd calls the sheep by name. The basic story presentation was taken from Cavalletti and Berryman/Stewart, but we developed it into nine distinct presentations.
Because we did not have a designated room for this experience, each week we set up the environment. This included screening off the toys normally used in that room, setting up an altar by covering a game table with purple cloth, creating a prayer corner on one side of the room and a praise corner in the other, and preparing a variety of materials that the children could chose to use to respond to the story. Much of the room setup looked like the instructions in the published resources mentioned earlier.
Once the room was ready, we leaders prepared ourselves by spending time in prayer for the morning and for the children. We placed our shoes outside the door as did the children as they arrived. Each child was greeted by the doorkeeper and invited to select a rhythm instrument. Early arrivers could then work on a mural of the good shepherd or sit on a large tape circle on the floor and visit with me.
The first week the children arrived in typical preschooler fashion—exuberant, high energy, curious. One boy looked behind all the screens hiding the toys, underneath the altar cloth, and inside the boxes of supplies. But that happened only the first week. Much of that first session was spent preparing the children for this two-hour weekly experience.
We helped them realize that in this special space we move slowly and speak softly. We explained these actions to the children and rehearsed them together. We practiced walking around the circle and making motions to God. Then we showed them how to use the materials for a response to the story they would hear. These materials included tangram blocks, colored pencils, watercolor paints, tempra paints, clay, shapes to trace with crayons, and sand. We had two trays of each. We showed the children how to prepare the materials as well as clean up after themselves, closely following Montessori's principles. We also explained what to do if they chose to "work" in the praise corner where they could use a headset to listen to appropriate praise music, the prayer corner where they could be curtained off to listen or talk to the Good Shepherd alone, and the book corner where all the books related to the Good Shepherd. In addition the children could choose baskets that contained materials with which they could retell the story. A different basket represented each of the nine stories about the Good Shepherd that were presented after the fashion in Young Children and Worship.
We established a ritual using the instruments to greet each child. With guidelines clearly spelled out, the children used the instruments appropriately. The weekly routine continued as we talked about each item on the altar and also lit the Christ candle. Next we sang praise songs to God—songs such as "Praise Him, Praise Him, All You Little Children," "Oh, How I Love Jesus," and "This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made." Sometimes we used the instruments as we sang and walked around the circle. Other times we passed out streamers so the children could make beautiful motions to God as they sang. Occasionally we used our bodies as percussive instruments to clap, snap, or slap.
Each week the story presentation followed the time of greeting, lighting the Christ candle, and singing praise to God. After the story, one at a time, the children were asked what work they would like to do in order to make or do something for the Good Shepherd or to listen to what he wanted to say to them. If a child had not decided, we asked them again a few moments later. This procedure, not original with us, enabled the children to select and prepare their materials in an orderly fashion. If a child finished one type of work, after putting it away properly, he or she would come back to the circle where I would ask what work they would like to do next. Forty minutes was allotted for this response work.
The attentiveness of the children to their work during this extended response time was remarkable. Occasionally younger children meeting at the church on the level above us would run noisily overhead. The children never even looked up or asked if they could go play too. The boys' work choices were particularly surprising. Invariably they were the first to choose the reflective or reenactive work. They would select the basket materials to retell the story to themselves over and over. They would also select the praise corner. Surprisingly, no girl chose the prayer corner until about week 8, but boys spent time there every week.
One morning a boy, four and a half years old, emerged from the prayer corner and said, "God touched me." He couldn't explain what took place but restated, "God just touched me." Another youngster spent six or seven minutes sitting in the chair that was curtained off, and then he got down on his knees, putting his face in his hands on the floor and stayed in that position several more minutes. (I was aware of this because I could see him under the curtain.)
Next came the "feast" or snack time followed by more music around the circle. Then, to prepare for the children's departure, we developed a liturgy of light. With a little apprehension and many precautions in place, we passed the light of Christ from the Christ candle to each child by giving them a small tea light candle in a clear plastic glass. (We had to warn one child once about appropriate, safe behavior with a lighted candle.) We watched a look of awe come over each child as she or he received the light. We reflectively sang "This Little Light of Mine" and reminded the children that Jesus said that he is the light of the world (John 8:12), followed by his statement that we are also that light for the world (Matt. 5:14).
We established a dismissal ritual using the candles by calling each child forward one by one. With great care and reverence, he or she carried the small candle forward, placing it around the Christ candle on the altar. The children were able to see the light grow strong