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					  Results of Interviews with Twenty Children’s Pastors Regarding Spiritual Development in
                            Young Children (Birth to Eight Years)

                                           Donna R. Thomson, Ed. D.

Introduction
The three year old boy and the giving of the baby quilt showing empathy and sharing.
Incongruence between theorists (Goldman, 1964; Piaget, 1929; Kohlberg, 1984) who
identify young children as premoral, prereligious and mystic in their thinking, and
observations documenting the spiritual nature of young children (Cavalletti, 1992; Coles,
1990; Berryman, 1991), along with other factors led to this research study. Other factors
are:
      prevalent dependence on stage theories to design and assess children’s spiritual
        development (Gottlieb, 2006)
      definitional controversies regarding spiritual development (Roehlkepartain, Benson,
        King, & Wagener (Eds.), 2006; Ratcliff, (Ed.), 2004)
      spiritual climate in the United States today (Barna, 2006)

Research Questions
     1. What is the definition and end goal of spiritual development?
     2. What are the characteristics of spiritual development in young children?
     3. What contexts foster positive spiritual growth in young children?
     4. What content must be taught to foster positive spiritual growth in young children?

Methodology
Data was generated by two methods:
Data set 1: derived from template analysis from The Handbook of Spiritual Development in
Childhood and Adolescence (Roehlkepartain, et al, (Eds.), 2006), Children’s Spirituality:
Christian Perspectives, Research, and Applications (Ratcliff, (Ed.), 2004), and the Bible
(New International Version) – used to formulate 24 interview questions for children’s
pastors
Data set 2: derived from semi-structured interviews with
    twenty children’s pastors in the greater Houston area March through June 2008
    emailed IRB approval form and interview questions
    range of interview time was 29 minutes to 2 hours
    interviews were recorded and transcribed
    faith traditions included Catholic, Christian Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran,
       Presbyterian, Methodist, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Nazarene, Baptist,
       Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), Interdenominational, Bible
    range of 7 to 1500 children (Birth to eight years old) in Sunday morning ministries




Child Spirituality Conference, June 2009   River Forest, Illinois     Donna Thomson, Ed .D.   1
Results
Definition and End Goal of Spiritual Development
     spiritual development is either negative or positive
     all positive spiritual development is God/Christ/ Holy spirit centered
     end goal of spiritual development is being united with God/Christ/Holy Spirit in the
         afterlife
     being a good person is not enough – although Christians should display good
         deeds and actions (James 2:14-18)

Characteristics and Assessments of Child Spirituality
Beginning of spiritual development:
    75% - birth or young infancy
    25% - from 2-5 years
Evidence of spiritual development:
    100% - mixture of observable behaviors, verbalized information, participation in
       worship activities, baptism, communion, confirmation
    95% cannot predict spiritual development by age
    45% say there are stages of spiritual development, while 0% could name a stage
    one pastor said you cannot measure spiritual development by what a child says or
       does – heart matter
Spiritual capacity:
     75% say all children have the same spiritual capacity – even child with special
        needs (read a pastor comment about a child with Downs Syndrome)
     15% say spiritual capacity varies according to nature and nurture
     one pastor said all have a spiritual center

Content: What Must BeTaught
100% of the pastors agreed on these categories:
    God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit
    Christian behavior
    Practices of the faith tradition

Contexts of Spiritual Development in Young Children
Educational Programs:
   100% - Sunday School/Sacramental Preparation – children gather in age groups for
      appropriate instruction
   50% - Children’s Church/Power Church/Super Church/Children’s Worship/Children’s
      Liturgy of the Word – worship service for children apart from adult worship service
   50% - Bible Clubs/Bible Hour/Bible Quiz – vehicle toward Bible literacy
   20% - Vacation Bible School
   10% - Children’s Choir
   10% - Missions and Service Projects
   One congregation offers Sunday evening programs for children
   85% - nursery care with formal instruction beginning at 2 years old in 55% of the
      congregations and beginning at 3 years old in 30% of the congregations


Child Spirituality Conference, June 2009   River Forest, Illinois   Donna Thomson, Ed .D.   2
     3 congregations/parishes have no programs for children under 3
Curriculum:
     25% - curriculum chosen by Synod/Archdiocese/Parish Priest
     75% - chosen by children’s pastor with approval of Senior Pastor
     Criteria for curriculum selection is: 1) teacher friendly, and 2) eye appeal
     3 pastors are in process of writing their own curriculum, 1 uses his published
       curriculum
Instructional Management:
     40% use large group instruction exclusively
     40% use large group to start and break into smaller groups
     10% use small group instruction exclusively
     one pastor uses a rotation system with the entire group
     pastors feel a pull between “high energy programs” and the low key programs that
       allow for quiet reflection and individual prayer
     children’s pastors rarely have time to talk to the children in their programs
     2 congregations use intergenerational activities
Parents:
     100% - parents are primarily responsible for their child’s spiritual development with
       the church as a support
     60% - offer parent resources – parents do not attend
     parent commitment a concern – church is in the role of remediating the children –
       read comments by a pastor
     family model is changing – harder to teach concepts such as God the Loving Father
Teachers:
     80% - pastors recruit teachers individually after prayer and observation
     15% - have enough without recruiting
     5% - beg people to teach
     most difficult to find teachers for nursery and toddler children
     example of number of 187 volunteers needed for Sunday morning ministry for 700
       children (birth to eight years)
     qualifications for teachers include: criminal background check, pastor/priest
       approval/being a member of the congregation/be a Christian/manages children
       properly/likes children/willingness/teacher training/interview with children’s pastor
     80% - teacher training – one-on-one with mentor teacher due to lack of attendance
       at teacher training sessions
     communicate with teachers through email or newsletter
Additional Results:
     35% of pastors indicted that the ministry changed or would change because of the
       interview
     one pastor was using the interview questions to guide planning for children’s ministry
     one pastor stated that it is not very often that she had an opportunity to sit down and
       have a Christian conversation and she was grateful because “It causes me to slow
       down and remember why I’m doing this in the first place.”




Child Spirituality Conference, June 2009   River Forest, Illinois   Donna Thomson, Ed .D.   3
       changing role of the church - church has the role of primary responsibility for
        children’s spiritual development with children attending infrequently – lukewarm
        attitude toward spiritual matters in society in general
     parent and teacher education classes are infrequently attended when offered
     role of children’s pastor is changing from pastoral care to administrative duties –
        children’s pastors rarely talk to or observe children in their ministries
     few children’s pastors have time for theological and biblical reflection on child
        spirituality
Recommendations
All recommendations are not discussed, however, considerations regarding characteristics
of children’s spiritual nature and assessment of child spirituality include:
     View the spiritual more like sensory awareness rather than cognitive awareness to
        shift the focus from knowing about God to knowing God
     Example of the eye as an organ of sensory input – compare to the spiritual nature of
        mankind – use the story of the child Samuel (I Samuel 3:7-10)
     view the law on the heart and the consciousness as God-given, thus universal in
        mankind (Romans 2:14-15)
     children may be gifted in particular ways to display their spiritual nature – from birth
        since the child is considered to be in right relationship with God at that time – gifts
        either flourish or diminish according to societal influences and child’s choices –
        children need an environment in which to express their spiritual nature
Assessment of spiritual development
     Cognitive focused assessments are based on observed behaviors and verbalization
        of Bible stories or facts learned in children’s ministries along with participation and
        attendance in church activities – focus on knowing about God rather than knowing
        God
      Cognitive based assessments preclude the child who cannot speak or who do not
         have supporting adults who will take the child to church activities and prepare the
         child for baptism/confirmation/communion
      Assess programs – suggested criteria might include: provide opportunities for the
         child to express their spiritual nature – incorporate time for silence and reflection –
         support Bible literacy – focus on God/Jesus Christ/Holy Spirit and the proper
         response – quality curriculum and teachers – time to talk with and observe children
         – opportunities for intergenerational contact
      Matthew 5: 21-22a The inward attitude of the heart reveals the true person
      Spiritual man is like the physical man – Birth (John 3:3-8); spiritual milk as a spiritual
         infant (I Peter 2:2); spiritual body (I Corinthians 15:44); spiritual food (John 4:13,
         John 4:43, John 6:35), spiritual senses (John 10:39-41); spiritual activities (John
         4:23-24)




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