“There you go, God, here is some Play-Doh for you,” a four-year-old announced, placing a blob of yellow Play-Doh on the table and then scooting an empty chair next to her own so that both touched. She continued to roll and mash the Play-Doh, every so often adding a bit more to the handful for God until her mom arrived. As she said goodbye to one of the adult leaders, she held up her hands closed tightly together and whispered, “All you have to do is hold your hands like this and God is with you. God likes coming to Sunday school with me and he’s holding my hand now to go to church with me.” Although resembling the imaginary friend of a young child, God truly existed in the heart and mind of this young child. A few years later in a kindergarten through fifth grade Sunday school group talking with the leader about fears, her connection with God gave her the confidence, despite being one of the youngest in the group, to share with the others, “I know God is always with me even if I can’t see him and when I am afraid at night I just talk to God.”
If only people of all ages could feel the closeness of God in times of joy and uncertainty with such assuredness as this spiritually aware child.
This leads to the question, “From where did the early faith of this child develop?” Was it from the Children’s Moments she listened to in her mother’s lap with other children and parents gathered on the floor of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings? Was it the family’s prayers at mealtime and her own prayers with her dad as he tucked her into bed each night? Was it from reading stories in a children’s Bible with her grandparents? Was it her regular attendance at the preschool Sunday school class? Yes, it was all that and even more.
Ideally, from the earliest interactions in infancy and childhood as family and caregivers respond warmly and predictably to their needs of care and comfort, children develop a sense of trust about the social world around them. Conversely, a sense of mistrust can form when their needs are not met and the world around them is unpredictable.1 In children’s ministry and Sunday school, consistent care with the same caregivers week to week in small groups and lower adult-child ratios enables the adults to fully meet the needs of the children and come to know them as individuals. This not only provides familiarity for the children but also their parents and gives both a sense of reassurance at times of separation from each other. Warm interactions with familiar adults enable the children to develop a sense of trust beyond the immediate setting of home and family. Routines and traditions, from the daily routines of a prayer before a snack to the family and church traditions throughout the year, give a pattern of predictability to the children’s experiences that help them build a sense of continuity over time.
The trust of their earliest years stays with children throughout their lifetime as they face joys and challenges, giving them confidence when they move into new settings as teenagers and even into their future adult relationships as they then may turn over their tender child to others or face separation from a loved one. This early sense of trust in the social and physical world around them also provides the foundation of faith as children come to feel that God also cares for them, loves them, and will be there with them — even at the play table and in the darkest of nights.
Children who develop a sense of trust more than mistrust take with them confidence for exploring new settings and ideas as they get older. An environment that provides appropriate experiences for children based on their developmental level and age gives opportunities for all ages to be successful, with the understanding that preschoolers have distinctly different needs, attention spans, and abilities from school-age children. Feeling confident and capable, along with trusting the world around them, enables children to question, to imagine and to wonder, thus opening up a whole new possibility of exploring faith. Rather than a “pouring in” of verses and stories that some adult felt it best for the children to hear in a large group setting, what if a small group of children listened to a verse or story of the Bible and were given permission to ask questions about what they heard and discuss what the words and verses mean to them? Rather than everyone doing the same craft project in Sunday school, what if children were invited to ponder faith, God, and Jesus in stations of their choosing — from gazing at a nautilus shell with a candle burning next to it, coloring a mandala or writing in a notebook about something they were worried about and needed to tell God — as the adult leaders checked in with and talked individually with the children?2
In such a reflective setting an eight-year-old once sat on a carpet near a window with a clipboard of blank paper and a colored pencil in hand. As he tapped his foot, he would write a few words, crumple up the paper, look briefly out the window, write some more, crumple up the paper, repeating the actions until almost all of the papers were gone. Then his leg stopped tapping as he intently stared out the window at the expansive blue sky for several minutes. He then wrote something on a paper, folded it up to put in his pocket, and went to the reading station to read a book with the Lord’s Prayer illustrated in pictures. After the children gathered back together as a group for a closing discussion about what understandings they gleaned from their reflections on prayers in the stations, the eight-year old went over to the leader when most of the others had left the room, timidly took the folded paper out of his pocket to show her the following that he had written: “Dear God help me with my angity?” There in the handwriting and spelling of a young child existed a prayer to God to help with the very real feelings of anxiety in the fast paced world of today filled with uncertainty.
Imagine adults learning the names of the children and having the opportunity to know them as unique individuals. Imagine adults intentionally making the time to listen to what the children were thinking about God rather than telling what they thought they should know. Imagine giving the children the time and space to ponder faith. Truly, this is believing in the children as worthy, capable people on a journey of faith — one that begins with and continues to develop out of trust.
Cynthia Catlin is director of University Presbyterian Children’s Center and leader of a multi-age Way of the Child Sunday school group at UniversityChurch in San Antonio, Texas; she is author of Toddlers Together and More Toddlers Together.
1 Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963).
2 Wynn McGregor, The Way of the Child (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006).