Adults must understand how the mental and physical age of a child or youth determines the way that he or she learns, understands, and matures spiritually. In this sense, children indeed learn in different ways than do adults. This article provides guidance to parents and all adult church participants in how to meet the needs of the preschoolers, children, and youth whom God has placed in their care as a church family.
Because a home church is not usually providing age-graded appropriate teaching in an environment separate from the adults, it is essential that all adults become more aware of what is normal behaviour and learning expectations for children and youth in the church.
Babies may sleep happily through much of the study and worship time. If a baby is awake and content, the church provides an ambience of love and acceptance. The important emotional and faith task for the small baby is learning that the people in his/her environment are trustworthy. It is good, therefore, for the growing baby to see familiar faces week after week. It is good to be held, cuddled, and loved by adults, youth, and older children who are part of the extended family which is the church. Bible thoughts can be said to the smallest of babies. “God loves you”, “I love you”, “Thank you, God, for baby Kendra” are a few of the Bible thoughts that are appropriate to use with babies.
As the baby grows, he/she will be awake more of the time and will begin to explore the environment. Building on the foundation that the world is trustworthy, babies must take initiative to explore. The home church setting will need to be safe for a crawling or walking baby. Breakables need to be put up high; treasured valuables need to be put away. There should be safe toys, blocks, books and pictures which the baby can find and enjoy. The one year old baby may go from person to person and each one has an opportunity to give the baby love and affirmation and to speak a Bible thought to them. Above all, the church wants to create an environment of acceptance for the baby and for the parents.
As the child matures, activities appropriate for their growing abilities should be provided. Puzzles, blocks, art activities such as coloring a blank page, all will become a part of the materials provided. Growing preschoolers may sing a song or say a Bible thought. They may play shakers, marimbas, or bells during the music time. When the story is appropriate for preschoolers to understand, special attention may be given to explaining the Bible story to them.
Younger children, (grades 1-3) must be challenged if they are to be content within the larger body of the church. Use children to read Scripture, draw illustrations of the Bible story, hand out materials, sing songs and take up the offering. When children understand that they have a significant place in the study and worship, they will focus on making contributions. Remember that children this age need to feel competent at the things they do. This competence builds self-esteem only if it is meaningful to the child. Creating artificial activities or providing insincere praise will negate the benefit of the participation for the child. It is important to realize as well that children this age are very literal thinkers. Since much Biblical truth is symbolic in nature, we must strive to teach in ways which children can understand. While older people may find a study of end times fascinating, it can only be confusing to children.
Older children (grades 4-6) will gradually be moving into more abstract thinking, but will still be literal thinkers through most of elementary school. If they have heard Bible stories since birth, they will have a wide knowledge of many Bible truths. They can tell stories, read Scripture, plan special activities for younger children, do amazing art work, sing beautifully, and contribute in all these areas to the study and worship in the church. They are beginning to be influenced by the thinking and activities of their peers. Thus, it is vital that the church continues its role as significant others whose values and concern help children to make right decisions.
Younger youth are moving into abstract thinking. They need to hear Bible stories from a fresh new perspective. They need to be telling Bible stories to others and taking important leadership in the group. By the time they are in grades 10-11, they should be taking turns in the leadership of the group – leading the Gathering Time, teaching the Bible Study and guiding the Sharing Time. Some youth, of course, will not be comfortable doing this and it is vital that the church is sensitive to each young person.
As teens mature, their thinking becomes more abstract. They may become very idealistic and seek change. They may become impatient with the ordinary status quo. They may wonder why adults are so complacent. They may become deeply involved in causes such as environmental issues, inequality in material benefits, racial and gender injustices. This wonderful stage is God’s good gift to the human race which keeps us from becoming complacent. Each new generation of young people challenges adults to examine their values.
It is easy to think that the home church has little to offer the youth of their church. The opposite, however, is true. Youth easily understand that their presence at church is important and that they are missed when they are absent. Youth appreciate adults who are genuinely concerned about them. If Christian young people are not given responsibilities commensurate with their abilities and training, they will soon lose interest in the church. The home church has the need of new leaders plus each home church is small enough to truly know and be concerned about its young people.
Though it must be done with tact, care, and love expressed, a youth may be better able to accept the counsel of their home church more easily than from their own parents. Somehow, with respect having been slowly and cautiously built, the church family can allow a teen to choose right behaviour and good decisions without the confrontation sometimes engendered with those with whom the teen must live.
Special mission involvement, both close to home and far from home, will help youth to put their idealism into practice and provide opportunities for God to speak to them about how they will use their talents and abilities in His service.
The church may want to provide scholarships for youth to attend camps and conferences of the network of churches with which it associates or the denominational entity with which it affiliates. If these opportunities are not available, seek like-minded churches which might provide special opportunities for youth participation.
The home church has the unique opportunity to be involved in the lives of its children from the smallest baby to the oldest teen. Praying for a child bonds one to that child forever. It also minimizes the annoyances that one might feel when a child is going through a particularly fractious stage. Attending ball games, school activities, spelling bees and other activities which are meaningful to the child cements relationships. Providing child care for a family where the parents need a night out can provide a wonderful opportunity to invest in the child.