Natural Spirituality

By Shelley Byrnes, Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministries

When people find out that I work with children and youth, they always ask me, “Which age is your favorite?” I never can pick!  There is something amazing about sharing in and witnessing the process of all ages as they figure out who they are in relation to this world, others, and God. 

Then the question comes, “What do you teach them?” That is when I get the looks like I am absurd. Because I don’t teach them. They teach me. I grow more spiritually when I experience God through the eyes, ears, and minds of young people. 

Children and youth have an innate sense of spirituality. Have you ever watched a child study a bug? They get down on the ground and put their face right next to it. They examine, with awe, the wings, the legs, and the eyes. They look up, their own eyes wide with wonder. That is spirituality! They see God in the world. They find God in the love they have for their family, friends, and pets. They feel connected to others, nature, and God. 

Unfortunately, this innate and beautiful spirituality that exists in young people can easily be molded into something totally different. I grew up in a church where I was taught to be afraid of God; that God would send me to hell if I wasn’t good enough. There are plenty of Christians whose natural connection with God got formed into something that was more a reflection of society than the image of God that existed when they were young. 

Sometimes this happens because they see evil in the world and can’t see the helpers that Mr. Rogers told us to look for in times of tragedy and sadness. Sometimes it happens because well-meaning adults are living in their own embedded theology of fear, tamping down any of the wildness of the Spirit to be sure their children are “saved.” Sometimes it happens because church curricula have been written as if children are empty pitchers waiting to be filled with the correct church information by adults. This philosophy of teaching may work for things like language and mathematics. But it stifles the rich natural, spiritual capacity in children that should be cherished and supported. This means we need to learn to view spirituality as something we expect in every child, rather than something unusual or precocious. 

In fact, we are all called to find that child-like spirituality that is full of joy and wonder!

In Matthew, Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)

I think that this verse is telling us to look at the world through the natural spirituality that we had as children so we can see the heaven here on earth. When I read that whoever is humble like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. To me, it means that we need to put our adult pride aside and experience God in the way God is presenting Godself to us. 

Luckily, there is a completely unique curriculum called Godly Play that honors not only children’s innate spiritual gifts but helps adults live into that humble way of finding God. Godly Play is a curriculum researched and developed over decades by Jerome W Berryman using Montessori education methods; it helps children learn Christian Tradition and connect with their innate spirituality by playing and listening to stories. It is a way of connecting deeply with the Old Testament, parables, and practices of the church. The room is impeccably organized so students find peace and can connect with the stories at their own pace. 

Godly Play takes some training and preparation to lead well. But I have found that through this program, I can unwind my own embedded theology.  I am always amazed at the complex, deep ideas and experiences that come up both in my prep work and in the classroom when I wonder with children about a story. 

In August, we will be doing an all ages Godly Play formation on Racial Reconciliation Sunday. Consider joining this unique experience. Please also listen to the Holy Spirit and contact me if you are feeling nudged to learn more about Godly Play.

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