Helping children connect with Jesus and His Story takes more than programs, a good curriculum, special events, or keeping children engaged with good things. If children are going to develop strong links with Jesus, they need hearts inclined to Him, a thirst to know Him, and a desire to live for Him.
Hearts inclined to Him
Loving, valuing, experiencing, and desiring Jesus originates in the heart. Since everything flows from the heart (Proverbs 4:23), a child’s relationship with Jesus has to be rooted in the heart (the centre of all the operations of a person’s life).
There are no superficial relationships with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus is an all-out affair of the heart. A child must believe in his/her heart that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9) and open the door of his/her heart for Jesus to come in (Ephesians 3:17). Intellectual assent is not enough. A child may know about Jesus, but if he/she doesn’t invite Him into his/her heart, he/she can’t build a relationship with Him.
Ministry to and with children must therefore prioritize the heart over the head. That is, nurturing a child’s desire for Jesus is more essential than teaching a child what he or she should know about Jesus. So don’t put the cart before the horse. Make sure you constantly invite and encourage children to love, value, and experience Jesus (Colossians 3:1).
A thirst to know Him
A thirst to know Jesus is an indication that a child loves Jesus. When a child’s heart is given to Jesus and belongs to Jesus, he/she will have a thirst to know Him. If a child doesn’t have a thirst to know Jesus, he/she probably doesn’t have Jesus in his/her heart.
A thirst for Jesus can’t be drummed up. Love lubricates learning. A child will want to know more about Jesus when he/she is spiritually thirsty. One of the big mistakes we make in children’s ministry is trying to make children drink when they’re not thirsty. If children aren’t thirsty, don’t give them a drink – we shouldn’t waste what’s precious (Matthew 7:6).
If children don’t love Jesus the remedy isn’t to teach more Scripture. Knowing God’s Word isn’t the same as knowing Jesus. A child may be able to quote the Bible or even teach it, but if he/she doesn’t know the One of whom the Bible speaks, Jesus Christ, the acquisition of Bible knowledge is useless.
Of course, when children long to know Jesus more, we should invest everything into teaching them all that the Word says about Him. Customize the teaching. Some children will be more thirsty and some less. Help each child drink until they’re satisfied. And tell the children that the water Jesus gives “them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” John 4:14.
A desire to live for Him
Love, informed by the Word, requires action. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “Imitation is the … sincerest form of learning.” When a child’s heart is beating for Jesus he/she will want to work for and serve Jesus (John 14:12, Philippians 2:1-11). Children should be provided with numerous hands-on opportunities to imitate Jesus. They need to be connected to every-day opportunities to do what is fair and just, be compassionate and kind, and share His love in meaningful ways (Micah 6:8).
Making it practical
To help children incline their hearts to Jesus we need to provide opportunities for them to experience Him. Less talking and more listening is required. Prioritize spiritual retreats, times of worship, contemplation, and biblical meditation. Teach children how to “wait for the Lord” Psalm 27:14. Maybe do Lectio Divina together (children can do silence), or encourage children to quietly illustrate a verse of Scripture that focuses on Jesus. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for children to find Jesus in the midst of a high-energy non-stop activity. Slow things down. Pray together and ask Jesus to meet with you and your children.
A neuroscience insight
Neuroscience and education expert Jessie Cruickshank says that “heart knowledge is that embodied autobiographical memory, and head knowledge is semantic.” Heart knowledge doesn’t link easily with head knowledge. It’s incredibly difficult to learn something semantically and then connect it to our hearts. Cruickshank’s point is that “if you learn something as a data fact, you literally cannot – biologically cannot – apply it to your life.” In other words, if the approach taken to unite children with Jesus is mainly semantic (head) then a disconnect is more likely, but if the approach is mainly autobiographical (heart), then it’s highly likely that children will make a lasting connection with Jesus and His Word.
Heart, head, hands. Children need inspiration before information. A child’s spiritual health and growth are only possible if Jesus captivates a child’s heart and a child capitulates his/her heart to Jesus. Here’s the key to cultivating spiritual maturity. Help a child give their heart to Jesus every day, and the foundation will be in place for the child’s mind to be transformed (through engagement with God’s Word), and for good works to ensue.
© Scripture Union, 2021