Dialogue: A conversation with Holly Allen
Holly Allen has devoted much of her life to studying how best to teach children God’s word and train them spiritually. She is associate professor of Christian ministries and director of the Children and Family Ministry program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark.
Her first book, “Nurturing Children’s Spirituality: Christian Perspectives and Best Practices,” debuted in 2008. She’s part of the planning team for the 2009 Children’s Spirituality Conference, June 14-17 at Concordia University in River Forest, Ill. (www.childspirituality.org).
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Harding University in Searcy, Ark.; a master’s from the University of Iowa and a doctorate in Christian education from the Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif.
Allen and her husband, Leonard, attend the Siloam Church of Christ and have three children, David, 32; Daniel, 26; and Bethany, 23; and four grandchildren. She and her husband enjoy hiking in Ozark National Forest and playing racquetball.
What is the difference between a child’s spiritual development and faith development?
Faith development is tied most closely with believing certain things about God, the church, Christ, the Bible and other important theological issues. In contrast, spiritual development is connected to the process of growing closer to God relationally. The two are interrelated.
How is nurturing children spiritually different from the ways we have worked with children in the past?
Our primary efforts have focused on teaching children information about God. Though we must continue to diligently teach Bible stories, memory verses, the books of the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the fruit of the Spirit, we must broaden our efforts to intentionally nurture children to grow in their relationship with God.
We have utilized a school model as our primary metaphor for growing children. The fundamental difficulty is that spiritual development is not essentially cognitive development. The way children — and adults — grow in their understanding of math and science is not primarily the way they grow spiritually.
Would another model work better?
Perhaps a pilgrim, caravan or journey model would work better. Babies, children, teens and adults are traveling together, seeking God together — learning, growing, training one another along the way, utilizing the strengths and abilities of all the travelers. As we journey together, we are being transformed by the one we are seeking.
In general, how do you see churches conducting children’s education today?
I see three divergent forces today. One is the megachurch force. The influence megachurch children’s ministries wield is propelling us toward a large-group entertainment model for children.
A second force is the growing push by the 20-somethings and 30-somethings for a more relational approach in their own spiritual lives. These young parents have a strong affinity toward small groups, yet they are unsure what this would look like for their children. I see a general desire among them to move away from the Sunday school model, though they are concerned that their children learn the important things about God.
A third small but promising force on the horizon is the recognition that children need quiet times for reflection. This approach calls for a more contemplative model, one in which our children have time to think, listen and perceive — a time to ask, “Who are you, Lord?”
In your opinion, how can churches foster healthy spiritual development in children?
We must bring the generations back together. We have spent the last several decades systematically separating the generations for almost every purpose — Sunday school, worship, even fellowship time.
My top recommendation for churches is to initiate intergenerational small groups that consist of two or more generations — children, teens, young adults, older adults — that meet regularly (at least every two weeks), pray together, worship together, share life together — without the children being sent to another room to watch a DVD. A solid hour should be spent with children and adults listening to each other, sharing life and learning from each other.
From my research and experience, nothing we can do will bless our children spiritually more than these cross-generational small groups — in essence, traveling together.
What should churches do first as they consider programs for children?
Church leaders and parents should meet prayerfully and ask the following questions about possible approaches for growing faithful children: What have we done well? What have we done less well? Key question: What do we want for our children?
We must discern the strengths and weaknesses of the various teaching approaches and then ask other questions: What would a contemplative model look like? What do the megachurch models have to offer? What are our non-negotiables?
Summarize your counsel for the next steps.
Revisit traditional Sunday school. We have a strong commitment to teaching our children the Word. In some way, we must teach our children about God, who he is, how he has related to his people in the past, how he calls us to him, how he is the only way to live strong, holy lives. If not Sunday school, then how?
Find time somewhere for children to wonder, to ask, to imagine, to ponder, since we want our children to know God, not just about him.
Begin bringing the generations back together. Jesus said, “Do not hinder the little children. Let them come.”
I agree with Jesus.