But my inquiry kept leading me to a not-simple answer: spiritual health seemed inextricably linked to overall health. People who were emotionally mature and well-adjusted were not necessarily spiritually well, but the opposite was surely true: people who remained emotionally immature had their spiritual growth stunted, too.
That's why value #2 in our children's ministry is Ministering to the whole kid. And it goes on to state, People have physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs. We don't isolate the spiritual just because "this is church"...because that's impossible.
People are whole, complex beings. Our various "-alities" bump up against each other: personality, sexuality, emotionality, spirituality, morality, physicality, mentality (intellect). And that complicates the problem of stimulating spiritual growth, doesn't it? I wish it wasn't true. I wish the answer was as simple as, "Do this and you'll get that." But if you're going to tend to one aspect of someone, you're going to have to take into account the others.
- Any coach knows that getting the most of his players (physicality) includes tending to their minds, not just their bodies. Players can "psych themselves up" or they can "psych themselves out".
- Adolescents who physically mature earlier tend to face challenges that typically-maturing peers don't. Because they look older, they can prematurely face decisions about sex or morals, which in turn have emotional consequences.
- Any teacher knows that if a student's physical needs (like hunger or sleep) aren't met, their ability to focus and learn suffers.
Here's how the various "-alities" might affect a kid spiritually:
- Personality - this is a broad category, and I'd put things like Learning Style and Spiritual Type and Mind Style and Multiple Intelligences and Love Language and Personality Type here, as well as introversion and extroversion. Think these things will affect the way a kid "is" in a church setting, or their "way of being with God" (which is one particularly intriguing definition I saw for children's spirituality)? You bet they will. Yet when we format church to be like school, guess who "shines" and stands out as "spiritual champions"? You guessed it - the kids whose personalities are suited for classroom environments.
- Emotionality - Because our emotions affect so deeply our self-perception, it colors our ability to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. In fact, it's probably not overstating it to say that emotional self-regulation is probably the most important factor affecting our ability to sustain interpersonal relationships. And because those relationships - with parents, siblings, friends - are where we experience tangible expressions of love and forgiveness, they become proxies for our relationship with God.
- Morality - What happened the instant Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit? The Bible says their eyes were opened, they saw that they were naked, and they were ashamed. Our knowledge of right and wrong and our choosing what is right affects our conscience, which in turn makes us fear God (if we don't know the God of grace) or become endeared to him (out of appreciation for his forgiveness).
- Physicality - When we pray, we might stand up, or kneel, or spread out on the floor. Or, walk around. Why? Because our body posture affects our heart attitude. And if we are sick, or tired, or hungry, that will also impact "kids' ways of being with God".
- Sexuality - The main issue here is the message kids receive as they get older and become more aware of sex and their own sexuality - that is, their capacity as individuals to express themselves sexually. Will your kids get the message that "we don't talk about that" in church? Or that sex is dirty, and that good Christian kids shouldn't even think about such things? I hope not, because sex is a huge issue for a teenager, and they need to know that God intentionally created them with sexuality and that he cares how they deal with that.
- Mentality - How much does our brain development affect our spirituality? It has some effect, but not in the way most people think. We tend to think correspondence: the smarter (and older) you are, the more spiritually "advanced" you are. Not only does that not seem to line up with what Jesus said, it flies in the face of everyday experience: we've all had those moments where a kid's level of faith tops ours. Instead, what a more developed brain can do is spot and process the nuances of life: things aren't always fair, good guys sometimes finish last, people die. If the mind can reconcile this with what they know of God, a person grows in appreciation and wonder; if it can't, they face disappointment and spiritual drift.
In light of this, not only is it wrong to demand that kids leave the non-spiritual aspects of themselves at home (as if they could), but understanding the holistic makeup of a person presents great opportunities. Now, hanging out with a kid playing foosball before a service isn't a way to kill time; it meets a social-emotional need. Singing at the top of our voices and moving our bodies isn't just to rev kids up; it's to engage the physical self in worship. Respecting the fact that kids learn differently means we have to vary our methods; it also means we shouldn't be too quick to claim success just because we hear a kid give a pat answer or we've generated some group expression ("Scream for Jesus!" etc.).
We live whole lives everywhere else we go. When we send a message that church is only about "spiritual" things, we put people - kids included - into an impossible position: Deny those aspects of yourself that don't belong in church...yet be transformed by Jesus. An environment like that is highly artificial. It forces people to act, when we should be inviting people to be real - even if the real reality is really complicated and messy.