Truth is, there's some cool things happening with a spinning ball that, once understood, make for some helpful metaphors for understanding kids' spiritual lives:
1. To begin with, ask yourself this question: Is spinning a basketball on your finger easy, or hard? And the answer, of course, depends on how much practice you've had. Anyone who tries that trick for the first time finds it extremely challenging - particularly if you are young and lack coordination. Most people do not "succeed" when they first attempt it. However, the longer someone has worked at it, the more effortless it (apparently) becomes. People who are very good at this can do other things while spinning the ball: walking, talking, spinning a second ball with the other hand.
What we can learn: While it's not always true that those who have been Christians the longest make for the strongest Christians, there is some truth to the fact that the more practiced you become in spiritual habits and disciplines, the easier it is to keep them up. And why? Because they become habits. And habits, by definition, are things we don't need to think about or force ourselves to do, because they've become second nature. Hebrews 5:14 gives a good example of this when it refers to mature believers as those who, by constant use (that is, consistent righteous behavior), have trained themselves to recognize good from evil.
We do kids a favor when we teach them that a Christian life is just that, a life, and it is lifelong, and it is forever. To keep God and things of spiritual value from being crowded out of the picture takes vigilance. We are right to teach kids that salvation is a free gift of God, but we don't teach enough on the work (and it is work, at first) of following him, learning obedience, setting aside the time to be with him, making it a habit to ask (consciously at first, then subconsciously): "What would Jesus do?" The great thing is that the habit of following Jesus can be developed, and once developed, it works in our favor, because any habit - good or bad - is hard to break.
2. Which brings us to another feature of the spinning ball: inertia. Inertia refers to an object's tendency to remain either in motion, or at rest. Specifically, with a basketball, there is rotational inertia causing it to continue spinning round and round. When the ball loses its inertia, it slows and then quickly falls. There isn't a lot of in-between - no such thing as spinning at medium speed. The ball either spins fast, or it doesn't spin at all.
What we can learn: In the same way, our spiritual lives and those of kids tend to either be in motion and on-track, or lackluster and nearly dead. As one pastor I knew liked to say, "If you don't grow, you will go - away from the Lord." It's hard to operate on spiritual half-throttle. Either you are experiencing spiritual growth - palpable, radical growth - or you aren't. But one leap tends to build on another, and then another. The lesson, I think, is pretty clear: we should teach kids to seek the active work of God in their lives, and to expect it. No, life will not be spent on the mountain tops. Recognizing and participating in the work of God in your life is no shield against hard times. It is, however, the ongoing assent to the process of being shaped and formed and built into Christ's likeness - whether through victorious times or challenging ones.
3. Why that ball eventually slows brings us to another principle: the effect of friction. It cannot be totally avoided. Sooner or later, the contact between a finger and the ball slows the ball down, so that regardless of how much inertia it has at any given time, we can predict that the ball is on its way to stopping.
What we can learn: Friction operates in a way very similar to sin. Kids can grasp this: sin drags everything down. Even nice people sin. Even spiritual champions sin. Our tendencies, even in the spiritually strongest of us, will eventually be toward selfishness, greed, envy, and pride. "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Cor. 10:12) No matter how far we've advanced toward spiritual maturity, temptation and the world and the flesh are working against us. And they will win...but only kind of. That's where the power of the resurrection comes in. A Jesus who's been raised from the dead makes the eventual perfection and you and me possible. What can't be done now - a basketball that spins forever, a person who is perfect in all they say, think, and do - will happen one day because God's power over the grave signals the end for sin. Take away sin and eternal life becomes a reality. Take away friction and the ball spins forever. In the meantime, just as a strong finger, held perfectly straight, supports the ball's inertia, we do our best to minimize the amount of sin that we allow in our lives by keeping ourselves strong, sharp, and focused on the purpose of our lives.
4. To counteract friction, every spinning ball needs a little help to keep it going. This help takes the form of a push - but not just any push. If handled clumsily, the ball will come unbalanced and fly off the finger that's supporting it. Instead, the push needs to support the ball where its rotation appears to be weakening, and it needs to move in the same direction but at a slightly faster speed than the ball is already going.
What we can learn: Don Ratcliff has observed in his new book ChildFaith: Experiencing God and Spiritual Growth with your Children that we too often look for and listen to kids' programmed responses about God and pay little attention to their spontaneous ones. In other words, the questions they ask and comments they make that we haven't solicited often give us the best insight into a particular child's theology and spiritual vitality. Very often we don't teach to their interests because we are afraid we won't cover "the important material", when in fact what's "important" is whatever information speaks to things they're already thinking about.
The best spiritual nurture does not impose itself, but comes alongside what is already happening, helping kids to make sense of it (for example, giving them a spiritual vocabulary) and encouraging them to keep doing whatever it is they are doing that has been good for their spiritual growth. We need to be really careful that the help we give kids in their spiritual lives is just that - help - and that it is sensitive to what they've experienced of God and where God is trying to grow them. And, just as the push needs to be slightly faster than the ball is already rotating, we need to be great spiritual leaders and to put great spiritual leaders into our kids' lives.
5. It is one thing to talk about or to demonstrate how to spin a ball on someone's finger; it is entirely something else to get them to do it themselves. That is the product of practice - a lot of self-doing. If we think that hours and hours spent watching others spin the ball will make someone better at it, we're fooling ourselves. People need to grab the ball and go, and fail, and try again, and they may need encouragement to try it enough times to where it really sticks.
What we can learn: Strong Christianity is built by doing. We must give kids opportunities to live out the faith, because there is a point beyond which demonstration and explanation stalls. Ultimately, we can't practice Christianity for our kids, though we might be comforted to think so. They own their own faith. It is nurtured by what they do.
Unfortunately though, unless a robust understanding of what a Christian "does" and ought to do is held, we can quickly push kids into community service work that lacks any spiritual dimension. The fact is, as we live out our faith, some of the doing is inner and vertical - what might actually appear to outsiders as inaction. A person who wants to change the world but has no regard for spiritual things cannot make sense of Martin Luther's statement that whenever he faced a busy day, he was unable to make any progress unless he spent three hours in prayer. But a spiritually mature person begins to understand. Yet another dimension of our spirituality is the horizontal one - our relationships with one another. We "do" Christianity when we enter into relationships and strive to do them right, overcoming isolation and alienation and growing into real relationships. The third aspect involves our service to the rest of the world, but the value of that is cheapened if it is not accompanied by a heart for God and a heart for others.
So, a rounded approach to nurturing kids' spirituality is called for. There are no "just" answers, as in:
- "Kids just need to go to Mexico and serve at an orphanage. That will open their eyes to how much they have." Missions trips are important, yes; but they alone do not fuel sustained spiritual growth.
- "Kids just need to learn the Bible. Once they have the basics, that will get them ready for what they'll face as adults." Bible knowledge can contribute to spiritual maturity; but merely knowing lots of facts divorced from their contexts really does not produce kids who are devoted to God.
- "Kids just need to have a church that they love going to." As a professional in ministry, it's hard for me to disagree. But, allegiance to a church program alone does not yield spiritual maturity.
6. The final thing a spinning ball does is attract a lot of attention! And while there may be recognition that the person holding the ball is responsible, peoples focus is generally drawn to the ball itself.
What we can learn: Ideally, when a kid is really growing spiritually and living out what they believe, people will be drawn to what they see. The overflow of a Christian life should leave a memorable footprint, as qualities like love, care, kindness, mercy, and gentleness impact the recipient long after the one who acted in that way is out of the picture: the gift outlasts the giver.
Can we create spiritual growth in kids? No, we can't create it, anymore than we can coax a basketball up onto someone's finger all by itself. Can we manage it for them, so that they live spiritual lives because of our fervor or our example? No - the best we can do is cast compelling vision by the way we live. And we can do more, by encouraging kids to develop the sorts of lifelong habits and practices that make their souls fertile ground for God's spirit. When we recognize that God is already at work, we are more likely to help in ways that actually are help, that compliment the work that is being done rather than disrupt it. I look forward to this year of ministry, and the many opportunities we will have together to impart a little extra spin to the ball, so that it might continue ever-more gracefully and forcefully, spurring our kids on to great outward acts of faith, and inspiring onlookers to want the same.