Spiritual development of children begins at home

FORT WORTH “Children learn spiritual and moral principles best from people who care for them on a consistent basis.” With that goal in mind, Ann Iorg challenges parents and extended family members to help children develop spiritually by first teaching them to love God.

“Even those who came to Christ as an adult usually had a friend, a grandparent, aunt or uncle who at least let them know they were loved by God,” Iorg told a breakout session of the Homemaking Conference offered at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary earlier this year. The wife of the president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, Iorg has directed and taught preschool at several of churches for more than 30 years.

Iorg said the framework for spiritual development is offered by Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40 when he summarized the truths found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Exodus 20:1-17. “The most important concept a child can have is to love God with all their heart, all their soul, all their might and all their strength,” she reminded. “They also need to learn to love others as they love themselves.”

Recognizing that children are born with unique personalities and giftedness, Iorg said, “They’re not born with knowledge or a complete sense of values. Those things are taught, and that’s when we come into play.” By starting with the big picture of loving God and loving others, she said even a two-year old can learn these basic concepts. 

“Start with the simple and then expand,” she stated. “If you don’t give them a framework from which to attach these truths, they have a hard time putting in the extra facts later.”

From Proverbs 22:6 parents find encouragement in knowing these foundational principles will continue to influence their children, she said. “The things we learn as children stay with us for life, and there is the constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s the truth that stays with us.”

Parents and other people who care for a child on a consistent basis have the credibility to be trusted. “A little child doesn’t care how much money you have, what position you have or how many degrees you have. They only care about one thing: Does this person care about me and help me find Jesus? If not, I don’t have any reason to listen.”

Iorg pointed to the testimony of Paul in 2 Timothy 1:5 and 3:14-15 as an example of parents and grandparents developing a child spiritually. “Paul recognized the significant influence that the mother and grandmother had on Timothy as a child in giving the wisdom for salvation and what you need to know to come to know Christ.”

Made in the image of God with the capacity to relate to him, Iorg said even preschoolers can learn and recognize objects like the Bible. She pointed to Deuteronomy 6:4-9 to illustrate teaching them to love and relate to God through everyday activities.

“Long before anybody thought to study child development, those principles were already taught in Scripture,” Iorg said, pointing to the instruction to learn through activity, verbal instruction, visual signs and written words. “Take whatever is happening and bring God into it to help the child see him.”

Short family devotions should model how a child eventually has a personal time with God, Iorg said. “A little preschooler can’t do that so you need to model that for them so they know what to do when they’re older,” she explained. “Keep it short because if it’s too long they won’t do it and they won’t stay interested.”

Spiritual development should be reinforced in a local church setting, Iorg continued. Parents can also be taught how to do the primary teaching at home. 

Developmentally appropriate curriculum is particularly important for Bible study offered at church, she said. Referring to a chart outlining 10 “Levels of Biblical Learning” developed by LifeWay Christian Resources, Iorg said a good curriculum will give a child a well-rounded theology. 

“It’s easy to neglect one area if you don’t have a plan,” she added, explaining how LifeWay curriculum offers a comprehensive approach over the course of two to four years. 

As parents and teachers help a child to follow God, Iorg said it is important to recognize that only God can offer salvation. “We can help the child know that God speaks to them and encourage them to respond to God,” she said, pointing to the example of Eli in helping Samuel go and listen to what God was telling him. 

“You cannot think that you can control your child the rest of his life. You get him prepared for what God has for his life.” Teaching a child to respectfully follow adults prepares him to learn how to follow God, she explained. 

“We are careful to instruct them about God and guide them to him, but not try and be God for them. They must have their own relationship with God and follow him on their own.”

Preschoolers should be encouraged to continue learning about God even when they’re not really ready to respond to God, Iorg said. She recommended Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor as a means of asking young children about a Bible story in order to find out what they’re thinking. “We think it’s so important to tell our kids things but forget to listen to find out how they’re processing it.”

As children grow older and come under conviction for the sin in their lives, they are likely to ask a lot of questions, Iorg said. “They may be disobedient as they struggle with their sin and their need for God,” even ignoring or disagreeing with the parent for a short time.

“Children are ready to decide to follow God when they show a genuine sadness about their bad choices and are consistent in their desire to decide to follow God,” she added. “Little kids often will say, ‘We believe in God, don’t we Daddy? We love Jesus, don’t we Mommy?’” as a means of tagging onto the parent’s faith. 

“When they get ready to receive Christ they say, ‘I believe,’” she explained. “Notice the pronoun change. That will give you a clue that it’s a personal decision for Christ.”

Through careful follow-up, a parent can interact with the child to determine whether a decision represents a genuine conversion. Iorg recommended LifeWay’s I’m a Christian, Now What? as a resource for careful discussion.

Spiritual development in young children also includes teaching them to love others, Iorg reminded. “We mentor children as we teach them how to follow God. We give them opportunities to serve with our support until they are old enough to serve God and others on their own.”  

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