I Can Know God: A Guide to Children’s Spirituality

By: Lindsey Goetz


At the Center for Faith and Children, we talk about “children’s spirituality” a lot. But what do we mean by that term? In theological writing, in current academic research, and in Scripture, we read about the spiritual experience of children. Children’s spirituality is distinct from child discipleship or christian education. While we believe both of these things are important, they are not the only work, or even the primary work, of the church with children. As followers of Jesus, each of us is responsible for attending to and nurturing the spiritual development of the children in our midst.1 But in order to fulfill this responsibility, we must be willing to learn about the spiritual lives of children. In this article, we will define what we mean by spirituality generally, and by children’s spirituality more specifically. We will look at Scripture to understand who has a part to play in a child’s spiritual development and what it is. We’ll look at what we know about how people develop spiritually and what helps form faith in children. Finally, we’ll get practical, offering you an opportunity to reflect both on your own spiritual experiences as a child, and on your practices as a children’s minister or parent. Based on that reflection, you will be equipped to take the next step towards a greater understanding of children’s spirituality in your own life and in your life and work with children, whatever that may look like. So get your coffee mug ready, settle in, and read on.


1. Matthew 19:13-15

What is Spirituality?

Theologian Jo Anne Taylor defines spirituality as “the search for God in response to God’s search for us.”2 While the word “spirituality” can be applied to a person who does not subscribe to any organized religion, as in “spiritual but not religious,” here, we use it to help us describe and engage the concept of a person’s connection with God. Our relationship to God is fundamentally different from all other relationships in our lives, and is, at its root, mysterious. Rather than downplaying that mystery or trying to explain it, we use the term spirituality to describe it. It is a word that is tricky to pin down, and rightfully so. Any time spent with a few models of spiritual development will show you that, just like ordinary development, though it typically follows a general pattern, it is not universal and often manifests in different ways.

The Samaritan Woman – John 4:1-42

Evangelical Christians ought not shy away from the concept of spirituality, but ought to embrace it, as Jesus did. Even though theologians and Bible scholars debate what exactly it means that humans are created in the image of God,3 one way to describe it is as having a special potential and capacity to experience life with God. This, of course, pertains to everyone, including children. As one author explains, “If ‘image’ is an innate propensity toward relationship, that capacity would…presumably always be present from childhood to maturity as a fundamental element of biblical anthropology.”4 This means that if we are to affirm the biblical teaching that all people are created in God’s image, we must affirm this for all children because God’s image isn’t something that you ‘earn’ when you become an adult. It is innate to being a person. At the Center for Faith and Children, when we use the word “spirituality” we are talking about a person’s capacity for engaging in a relationship with the triune God of the Bible.


2. Jo Ann Taylor quoted in Rebecca Nye, Children’s Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters (London: Church House Publishing, 2009), p. 2

3. Genesis: 1:27

4. W. Sibley Towner, Children and the Image of God in The Child in the Bible, ed. Martha Bunge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), p. 320

Spirituality in Scripture

Scripture is replete with explanations, images, and stories illustrating just how vital an understanding of ourselves as spiritual creatures is to a complete view of humanity. The stories of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan Woman and his conversation with Nicodemus in John chapters 3 & 4 both illustrate Jesus’ willingness to engage even the unwilling participant in a discussion about what we might now call spirituality. Though neither Nicodemus nor the Samaritan Woman is quite on the same page as Jesus, he is persistent in his exploration of the spiritual dimension with both of them. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks about living water, and about worshiping in Spirit and truth. Even now, Jesus’ words strike us as a little difficult to understand. The point that Jesus is getting at is that each of us possesses a dimension beyond what we can physically experience that is in need of substantial, lasting nourishment. Jesus is saying that worship isn’t just the actions we do, but that there is also something about the way those actions are done that matters to worship. It’s inherently mysterious and wonderful and perhaps even a bit intimidating.

In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, he says that people must be born again of the Spirit of God. Nicodemus is understandably confused by this statement, but in this conversation, too, Jesus speaks of the spiritual as though it were as real and present as the physical. Though we can read Scripture as adults and think only of ourselves at first, a few moments of reflection will lead us to realize that this idea must also include children. Children are able to be born again of the Spirit of God, just as adults are. Children are capable of relating with God just as much as adults are, and possibly, even more adequately positioned to do it because of their position in the Kingdom of God.5

Children are in a real sense God’s language in and through which he reveals his true nature and therefore the nature of his kingdom6

In Romans 8, Paul discusses how the interaction between the Spirit of the believer and the Holy Spirit can become a source of comfort and consolation, especially in the midst of distress, searching, or condemnation. If we believe that children are also created in the image of God and capable of being born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, it would follow that children are also able to experience these benefits of belonging to and relating with God. Laying aside the fact that these sorts of relational experiences with God are easily forgotten in Western Christianity, the fact that these are available to children is even less widely considered. However, our spirituality matters greatly to our maturity as disciples of Christ and to our experience of life as followers of Jesus in this world.


5. See Jesus' words in Matthew 18:2-5

6. Keith J. White, He Placed a Little Child in the Midst: Jesus, the Kingdom, and Children in The Child in the Bible, ed. Martha Bunge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), p. 320

How does Spirituality Develop?

Faith development theory refers to how people develop a belief system and grow in their relationship to their faith, or to put it another way, how a person’s spirituality develops. There are several popular names in this space including James Fowler, and John Westerhoff. If this is interesting to you and you’d like to explore these ideas in more depth, we suggest you look into our certificate of Children’s & Family Ministries, but for our purposes in this article, we’re just going to look at John Westerhoff’s Styles of Faith.

John Westerhoff was a professor of theology and faith development and a minister. His theory of faith development is profound in its simplicity. For Westerhoff, faith grows the way that a tree grows, adding layers and rings from the inside outwards. The four main styles of faith are as follows: Experienced Faith, Affiliative Faith, Searching Faith, and Owned Faith. The interesting thing about Westerhoff’s model is that faith formation is not linear. We never leave a stage of faith behind. Instead, it remains a part of who we are and how we experience our faith as we mature. This means that people at every stage of faith development have something to offer and something to receive from one another.



Play: Children make meaning of their faith through active participation and “play.” They watch, copy, and absorb faith from the environment.

Westerhoff’s is just one model of faith development theory, but it helps us to think about spirituality in a way that can help us make decisions about our priorities at different stages of faith development. Though we can’t assign an exact age to each stage, we can roughly surmise when a child who is growing up among the people of God will experience each stage, bearing in mind that we will all cycle through and access these stages for most of our lives.

What is Children’s Spirituality?

Rebecca Nye defines children’s spirituality as “God’s ways of being with children and children’s ways of being with God.”7 Children are developing a spirituality, whether that development is being attended to or not.  God is pursuing a relationship with children and children are responding to God. Research indicates that this is happening regardless of whether or not the particular adults in a child’s life are interested in introducing the child to God or not.8

Many who have worked with young children can tell you that young children communicate and learn primarily through play. In white evangelical churches, however, much of our engagement with God is heavily based on cognitive and linguistic skills. Do we see a disconnect here? Is it possible that children have ways of being with God that are very distinct from “adult” ways of being with God? Or is it possible that, if we spent time with children, we might learn some ways of being with God that would feed the other parts of our own selves, not just the intellectual and cognitive parts?  Dallas Willard suggests that spiritual disciplines are a means of making room for the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. Why would a child’s life be in any less need of these sorts of practices?

People who have dedicated their lives to the work of ministry with children could tell countless stories of the ways they have witnessed God pursuing a relationship with the children they know. Often this is expressed through artwork, through profound comments at random times, through questions and wondering that is evidence of deep thoughtfulness or curiosity. If you are a parent or have spent time with children in a church setting, chances are you have your own story of how a child’s expression of or wondering about  faith stopped you in your tracks.

So, it seems that God is interested in a relationship with children as children, not as mini-adults. If we believe that God has created children in his image and understands how they are made9 then we must conclude that God intends to connect with children in ways that they are capable of engaging with developmentally. After all, Jesus commanded his disciples not to hinder children from coming to him.10 Certainly he knows that this would be our tendency.

In children’s spirituality then, the objective is for children to have opportunities to respond to the God who is pursuing them in ways that are natural and meaningful to them. For adults the objective is often, “help me know God by myself.”11 A few moments of reflection will lead us to realize that many times the role of adults with young children is to assist them in the development of skills and experiences that will serve them as they take greater ownership of different domains of their lives such as personal care and grooming, education, and social interaction. It is similar in children’s spirituality. The adult has the opportunity to come alongside a child and together pay attention to the work that God is doing. The main difference here is that there is a third person in the relationship–God.


7. Nye, 5

8. Scottie May and other authors discuss specific stories in their book Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community

9. Psalm 103, 139

10. Matthew 19:14

11. Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child (Mt Rainer, MD, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Publications, 1992), p.45

Who has a part to play in Children’s Spirituality?

The role of God

As we have highlighted several times, God is initiating relationships with children. Scripture teaches us that Jesus is the one through whom we come to God,12 and that Jesus invites himself into our lives.13 Though both these texts are familiar, maybe it is unfamiliar for us to consider these texts applied to children. However, given what we have established about the statements of Jesus regarding children and the potential for relationship with God inherent to every person, including children, we must conclude that these verses also apply to children. Therefore, God is pursuing children and interested in a relationship with them as children, regardless of any adult’s mediation. The same things that are true about God’s pursuit of his people are true about the children among God’s people. What a gift to know that God longs to be known by the children we care about infinitely more than we desire that for them! Take heart, God is pursuing the children in your life.


12. John 14:6

13. Revelation 3:20

The role of general & special revelation

During both the experienced and affiliative stages of faith development (which typically occur during the ages of 0-12), the primary emphasis is naturally on the environment, with a secondary emphasis on the content. Or, put another way, the experience among and the community in which the faith development occurs are more important than the actual information about faith that is taught. This is not at all to suggest that content is unimportant, as even very young children often exhibit enthusiasm and deep joy when interacting with the stories of the faith or even when memorizing catechisms, songs, and Scripture passages. It is imperative however, that the environments children occupy are not implicitly teaching them messages that are counter to the nature of the gospel and of God as he is revealed in Scripture.

God is uniquely revealed to us in his Word. In addition to this, he has revealed himself generally in creation.14 This means that the good, true, and beautiful things we see in nature, and in the world around us can draw our hearts towards God, and cause us to “look back up the sunbeam,” as C.S. Lewis said.15 Children have a natural capacity for wonder and awe that is very rich and they often need little encouragement to stop, notice, and take in these experiences. Both a child’s experiences among the people of God (how church feels) and among God’s creation can be profoundly formative in a child’s faith development.  Often adults also can learn from and practice alongside children this wonder-filled existence that notices God present in and and work among his creation & creatures.


14. Romans 1:20

15. C.S.Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, 1992) pp. 89-90

The role of the child

Children have agency and an ability to respond to the invitation of God. If God is pursuing children in their own right, then it must also be true that children are able to respond to God. Those who want to minister with and raise children must provide opportunities for children to do this in church or at home. We must resist the urge to fill all of our time with content, even from a well-intentioned desire to teach children the ways of God.

God knows how children are formed–he made them!16 God is interested in and able to relate to children as children, not as mini-adults. Through play, children can interact with God. In fact, a young child’s natural way of being with God will, by nature, be playful. Jesus welcomes children to interact with and relate to him as they are, and as this occurs, all people in God’s family have an opportunity to learn and to grow. I have been ministering with children for over a decade, and the journey towards viewing their play and wondering as a place where Jesus is delighted to meet them has been profoundly transformative for my own faith and for the adults who I have had the gift of working alongside in ministry. Remember, Westerhoff’s model can be compared to a tree–the center ring of experienced faith does not leave any one of us, but remains and is, in fact, nurtured as we engage in the practices of our faith with people for whom this experience of faith is most natural. Just as those with younger faith are nurtured by and inspired by those with mature faith, so those with mature faith are nurtured and experience their belonging as they interact with other “faithing selves.”


16. Psalm 103

The Role of Parents & Caregivers

Both research and the testimony of Scripture clearly show us that parents have a prime role to play in the spiritual development of their children. Parents are exhorted to raise children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord17 and to pass on the faith.18 Research indicates that parents are the most influential in shaping a child’s faith, and other influences, though important to different degrees, do not even come close.19 Many religious parents are aware of this reality, but our culture pulls us towards religion as a “personal lifestyle accessory,” rather than a “community solidarity project.”20 This means that each parent, to some degree, recreates religion in their own image as they attempt to pass it onto their child. Many homes today have two working parents and a full slate of extracurricular activities, church included. Most parents are either flying blind or replicating and reacting to the faith development they received as children.

It turns out that Scripture does give us ideas about what nurtures our relationship with God: the community of believers, worship, prayer, and Scripture. Research backs this up.21 How this looks in the life of each family will differ, but the important thing is that parents are honestly living their own life with God in front of their children. These parents will naturally be curious about how their child is experiencing life with God, and will vulnerability and appropriately share with their children from their own spiritual life.

This means that the primary task of adults in nurturing the spirituality of children is to look for, recognize, and help to make space for the Holy Spirit’s work as the primary teacher and also make space for and witness the child’s response. While adults may also provide direct teaching on morality, instruction and training in Bible reading and study, and catechesis, the adult who wishes to help nurture and honor the capacity of a child to relate to God directly must recognize that children are able to learn deep theological truths even if (and perhaps especially if) they are not directly taught and trust the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of children generally and the child in front of them specifically.

Think about it!

Where are you inviting the children in your life to listen to God’s invitations and to respond?



17. Ephesians 6

18. Deuteronomy 6

19. Christian Smith and Amy Adamczyk. 2021. Handing Down the Faith How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press USA - OSO

20. Smith &

Adamczyk, 73

21. For more research on what practices nurture family faith, see Families at the Center of Faith Formation by John Roberto and The Spiritually Vibrant Home by Don Everts.

The Role of the Family of God

Group Of School Children Singing In Choir Together

Psalm 78 paints a beautiful picture of intergenerational faith transmission, sharing the stories of faith from older to younger generations.  Researchers at the Fuller Youth Institute have found that each teen needs five adults who are invested in their lives to help them continue to remain a part of church for the long term.22 Church bulletins and newsletters are full of calls for volunteers, and you probably have several books on your shelf suggesting proven multi-step processes for the personal recruitment of volunteers to your ministry, but is that what children really need for their faith to thrive? We’re not knocking age-segregated ministry with kids. It’s often a really fun opportunity to help kids connect with one another and discover some of those child-like ways they can connect with God, but you know as well as we do that what the kids in your church need most are relationships with people who love Jesus and care about them. In addition to these special people, children need the support of the whole congregation, modeling lives of faith and offering a place where they can find belonging. The first two stages of faith development are intensely enhanced by a vibrant community of people who are living the way of the kingdom.

Many churches celebrate a ritual to mark a child’s entry into the visible church, whether dedication or baptism. Though churches believe differently about theology, the common theme here is the desire to recognize that God is drawing the child into a relationship, to point the child to the saving work of Jesus Christ, and to testify to the child’s ultimate place of belonging as the family of God (remember belonging as an essential part of faith development of young children from Westerhoff?). These milestones ought to be celebrated, not just by individual families, but by the whole church community as an opportunity to witness the work of God, to raise spiritual children, and as an opportunity to learn from the way of children.

The whole congregation can grow in its capacity to see children as people God wants to know. This means that the entire congregation ought to be expending some energy to come alongside the children in their midst to engage them as members of the body of Christ.

Can you imagine what that would be like? A church where every adult believes deeply that children are people God wants to know, and that as fellow members of Christ’s body, they ought to be invested in their faith nurture? What if every adult in your church were committed to making space for children, to attending their questions and wonderings, to helping them to feel belonging and safety among the people of God? What if every church board, elder, and leadership team committed to seeing children’s boredom and inactivity in the worship service as a gift, an invitation to learn and to grow in our life of worship together? What if every congregation was invested in noticing and affirming what God is doing in the lives of the children?

We know you can imagine it!

We are sure this is what you dream about at night, because we do too!

We bet you have some great ideas about what this looks like at your church or dreams about how this can look. Do you want to share them with someone?


22. https://karapowell.com/2018/08/preventing-teenage-faith-drift/

What Nurtures Children’s Spirituality?

If you’ve made it this far, we’re guessing this is resonating. Whether you’ve read about faith development before or not, this probably tracks with you. We’re pretty sure you have invested a lot of your own time learning about children’s ministry, walking alongside the children you know, and coming to Jesus together with them. This all sounds wonderful, but we all know that ministry life is rarely the gold standard. You have to contend with actual schedules, real people, and the constraints and gifts of your ministry context. How do we help people actually get these ideas into their everyday lives? How do we incorporate them into our ministries? What does this long article about Children’s Spirituality have to do with our churches and homes?

We hope that when you think about children’s spirituality, you’ll picture more of a garden than a classroom. We hope that when you think about your role, you’ll picture yourself more as a shepherd or gardener than as a teacher or boss. We hope that you’ll imagine your church as a family rather than a corporation. Do you see what we’re getting at here? The way a church or home environment feels has a lot to do with how a child’s spirituality will develop, especially in the early years. But the ethos, the feel of a place, can be tricky to pin down. It’s something we can think, pray, and talk directly about, but it’s created in micro moments and tiny habits.

Want to get what you’ve read here into the nitty-gritty day-to-day ministry? Want to help parents in your congregation foster this kind of an environment in their homes? We knew you would! We’ve taken the theological underpinnings from this article, combined it with research, and some of the best ideas we’ve heard from children’s ministry leaders like you and consolidated it into this guide Thrive: Cultivating Spiritually Vibrant Homes . It’s not a list of things to do, it’s a guide for your imagination. Parents will love the focus on environment, the cultivation and creation of a space, while church leaders will appreciate the tangible, actionable suggestions for cultivating these sorts of environments, both within the church and in the homes of your congregation members. You can download our guide to read in depth about each of these.

What’s Your Next Step?

Ok, your coffee cup is empty and you’ve finished this whole article. But now what do you do? How does this article move from something you scrolled through one Tuesday afternoon to something that impacts your work and your ministry? Chances are you can’t do the whole thing today. Chances are you can take one step. If you’d like to take another step towards Children’s Spirituality, here are a few suggestions:

1. Reflect on your childhood experience of faith

  • What do you picture when you think about your experience of faith as a child?What good memories do you have? What challenging memories do you have?
  • Can you remember a time as a child when you felt especially close to God? Write about or draw a picture of this experience and then share it with someone else.
  • Who are the people who nurtured your faith either as a child or when you were young in faith? Spend some time thinking about these people, reflecting on their role in your life and praying for them.

2. Learn more about Children’s Spirituality

3. Listen to children

  • Ask some of the children you know if you can spend some time listening to them. Ask them some questions about their life with God.
  • Read Spiritual Conversations with Children by Lacy Finn Borgo and try one or two of the activities in that book with children you know. Or use her divinely curious questions to practice listening with children.

4. Reflect on where you are and where you would like to be:

  • For Children’s Ministry Leaders: What response opportunities do I usually lean towards for children? Rote memorization or recitation of facts? Questioning or wondering about the text? How often do I make room, give tools, or create space for a child to directly connect with God?
  • For Parents: What is the percentage that I talk to my child about spiritual things vs listening to my child share his or her wonderings, questions, ideas, and experiences of God. How much of what I share with my child is information and how much of it is my authentic life with God?
  • Aa


    Play: Children make meaning of their faith through active participation and “play.” They watch, copy, and absorb faith from the environment.

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