The House that Faith Built

Faith Development

“When Jesus comes again,
we will all hold onto kites,
and the wind will blow and blow
and blow us up to Heaven.”

– 4 year old


The year Naomi was in my four-year-old class, I probably learned more from her than she learned from me.  She was petite, with an olive complexion, dark straight hair, and deep brown, thoughtful eyes.  She loved Jesus and was ready to share him with her friends.

In group time one night, Kara announced that her tummy hurt. Before I had time to say, “Let’s pray for Kara,” Naomi had already moved beside Kara.  She had placed her hands on Kara’s arm and was praying.

I have not seen many children who were as spiritually sensitive as Naomi.  But we need not be fooled.  Children are spiritual beings, just as adults are.  They have deep, important questions and thoughts.  They are often more ready to express a simple, matter-of-fact faith in Jesus than we adults who have become skeptical about anything we can’t experience with our five senses.

Robert Coles, in his book, The Spiritual Life of Children, says that the research and writing of that book was “a project that, finally, helped me see children as seekers, as young pilgrims well aware that life is a finite journey and as anxious to make sense of it as those of us who are farther along in the time allotted us.”1

Children are busy creatures, working every day to find their place in the world.  A child works at becoming her own person, discovering who she is.  She works at establishing her individual identity.  She works at growing physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

We have an important role to play in helping children become all God made them to be.  Our goal is for our children to become independent in their dependence on God.  We want them, of their own will, to seek God and establish an eternity-long relationship with Him.

Growing Up in Our Salvation

The apostle Peter encouraged us to “grow up in our salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-3).  In a sense, salvation is like the shoes or shirt we buy a size too large, knowing our child will “grow into it.”  We receive our salvation from Jesus.  We are saved.  Period.  The work has been done.  But salvation is much too big for us.  Thanks to God’s grace, we have the rest of our lives to “grow into it.”

Since we work with children, it’s important to know about the growth process.  It’s important for us to see where children have been and where they are going.  We cannot transfer our faith to them by osmosis, but we can help them “prepare Him room,” as the Christmas song says.

At some point, belief in the facts about Jesus must become faith in Jesus.  The lifestyle of Christianity must become life in Jesus.  Head knowledge must become heart knowledge.  Our wills must be submitted to His will.  Allegiance to “a church” and a set of doctrines must become subordinate to total surrender to Jesus.  We must come to know Him as our best friend, our Master, our Lord.

Some people accept Jesus’ Lordship earlier than others.  Young children can be very sensitive to what Jesus has done for them and to how God wants them to respond.  Others may not respond until they are teenagers or young adults.  In either case, their response can be deep and life-changing.  Whether people are young or old when they come into God’s kingdom, their faith should continue to develop as they “grow up in salvation.”

In leading people to Jesus, our place is never to manipulate them.  Our job is:

  • to introduce them to God and His saving grace
  • to feed and nurture their spirits
  • to be sensitive to their readiness
  • to provide opportunities for them to express their faith as it grows, including asking   Jesus to be their Lord and Savior.

We must not push for what we would like to see happen.  Instead, we must wait on God and give Him room and time to work as He wills.  We have the privilege of watching God work in the lives of children, so their “faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Corinthians 2:5).

See How They Grow

In the following chapters, we’ll use Erik Erikson’s developmental tasks1 to delineate stages of growth, because his “tasks” have underlying spiritual significance.  In each stage, we will also look at faith development as researched by James Fowler2.  We’ll look at moral development through the research of Lawrence Kohlberg3, Dr. Thomas Lickona (4) and Dr. William Sears5.  We’ll also see how mental development affects each stage by looking at the research of Jean Piaget6 and Howard Gardner7.  (I footnote them here, but not in every subsequent reference in order to avoid cluttering the remaining text with numerals.)

Two caveats:

  1. No researcher has a complete understanding of their area of research.  My references to some of their specific findings does not mean I completely agree with all their theories.  Research in all these areas is ongoing, and other researchers may have different theories.  I refer to selected, specific information from these particular sources, because the information rings true from my experience and has obvious practical applications that I find extremely helpful to me as a teacher and parent.
  2. Developmental stages are true in a general sense.  No one is a statistic, and not everyone follows the growth pattern exactly.  Some children develop more quickly, some more slowly.  Still, everyone follows the same general blueprint.

Growing Faith

Growing faith is a bit like building a house.  In this case, each house is a temple in which the living God desires to dwell:  “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” wrote Paul (1 Corinthians 6:19).  As David said, “the Temple . . . is not just another building – it is for the Lord God himself!” (1 Chronicles 29:1).

Each child we teach, each temple we help build, is unique. Think of Noah, Moses, David, Daniel, Mary, Peter, Paul.  Each one had a deep faith in God, a faith on which their lives were founded.  But they were very different individuals.  God called and used each of them in very different ways.

The following study shows us the structural framework for faith, which is built in stages as children develop.  One thing this study does not show us is the point at which head-knowledge changes into a personal walk, when acceptance of a set of beliefs (a taken-for-granted faith) changes into abandoned trust in the Lord Jesus and dedication to His will.  However, most people who have given their lives to Jesus have done it between the ages of four and fourteen.  (8)  A careful look at faith development in the following chapters will indicate why that’s true.

What must a child know to come to God?  What must any person believe to please God?  1) That He exists.  2) That He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.  “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).  Children are natural seekers.  They just need us to point the way.

Realizing that Abraham believed before he ever understood has helped me in my own growing faith.  God commended Abraham for his faith, not for his understanding (Hebrews 11).  But Abraham trusted because he first had a relationship.

At the seaside, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to, “Follow me.”  And they did (Matthew 4:18-22).  Jesus never asked them to understand.  He did ask for their trust.  They knew enough about Jesus and had enough or a relationship with Him that they were willing to risk their future on His leadership.

On the hillside, Jesus told His disciples to pass five loaves and two fish to 5,000 people (Matthew 14:15-21).  He didn’t explain it.  He just asked them to trust.  Their trust that day grew out of the relationship they already had with Jesus.

On the lake, Jesus told Peter to throw his fish nets into the water, although Peter had fished all night long without catching anything (Luke 5:4-6).  Jesus didn’t expect Peter to understand.  He expected Peter to trust.  Peter’s relationship with Jesus was such that he was willing to trust.

As long as we live, no matter how smart we get, there will always be more of God to understand.  As David said, “His greatness no one can fathom” (Psalm 145:3)  So how much does a child have to understand to come to God?  Not much.  It begins with the child’s willingness, the desires of her heart, her soul looking to God – and it grows from there.  Because, as we will see, faith is not an act, it’s a process.

–from Child Sensitive Teaching, by Karyn Henley, Chapter 3.
© Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Exclusively administered by Child Sensitive Communication, LLC.