Lynn Alexander helps to clarify our theology and practice in Worship For Everyone, as we believe in and yearn for the freedom of the Spirit when we worship.
The subject of children and the Holy Spirit is fraught with tension for many of us. We may have felt that it’s better to concentrate on the well-known stories of the Bible and the familiar themes of God’s love and forgiveness. We might be tempted to wait till the young person is under the care of a youth specialist who will teach into this area. However, if we are to take seriously the solid research by David Kinnaman of the Barna Organisation (You Lost Me), it’s clear that, without intentional discipleship and shared experiences, the slide from faith can begin before a young person hits their teenage years. We can’t afford to wait! Kinnaman describes some young people’s faith as inch deep, mile wide1; that is, shallow, and I suggest that teaching children how to be open to the Holy Spirit and be used by him, not only keeps our children from leaving the church, but is an essential component of lifelong discipleship.
Consider the book of Acts. Christians of all ages weren’t singing hymns and listening passively to sermons in buildings with closed doors. Discover afresh what the extended household of faith looked like in order to more fully enter in to the importance of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He came upon believers to demonstrate a radical lifestyle reorientation and supernatural power was evident. Where were children in this? One thing we know for sure – they were not separate, nor do we read anything in Scripture that expressly forbids them from doing the same kinds of things that Jesus did. Professor Joel Green, a New Testament academic, has written extensively about community-nested practices2; a rejection of a separatist model of children and adults. He states that Acts forces us to reflect on the need to practise community as all ages together.
If we’re honest, sometimes our own beliefs about the person and work of the Holy Spirit influence what we are comfortable with teaching and leading children into, whereas my experience, and that many of others, demonstrates that the pressure is off us when we make space; children demonstrate their trust in a good God with a natural ease.
Is there any historical evidence of children being filled with the Holy Spirit or exercising spiritual gifts?
Ronald Kydd, in his extensive research, draws a clear conclusion that spiritual gifts were very important in this period. He says:
“We have drawn (material) from virtually every kind of person in the church. We have heard from bishops and heretics, philosophers and poets, storytellers and theologians. Generally speaking….the church prior to AD 200 was charismatic.”3
Whenever periods of effusion (outpouring of the Holy Spirit) have come upon the church, children have been present. They’re not meant to be excluded.
Harry Sprange describes many situations from past centuries where children were present during great moves of the Holy Spirit in the nation. Sometimes children were present in the gatherings alongside adults; sometimes there were separate meetings for children. During George Whitefield’s visits to Scotland, from 1741 to 1743, children under twelve years old heard the preaching to repent and showed great manifestations of sorrow and subsequent signs of being overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. This quote from a Church of Scotland minister, James Robe, in 1734, is a striking example:
“I had a room full of little ones yesternight making a pleasant noise and outcry for Christ; and two of the youngest; one of them but ten years of age, fainting and so distressed they could scarcely go home. I cannot write to you of the wonder I saw; one of eleven years of age crying out that she was sick of sin, and crying out with hands uplifted to heaven…”4
In 1800, at the Cane Ridge camp meeting in Kentucky, USA upwards of twelve to twenty-five thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds stayed for days and weeks to receive “the mighty power of God…with heavenly fire spreading in all directions…”.5 At one meeting there were between twelve to twenty five thousand people present. Evidence like this substantiates the conclusion that children are not excluded from receiving the promised Holy Spirit. Whole families came and camped out to partake in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at that time.
My own experience is that children can and do receive from the Holy Spirit. I personally get less hung up on defining exactly what that looks like to prevent children coming under undue pressure, but I press in to help children to love and get to know the person of the Holy Spirit as part of the Godhead. How can they experience more of someone they don’t know? I want children to know the Holy Spirit so that from the overflow of the love he has poured into their hearts (Rom 5:5), they will love and serve other people as Jesus did. There is no junior Holy Spirit! He is God and if we believe that our children can know God, then it follows that they can know the Holy Spirit. What he leads them into or to experience surely will be good!
This ability to be filled and used by God is underlined by Jesus’ description of what belonged to children in Mark 10:14. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Professor Judith M. Gundry points out that the Greek language:
“…uses a genitive of possession to describe the relation between the kingdom of God and little children such as those brought to Jesus: the kingdom is theirs. Thus it is appropriate that they now receive it.”6
Children clearly possess an ability to manifest the kingdom in ways that we may have long laid aside. I think their simple faith and trust can rub off on us. I have been changed by being around children’s hunger to know and experience God as their loving Father. I am drawn to what they see and experience of God and I believe they demonstrate sheer dependence as recipients of the kingdom of God. I also trust God; that he is good; that his Holy Spirit is good; that his word can be trusted – which means I fundamentally disagree that children can be damaged by being taught about and experiencing the Holy Spirit and his gifts and his role in the world today. What is more, there is broad agreement amongst many tribes and streams within the Christian church that we need to talk less and allow children to experience more. Pure information-transfer discipleship is not enough. As Ivy Beckwith writes:
“Generation Y is experience-oriented. These kids find meaning and value in immediacy and in living in the moment. Their mantra for life and learning is ‘I want to try it’. Only then will they decide if they like the experience or not…”
“They want to use all their senses as they learn, and they want their learning environments to provide experiences, not just facts and formulas. They want to DO in order to learn. And when it comes to experiencing a spiritual life – and they are spiritual people – they want to experience God, not just learn about God. They don’t just want to be entertained.“7
Children are to experience the person, presence and power of the Holy Spirit within the safety net of a loving community of faith with accountability in relationships. What a place the local church is! We are the safest place in earth for children to grow in worship, for adults to have hard hearts challenged and changed, for all ages to open up for the glory of God to descend. Come, Holy Spirit!
LORD, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells. (Psalm 26:8)
A fuller version of this article appeared in Childrenswork magazine, Feb/March 2014 edition. www.childrenswork.co.uk
- David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young People are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith, p115
- Joel B. Green, “Tell Me a Story”: Perspectives on Children from the Acts of the Apostles, in The Child in the Bible, edited by M. Bunge, p222
- R Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church, p87
- Harry Sprange, Children in Revival, p37
- K Hardman, Issues in American Christianity, p120
- Judith M. Gundry, Children in the Gospel of Mark in The Child in the Bible, p151
- Ivy Beckwith, Postmodern Children’s Ministry, p31 (emphasis added)