How to Help Children Grow In Faith


by Robert Keeley
Reviewed by Sue Payne, Greg Carlson, and Holly Allen
CEJ Book Symposium

Robert Keeley’s book is called Helping our children grow in faith: How the church can nurture the spiritual development of kids. Keeley answers the question: “How do we explain our faith to children in ways that are simple enough for children to understand, but, at the same time, how do we help them develop a deep faith that is able to stand up to the questions that they will ask?”

Dr. Keeley presents a model for helping children develop a three-dimensional faith, a faith that affects their heads, their hearts, and their spirits.

  • The “head” dimension is knowledge of the stories of the Bible that reveal who God is and how He works in people’s lives.
  • The “heart” dimension emphasizes that children must learn to love God and to love each other with “an emotion that runs deep and shows a commitment to others that does not fade” (14).
  • The “spirit” dimension is the desire for children’s faith to be a part of the “very fabric of their lives . . . part of their DNA” (14). Faith must be rooted deep inside so that “even when our head doubts or our heart falters, our faith remains strong” (14).

This three-dimensional faith is a long-term task, strongly relational, and is best developed when leaders know God’s Word and understand the special needs and abilities of children.

Keeley organizes the book around six principles for helping to develop three-dimensional faith in children:

1. Children need to be nurtured in their faith by the whole community of faith, not just their parents.

• Keeley argues that the meaning for family in the first-century Jewish culture (mishpahah) is much broader than the contemporary western culture notion of a nuclear family. This biblical idea of family is better aligned today with the contemporary idea of community. The entire community takes the shared responsibility for raising the children. The church must take the responsibly for creating a “house of learning” (27) where educating and raising up children to know who God is becomes a primary emphasis. He acknowledges that this takes extra thought and effort on the part of all members of the community, and he includes suggestions from his ministry experience of working to create such a community.

2. Children need to be part of the whole life of the church.

• “Children need to be part of the whole life of the church.” (37). He argues that Jesus showed the great value he placed on children by specifically doing things with them, healing children, and using the humility of children as an example to the disciples. Jesus was countercultural in both the Hebrew and Roman cultures of his time when he placed such value on children. Keeley feels that welcoming children involves “making them feel as though they are important and that they have a place in our fellowship” (43). Separating children in “wonderful high-powered programs” (46) is not the intergenerational approach that the author sees in the New Testament. Programs that bring the community together are to be preferred.

3. Children need to know that God is mysterious.

• “Hiding these mysterious aspects of God from children gives them an incomplete picture of who he is. It is not only acceptable for children see that God is mysterious but it is essential ” (57). Giving a brief overview of Fowler’s faith development stages, Keeley argues that by teaching children that there is mystery to faith, they are prepared to face the natural developmental questioning and doubts that come in early adulthood (Stage 4: Individuative- Reflective) when faith is personally internalized. By teaching the complexity of faith and the mysteries of God (suffering, disappointment, and prayer), children will develop a “rich faith, a faith that acknowledges that there is much about God and the way he works that we do not know” (60).

4. Bible stories are the key to helping children know a God who is mysterious and who knows them for who they are.

• Keeley observes that the primary purpose for the biblical narratives is to teach knowledge of God and teach about humankind’s relationship to God. He cautions against simplifying the message of a Bible story to a moral point that gives children the impression that the story is only about a moral lesson. Instead, drawing on Stonehouse (Joining 430 Christian Education Journal Children in the Spiritual Journey, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), Coles (The Spiritual Life of Children, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), and Berryman (Godly Play, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1991), the author argues that the power of a story is more than the sum of its parts, so stories should be allowed to speak. He includes a helpful section on the mechanics of good storytelling.

5. Faith and moral development are both important but they are not the same thing.

• With an overview of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development and a short survey of morality in Scripture, Keeley encourages, in chapter 6, finding the balance between helping children see how the Bible stories apply to their lives and avoiding moralizing each story. Keeley argues against literature that purports application as the primary purpose of children’s lessons. “Taking a view that each story in the Bible must have a direct life application puts an unreasonable expectation on the stories” (87). Stories can have faith lessons (“a reflection on the story that helps us think about who God is, who we are, or what our relationship with God is like” [91]) without necessarily having a moral lesson (“a teaching that shows correct character or behavior” [90]).

6. Children should be part of congregational worship and they should also have opportunities to experience developmentally appropriate worship. (18)

• The final principle is to include children in congregational worship as well as to have opportunities for developmentally appropriate worship for children. Chapter 7 gives practical suggestions for including children in intergenerational worship as well as creating worship experiences for children using the Stewart and Berryman model of Young Children in Worship (Louisville, KY:Westminster John Knox, 1989). Keeley includes a short discussion of Piaget and multiple examples from his experience. There is also an appendix with a complete drama about Paul’s missionary journey as an example of how to involve children in worship.

A church culture where children are valued would include involving all children in the life of the church, providing authentic tasks in which they can be involved, thinking about children in the planning of all church programs and events, helping children look for the sacred in the ordinary, offering developmentally appropriate activities, and encouraging adult-child relationships.

This accessible and readable book presents foundational aspects of children’s ministry and faith development. The three-dimensional model that Keeley presents can be a helpful structure on which to build discussions in the classroom or church. If every community of faith sought to find the balance between the head, the heart, and the spirit of the child in nurturing their spiritual development, they would be more effective partners with the Holy Spirit in helping all children grow in faith.

Click here to download the entire article.



About The Author
Dr. Robert J. Keeley is Professor of Education and Chair of the Education Department at Calvin College where he teaches educational psychology and religious education in the elementary classroom. He and his wife, Laura, have “lived” children’s ministry as they serve as Directors of Children’s Ministries at 14th St. Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI, and have raised four children of their own.

About the Reviewers
• Susan E. Payne, Assistant Professor, Christian Ministries, Northwestern College, St. Paul, MN.
• Gregory C. Carlson, Chair and Professor of Christian Ministries, Trinity International University, Deerfield, IL.
• Holly Catterton Allen, Associate Professor of Christian Ministries and Director of Children and Family Ministries, John Brown University, Siloam Springs, AR.

CEJ Book Symposium of Helping Children Grow in Faith is taken from the Christian Education Journal, CEJ: Series 3, Vol. 5, No. 2. Copyright 2008; p 428-439. All rights reserved. Permission granted by Christian Education Journal.

Want to share this article outside of your ministry? Want to post this electronically? Please contact Dr. Kevin Lawson, Editor for permission

Subscribe to Christian Education Journal:

Share with friends...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

One Response

  1. prabah December 23, 2014

Leave a Reply