So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. (Genesis 1:27a)
Historically, childhood has been viewed through various lenses as theology and culture have evolved. For instance, by examining medieval artwork, one could conclude that the idea of childhood did not exist until modernity. The artwork during this time portrayed children as smaller adults with disproportionate bodies. It is not until after the medieval period when artwork depicted children realistically.
Western society has since shifted substantially in its view of childhood, where three paradigms of childhood have emerged. The first paradigm to emerge, called the production line model resembles the work of the English philosopher, John Locke, who presumed children came into the world as blank slates. Our contemporary society has adopted some of his ideas including metaphors of children as wet cement or sponges, endorsing children as passive objects waiting to be molded into functioning adults.
During the twenty-first century, human development theorists such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Sigmund Freud put forth psychoanalysis which suggested that children progress gradually through developmental stages and needed to be nurtured to be properly developed human beings. Thus, the greenhouse model surfaced which placed adults as the “gardeners,” ensuring appropriate environments in which children matured. Both the production line and greenhouse metaphors of childhood require adults to do things to and for them to grow and mature, treating children as raw materials to be formed, thus robbing children of their own agency.
Instead, I want to invite us all to view children as pilgrims on a spiritual journey with adults. This theory of childhood allows children to be active participants on their spiritual journey instead of passively soaking up information or simply passing through predetermined life stages. Treating children as pilgrims on a spiritual journey requires us to view children for what they are: God’s image bearers. Steven Bonner reminds us that children are “endowed with imago Dei,” and just like adults, children have “God-given mental and spiritual capacities.” When we deny children of this esteem, we rob them of their innate imago Dei gift, which Bonner argues as being inconsistent with Christ’s teachings. If we are to live with children as co-pilgrims on the spiritual journey, we must esteem them as such by recognizing in our theology and practice that children are kingdom dwellers as they are right now.
So, what does this mean for the church and our children’s ministries? I will be putting out a six-part series through the CHARIS blog which will address historical and scriptural understandings of the spirituality of children and practical ways to implement these understandings into our churches and family lives. I invite you all to join me on this journey!