Looking back over my early childhood in the Lutheran church, I've observed how deeply ingrained an academic model is in our ministries for children and youth. Think about the structure of so many of our Christian education ministries. The majority of them still operate the same way they did in the 1950s when many ministries adopted the new academically-focused classroom model.
Time for a change?
Very little has changed over the last seventy years in our Sunday school rooms, even though the outcomes of numerous recent studies have told us this model isn't how everyone learns best. We know now that there are at least seven different learning styles, and the best curricula and teachers do cartwheels to ensure that each learner is engaged in a teaching style that reaches them in every lesson. But even as we perform teaching gymnastics, I believe one significant area of learning is sometimes overlooked: mindfulness.
Studies abound reflecting the benefits of mindfulness practices - not the least of which are awareness of being fully present, being peaceful and calm, and being acutely attuned to the world and those around you. I find that Lutheranism can sometimes overlook these values because Luther was, by training and trade, an academic. And as a result, Lutheran teaching often focuses heavily on the head-knowledge of God, sometimes spending more time on this than the connection to the heart. Yes, it's important to know the stories in the Bible. But it is equally as important to help children find their place in God's action and be able to identify how that changes or shapes their heart and, by extension, their faith.
Mindfulness practices for youth
In 2015, I introduced my teaching staff to the practice of including a primary mindfulness practice in every lesson. Each Sunday, we end our time with the students by doing something we developed called Spirit Center (you can download those resources here).
For the last five minutes of the class's time together, we guide children to sit in quiet (yes, even our three-year-olds do this) and listen for what God might be saying to their heart. We then ask them to respond to their learning and listening by indicating how they feel about what they've learned or experienced using colored strips of fabric which correspond to certain feelings/emotions. Thus, we give them a structure by which they can practice emotional language and connect it with what they're learning about God. This is the head-to-heart connection.
We also introduced something called 'Listening Day,' where, once each month, every children's ministry class spends the entire education hour engaged in spiritual practices - learning to reflect on and listen for what God is saying to their hearts.
Children choose between four spiritual practices: journal writing, praying in color, mandala coloring, and labyrinth walking. By making these practices part of our regular programs of formation, we have placed a priority on these activities as faith tools, which they'll take with them their whole life long.
As a result
The outcomes have been even more profound than I could have expected. I experience the students in an entirely different way than the years before we adopted these priorities. I experience them as kinder, happier, more generous, gracious, and with a profound awareness of others. These are the ways in which I believe we are called to help shape what Luther called 'little lights.' Let us give our students not only the opportunities to know God but also the opportunities to help them learn how God is shaping them as well.
Some great resources for mindfulness activities:
- Family Faith Jars: www.traci-smith.com
- "I Am Peace; A Book of Mindfulness" by Susan Verde
- "Story and Stretch" by Michel Le Gribble-Dates (we like to learn different poses and then tell simple Bible stories with the yoga poses!)
- "Growing Mindful" cards by Christopher Willard
- "Mindful Kids: 50 Mindfulness Activities for Kindness, Focus and Calm" by Whitney Stewart and Mina Braun
For similar blog posts, see https://blog.wearesparkhouse.org/intentional-church-nursery and https://blog.wearesparkhouse.org/great-youth-ministry-games-new,