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Philosophy of Spiritual Formation


It’s time to start looking into the spiritual formation of boys and how we effectively grow or develop into spiritual beings. It’s the connection of the last chapter on our view of purpose and intention along with a better understanding of what the spiritual development in boys (children) should look like, that will give us a strategy for ‘plugging in’ to the problem statement.


The Theory of Cognitive Development by Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, suggests that children’s intelligence undergoes changes in stages as they grow. These changes are associated with behavioral changes, too. Cognitive development in children is not only related to acquiring knowledge children need to build or develop a mental model of their surrounding world . Stages of this development are generally divided up as follows:


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  1. Sensorimotor stage (0–2 years old): Children learn about their environment through their senses and motor activities.

  2. Preoperational stage (2–7 years old): Children improve on their ability to use mental abstractions rather than physical appearances of objects or people i.e. engaging in pretend play and talking about events that happened in the past. They also begin to understand causality, identity, categorization, numbers,

  3. Concrete operational stage (7–11 years old): Start solving problems as they are able to see other outcomes and perspectives. Spatial, directional, and mathematic abilities improve. They learn the idea of conservation where things can be the same even though they look different and, in turn, understand reversibility, centering and decentering.

  4. Formal operational stage (11 years old through adulthood): Abstract thought categorizes this stage. They can think about hypothetical situations and various possibilities, like situations that don’t exist yet, may never exist, or might be unrealistic and fantastical. Children become capable of hypothetical-deductive reasonsing, which allows them to test hypotheses and draw conclusions from the results.

We will not assume to understand the cognitive development of children further than this. But know that this is not the only theory of cognitive development out there on how children learn to process the world around them.

Here is the takeaway from this academic summary:


Sensorimotor Stage:

Infants in Piaget’s sensorimotor stage are, at first, not able to differentiate self from other. For individuals at this level, the only “knowable” information is what is directly detectable by their sensory or motor experience. In churches, this would be Nursery and Toddlers (0-2). My wife used a curriculum for these ages produced by Palma Smiley. It was quite effective when done well. (And my wife did it VERY well.) The ‘lesson’ had a similar structure each week. There was little or no talking. Everything was sung in ditties. There were several props (visual markers) and repetition was the key. There were only a few primary themes that were repeated over and over again: God made me. God loves me. Creation. I love the Bible. Baby Jesus in the manger, etc. Lots of hugs and an intimate setting.


Pre-Operational Stage:

In the Pre-Operational Stage, the relationship between the individual and an external Power is understood at a mythical level without logical explanation. So, if someone dies, they may be able to connect the idea to a God who is ‘out there’ It’s similar to the notion that there’s someone ‘out there’ watching over us. This would be the 2-7 year-olds. Churches normally will have a Pre-school program from 2-4 and start a graded program beginning with kindergarten through grades 5, 6. So this stage in Piaget’s theory would impact children from Pre K classes to Grade 2.


Concrete Operational Stage:

From around Kindergarten through the age 11, I suggest a Bible literacy program to capitalize on the cognitive development of this learning stage which is characterized by adherence to logical reasoning at increasing levels throughout this spectrum. At this level, children may be more inclined to seek relationship with a God, that has only been mythical and subjective (generally) at the previous level of cognitive development. There is more to say here on how this may manifest itself through the idea of ‘reciprocity’. Generally, this is a concept noted by Piaget that is introduced in this stage. So, in spiritual formation it may have more to do with ‘doing’ for God and ‘getting’ in return than ‘being’ for God and receiving the grace available through a relationship with Jesus.


Holy Spirit:

Before moving into the formal operation stage of development and connecting it to spiritual development, I need to veer away and talk about THE most important component of this process which has not been mentioned yet: THE HOLY SPIRIT. It’s hard to know where to stop the academics from talking and start talking about the real ‘guide’ to this whole process, which is the Spirit of God. Listen, I have been involved in children’s ministry for my entire adult life. I have seen children do amazing things under the unction of the Holy Spirit. As one of my friends says, “children’ don’t have Baby Holy Spirits.” There’s no negating the reality of this. Children can be saved, receive the Holy Spirit and learn to move in His power.

However….

I need to share my thoughts on the doctrine of soteriology as it relates to children. Keeping in mind all that has been said here already, I find that children do not have the capacity to understand their sin nature. It is my belief that this is necessary in the salvation process. Now, I do very much believe in Prevenient Grace, which covers all people from damnation in terms of accountability. That ‘age’ or ‘day’ of accountability is between the individual and God alone. But prior to that, there is no doubt that God will not condemn anyone to eternal separation from heaven apart from accountability.


Due to cognitive development, most children will explain sin as something they do and not something they are. This fundamental error keeps them from seeing their desperate need for a Savior. Because if they can just stop ‘sinning’, like being mean to their sister, then they could go to heaven. This is an error in thinking that has to do more with the stage of cognitive development they are in than anything else. Children are still innocent and understanding sin nature is a very abstract idea that is generally hard to grasp. If they DO make a connect to their desperate need for God, it is more a supernatural connection made for them by the Holy Spirit. How hard is it for a child in this age to think about our righteousness being like a filthy rag to God. (Isaiah 64:6). There is none righteous, no not one. (Romans 3:10). Generally, I think a most likely age of accountability is more like 12 or 13, when we are able to understand abstract ideas, be able to rationalize and consider hypothetical situations. Then through a more ‘analytic’ approach (I know that it’s not head knowledge, but heart knowledge, still…)they are able to make a conscious decision to accept the salvation offered through Christ through his death and resurrection. This was also VERY MUCH the model of the ancient Jewish traditions.


The ‘Launching Pad’

So, it seems more important to me that children up to ages 11-12 should be engaged in a curriculum based on Bible literacy. This is so that they will have the tools they need, well in hand, to apply to their lives once they are saved. It’s the multiplication tables to basic math. It’s reading, writing, and arithmetic to academic development. It’s the LAUNCHING PAD for proper spiritual formation.

This is why I suggest a curriculum for primary grades rooted in Chronological Bible Storytelling; a constant reinforcement of the God arc in story and how each story within that arc fits into the overall chronology of God’s story. Give them the beginning, middle, and end. Story is still the most powerful tool of communication we have available. It was good enough for Jesus! Start with once upon a time and finish with happily ever after. That’s why story is divine and powerful; because it follows a divine structure.


But introducing a concept like this will not be easy because “WE HAVE NEVER DONE IT THIS WAY”. Yikes. The last seven words of the church. Even though it has been successful, the notion of ‘Sunday School’ has done a great disservice to making children (and especially boys) disciples of Christ. The old ‘jug to mug’ model of teaching has been the way to go since the beginning of the Sunday School era continuing on through Vacation Bible School. We sit the kids in ‘classes’ with tables and chairs and feed them a weekly dose of lessons that are developed for teachers to teach in school. YECH. These programs bear little resemblance to the way Jesus taught his followers and nothing like the way he interacted with children.


Then, of course, there’s the paradigm shift of getting your teachers to be storytellers, which is no small matter. But it’s important in casting vision for a curriculum that is designed to tell story.


Theoretically, my proposed curriculum would be organized as follows:

If I was graphing it, the vertical column (y-axis) would be the grade levels, 1-5. The horizontal columns (x-axis) would be the weeks in the year starting with Week 1 and ending with Week 52. The columns under “Week 1” would all be assigned a thread story. These stories are arranged chronologically according to Bible history. So, the first week might be called “In the beginning…”.


Grade 1: Creation (Through the animals)

Grade 2: Adam and Eve

Grade 3: Garden of Eden

Grade 4: Fall of Man

Grade 5: Cain and Abel


In the first week, everyone would be in the story thread called “In the beginning” which would be the first storyline in the Bible. Week 2 might be called “The Great Flood”.


In this thread would be:

Grade 1: God tells Noah to build an Ark

Grade 2: The Flood

Grade 3: The Flood subsides (Rainbow)

Grade 4: The New World

Grade 5: Tower of Babel


Each week a new thread is placed in chronological order that captures the theme/outline of the thread. This way, children are learning the story arc of God every year, but the stories go one level deeper than the year before. I have developed this idea for the 48 weeks of the year, allowing for religious holidays and special programming throughout the year. After the Gospels, the ‘stories’ are about Paul’s missionary journeys (in chronological order, not the order of the epistles interspersed with the stories behind Peter, John, and Jude, if necessary.

Think for a moment about the content in Ephesians. An isolated passage like the armor of God is a good subject matter for kids to learn in a non-curriculum-based program. But the books were written to encourage the new saints in a godless culture. Most of this is not suited to children and their spiritual development. Paul was a brilliant scholar and his teachings are generally far above the comprehensive abilities of a child. But a teaching on Paul’s missionary journey to Ephesus in Acts 18 and 19 is active and interesting. It is the ‘story’ behind the teaching. Coupled with a map and/or chart of where the journey started and perhaps more about the culture of the day, it would certainly build a strong foundation in understanding the content later in an application phase of spiritual growth.


Now, think about a foundation built on 5 years and 256 stories that continually reinforce the power of the story in chronological order. THAT is a launching pad of reading, writing, and arithmetic that makes a way for learning algebra, Shakespeare, debate, and a whole world of understanding that opens up in the formal operation stage of cognitive development.

I hope this little treatise on curriculum development suitable to ‘treign up’ children in the way they should go, has not overwhelmed you. Remember, we’re just laying out our philosophy for spiritual formation as a cog in the wheel of affirming boys in manhood.


Up to this point, we have established a problem statement and root causes for our hypothesis that boys are lost on their journey to biblical manhood. We have then paused to examine how ‘Treign Up is formulated to address parts of the problem based on our understanding of spiritual formation.

Whew!!! Next we’ll go into the second part of spiritual formation from age 13 and beyond and then move to ‘matching’ up our mission to the problem statement in developing goals and learning objectives. Stay tuned!!!

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