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child looking at starsSpiritual Growth for
Elementary School Children

If only it were so easy for us to track spiritual growth!What does it mean to grow? When children are first born, we ask about their weight and their height so we can get a general sense of their size. A ten-pound baby? Whoa! A two-pound baby? A miracle! Parents of young children watch them grow steadily and get reports on their growth percentiles.

If only it were so easy for us to track spiritual growth! “Annie is at the 90 percent for understanding justification because she can sing all the words to Jesus Loves Me, but she’s only at the 50 percent for understanding sanctification because she doesn’t always share her toys with others, and she says “No” a lot to her parents.” Poor Annie, constantly breaking the fourth commandment and breaking the spirit of the fifth commandment. Sigh. Maybe someday her sanctification will catch up to her justification.

It seems like such an internal event for each person. How can we be sure that students really are growing spiritually?In some ways, we do watch the spiritual growth of children through our Lutheran education system. It’s just hard to quantify that growth. How do we know there has been spiritual growth happening lately? It seems like such an internal event for each person. How can we be sure that students really are growing spiritually? Am I doing enough to help my students? (Let’s be honest, this could easily turn into another situation where we think, “Great, yet another thing that I have to create an observation form and check off evidence of it as I see it.”)

Before we start to create that checklist of observing spiritual growth, we need to know what to look for. I’ll admit that thinking about spiritual growth also made me think about faith formation in children. Are they the same? Are they different? How so? Many Lutheran educators are familiar with ideas such as faith stepping stones, and there are many good options available. Perhaps your church or school presents newly baptized infants with a CD of Christian lullabies and a Baby’s First Bible. Perhaps your church or school presents third graders with their very own student Bibles in a special portion of a church service. Perhaps your church teaches a first communion class for fifth graders, enabling them to participate in Holy Communion at that point. Catechism classes in school or at church, Sunday school classes, Jesus time, or daily religion classes are typical ways that we share our Christian faith and Lutheran heritage. But what evidence do we see of spiritual growth?

The various techniques for faith formation are the how of spiritual growth. As Lutheran educators, we are specialists in faith formation. (Oh, if only we were paid the same as specialists in other fields, such as medicine, law, or finance, right?) Or more accurately, we’re special agents of the Holy Spirit. We can read books to babies and toddlers about the colors in church and show them toys to model the days of creation. We can help preschoolers place stickers on story pages and assemble small boxes to put coins in at home so they understand the idea of giving “money for Jesus!” with a special zeal that can only be found in that age group. We can read Bible stories and teach corresponding songs to our young elementary students. (Who doesn’t love a good round of “Twelve Men Went to Spy on Canaan”?) We can do everything except actually create the faith.We can play Bible trivia with middle schoolers. What a great way to see how many Bible stories they remember—or don’t. We can help older students prepare and present in chapel so they are sharing the faith with younger students. We can help our high school children prepare and participate in servant events in our local communities or all across the country. We can do everything except actually create the faith.

Stop now to read Matthew 13: 1–9 for wisdom and guidance from Jesus.

Lutheran educators have very little control over the homes and circumstances where their students live. This can be frustrating at times. Whether you are teaching in an impoverished area or an affluent area, you will find some messed up families. Our challenge is to help create “good soil” for as many students as we can, so that God’s Word can produce the fruits of the Spirit in the lives of our students. This is the heart of spiritual growth: creating and nurturing good soil for those seeds to grow.

This is the heart of spiritual growth: creating and nurturing good soil for those seeds to grow. What does “good soil” mean? Yes, I may have just done a search on the Internet for that very question. Yes, I teach earth science to middle school students right now, and we’ve just talked about weathering, erosion, deposition, and many other factors that create soil. Yet the answer is more complicated than just “nutrients, water, and oxygen.” Why? Different types of plants, trees, crops, and vegetation require different types of soil. Here is an eye opening observation from the blog Deeproot: “Horticulturally speaking, there is no “bad” soil texture – plants grow in a variety of textures—but understanding soil texture helps you make informed decisions about plant choices, irrigation design and soil improvement measures.” If God, Creator of everything, created things to grow in any type of soil texture, surely the Holy Spirit can find ways for faith to grow in every type of community where we plant Lutheran schools! Now, let’s analyze the “soil” of our students to help them grow.

The longer I teach, the more firmly I believe this: Children of all ages need to feel needed. They need tasks. When they start doing tasks for others, we call that serving others. If we tell children that is what they are doing, some students love the idea, and others will balk at it. Creating good soil begins with reinforcing the first commandment: You are not God, and the world will not revolve around your every wish or desire. By giving children tasks, they develop the habit of helping out. Doing this regularly makes it second nature to them. This automatic response of helping others takes the focus off of what they are doing (or want to do) and shifts it to what others need. This can be a long, emotionally painful process for children. Honestly, it’s a painful process for adults at times too. At the various schools that I have served, I’m amazed at the different tasks that groups of kids eagerly volunteered for because they thought it was “fun.” Mop the classroom floor? “Yes! Can we also mop in the hallway?” Sure!

Serving others gives a purpose to our lives that is beyond our own situations at home.Serving others gives a purpose to our lives that is beyond our own situations at home. If I had to label it, I’d call it the “nitrogen” in our good soil. We might not always think of its importance, but it’s crucial. We cannot ignore the other elements of the soil. Nutrients are vital for growth. In a society where much of the information and even the means of communication (such as social media apps) are “watered down” so they are easily consumable, we should not ignore the value of teaching children to go “in depth” with God’s Word.

For years, the theory was that pastors should not mention any Hebrew, Greek, or even Latin from the pulpit because it might “intimidate” parishioners. Yet if done correctly, it brings a new depth to God’s Word that nothing else can. The same is true about the depth of Bible knowledge that we provide for our students. Are they reading God’s Word directly from the Bible? When I taught fourth and fifth grades, I made my students read verse by verse from the Bible. Great readers and poor readers, it didn’t matter their ability. Guess what happened? They learned where the books of the Bible were located (not just the names), they learned how to pronounce words they never encountered anywhere else in their school day, and they all became better at reading aloud. Go deep with students! Teach them more than others may deem “age appropriate” when it comes to word origins, foreign words, concepts in the parables. For most of my high school years and beyond, I learned information that never fully “clicked’ until later in life. Don’t be afraid to pile on these nutrients.

I want my students to be familiar with Portals of Prayer enough to grab their own copy from church for the rest of their lives.Finally, we “water.” Our own unceasing prayers for our students are a good start, but we can do even more when we model our own spiritual growth for the students. In my current classroom, we have created a classroom culture that has been nearly 20 years in the making. After pledges and Luther’s Morning Prayer, we have our morning devotions. I read the selected Bible reading from that day’s Portals of Prayer. Why Portals of Prayer? Because I want my students to be familiar with that resource enough to grab their own copy from church for the rest of their lives. After I read the Bible reading, one student reads the devotion. Then we all take out our blue notebooks and church directories. Our blue notebooks are our prayer journals. We ask for prayer requests. We’ve prayed for victories for sports teams. We’ve prayed for a loved one with cancer. We’ve prayed for brand new babies and for those who are mourning. Most of all we’ve learned to share our lives and pray about everything. Then we go through the church directory and add three families to our daily prayer list. We add the name of one student and family each day. We also include a missionary from our district to pray for that day. When students “can’t think of” any prayer requests, we know we’ll always be praying for church members, a student, and a missionary. My hope is that my students will keep their prayer journals and look back at them from time to time. What better way to recognize God’s hand in our lives? Ultimately, that is spiritual growth.

Tanya Johnson taught sixth grade in Guatemala before moving to St Louis, where she earned an M.A. in Practical and Systematic Theology from Concordia Seminary. She has experience in the business world and as a missionary, director of children’s ministry, writer, principal, and teacher.

Photos © iStock/Jason Fang, XiXinXing, Liderina