Educating out of Spirituality

A while back, I put a quick note on my blog recommending visitors to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s entertaining and insightful presentation at the 2006 TED talks. This week I decided to take another look at it. I had forgotten how revolutionary his ideas are not only to educational systems, but to the church.

Basically, Robinson argues that “We are educating people out of their creative capacities.” That is, as we teach children about math, science, languages, and the humanities, we are teaching them to repress—maybe even subdue—their creativity. He uses a quote from Picasso to make his point: “All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.”

Robinson’s prophetic words say much to the church about its ministry with children and youth. You see, as we are all born with an inherent creativity, I believe that all human beings enter the world as spiritual creatures. From before our first breathes, we are hard-wired to have a spiritual capacity, an ability to transcend ordinary, here-and-now realities and connect with that which is greater than us. To use Rebecca Nye’s terms, we are born with an innate “relational consciousness.”

That means that every young person that we meet in our church’s Sunday school wings, on the playgrounds next door, or selecting food from the local food back is a spiritual creature. They were born already having experienced an intense, conscious relationship with God. Now, many of us might assume that infants and young children aren’t conscious of their connection with God. But recent studies have shown that children engage in relationships with their caregivers from the first moments after birth—even while they are still in the womb. Why, then, can’t they have a relationship with God, the One who knit them together in their mother’s womb, from the first moments of life. Just because they can’t express this connection, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In fact, some more mystical individuals might argue that a young child’s relationship to God is more pure and unadulterated because it need not be expressed. It is a true spirit-to-Spirit connection unlike no other.

So, spirituality isn’t something that we achieve—it’s a gift from God that is woven into the very fabric of our innermost being. That is why we speak of spiritual formation and not spiritual creation. We can’t create a spiritual capacity in anyone. But we can help to form it. We can provide opportunities for children and youth to have spirit-to-Spirit connections with the One who gave them the gift of spirituality. Spirituality is something that can change, grow, and form. But it can also wither and fade away. To paraphrase Robinson’s words “We don’t grow into spirituality. We grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”

We can be educated out of our spiritual capacities. When we focus on memorization, doctrine, emotionalism, and just getting things done, we can actually eclipse our innate spiritual capacities. When we do nothing but teach our children about God, we can actually hinder them from having genuine experiences of God. Knowledge about God is certainly important; but when it becomes the sole purpose and focus of our ministries with young people, we might actually be educating them out of their spirituality. They leave Sunday school knowing all about the Bible, doctrine, proper practices, liturgy, and evangelism—but they can also leave without experiencing a life-forming encounter with the God who transcends our knowledge and reason. When we do nothing but teach about God, it becomes easy to forget that God is the unknown knower.

Let’s get back to Robinson’s presentation. He argues that within the educational system, there is a hierarchy of subjects. At the top is math and language, followed by the humanities. Then, at the bottom, lie the arts, which in turn place visual art and music over drama and dance. This hierarchy is based on two assumptions: that the most useful subjects are at the top of the educational totem pole and that our academic abilities are what dominates our basis of intelligence. Basically, the assumption is that smart people are adept in the fields of math, language, and the humanities. As a guy who started his undergrad in music with a minor in visual art, but ended in the humanities, I can attest to this hierarchy in higher education.

A similar hierarchy appears in the church. At the top is the Bible—or, more accurately, our knowledge of the Bible. Then come theology, church history, and ministry. And the area of ministry is divided into preaching and teaching at the top, followed by evangelism. Then somewhere at the bottom are youth ministry, acts of justice, children’s ministry, and ministry with older adults. Just take a look at any seminary curricula. Classes tend to be focused on Bible and theology rather than ministry. And within churches, isn’t the children’s pastor usually the first to be let go when financial times are tough?

This hierarchy of subjects has also infiltrated its way into our ministries with young people. Just think—instead of going to worship services, our kids and teens often go to Sunday school. Knowledge acquisition often trumps real experiences of God within the wider community. Take a look at the décor of many Sunday school classrooms and compare them to church sanctuaries. It becomes clear that one environment is meant for teaching and another is meant for experiencing God. No wonder Gretchen Wolff Pritchard wrote in Offering the Gospel to Children that “Adults come to church on Sunday in order to worship; children come to Sunday school to acquire information” (140-141). The assumption is that it’s more important for young people to know about God that is for them to know God. We are educating our children and youth out of their innate spiritual capacities. God, the subject of our worship, becomes the object of our study.

Now, I’m sure that there are many well-intentioned congregations who believe that education, that learning about God, is the best thing they can do for their young. And they are right in believing that it’s important. But it can’t compare to the life-changing, life-giving, and life-forming experience of God’s presence in our lives.

Let me rephrase Picasso’s words: “All children are born [spiritual]. The problem is to remain [spiritual] as we grow up.” So, as you think about how to minister with children and youth in emerging faith communities—or any faith communities, in fact—take the time to ask yourself: “Are we educating these young people out of spirituality?” The answer to this question can revolutionize your ministries.

7 thoughts on “Educating out of Spirituality”

  1. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I have a five year old and a three year old and it’s fascinating to me how they are constantly drawn to creative thinking. Whereas for me it is something that I have to be more intentional about.
    I have been drawing more lately and I find it interesting that both my kids so easily come and join me at the table to draw. There is no commanding them to create, they long to do it.

    As far as the spiritual stuff goes, I’m in my thirties and I spent all of my childhood and young adulthood being told who God was, (thanks to catechism and theology classes) I am still in the process of unraveling all of that in order to discover who God is in a real personal way. And who am I in relation to Him.

    That is the last thing I want for my kids so I find myself inclinced to almost want nothing to do with “Sunday School” (in fact I cringe every time I hear the word, or send my kids to it).

    I don’t want my kids to be drawn to God because I tell them to. I want it to be their longing that draws them.

  2. As an art and theatre teacher myself, I have long felt that we are shortchanging our kids by marginalizing “right brain” thinking. Creativity and abstract thinking make better math, language, and science students. We need a holistic approach (something we’re moving toward in my school, thankfully).

    I appreciate what you said about our children’s innate spiritually — I need to be reminded of this! 🙂

    By the way, I’ve had that quote of Picasso’s on my classroom door for a long time now — it’s a great conversation starter!

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