Thriving in the First Five Years of Church
Scientific research concerning the impact the first 5 years of a child’s life has on the rest of his or her life makes the church’s ministry to children vitally important.
Don’t worry Mommy. When Jesus heals me, I’m going to eat all the ice cream I want.”
Fridays! I’d come to dread them. Friday was ice-cream day at the day care where Michele was enrolled for a half day. Since she couldn’t have ice cream, every Friday I packed a Popsicle in a Thermos of ice chips, put on a fake smile, and told Michele how special she was because she could have a Popsicle while the other boys and girls had to eat ice cream. Unfortunately, my feelings were very different from my words.
Her words pierced like an arrow. My faith was almost gone. Michele had been hospitalized several times during the past 2 years with various problems associated with allergies—milk products were among the prime culprits. Not only had I almost given up hope, her words brought afresh the guilt I suffered because of my lack of faith. How can a 3-year-old believe so absolutely? It appears the answer, in part, can be attributed to the experiences she had during the first 5 years of her life.
THE BRAIN AND THE FIRST FIVE YEARS
Until recently, scientists believed the structure of the brain was genetically predetermined before birth. Current research, however, supports the theory that experiences—good or bad—during the first 5 years of life actually influence how the brain is physically wired, dramatically impacting how a person thinks, responds, and behaves throughout life.
Consider some facts about this small part of the body that controls how we behave. The brain feels similar to a ripened avocado and is wrinkled like a walnut. The human brain weighs approximately 3 pounds (2 percent of a person’s body weight), yet it uses 20 percent of the body’s energy. It generates enough power to illuminate a 25-watt light bulb. Messages are transmitted within the brain through connections at speeds up to 250 miles per hour. Several billion bits of information pass through the brain every second of a person’s life. As we learn more about the brain and its development, we realize we are indeed “wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).
At birth, the areas of the brain are independent units devoted to basic physical functions such as eating, sleeping, breathing, and controlling body temperature. As an infant grows and is stimulated with positive interactions with his/her environment, brain cells begin making new connections with other cells, taking on a greater variety of tasks.
Because of the brain’s rapid growth, infants can learn and acquire an incredible amount of knowledge in a short span of time. In fact, the most profound learning in a person’s life takes place between birth and age 5. This is often referred to as the “window of opportunity”—a time when the greatest influence can be made in a child’s life. Yet it is often in this period when the least attention is given to the development of children.
Children learn by interacting with their environment. Their exposure to and interaction with others influence what children learn and how they develop. For young children, learning revolves around their daily lives. Simple activities like talking, singing, playing music, showing pictures, reading, and playing with them promote development.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH
When we consider recent scientific information about the impact early experiences have in a child’s development, the admonition of Proverbs 22:6 takes on an even greater urgency. This new research supports what the church has always believed: positive family interactions, unconditional love, godly adult examples, and a strong value system produce men and women who are stable, contributing members of society. For example, a child in an environment that fosters faith and belief in Christian principles will learn to think and act differently from a child in an environment that promotes complete and total self-reliance. Children imitate the behaviors and responses of adults, whether or not they are appropriate examples.
Since the brain is most receptive to certain kinds of information at certain ages, it is extremely important for the church to foster all areas of a child’s development during a child’s early years. Many churches have a framework in place to accomplish this goal; the challenge is to build on the framework. The senior pastor is often the most influential person in shaping the role and attitude of the church toward children. The importance of nurturing faith in young children must be conveyed and modeled by the pastor. New, expensive programs aren’t necessary; recognizing and promoting children is the key.
For example, the senior pastor can promote a family-oriented philosophy by including a story time, puppet skit, an object lesson, or a short reading during the adult service. Adults also enjoy these vignettes, and the illustrations can help them build Christian attitudes and principles.
The role of the church should begin before a child is conceived. Young married couples need guidance in and exposure to effective parenting methods. This will help them understand the importance of establishing a family unit built on godly principles. Include child development topics in the young marrieds classes. Encourage young couples to become involved with children’s programs-especially at the birth to age 5 levels.
Pastors, prospective parents, and children’s workers will benefit from elective Sunday school classes and seminars that teach the importance of becoming involved with their children’s spiritual experiences-especially during the first 5 years of life. Other educational ways are newsletters listing practical ways of creating positive experiences for children and a lending library that provides books, videos, and periodicals on parenting and on child development.
Pastors can encourage parents to model godly principles and practices before their children. The parents in your congregation need to be encouraged to become involved in ministry through family projects such as volunteering in a soup kitchen, participating in church clean-up days, providing food for a family, and visiting the elderly or shut-ins. These family activities make lasting impressions with children. Fun family outings are also essential for children to develop and build relationships.
Other ways the church can ensure children will thrive in their formative years are through education and curriculum, attending to the physical environment of children, and promoting play. Play is important in the life of every child. When play is used as a strategy for providing learning experiences, children can learn organizational skills, develop language skills, and learn to communicate with others.
Curriculum should focus on children’s basic needs and support the individual and cultural differences of each child. A child’s development is holistic; development in one area influences development in other areas. For that reason a child’s spiritual, social, physical, emotional, and intellectual development are always interrelated. Children need multiple experiences in a variety of settings for growth and development.
Children are not passive receivers of knowledge; they are active participants in their learning. It is important that curriculum presents God’s principles in ways that keep children motivated and eager to learn. A child must be actively involved in learning. When children are primarily expected to sit and listen, all the joy in learning will be lost.
Just as adults expect and enjoy pleasant and comfortable surroundings, so do children. They need and deserve an age-appropriate environment. The furniture in children’s rooms must be of appropriate size and flexible in its use so it can be arranged to meet changing classroom needs. While it is rare that children will need to be seated at the tables all the time, every child does need a space for his/her own things. Rooms should be inviting, sanitary, and free from hazardous toys. Many discipline problems can be prevented with adequate materials and space. Equipping children’s areas is as important as furnishing the main sanctuary.
Twenty-three years have passed since Michele’s Popsicle-packing days. Her words of faith stand as a testimony to God’s love for children. Today Michele can indeed eat all the ice cream she wants. Allergy free, she’s currently training to run her first marathon. Her Christian life is a reflection of her experiences as a child, growing up with living examples from the church and family communities.
The rewards of meeting the needs of children during their first 5 years will result in growing effective Christians into the ministry. The early experiences of children set the stage for how children will continue to learn, grow, and interact with others throughout life. Children’s interests do not develop spontaneously. If we want to interest children in a particular topic, we must give them experiences in that area. In other words, children become interested in godly things when they are introduced to them. Therefore, it is extremely important to create positive experiences for children in the areas of church and service to God.
With 13 million children-including 6 million infants and toddlers-spending all or part of their day in the care of someone other than their parents, the church has an ever greater responsibility to provide quality programs for children. Meeting the needs of children and parents is not an option; it’s mandatory and must begin before birth.
A young mind is like gelatin; put a lot of good stuff in before it sets. The church must seize every opportunity to provide quality, positive experiences for children in their formative years-especially the first 5 years of life. Fostering a nurturing environment where children feel welcome, secure, needed, and loved is a vital role of the church. It’s the biblical way to grow children and a ministry.
The above article, “Thriving in the First Five Years of Church,” is written by Brenda Dixey. The article was excerpted from www.ag.org website in October of 2011.
The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.