When I was in Kindergarten, my family housed some missionaries who had relocated temporarily to Atlanta for training. We called these missionaries “The 4 Boys.”
The way our house is laid out, if I lay in bed just right, I could see out my bedroom door, down the hall, and partway into our living room. In the evenings, The 4 Boys would gather there—sometimes alone, sometimes with my parents, and sometimes with other pastors or leaders who would come over to visit. Night after night, I went to sleep listening to them as they practiced having gospel conversations and as they pored over the Scriptures.
One night, I remember lying awake and not looking down the hall but instead, staring wide-eyed at my ceiling, my little 5-year-old body frozen at the realization of my sin and its consequences. I knew the only answer was Jesus, but I also knew I was little.
And while I was surrounded by many faithful Christians who talked about Jesus and taught me about following Him, they were all adults. The implication was, from my perspective, that following Jesus was a grown-up thing. I was timid and felt like this wasn’t my business, so I didn’t say anything.
Night after night, week after week, I wrestled silently with God as I heard the gospel repeated and as I felt the Holy Spirit calling me. Until one Sunday morning when I couldn’t take it any longer, and I marched my little self down the aisle during an altar call, looking back over my shoulder only after I heard my dad frantically whisper to my mom, “Go get her!”
A deacon received my mother and me and led us to the empty choir room where he listened to me spill my guts. That morning, I repented of my sin and prayed to receive Christ as my Savior and to follow Him as Lord. In the weeks that followed, my parents intentionally poured into me, nurturing my baby steps in the faith. I also joined a Sunday School class for kids who were new Christians. After a season of discipleship and testing, I was baptized Easter Sunday, 1991.
The Nature of Salvation and Sanctification
Over the years, my faith has continued to develop and deepen as I’ve continued to work out my salvation with fear and trembling. Because that’s the nature of salvation and sanctification; it’s developmental.
If my faith today looked exactly how it looked 30 years ago, there would be cause for concern. In a similar way, had 5-year-old Bekah kept her head down and waited, the gospel seeds that had been scattered on her heart could likely have been scorched by the sun before they had a chance to take root and bloom.
Discipleship is not something that begins after a person puts his or her faith in Christ. Discipleship actually begins long before.
For me, discipleship began by observing my parents’ faith, going to church, reading my pink Precious Moments Bible, and listening to The 4 Boys talk. And though many of those gospel conversations were not meant for me, they taught me biblical truth, they began to build my theological vocabulary, and ultimately, they were the catalyst that propelled me toward confessing Christ and taking the next steps in my faith journey.
Though Jesus’ story is quite different than mine—quite different than all of ours—we can assume He engaged in similar nurturing experiences as a young child.
When we (along with Mary and Joseph) find 12-year-old Jesus in the temple in Luke 2, He was listening to the teachers and dialoguing with them. Luke 2:52 concludes this vignette by describing Jesus as increasing in wisdom and stature.
Though the adolescent Jesus exhibited the mental capacity to engage with others at the temple, His cognitive development was not the only contributing factor to this experience. According to Jewish custom, Jesus was at the age to transition from childhood to adulthood.
Around the age of 12, boys like Jesus should have been capable of dealing directly with the Law, and His parents would no longer be permitted to receive it on His behalf or to bear His legal responsibilities. In other words, Jesus would have been considered responsible for the Law and its implications at this point in His earthly life.
According to what is known of these customs, Jesus’ interaction at the temple could likely have reached a point in His life where His knowledge regarding the Law was being tested. If this time in the temple could be likened to a final exam to evaluate His level of responsibility or accountability, then it is evident that Jesus—like other people His age—would have been raised and trained in the Scriptures for years by this point.
The boy Jesus’ expertise in the Law did not suddenly appear in His “student ministry age” of 12; the foundation would have been laid and built upon with diligence and intentionality during His “KidMin years.”
Though the thought of “KidMin Jesus” with Goldfish crackers and Play-Doh is amusing, it is also absurd. Jewish children underwent rigorous training. There was a high expectation for them to learn and grow in the Scriptures as there was quickly coming an age of accountability.
As valuable and necessary as snack and playtime are, I think God’s people were on to something. By 12 or 13, the ancient young Israelites were accountable for the Law.
Our modern studies show that a person’s worldview is typically developed by age 13.
Additionally, psychologist-theologian James Fowler’s theories of “faith stages,” which demonstrate the development of faith along age groupings, places 12-13 year olds in the Synthetic-Conventional stage of development. Here, adolescents begin personalizing their faith. They begin to understand God as personal and relational. They are capable of transitioning biblical narratives from distant stories to realities that effect their personal lives.
Fowler, too, marks this age and stage as the transition between childhood and nuanced, maturing, adult-like faith.
The commonality is remarkable. The ancients and our contemporaries are in agreement; cognition, worldview, and faith and religious practice are developmental in nature and they begin to solidify and bloom by 12 or 13 years old.
Clearly, God knew what He was doing when He created our brains and gave us His Word. I recognize that, and I want to join Him there.
As absolutely vital as it is to have a deep and robust student ministry, churches cannot wait until then to teach young people to dig into the Bible.
Discipleship is a lifelong endeavor. The onus is on children’s ministry workers to teach theology, build biblical literacy skills, and engage kids in gospel conversations. In so doing, we are harnessing the best, most formative years, making the most of what we understand about the developing brain and how it works, and standing upon the wisdom of God’s people who have gone before us in building a firm faith foundation—a foundation strong, deep, and rich enough to allow gospel seeds to take root, and to allow the little lambs we shepherd to be ready to own their faith and to continue developing as lifelong, maturing disciples.