Give up Childish Ways or Receive the Kingdom Like a Child?: Spiritual Formation from a Developmental Perspective

By Justin Barrett

Justin Barrett (Fuller Theological Seminary’s Thrive Center for Human Development) presents a programmatic challenge for Christian scholars to think more developmentally with regards to spiritual formation. He suggests that when considering character strengths and virtues (including spiritual fruit), spiritual disciplines, and knowing God, we often think in terms of what adults need to be spiritually formed. An important supplemental approach to Christian spiritual formation is to consider spiritual formation as a life-long process with important steps in childhood. Recent research from cognitive science of religion, psychology of religion, and religious development in children, suggests that investment in the religious and spiritual development of children (including virtue development) may yield greater returns than comparable investment in adults. A shift to child and adolescent spiritual formation, however, requires rethinking both the means and ends of spiritual formation for younger people. This paper does not offer detailed plans for what this attention on children’s spiritual formation would look like, but only offers some illustrative points that suggest how a broader scholarly and applied program might look. Among the points considered are children’s early receptivity to (some) theological ideas, the role of parental attachment in religious development, developmental rites of passage, and rethinking traditional spiritual disciplines.

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