When we talk about discipleship, we tend to have adults in mind—and rightly so, since all of our efforts at forming disciples should be oriented toward adult discipleship. At the same time, all of the children who have been baptized and have been welcomed to the Table of the Lord (the Eucharist) must be considered fellow disciples. But what does discipleship look like for children? Let’s explore this!
I’d like to begin by borrowing from my friend and colleague in ministry, Julianne Stanz, who has identified seven keys of discipleship: desire, discernment, decision, discipline, dwelling, dependence, and doing. For each, I’ll give a brief summary of the key (often using Julianne’s language, in quotes) and then consider implications for children.
- Desire—”We have to want to grow in our relationship with Christ and the Catholic Church.” We must have a “missionary zeal.” When it comes to children’s faith formation, we need to move away from grade-level catechesis where children are marched through a program based on age. Instead, we need to create opportunities for children to express a desire and readiness to pursue deeper levels of discipleship, mirroring the process and stages of the catechumenate.
- Discernment—”Being a disciple means that we must make the time to reflect upon our lives…Discernment is an interior dialogue with the Holy Spirit, a dialogue that helps us understand how God is calling us to live and follow Jesus.” In children’s faith formation, we must provide children with opportunities to pray reflectively and to learn the art of discernment. It is not enough to transmit doctrine; we must be about the work of equipping them with lifelong skills of discernment.
- Decision—”At some point in our lives, we recognize more fully that we need to set aside those distractions and habits that lead us away from Christ…These decisions to say no to the things of the world and yes to Jesus Christ are at the heart of our ongoing conversion.” Such decisions are not easy for adults, let alone for children. As a result, we need to do more to accompany children and to apprentice them in such decision-making. This means that we need more adults to act as spiritual mentors for young people.
- Discipline—”Just as discipline is one of the central keys to our physical, mental, and emotional health, it is also critical to our spiritual health…The discipline of keeping our faith at the heart of our lives always bears rich dividends…Discipline is the series of small decisions that we make to grow closer to God.” Children are capable of showing discipline when it comes to activities they personally enjoy and want to pursue, such as involvement in sports, dance, or playing a musical instrument. We must not be shy about being honest with children about the responsibilities that come with a life of following Jesus while we ensure that the difficult decisions they make to place Jesus at the center of their lives are truly worthwhile and innately rewarding and not just something “they have to do.”
- Dwelling—If we are going to truly follow Jesus as his disciples, we need to “dwell in the Word of God.” Children are at a perfect age for learning and mining the riches of Scripture. In our faith formation efforts with children, we must do more to help them become deeply familiar with Scripture and to navigate the Bible successfully. In addition, we need to teach children how to pray with Scripture through practices such as lectio divina, so that they come to see Scripture as a way to enter prayerfully into the mind of Christ.
- Dependence—”While our culture emphasizes independence and personal freedom, the reality is that we are dependent on so many people throughout our lives…So, too, on the journey of faith do we depend on a community to help us to grow as disciples. And this growth in relationship with Jesus Christ could not happen without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.” Children are dependent on many people, even more so than adults. While they are learning independence and autonomy in so many areas of their lives, we need to ensure that children recognize dependence on the Holy Spirit as a good and necessary thing. We are simply incapable of sustaining ourselves spiritually. We are dependent on God’s saving grace, which comes to us through the Holy Spirit.
- Doing—”It is the moving of our faith from our head to our heart and to our feet and hands (doing) that makes the work of discipleship concrete and tangible…Discipleship is not a program but a way of life. It is a process that takes place over a lifetime and grows as we grow, being shaped by our experiences of the world around us.” It is crucial that we are apprenticing children into this way of life—the “doing” of our faith. Faith formation for children must involve more than the imparting of knowledge, by consistently involving children in works of mercy as well as opportunities to reflect prayerfully upon such acts.
What other implications do you see for children when it comes to discipleship?