Beyond Vacation Bible Schools: The spiritual formation of children

How do you get to heaven? For adults, that’s a theological question, but for kids, it might be a matter of transportation – as in, is there a special bus or elevator to the great beyond?

Adults are paying increasing attention to what children think about spiritual matters, and that’s reflected in innovations in congregational practices as well as the growing number of books, conferences and research studies by theologians and social scientists. Many of these efforts are directed at learning how children come to faith and what helps them become responsible, ethical, caring citizens who are equipped to deal with the ups and downs of life. Parents face tough decisions: Do we raise our children in organized religion or go it alone? What defines community when family is far away? How do we talk to kids about natural disasters, school shootings, poverty and AIDS – all of which have children as victims? How do we help children sort out questions about evil and haves versus have-nots? The new focus on children’s spirituality is playing out in homes and faith communities across the country.


Why it matters

Almost 60 percent of Americans say religion is “very important” or “extremely important” in their daily life, according to an April 2013 CBS News Poll. The increased focus on children’s spiritual formation reflects adults’ desire to help children acquire religious beliefs, to learn from children’s faith and to encourage children to be ethical agents in the world.

Angles for reporters

Children: The best way to report on children’s spiritual formation is by reporting on children themselves. Summer camps, Vacation Bible Schools, service projects and congregational activities offer opportunities to observe and talk with children. Many newspapers and other media have put together creative packages by asking children from a variety of faiths to draw pictures or take photographs that represent sacred or divine images to them. How have congregations changed their approach to children’s faith formation in the last decade? How do leaders say children have – or haven’t – changed over that time? How has parents’ involvement changed? (Journalists should take care to follow their media outlets’ guidelines on interviewing children and obtain parents’ permission when needed.)

Child theology movement: Some theologians have become interested in the theology of children – studying, for example, theological perspectives of children in the Bible or considering how theological topics might look through the eyes of a child.

Youth and religion: The National Study of Youth and Religion includes findings derived from a nationwide telephone survey, conducted in 2002 and 2003, of teenagers ages 13 to 17 and their parents, followed up by 267 in-depth interviews with teenagers in 45 states. The study includes reports on Protestant and Catholic teens, on the religious participation of American teenagers and on whether American young people are alienated from organized religion. Major findings were reported in the 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. 

Indigo Children: Some contend that many children born after Jan. 1, 1978, are particularly spiritually sensitive. They’re called “Indigo Children” or Crystal Children, and some believe they come from other realms, can communicate across time and space, and bring messages from the world. Some say the strong-willed, creative Indigo Children are often mistakenly diagnosed as having attention-deficit disorder or placed on medications such as Ritalin. Adults have created special schools and camps for Indigos – hoping they will create a New Age of Peace as they become adults.

Raising ethical, caring children: Some parents are more concerned with raising “ethical” children than they are with teaching them a particular religious tradition. They focus on raising children with a strong sense of concern for the world – children who want to give back and make the world a better place.

Secular children: Children of atheist and agnostic parents – or those who simply choose a hands-off relationship with organized religion – also consider the question of how to raise moral and ethical children.


National sources

  • John Witte Jr.

    John Witte Jr. directs the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, where he also teaches law. He is an expert on legal issues related to marriage, family, Christianity and religious freedom. His books include Church, State and Family: Reconciling Traditional Teachings and Modern Liberties and Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment.

  • Bonnie Miller-McLemore

    Bonnie Miller-McLemore is a professor of religion, psychology and culture at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., and co-author of From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate (2000). She teaches courses on women and religion, theology and science, as well as parenting, families and children.

  • Jerome W. Berryman

    The Rev. Jerome W. Berryman, an author and Episcopal priest, is a senior fellow with the Center for the Theology of Childhood in Houston. He has developed an internationally used approach to religious education called “Godly Play,” inspired by the Montessori approach to learning, which teaches children through parables, silence, liturgical movement and sacred stories. It’s used internationally by congregations (from Pentecostal to Catholic to Lutheran), in hospitals, homeless shelters and other settings.

  • Sam Goldstein

    Sam Goldstein is a neuropsychologist on the faculty of the University of Utah and in private practice at the Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center in Salt Lake City. He is the co-author of Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope and Optimism in Your Child and the forthcoming Raising a Self-Disciplined Child: Help Your Child Become More Responsible, Confident and Resilient. Goldstein can talk about how to raise children to be charitable toward others and to understand responsibility, and about raising children with challenges such as attention deficit disorder or autism.

  • Marc Gellman

    Rabbi Marc Gellman is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, N.Y. He has written several books of modern midrashim for children, including Does God Have a Big Toe? Stories About Stories in the Bible, and is author of the post-9/11 book And God Cried Too: A Kid’s Book of Healing and Hope. With his Roman Catholic friend Monsignor Thomas Hartman – with whom Gellman writes a weekly advice column and appears on a syndicated cable television show called The God Squad – Gellman wrote How Do You Spell God? Answers to the Big Questions From Around the World.

  • Naomi Drew

    Naomi Drew, a consultant and author, stresses the need in a troubled and sometimes violent world for children to learn conflict resolution and peacemaking. A former teacher, she conducts workshops for parents and schools. Drew is the author of Hope and Healing: Peaceful Parenting in an Uncertain World.

  • Mimi Doe

    Mimi Doe is the founder of, a Web site dedicated to helping parents raise children who are happy, kind and “connected to their spirits and to their families.” Doe, the mother of two, is the author of Nurturing Your Teenager’s Soul: A Practical Guide to Raising a Kind, Honorable, Compassionate Teen and co-author of 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting: Nurturing Your Child’s Soul. Through the website, parents have organized Spiritual Parenting groups around the country.

  • Robert Coles

    Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University and chairman of the Forgiveness Research Center. A winner of the Medal of Freedom, Coles is the author of The Spiritual Life of Children and The Moral Life of Children.

  • Marcia J. Bunge

    Marcia J. Bunge is professor of theology and humanities at Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind. She directs the Child in Religion and Ethics Project, funded by the Lilly Endowment, whose goal is to strengthen the theological and ethical understanding of children. Bunge is the editor of The Child in Christian Thought and co-editor of Children and Childhood in World Religions, to be published in 2007.

  • National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

    The National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Christian organization that focuses on the religious formation of children using the Bible, liturgy and the educational principles of Maria Montessori. It’s based in Oak Park, Ill.

  • Bible League

    Bible League is an organization designed to train and equip faith leaders and ministries with the tools and resources they need to provide communities with a religious education and understanding of the Christian faith.

  • Child Evangelism Fellowship

    Child Evangelism Fellowship a Christian ministry for boys and girls. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 636-456-4321.
  • Josh McDowell Ministry

    Josh McDowell Ministry, located in Dallas, Tx., is an organization dedicated to spreading the word of Christ to students, parents, leaders and churches everywhere through educational resources. Their website offers a list of research organizations.

  • Scientology Volunteer Ministries

    Scientology volunteer minister centers in specific regions can be located and contacted through this website.

  • Young Life Club

    Young Life Club is a non-profit, non-denominational Christian organization reaching out to teens with programs in some 450 communities in the United States and Canada and 36 countries overseas.

    Contact: 877-438-9572.
  • Youth for Christ

    The Youth for Christ organization is aimed at getting young people involved in their local churches.

    Contact: 303-843-9000.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Thomas Groome

    Thomas Groome is a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, where he chairs the department of religious education and pastoral ministry. His primary area of interest is the history, theory and practice of religious education. He wrote Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent and is the primary author of various religion textbook series from W.H. Sadlier, most recently the Coming to Faith series. He also wrote What Makes Us Catholic: Eight Gifts for Life. He delivered a paper, “The Future of Ministry in the Catholic Church: Our Best Hopes,” at a June 2005 conference on the Roman Catholic priesthood at the college.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is former professor of Religion in America in the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is the author of numerous books including Religion Matters: An Introduction to the World’s Religions (W.W. Norton 2020), Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (HarperOne, 2016), God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010), and the New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t (HarperOne, 2007). He has also written about American Hindus. Prothero has commented on religion on hundreds of National Public Radio programs, and on television on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and PBS. He lives on Cape Cod, and he tweets @sprothero.


  • Sylvia Barack Fishman

    Sylvia Barack Fishman is a professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, which focuses on women in contemporary Judaism. She is the author of numerous books, including Jewish Life and American Culture (SUNY Series in American Jewish Society in the 1990s) and The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness. She is also an expert on Jewish identity, marriage and conversion.

  • Yvonne M. Vissing

    Yvonne M. Vissing is a sociology professor at Salem State College in Salem, Mass. She is the author of Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America and can speak about the spiritual lives of homeless children.

  • Geneive Abdo

    Geneive Abdo is a Middle East fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and a nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She researches contemporary Iran and political Islam and has written about extremism in the Middle East.

  • Elizabeth Marquardt

    Elizabeth Marquardt is director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. She is co-editor of When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America (2011) and author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.

  • Chris Boyatzis

    Chris Boyatzis is a developmental psychologist who teaches at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. He has studied religious and spiritual development in families, including how teenagers talk to their parents about religion. He’s also worked in an area he calls “God in the Bod,” looking at how young people’s spirituality affects their body image and tendency toward eating disorders.

  • Thomas Lickona

    Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and education professor at the State University of New York at Cortland. He also directs the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility), which emphasizes the development of character and ethics in children. He is the author of Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity and Other Essential Virtues.

  • Stuart Z. Charmé

    Stuart Z. Charmé is a professor of religion at Rutgers University at the campus in Camden, N.J. For more than a decade, Charmé has interviewed Jewish children and teenagers about their religious beliefs and ideas – focusing particularly on how gender affects a child’s understanding of Jewish history and practice.

In the South

  • Loren D. Marks

    Loren D. Marks is an associate professor in the School of Human Ecology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He has done research on how religion influences marriage and on the link between religion and happy, enduring African-American marriages.

  • Catherine Stonehouse

    Catherine Stonehouse is Orlean Bullard Beeson Professor of Christian Discipleship at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and co-author of Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family and Community.

    Contact: 859-858-2343.
  • Holly Catterton Allen

    Holly Catterton Allen is associate professor of Christian ministries and director of the Children and Family Ministry Program at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark. She frequently speaks and writes on children’s spirituality.

  • Phyllis Mark

    Phyllis Mark is coordinator of children’s meditation programs at the Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center in Alabama. The center offers programs for children to learn about Buddhism and meditation.

  • Karen-Marie Yust

    Karen-Marie Yust is an associate professor of Christian education at Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. She is a minister in both the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ denominations and is the author of Real Kids, Real Faith: Practices for Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Lives.

  • Brett Webb-Mitchell

    Brett Webb-Mitchell, a Presbyterian minister, is founder and director of the School of the Pilgrim in Carrboro, North Carolina, which encourages people to experience pilgrimages and other Christian practices. A former president of the religion division of the American Association on Mental Retardation, Webb-Mitchell is the author of God Plays Piano Too: The Spiritual Lives of Disabled Children and the 2006 book Follow Me: Christian Growth on the Pilgrim’s Way.

  • Mark Regnerus

    Mark Regnerus is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He has done research on the influence of religion on adolescent behavior, including the influence of teens’ religiosity on delinquency, whether they stay in school and what they think about sex, for example. Regnerus is co-author, with Jeremy Uecker, of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think about Marrying (2010).

  • Marcia McQuitty

    Marcia McQuitty, an experienced preschool educator, is associate professor of childhood ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

  • Dale McGowan

    Dale McGowan is the former executive director of the Foundation Beyond Belief, a charitable and educational organization created “to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists.” He’s also a full-time writer and a former college professor. McGowan is the editor of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion and co-author of Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief.

In the Midwest

  • Scottie May

    Scottie May is assistant professor of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton College in Illinois. Her emphasis is on children’s ministry, and her research includes how children come to faith. She is co-author of Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family and Community.

  • Dorothy C. Bass

    Dorothy C. Bass is director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. This project, funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at Valparaiso University in Indiana, works to develop resources to help people live out the practices of Christian faith with integrity. Bass can speak about teaching children to resist the pressure to always buy more and do more – how families can learn to slow down, take Sabbath time and rest. Bass is co-editor of Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens and of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, published in 2006.

  • Freda Shamma

    Freda Shamma is a writer and curriculum development director from Cincinnati, and the mother of five. An essay she wrote, “Teaching Your Child About Islam,” encourages parents to be Islamic role models for their children and was presented at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. Shamma can also speak about the role Islamic schools play in developing a sense of religious identity for Muslim children.

  • Annette Mahoney

    Annette Mahoney is a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She is co-director of the university’s Spirituality and Psychology Research Team and conducts research on the role, both positive and negative, that religion plays in families and in the transition that couples make to becoming parents.

In the West

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