Inspiring Conversations with Children

Each teenager told their own story by their posture in the little church library chair that Sunday morning. Proud, comfortable, shy, sleepy drooling over a cup of coffee, all were present and in their own way eager to have the conversation. In our Youth Sunday School, some were just learning the language of faith, while others had confessed these things from the moment they were baptized. But here we sat, ready to talk to one another about the things that really mattered. Life, death, God, and salvation.

My daughter opened a Bible for the girl on her left. They were both struggling teenagers who had found common ground in other areas of life—friends, sushi, exercise, and such things. But this morning they shared a table to talk about greater realities, invisible worlds, hidden desires. This moment was set aside for ripping open their little souls, dwelling on their un-photogenic side of the story, listening to an answer they wouldn’t find anywhere else. 

Yet their backgrounds leading up to this moment were vastly different. One gal was baptized, confirmed, and in bible study all the time. The other was un-baptized, disconnected, and skeptical. Both were questioning. Both were searching. There they both sat, ready to talk.

But where do we go from here? What is the conversation we must have? I believe firmly that the quality of conversation is the key to capturing the devotion of our youth. Sure, provide games, fun gatherings, and pizza, but when a questioning teen cannot have a discussion at this age, it spells doom for their faith to come. So, I looked at the wondering eyes of these inquisitive children. Considering their different stages of understanding, our conversation today must be built carefully. 

Years before this particular conversation with this group of teens, I discovered stages in learning from a classical education model. I tried it out by homeschooling my own children. Watching them go from building blocks to personal expressions continues to amaze me in disciplines such as mathematics, literature, history, and so forth. It originates in an essay by Dorothy Sayers first published in 1948 called The Lost Tools of Learning. Here she recovers the medieval pattern of education in three stages called the Trivium: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric. She argues that when the Trivium is mastered, children grow into the ability to acquiring new knowledge about anything and everything. The Trivium is a pattern of how to learn and how to have a conversation. Each stage relies on the building blocks before advancing to the next. When taught to children, each of these stages also relates to the development of the child and builds a pattern of how to learn anything. For our conversations in this little library room, I use this same model to inspire conversations with these children in the realm of theology.

The grammar stage is exactly what is sounds like—learning the pieces, definitions, and grammar of any given discipline. If it is Latin, children memorize vocabulary and decline nouns. If it is math, here is where the child memorizes times tables and basic functions. You can imagine an elementary school learning environment where children are nodding sweetly and sponging up every little fact you can absorb into their little skull.

Likewise, in the grammar stages of the faith, we repeat Bible story after Bible story. This builds a foundational knowledge of God and his works. Simple Bible verses are taught over and over again. The same words of Christ are memorized and recited for years, and they give our children a wide base to draw upon. History, people, places, names, they will all be a part of the conversation in the stages to come. What is the answer to everything in Sunday School? JESUS! Yes, and that is a precious and good thing in the grammar stage. It’s a creed and confession of faith that the ancient church has passed along asserting that this is most certainly true. Songs, hymns and liturgy wrap the children in comforting words from the moment they enter into the grand conversation of faith. 

The next stage develops when the child has learned these basics. You can naturally see it happening around fourth and fifth graders. Children will start questioning and even catching the teacher in her words. The dialectic stage moves through the logic of an argument, exploring the inconsistencies and misunderstandings. Our classical classroom moves into formal logic and discovering fallacies, and our discussions begin to foster more questions.

Now to have a conversation about God and his works, these logical questions are part of the natural progression of the cognitive ability to have a conversation. Here is where our youth discussions start to become more uncomfortable. Here is where they push the boundaries, sometimes a little too far. Although it was easier when the kiddos just repeated everything we said, this is a positive advancement in the conversation. Questions should be taken head-on and appreciated. Apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, should be readily provided when needed in the conversation, and honesty and humility when an answer is not apparent, or just not realized. The dialectic method engages the logic and rationality of a God who has done amazing things. 

In our library discussion this morning, we had kids of the same age in different stages. So while our conversation had to continue to teach the grammar, the basics of the faith, we also had to discuss the hard questions and more developed logic. Both grammar and dialectic stages of the faith were part of the conversation. Developmentally, these kiddos around the table should want to question everything at this point in their lives. In the pattern of education, it is expected and encouraged during this stage. But some of them don’t yet have the foundation of simple stories from the Bible. Today, we must do both, for the sake of keeping our conversation going.  

Finally, after the first two stages, the rhetoric stage kicks in. I think this is the one we imagine naturally develops. But it is ultimately built on the foundation of the previous stages. As the child works through the world of grammar and logic, he learns to express things that he has learned. Inspiration to this conversation works like building blocks: memorizing the rote material, then exploring every corner of its improbability, and ultimately the child will creatively communicate. Thus, the conversation has come into full maturity.  

Our discussions will have developed a life of their own in the rhetoric stage. Reaching out to their own friends, talking through theological issues that personally keep them up at night, making personal choices in their own life, struggling with the fruition of a faithful conversation that they will continue to have, offering service and devotion in their own way, to continue the conversation.

A conversation of the faith does not appear out of nowhere. Rather, it is built from a foundation in the same way we learn anything: progressively by the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages. Knowledge and discussion are built and encouraged, changing as they grow, so that we can continue to have the conversation until they are the ones inspiring others.