Reclaiming the Missing Link in Faith Formation

What is forming the spiritual intelligence in our youngest children? Kevin Unicomb looks at child discipleship from within the traditions of his church and draws out universal lessons for us all. 

Without doubt, from what I have seen and studied in the church during the past 25 years, including leadership conferences, church growth seminars, planting seminars, Youth & Children’s conferences, my conclusion is that the greatest thing the church needs to do now is to work with children and families – especially families.

The story began with my father. He was a Salvation Army Officer –  I remember as I was growing up that Dad always had a youth group. The members of the youth groups were usually 12 to 16 years old unchurched kids from the towns and the youth groups did all the usual things that happened at a church youth group. But when Sunday came I never saw any of these kids at Church.  I thought about this and tucked the memory away in my mind.

About the same time I used to see most of the kids in our Sunday School, even the kids of the members of the Church, drop out at about 13 years of age. I thought about this to and stored the memory.

About the same time, maybe a few years later, I saw the Salvation Army do great things for teenagers – well for the early seventies they were great. But they didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference – the 13 year olds who left, still left – the ones who stayed had a great time with a well balanced age appropriate program – again appropriate for the time, or so I thought.

I believe the Salvation Army’s thinking was that if they created great youth programs it would encourage more kids to stay in the church and also attract more non churched teenagers – but it didn’t. In spite of this we continued thinking it was mainly about the teenagers, and we resourced our youth work accordingly, but it made little impact on the numbers leaving.

In 2004 a colleague gave me a copy of the research of George Barna. It fascinated me, encouraged me, but more than anything sent me on a journey that continues today – a journey that has taken the memories from my childhood and allowed me to ask the questions and seek the answers that I did not know.

Hey – what’s the first memory you have of your life?  Think about it and see how far you can go back (In a teaching session this becomes a discussion that gives each participant an opportunity to think and share their own story of their first memory and at what age).

We are told, and it’s true for me, that most people’s first memories are events when they are around 4 and 5 years of age. If a dramatic or traumatic event happens earlier in our life that age can be as young as 2, although, when traumatic events are experienced in early childhood, the memories can be suppressed and the age of first memories is sometimes much older.

The question I have for you is this. What could you do, or what did you learn, before the time of your first memory?

Of course the list is huge.  Walking, talking, arguing, reasoning, feeding, dressing etc.  In fact by the age of 4 most of the basic skills for life are in place (in a group, particularly with parents who have young children, this list is easy to work out with little prompting).

How capable are we at 4 years old?  The greatest lesson I learnt about 4 year olds was knowing Christopher (who is now a man) in Papua New Guinea. He lived across the road from us and is still a family friend. At 4 years of age he could speak 5 languages fluently.  He could also discern, without hesitation, which of his relatives and friends he should speak which language to – ‘A GENIUS’ – no just an average 4 year old in a country where every person is multilingual.

Some of this came into perspective for me when I learnt about a training company contracted by ‘Time/Life,’ (the magazine and publishing group), in Brisbane. They taught young people sales skills to go out and sell educational subscriptions door to door in Queensland country towns.

These young salespersons were taught that by the age of 4 we have 50% of our adult intelligence, by the age of 8 we have 80% of our adult intelligence and over the next 10 years we develop the final 20% of our intelligence (although I know some people who would argue we are all done in the intelligence stakes by 18).

Now let me clarify this – we are talking intelligence not knowledge. As I have observed children in recent times I have no doubt about the accuracy of this statement.  4 year olds have 50% of their adult intelligence.

It seems to me that this may be the greatest issue the church needs to face in the 21st century.

Could we argue that today our children need to have 50% of their Christian intelligence (possibly faith intelligence if that makes sense) by the age of 4, as it seems to me that a person’s spiritual intelligence at the age of 4 will be a reflection of their spiritual maturity later in life. Yet the church shows very little spiritual interest in kids up to 4 years of age – except to play games and sing songs – and then only in some churches.


So how could we do it better?

Psychologist tell us that 30 to 40 years ago, for the vast majority of people, our major life decisions had been made by the age of 11 ( thus dropping out of non priority activities at 13 makes sense).

What has happened in the past 20 years is that this age has dropped to 9 – kids are maturing younger, and now many 11 and 12 year olds leave our programs. (It’s interesting to note at this point that the church today is more concerned about why 18-25 year olds drop out – a comparatively small number compared to the 11 year olds we loose – yet our adult focus takes our thinking away from the more important things).

How has the ‘Army’ – my denomination – adjusted to this change?  Unfortunately in some places it’s all been too hard and we have simply given up on children and family ministry at a time when it needs to be the core ministry of every church. About half of our Corps have no children’s work at all and no vision to start. Of course we are in the same position as the vast majority of churches/denominations in the Western world.

Statistics  show (and I have confirmed this at many Corps/churches in The Salvation Army’s South Queensland Division) that for people attending churches today (most professing to be Christian):

 70% committed their lives to Christ under the age of 10, but 96% went to Sunday School, Religious Education at school or had significant Christian teaching under the age of 10. Yet the Church today is only made up of a small percentage of those who were influenced as children in the church. Most dropped out. What they learned did not impact their lives in a way that made sense in their worldview.

Without doubt, from what I have seen and studied in the church during the past 25 years, including leadership conferences, church growth seminars, planting seminars, Youth & Children’s conferences, my conclusion is that the greatest thing the church needs to do now is to work with children and families – especially families. How do we do it? ​That’s the next story.


The Next Story

Jesus teachings about children initially disappointed me

After working with children full time for 16 years of my Officership and studying the scriptures from a practitioners point of view,  I’m disappointed about how little Jesus says about working with children.  In fact when he does talk about kids, it’s always in the context of teaching adults life lessons.  When you check out Jesus teaching, and in fact the teaching of the early church, we get told ZIP about why it’s important to work with children and I suspect that’s one of the main reasons we are not doing it – or not doing it well.

In essence the church hangs on the words of Jesus and what he said. This has been developed into the theology that governs how we usually think and act today. How often do we hear the preacher say ‘Jesus says…….’, and if Jesus didn’t say it then it’s probably not taught – or not taught well.

But could I suggest that in the case of children we ignore what Jesus didn’t say, and this may be the primary reason the church is in decline today. So I ask the question why didn’t Jesus have radical suggestions for us when working with kids?

Did he like them – Yep – “let the children come to me ………. kingdom of heaven”, etc (that’s another story).

So why didn’t Jesus teach it?  Why didn’t Jesus tell us how and why to work with children. Of course the answer is he didn’t have to.  The parents of his day passed on their faith so passionately to their children, and taught them the scriptures of the Old Testament off by heart, that faith and kids was never an issue that Jesus needed to address.

As the children grew to adulthood, they were influenced by different theologies.  Jesus had a problem when these people got off track and it was to these people Jesus expounded his teachings.

Today we are facing a faith crisis in our nation, where in the past the Churches have merely been disabled by differences over theology. Today kids have never heard the name of Jesus – unless they are speaking his name out of context. But what I have recently learnt is that there was a similar situation in the 1780’s in England. We are not altogether entering un-chartered waters, although our worlds are vastly different to 110 years ago.

Sunday Schools have just celebrated their 200th birthdate. Dr Mark Griffiths (the authour of ‘One Generation from extinction’ – the book written from his PHD in Children’s ministry) said recently at the ‘Kidsreach’ Conference in Sydney that in the past 200 years the Sunday School movement has completed two cycles. The first cycle was during the 19th Century, and the second during the 20th century.

He talked about these cycles of incredible growth, the formation of strong families and then a three generation decline in Sunday schools and the church until he said the children were a ‘clean slate’ – spiritual beings ready to hear the gospel message.

The second wave came in the 1780’s when an English publisher, Robert Raikes, did an ‘experiment’ with Sunday Schools. Within 3 years more than 300,000 ‘new’ kids were in Sunday Schools in England. His graph included figures from the “Methodist New Connection” and this was the beginning of a new revival. Of course the early Army was marching forward at the same time and our children’s work was given high priority and was well resourced, including dedicated buildings for children’s work.

About this time William Booth was asked this question. ‘Can children grow up into Salvation without knowing the exact moment of conversion?’ William Booth answered,‘Yes, it can be so, and in the future we trust this will be the usual way in which children will be brought into the kingdom. When the parents are Godly, and the children are surrounded by holy influences from their birth, they will doubtless come to know and love and trust their saviour in the ordinary course of things’.

This was brought home to me so convincingly, when my own daughter, now an Officer, said to me one day, ‘Dad I thought I was always a Christian’. I had been waiting for her to make a public declaration of something that had come to her in the ordinary course of things. It’s interesting that I have never heard anyone in The Salvation Army leadership talk about this teaching from Booth. We are often encouraged to think and act like Booth, but, it seems, we only are exposed to some of his genius. Could I suggest in the statement above he shows intelligence and understanding far beyond the thinking of the church today – not The Salvation Army – the Church?

It seems to me, for the past few generations, parents have failed to passionately pass on their faith to their children.  In fact could I (or dare I) suggest that in The Salvation Army, parents, for a couple of generations, passed on their musical skills more effectively than their faith skills. For many years this sustained us as it was intertwined with our way of life. But in recent years, and particularly with changes in society and peoples needs, this has not been enough and many of our people, particularly young people, have not been able to equate the Army lifestyle of their parents with the world they live in.

So what went wrong?

To answer this I ask the question that if Sunday Schools are only 200 years old, how did the Church survive and grow, for the first 1800 years of it’s existence, before ‘us’ evangelicals were let loose. The only answer that I can come up with that makes any sense is that it was through families. Deuteronomy 6 teaching – parents/families/villages (the ‘it takes a village’ concept) teaching their children. I suspect a lot of this fell into the mothers laps.

With the rise of the Sunday School movement a fundamental change began to take place. There is some contention about this in some of the material and writings available and the thoughts of children’s ministry leaders including myself. Much of the academic writing suggests that parents abdicated their parental responsibility to the Church and were happy to hand them over to the Sunday School teachers to teach them issues of faith (note Booths quote ‘surrounded by holy influences and examples from their birth’).

I am of the opinion that the Church took over the parents role and in fact began to teach less and less about the Old Testament principles and the families responsibilities to ‘engrain’ their faith into the lives of their young children.

Again this is one of our basic issues. The Church has traditionally had Sunday Schools from about age 4 or 5. Parents have been happy to do little with their babies and toddlers (and the right place for them to be is with their parents) and then hand them over to strangers in most cases at age 4 or 5 to begin their faith journey.

From the teaching earlier in this article, and from the words of our founder, that is obviously much too old, as many significant life and faith foundations are laid in the first few years of life – and a mature faith is all about solid foundations.

My concern today is not about the decline in the Church but its lack of maturity. I believe that it is the lack of Christian maturity that has led to the decline.  We have many families, immature in their faith, trying to raise children in a very different world from the world that they grew up in, and the faith lessons they have in their own lives are inadequate for them to be called some of Booths ‘Godly parents’.

Faith development and growth has always been a family role, yet in my lifetime, I have never seen this taught effectively by the church.  Most parents have very little idea of this responsibility on how to do it effectively within their families. When I heard Mark Griffiths talk about the 3 generation cycles that the Sunday School movement has now gone through – twice – I thought back to our early Salvation Army history to see if we had any lessons to learn.

In ‘The History of The Salvation Army’, volume 5 page 289 there is a chapter called “The Home League”. I want to quote from it, proclaim it’s brilliance and then be very critical.

The author, Arch R Wiggins says,‘The beginning of 1907 was marked by another new departure; the “formation of what, for the lack of a better name, Mrs Bramwell Booth describes as a Home League,” said ‘All the World’. Actually the name proved to be inspired, for it lives today, after more than sixty years, and the league itself is one of the most powerful influences for good the Army has produced. Its object was to combat the growing tendency to neglect the fostering of true home life and to encourage thrift and hygiene. The commencement of Home League was one result of the General’s motor campaigns. They gave him a close insight into the habits of the people, and he determined to do something to raise the standard of home-life.’

When I read this I was astounded to realise, that again, it was William Booth who came up with the idea of Home League – inspired of God. The reality of what he did was to create parenting classes for mothers at a time when family life was usually organised by the mothers. So at the time of great revival through the Sunday School movement when thousands of children were being introduced to Jesus by the Church, and at the time of great expansion by The Salvation Army, Booths Army was teaching parents how to parent.

Inadvertently the principles of Deuteronomy 6 were intertwined as faith and family life was developed. The Home League was a parenting group that, could I suggest, laid strong family foundations for the next 3 generations of Salvationists families, up until the present generations.  That’s the praise part.

Now the criticism. Wiggins then says ‘Actually the name proved inspired, for it lives today, after more than sixty years, and the League itself is one of the most powerful influences for good the Army has produced.’

Now I must be very wise in the words I choose here. Yes the Home League has been a powerful influence. However, for much of it’s history it has grown older, until in many Corps it died out through old age. Over the years some younger women joined the Home league but from my own experience as a Corps Officer, it was always an older group of women.

Now here’s the issue. Booth’s brilliant vision was to create strong families by teaching young mothers relevant parenting skills for their era. Home League was created as a ‘Parenting Group’ and, it seems to me, that after one generation or so it moved away from that vision.

When I look at the history of the Sunday School movement over the past 200 years my only conclusion must be that any denomination/church that runs a Sunday School as part of it’s program, must recognise that this is only part of the picture – and probably a small part – that it is not the programs that make the difference but these are the bonuses of an effective family ministry – a ministry relevant to the current generation and makes sense in our world. If we do not do this well the decline will continue. Can I suggest that the decline we have experienced in recent times is predominantly due to the lack of strong foundations in our families. That is the Deuteronomy 6 stuff.

Of course what we now have to do is to pick ourselves up from the bottom of the decline – our children are again a blank page says Dr Mark Griffiths – spiritual beings ready to be evangelised, but this must include the whole family if we are going to make a real difference, and a difference that will be sustainable for generations to come.

A vision for the church

I have a vision for the Church. That vision is that by the age of 18 we would be mature in our faith and have leadership roles within the Church. Could I suggest that for this to happen our children need 50% of their Christian intelligence by the age of 4.  Solid foundations that can only be taught effectively in our homes. Solid foundations, it seems to me, is what we are lacking in society as a whole and this is well recognised in the academic world.

Can I suggest that we are seeing immaturity in the church, and the words of Jesus still cut us up, not only because we mess up our theology, but in these generations we have all but ignored solid foundations.  What happens in the first few years of our life, for the majority of people, is paramount to what we will become.

I’m sure that if Jesus walked our streets today he would have a great deal to say about families and raising our children as disciples. When it comes down to it, the future of the church, it’s size, it’s maturity, it’s values and it’s passion has more to do with what happens to children, that is little children, than any other factor. I am very comfortable in saying this.

Let me just share some thoughts that have been published over the past few years from a variety of sources, including Christian researchers, Australian Government researchers, and in newspaper articles that I believe are helpful in this discussion.


Firstly the research of George Barna is compelling. I will quote from his ‘Barna Research online’ document dated November 17, 2003.

‘Three years of research regarding ministry to children has revealed many surprising outcomes, according to a new book by researcher George Barna. In discussing that volume, entitled Transforming Your Children into Spiritual Champions, Barna indicated that the wealth of research not only changed his personal perspective on the importance of ministering to children, but also clarified why churches struggle to have significance in our culture’.

‘Adults essentially carry out the beliefs they embrace when they are young,’ he explained. ‘The reason why Christians are so similar in their attitudes, values and lifestyles to non- Christians is that they were not sufficiently challenged to think and behave differently – radically differently, based on core spiritual perspectives – when they were young children……………..

Barna’s research discovered that a person’s lifelong behaviours and views are generally developed when they were young – particularly before they reach the teenage years. As evidence of this, Barna, provided research that showed four critical outcomes.

First, a persons moral foundations are generally in place by the time they reach age nine. While those foundations are refined……….their fundamental perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality, and ethics are formed quite early in life. After the first decade, most people simply refine their views as they age without wholesale change in those learnings..

Second, a person’s response to the meaning and personal value of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection is usually determined before a person reaches eighteen. In fact, a majority of Americans make a lasting determination about the personal significance of Christ’s death and resurrection by age 12. (My own research in the Australian Eastern Territory confirms that 70% of Salvationist made their commitment to Christ at 10 or under and that 96% went to Sunday School or were raised in Christian Families).

Third, Barna showed data indicating that in most cases people’s spiritual beliefs are irrevocably formed when they are pre-teen………in essence what you believe by the time you are 13 is what you will die believing……….

Finally, the research shows that adult church leaders usually have serious involvement in church life when they are young’

Let me add a comment. One thing that astounds me about George Barna, is that he had no childhood faith experience. He was not raised in a Christian home and had no church/faith input into his life until he was an adult. But through his research about the whole church he reached these conclusions.

Barna then turns his attention to the Church and family working together.

‘Citing research showing that a large proportion of Church-going people drop out of church between the ages of 18 to 24, Barna stated that the research underscored the importance of families, not churches, taking the lead in the spiritual development of children.

“In situations where children became mature Christians we usually found a symbiotic partnership between their parents and their church.” He pointed out. ‘ The church encouraged parents to prioritise the spiritual development of their children and worked hard to equip them for the challenge’.


In the Sydney Daily Telegraph in January 2009 there was an article by Elle Halliwell titled, ‘TEENS PREFER PEERS TO PARENTS’.

It says, ‘……..Dr Michael Carr-Gregg said a survey of 1200 teenage girls had revealed three-quarters were more comfortable discussing their problems with peers, and parents were creating a generation of spiritual and moral anorexics’…….’Dr Carr-Gregg said parents are providing basic care but were failing to instil good values and provide supervision’…..’because of a lack of input by parents, young people have turned to their mates,’ he said.

‘Never before have we seen such a tribal generation of young women… most girls lack the wisdom and experience to give their friends sound advice if they have serious problems’.

I believe George Barna would conclude, and I would agree with him, that by the age of nine most of our young people, who are now in trouble as teenagers, did not have a value system in place in their lives. I am not at all surprised that in recent months the NSW Government has introduced ‘ethics’ classes into primary schools. I believe that they are using strong research that suggests that ethical teaching is not being taught in the home, as it should (Duet 6), and this is the Governments attempt to teach our children some ethical behaviours that may help the next generation avoid some of the issues that are happening in society today.

My own research suggests from interviewing young married couples, that Dr Carr-Gregg is absolutely right. Parents are ‘failing to instil good values’ but more than this they have no idea that this is part of being a parent. These skills have been forgotten, probably rejected, over the past two generations. The contraceptive pill had an enormous influence on this as it changed the values and thinking of a whole generation.

At this point I asked myself, what is ‘peer pressure’ and why is it such a force in our society today when it was hardly an issue when I was growing up?. Again Dr Carr-Gregg’s comments are relevant. If parents are not instilling good values into the lives of their children – if they are not getting the answers they need to create a worldview that makes sense by the age of nine – then it stands to reason that when a group of teenagers get together and are faced with a question that requires an ethical or values answer – and from childhood they don’t have an answer that makes sense – then they make up an answer that seems OK to them. But as we know this has led to countless problems in society and these continue.

Could I suggest that peer pressure is something that will not be an issue if parents can teach values successfully, and at the appropriate age, to their children.

Barna’s comment on this is, ‘If we do a great job of training children to love God with all their heart, mind, strength and soul, then we would no longer have to invest time battling over moral and spiritual issues such as abortion, homosexuality, gambling and pornography’. In Australia I believe we could add teenage binge drinking.

Let me address one more issue that impacts our thinking in The Salvation Army. I am told that ‘homelessness’ is a huge problem in Australia. Our Territory is heavily involved with Government and other NGO’s looking for solutions. The funny thing is that on average, we have 1.9 people living in each house in Australia. In hundreds of thousands of homes there is only one person.

It seems to me that we don’t have a homelessness problem – it’s a family problem. Again if the Church can help solve the problem of ‘Family’ then the issues we have within the Church and the issues we have in society would largely be solved (again Duet 6 stuff).

In July 2009 the Commonwealth Government released a paper, ‘Investing in the early years – A national Early Childhood Strategy’. It is a very helpful document and has so many statements that I could use. Unfortunately it is a 41 page document.

The article begins, ‘The strategy is based on clear evidence from Australia and overseas that the early years of a child’s life have a profound impact on their health, development, learning and wellbeing’. I believe that Faith needs to be added to this list but that may not be a Government priority.

Let me glean just a few comments from this Government paper and as I do reflect on what scripture might say.

“A positive start in life helps children develop to their fullest. The benefits accrue to the  whole society, through enhanced human capital and capability, increased productivity, greater social inclusion and reduced public expenditure in health, welfare and crime related to disadvantage over the life course”….”Children are also important for their future contribution to society…..Their ability to participate fully in society as adults will be largely shaped by their childhood experiences.”

“Evidence has also shown that the quality of the home learning environment is one of the strongest predictors of good learning, social and behavioural outcomes for children.”

“This reform priority aims to build understanding among parents, other primary carers and the broader community of the importance of early childhood development to the whole of life pathways. Growth in knowledge from the neurosciences shows how brain development in the early years can set trajectories for learning and development throughout life. Specifically the brain development is at its most critical phase from birth to the age of three.

It is therefore imperative that the importance of brain development during this time is consistently and universally promoted to all parents and caregivers in order to maximise the contribution they can make to their children’s development”

Could I suggest that all this research and teaching is merely a reflection and the Biblical imperitive of Deuteronomy 6, the Great Commandment, the early childhood learning guideline, the parenting teaching, that has always been the foundation teaching for the church.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all of your soul and with all your strength. These commands that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. ” This is our call to be very mature in our faith.

From this maturity of faith we are compelled to “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates”

This is the parenting stuff that moved the church forward for 1800 years – until the church had a better idea and started Sunday Schools. Unfortunately in this change the foundation teaching was neglected. Sunday School should have been the bonus but it became the main thing.

Why is it that the Muslim community and the Jewish community have almost 100% retention rate from kids to adults? The funny thing is it’s because of the same scripture – the Old Testament family stuff, the same teaching in the Koran and in the Torah – they have simply kept it the main thing and parents engrain this teaching into the lives of their children – their young children.

Yesterday my son rang me to tell me a story. He served up the cereal for breakfast for himself and our grandson who has just turned two. They had each taken a mouthful, when he threw his spoon down, raised his hands and clasped them together and closed his eyes. They had forgotten to say grace.

Parents teach your children. When do we start?

This week in the MX newspaper, they said this, “Newborns tuned in. Babies can remember melodies they hear when they are in the womb after they are born, according to research……” Funny thing is I’ve been teaching that at the college for the past two years from a similar experience from talking to a mother about her child.

Barna says ‘Physicians assert that children begin to absorb values as early as two years of age. The highly effective ministries therefore start their most serious partnerships with parents soon thereafter’. Here I differ considerably from Barna’s teaching for two reasons. Firstly new research pushes the age that values are absorbed by a child to as young as six months. Secondly, I believe that values must be modelled by parents and the primary care givers for them to be learned by a child. Surely they need to grow, can I suggest before birth, with these values already modelled in their family.

As I talk to young couples in recent times they do not know what values they have as a family – we have neglected the foundations and we need to teach them again. Mature people passing on their faith to their children.

Real faith is kids stuff

Find more on this subject at


Bran,George  Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions(USA, Regal Books, 2003)

Griffiths, Mark   One generation from extinction(Monarch Books, 2009)

Wiggins, Arch R The History of The Salvation ArmyVolume 5 (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1968)

Barna Group Research  Article Research shows that spiritual maturity process should start at a young age. Page 9 of 11