Science in Support of Children’s Ministry: (more) Q&A with Erin Smith

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In last week’s newsletter, we introduced you to Erin Smith. We continue with her this week to learn about her research on children’s ministry. Dr. Smith is a developmental psychologist at California Baptist University. Her research is wide-ranging, but one focus is applying empirical questions to children’s ministry in an effort improve it.

How did you come to study children’s ministry?

I first started collaborating with Robert Crosby and others around the simple—maybe even silly—question: does church matter? Or is it ok to pray with my kids, read the Bible, and then play soccer on Sunday? Does church matter in the long run for our kids’ development?

We decided to look specifically at this idea of social support. That is the word psychologists use to describe when you have somebody to care for you if you need them. There are two types of social support. One is a belief that if you need help, someone will help you; this is perceived support. The other kind of support, received support, is when you need help, and it is provided in a tangible way.

There’s been a lot of research on adults linking the benefits of religious affiliation and religious participation to the benefits of social support. Does it matter for how children can relate to God?

Our research has demonstrated that when children experience social support from friends and from adults at church that are not in their family, there is an increase in pro-social behavior and a decrease in antisocial behavior. Even more, social support impacts how children express their connection to God. We see in research on elementary-aged kids that the experience of connecting to God is mediated through other children and adult volunteers. That is to say, church matters in how children relate to other people that in turn influences how they experience God.

Then we asked: how do churches create circumstances where children experience social support? How do churches help children create relationships that allow them to experience the love of Christ?

In a large study involving nearly 50 children’s pastors and over 1,000 kids from the Church of the Nazarene, we considered three general categories of children’s ministry to see how they did or did not contribute to social support.

One was unstructured play time. This is child-led play with peers and adults. Another was structured play time, which is when a leader guides the children in a fun activity. The third category was contemplative reflective practices, which are liturgical, emotional experiences aimed at connecting with God.

What we found was that structured play time didn’t do anything in terms of creating social support. If the goal of children’s ministry is to create socially supportive relationships, then we should favor unstructured play and contemplative reflective practices, which allow children to connect emotionally and interpersonally with their peers and adult ministry volunteers.

What does effective unstructured play look like?

It’s just good developmental play. As a developmental psychologist and parent, it is hard for an adult to get down to a child’s level of play. It often involves a lot of rote repetition. My son right now is really into cars, so there’s a lot of throwing a car off the bed to see how it lands, like for 30 minutes. He needs a large enough sample size so that he can have real evidence, right?

When adults join in unstructured play, and they don’t prioritize what they want to be doing with their time, that communicates something to a child. It goes beyond words and shapes processes that will determine how the child thinks about their own worth for years to come.

When adults in a ministry meet children where they’re at and ask, “What do you want to play? How can I play by your rules?” that might not feel very spiritual, but it’s actually deeply spiritual and formative for these kids in ways they may never be able to articulate.

We see practices like these across a variety of children’s ministries. It’s not always “sexy children’s ministry.” There is no razzle-dazzle to it. It not “fun them into Jesus.” But providing this social support is the thing that we have found makes children learn to love Jesus.

  • Want more? Click here for our full conversation as Dr. Smith discusses more about why church matters for kids, including children in worship, how volunteers influence children’s Christian formation, and how (and why) to care for kids who have experienced trauma.
  • Dr. Smith’s colleague, Robert Crosby, and his wife, Lori, a licensed play therapist, wrote the book, Trauma-Informed Children’s Ministry.
  • Many of the principles of effective children’s ministry that Dr. Smith presents to us are present in curricula such as Godly Play.
  • Check out the Reach Hurting Kids Institute. As Dr. Smith and Dr. Crosby continue to do research and develop resources for training children’s ministry workers, they will update this site with more information.
  • BioLogos suggests some children’s books that offer an entry point into engaging science in your children’s ministry.

Relationships are core to our work at Science for the Church. You have told us how important relationships are in forming our children to know and follow Jesus. Any further thoughts on why this is so?

One of the things that I think is interesting about children is they are not little adults. Research is clear that they’re not just smaller versions of us. So, if we engage with them the way that we might engage with a colleague at work, we’re missing something fundamental about the way they operate. At the same time, they are not aliens either. They are not fundamentally so dissimilar from us that we can’t understand how to engage with them.

While children do think differently about the world, they are an interesting case study about how we communicate love. As we get to adulthood, we often want to overintellectualize things. But when we back up the developmental clock and look at kids, we see that love is just as much an embodied interaction in a relational space.

We can have all the right thinking in our minds, but if we haven’t figured out how to live it in an embodied way that pours out of our gut, then we’re missing something. That’s the default mode for children. They only learn to intellectualize and rationalize things as they become adults. It’s helpful for our own spiritual development but also for us as a community of believers to ask these questions: What does it mean to be formed? Is formation mostly about the correct knowledge transfer? Or is formation something more fundamental and less easily articulated, more emotional and connective?

Of course, my research and other research on human nature would suggest the latter. In spiritual formation for kids, oftentimes the things that can lead to the kind of formation we seek look rather unspiritual. Consider a volunteer playing video games with a kid. For a kid, that says, “Wow, this volunteer loves me, and she sees me because when we play, I can knock her out, and she still talks about what a great hit that was.” We might think that’s not spiritual, and it has no place in church, but actually that volunteer has communicated all sorts of nonverbal statements about this child’s value and their connection in the broader Body of Christ. At church, this child can be met right where they are.

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