“I watched him on the little monitor. There he was, just playing Lego. Except this time he was chatting away. I managed to hear a little bit of it. He was chatting to Jesus. He was alone in his room playing Lego with Jesus. He was laughing and smiling. It was… wonderful.”

Time and time again, the stories that came out were of ordinary children connecting with an extraordinary God in their everyday lives. But one question that parents often asked after they shared these stories was: “I think it’s great, but is that OK? It doesn’t look like I thought it would look.”

For us as children’s leaders and parents, what a children’s life with God is ‘supposed’ to look like can really hamper us in how we choose to disciple them. We all have some preconceived notion of what we are hoping for in the lives of our children. We may want to explore the deep questions of life, or to answer big questions, or we want them to read their Bible or engage with worship by singing. We shape our ministries to aim for it. But what if we are aiming wrong?

For me, my goal is that their daily relationship with God is as free-flowing and instinctual as their relationship with their friends or parents. When 3-year-olds play alongside each other, rather than in highly intertwined scenarios, I don’t then expect them to have long focused conversations with God. I expect them to parallel play and interact with God in the room, with little spurts of joy and conversation.

When we talk about prayer with 5-year-olds and facilitate them chatting to God and catching his communications back in conversation, I’m not looking for conversation like we as adults have. I’m looking for conversations like they have. Listening to 5-year-olds talk at God and ask him questions is a joy. When I ask God questions, they are often big ones: “What are you doing in this situation God? What am I supposed to do? What choice should I make?” Children have different questions. I have watched in delight as children chat to God about their favourite ice cream, and then ask him very sincerely what his favourite pizza is. They ask all sorts of questions: “What did you do today God? What was one time you were sad today? What did you like doing with me? Who do you like better, Spider-Man or Superman?” They have genuine kid conversations.

What would our ministries look like if we focused on helping each child know God in a way that meant it was easy and free in their lives?

I expect 9-and-10-year-olds to wrestle with God as they figure out who they are and what they think. I encourage them to tell God about their opinions and ask pointed questions of him. I encourage them to search the Bible with concordances to figure out what they believe. I love watching them debate with each other, and decide what they think. I hear stories of them writing books with God, riding bikes with him and chatting away while doing homework: the companionship of a God who can handle their searching.

If we are going to really disciple our children to live the fullness of life in Christ, then we need to free them of our expectation of what that looks like. My role isn’t to teach them what their relationship with God ‘should’ look like. My role is to remove everything that hinders them from running to him; to create space for them to meet God in fun and in quiet and develop a relationship with him; to show them what it looks like for me, and for people throughout history so they can find their own path; to talk about him, and connect them to the God of the Bible who never changes.

Some kids love ritual and specific experiences. I’ve known kids who create a special prayer space in their room and who regularly use it every day as their safe and cuddle space with God. Other kids I know just talk non-stop with God at school and tell me he’s their ‘chat buddy’ when they get bored at school. I’ve known children who flourish in nature with God and find they just can’t connect with him in a building.

What would our ministries look like if we focused on helping each child know God through scripture and through prayer in a way that meant it was easy and free in their lives? Not because it’s what I think it should look like, but because of what they think it could look like.