I had expected to be asked if there was a way that the children could run around less or be a bit quieter, but instead the thrust of the conversation was to say that he prayed for the kids and leaders every day and was wondering if there was anything in particular that I would like him to pray for.

He then asked me if I thought the children in the group were Christians. On the face of it, this sounded like a slightly passive aggressive statement about my group. But I decided that praying for us every day earnt him the right to a fair hearing so I pushed down the urge to be offended and managed a gentle: “What do you mean by that?” rather than a slightly more growled: “What do you mean by that!?!” We had a really good chat; I said that it was a tough question as I thought they all were Christians but not because I’d led each of them in the ‘sinner’s prayer’ (and that this wasn’t something I saw as crucial for children growing up in the church). Instead I explained that in each of them we were observing flashes of the Spirit at work in lots of little ways that convinced us that we were in a good place and the children were growing up with a faith.

It was actually a good challenge for me: is what I’m seeking to do in my group actually working or are we just having a good time on a Sunday? How often do we step back and think this critically? Or are we just drifting along and hoping it will all be OK and we can pass them on to the youth group, hoping that something has stuck?

So what are we looking for? How can I know that my children’s group is any good? Before we look at what I think are the clues to look for, the ‘flashes of the Spirit’ if you like, it’s probably worth naming the ‘red herrings’ that we can mistake for spiritual depth and aren’t always the case.

Firstly, children are eager to please us and so are really good at conforming to an image of faith they think will please us. So for example, if you give out prizes during worship for the kids who do the ‘best’ joining in, then you’ll get amazing levels of participation but a poor measure to spiritual growth. In other cases, it’s more subtle; I’ve seen groups where each week children are encouraged to pray for their friends at school for healings and to have prophecies and words of knowledge for them. They then have a slot where children can share what God has done during the week in their school; children come to the front and are praised and applauded for what they share. This will divide your group into four: group one will have a genuine story to tell and want to share it; group two will want to share something so will exaggerate or make something up; group three will have a genuine experience but lack the confidence to share it; group four have no genuine experience and understand not to make something up. I would suggest that this also creates a hierarchy in your group in that same order.

Children are really good at conforming to an image of faith they think will please us

Secondly, our groups often encourage children to confuse academic excellence with spiritual depth. This is an ‘old school’ Sunday school problem that we’re still shaking off. If your session is based around constructing craft projects, memory verses, reading stuff out loud and quizzes, then you are sending a powerful message about what’s really important in the kingdom of God. The children who can do all this stuff become the stars and those who struggle feel inferior and spiritually second class.

So, how can I look at my group and make some educated guesses as to how things are going? There are always clues if you know where to look. I remember a colleague of mine saying for her the clues were found in the biscuit queue. She talked about the way the group developed from biscuit rugby scrum, to an orderly queue to finally children serving one another. She didn’t lead any of this stuff, the children found a way for themselves. There is some research to support this. In Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May’s book Listening to children on the spiritual journey, they say that compassion is a good indicator of spiritual growth in children and they are able to observe children expressing it in their own ways. Doing it in their own ways is the key part, as it shows that they are not just remembering to do what they have been told a Christian should do, but finding their own expression. These children might not be the ones who respond when the leader makes a specific request but they are the ones that we notice quietly in the background sitting with the newcomer, or who join with the team collecting the offering without being asked. You’ll also start to hear stories from home that fit this template.

Another clue can be curiosity. I remember Jerome Berryman saying that he knew when Godly Play was going really deep as he could see the children’s toes wiggling. He observed a curiosity that was playful for the children but also really exciting as they went deeper and searched for meaning. So while the random questions children ask and connections with the stories they make will never be captured by a worksheet, they are a sign of a child digging into the story and searching for more.

These signs are much harder to spot and measure but are something we will begin to see when we stop thinking about how to create children who can conform to the way our churches want children to behave, and move towards helping children to follow Jesus in a childlike way.