Suzetta Nutt is one of those amazing people whom you want to sit at their feet and attempt to absorb as much as possible from their deep wells of wisdom. Suzetta has been serving at Highland Church in Abilene, TX for 30 years; the last 11 have been as the Children’s Minister. She is passionate about listening to children and sharing life with them. She and her husband, Bob, have 3 children, Lauren (32), Ryan (15) and Tabby (4); so life is always interesting. Suzetta has learned first hand that God definitely has a sense of humor! Please welcome Suzetta to the conversation today. May you be blessed by her as much as she has blessed my life & ministry.
For more than a decade my church has been on an intentional journey of learning what it means to be the church with children. This journey has led us to ask many questions of our parents, our leadership and the children in our care. We’ve been amazed and challenged by what we have learned.
Two simple words have changed us forever, pointing us toward transformation and restoration.
The words – I wonder.
About 10 years ago I began researching different ways of storytelling, and my imagination was captured by Godly Play, a spiritual guidance curriculum written by Jerome Berryman. Godly Play explores the mystery of God’s presence in our lives through simple, deliberate storytelling and various ways of responding to the story. Godly Play challenged me as a teacher and minister, and I began asking many questions.
What if we changed the way we told God’s story? What if, sometimes, we told the story as a means for transformation rather than information about the story? Would it change how we listened to God? Would it change how we responded to God’s word?
One primary component in Godly Play storytelling is allowing time for wonder and reflection through asking open-ended “I wonder…”questions. These questions encourage children to enter into the actual story imagining what it would be like to be a participant in God’s story. This is an interesting twist on the standard practice of asking children questions to see what information they have gained about an ancient story far removed from their daily life.
This practice of wondering together changed how we viewed Scripture. It provided ways to concretely link our stories together with God’s big story. It personalizes God’s Word, yet still honors the integrity of Scripture.
Several years ago, I was telling the story of Mary hearing the news she would become the mother of a baby who would rescue the world. As our class moved through the story, hearing God’s plan for Mary, the children listened intently, getting ready for their time to offer a response.
“I wonder how Mary felt when the angel spoke to her?”
The responses from the preschoolers were as you might expect.
“She was surprised.”
“She was happy.”
“She was excited.”
Until four-year-old Ava responded by saying, “I think she was mad.”
Her answer surprised everyone in the room, and when I asked Ava to say more about her wonder idea, she said, “I think she was mad because it wasn’t her plan.”
Well, I don’t know exactly how Mary responded to the angel Gabriel, but Ava’s answer intrigued me. If a preschooler can articulate this idea, placing herself in the story by wondering what it must have felt like to be completely vulnerable in God’s hands, then we must create an environment where all children, regardless of their age, are free to reflect and engage with God’s story, wondering about what it means.
What does that look like?
In her book “I Wonder – Engaging a Child’s Curiosity about the Bible,” theologian Elizabeth Caldwell says that wondering invites children to have a conversation with the biblical story. I love that idea! The story isn’t static and encourages children to enter in, engaging in dialogue with the characters and the God who created them.
I wonder questions invite children to have a conversation with God. Conversations are the foundation of relationship, and when stories are shared, intimacy is present. I wonder questions foster intimacy between God and children.
Caldwell also says that wondering invites children to hear or read the biblical story with question marks, not periods. Hearing with a question mark is an interesting way to explore a common challenge. Many of the children in my church have heard the stories from the Bible many times. They are familiar with what happens in the story, so how do we engage them every week when many times they already know what’s about to happen?
One way is to remind them to listen so they can ask an “I wonder” question. Listening with question marks encourages children to want to enter the story again, and it challenges them to look for something new each time they hear God’s word.
A wondering approach to storytelling cautions us to resist telling children what to think, what to believe, or simplifying the biblical story to an object lesson or message that doesn’t maintain the integrity of God’s word. When stories are reduced to a moral principle, often children feel like they don’t want or need to enter the story again.
I wonder questions invite children to hear with their hearts as well as their minds.
How do wonder questions work?
Let’s look at the story of Noah, which is found in most children’s Bibles and curriculum. Traditionally we might have asked questions that ask for specific details of the story such as “How many days did it rain?” or “What kind of bird did Noah send out of the ark?” Contrast those questions with “I wonder what it felt like to be in the ark with all the animals?” or “I wonder what it felt like to be surrounded by so much water?” or “I wonder what Noah thought when he heard God’s voice?”
Wonder questions go beyond remembering the facts, and they help us become part of the story, experiencing it in a personal way. Wondering brings us into a dialogue with God and with each other.
As children and teachers become more comfortable in wondering together, sometimes hard questions emerge. While it can be intimidating to be asked a question which you can’t answer, trust that God is at work in the situation. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know” or “Let’s keep wondering and praying together about your question.” Children are perfectly capable of living in the mystery of God. It’s one of the ways they can teach us!
My hope for the children of this generation is that they will be transformed into the image of Jesus for the sake of the world. This will require critical thinking combined with courageous hearts. Entering into God’s story with the expectation that God’s word has something to say and requires a response from us is the beginning of this spiritual transformation.
Wondering provides the foundation for theological thinking. Berryman says, “Wondering together produces thinking Christians who can enter into dialogue, share their experiences of God and together discover God’s calling for them.”
I wonder how living in the questions will change you…