I want to clarify up front that I am not anti-science. I am anti-psuedo-science. The danger with science is that it is presented by people, and people tell narratives, not just facts. Science claims no origin theories, people do. The danger comes from our tendency to make facts support our narrative rather than presenting what we see and letting it tell its own story.
Human Development Theory
Enter G. Stanley Hall, known as the founder of organized psychology and the father of the child study movement. Hall is most known for his recapitulation theory. This is his theory that the development of a human individual (ontogeny) is the repetition of the individual’s evolutionary development (phylogeny). To put it simply, from embryo to adulthood, every human individual develops through the stages of their species’ evolution. You are presently displaying some stage in your species’ past. Every stage of life is a glimpse into our evolutionary development of mind and body that has made its way into our genetic coding.
Why does this matter? From the narrative of recapitulation theory, Hall prescribes a pathway for child development. Therein is the issue. It was his theory of recapitulation that laid the foundation for much of how we educate children today. Most importantly, and relevant to my concerns, is that many churches may be unaware that we are educating under his philosophy of child development. We must realize that much of how we are trying to raise children today comes from his theory, a theory that has faced considerable criticism from his contemporaries and those following him in his field. More importantly, its assumptions are contradictory to the claims of Scripture.
From his theory, Hall argued that age stages were a reflection of evolutionary developments in our species. As a result, a child’s present capacity is a replication of the stage of evolution that he or she is currently displaying. Therefore, education must be designed to acknowledge that stage of development because a child cannot be expected to be trained beyond it, at least, not until the child’s development exceeds that stage of evolution. The resulting pedagogy is age-segmentation and differing levels of education. Children, he said, had the right to be educated to their capacities but not beyond.
Present day children and youth ministries reflect this methodology. And to some degree, we should acknowledge that brain development does have its limitations and that didactic teaching should acknowledge those capacities. However, we are not merely passing content to the minds of our children and youth. We are discipling them in a way of life. Hall’s theory assumes a materialist constitution of the human being (we are only bodies). Christians believe human beings are body and spirit (Matthew 10:28). In other words, we don’t reduce human behavior to merely the result of their present chemical and biological makeup. We believe human behavior, while at times reflects immaturity, displays our spiritual lives (Matthew 7:16-20). Hall’s theory of education assumes that humans can be placed in the right environments to optimize learning. Jesus teaches that our environments are not the problem, we are (Matthew 15:11). The greatest barrier in the discipleship of our youth is not their stage of development but the brokenness in their will to follow God. Like all of us, children do not wrestle with being able to understand the Gospel, they wrestle with wanting the Gospel. More important than age-segmented educational philosophies are the presence of mature adults who can discern the spiritual needs of their children and respond in the appropriate combination of mercy and discipline.
I’m not saying that all age segmentation should be discarded. But we must acknowledge that this idea is alien to Scripture while child development is not. God is clear that the way in which children are to be raised (spiritually speaking) is in the presence of adults (Deut. 6:6-7; Ps. 78; Eph. 6:4). Let us learn from the great minds of our culture. But we must remain determined to be led by God’s Word.
“I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers…” –Malachi 4:5-6