To arouse the child’s interest and hold his attention once awakened is a major problem in the sphere of instruction. What is attention? How can it be enforced? Volumes have been written on this subject. This question confronts us with a problem also from the purely natural, psychological point of view. The teacher, in school or in catechism, must cope with this difficulty. One must know not only what to teach but also how to teach it.
This question also asserts itself in the realm of the spiritual. We refer to instruction in the things of God’s Word and covenant. How can the catechism teacher command attention in his class? What must be done in our young people’s societies to awaken and maintain their interest and attention? This question is often asked in our present age. Attention in catechism and, especially, in society life leaves much to be desired. It seems so difficult to arouse interest in the things of God’s Word and covenant. How difficult it is for many of our young men and women to engage in a profound study of Scripture and also to become more and better acquainted with the history of our churches which we believe to represent the cause of God in the midst of the world! Or, is it impossible? What must be done about it? Can anything be done about it?
What is attention? Attention to an object is what takes place whenever that object most completely occupies the mind. I Attention and interest, we understand, are inseparably connected. To say that an object is interesting is only another way of saying that it excites attention.
Interest, also in the natural sphere, can be awakened and cultivated (but not created by means of instruction. Of children we know that their interests, that which occupies their attention, lie altogether in the sphere of sensation, the things they see and hear and touch and taste. The grimace that Johnny is making, the spitballs that Tommy is about to throw, the dogfight in the street, or the distant fire bells ringing and the blowing of a train whistle—these are the rivals with which the teacher who would be interesting, must incessantly cope. A child will always attend more to what a teacher does than to what the same teacher says. Consequently, the teacher of young children will keep in touch with her pupils by constant appeal to their natural interests. Instruction must be carried on objectively, experimentally, anecdotally. The blackboard-drawing and story-telling (must be constantly used. This must be a self-evident truth. We must bear in mind that we emphasize the thought that a child’s interest and attention lie exclusively in the sphere of sensation. This is a natural, psychological fact. Spiritually, no amount of objective and experimental instruction will interest one child in the things of God and of His covenant.
Moreover, still viewing interest and attention from a natural point of view, interests can be cultivated also among adults. There is, according to leading psychologists, a simple law which reads: Any object not interesting in itself may become interesting through becoming associated with an object in which an interest already exists. A few illustrations will serve to establish the truth of this rule. Surely, the most naturally interesting object to a man is his own personal self and fortunes. Hence, the moment a thing becomes associated with his own self or fortunes it immediately becomes a thing of interest. Lend a child a book and pencils or give them to him and note then the difference in his care and treatment of them. In mature life), all the drudgery of a man’s business or profession, intolerable in itself, becomes highly significant and alive with interest when associated with his personal fortunes. How interesting can an uninteresting object as a railroad time-table become when it suddenly can serve our own personal interests, whether we wish to travel somewhere or merely desire to “kill” time. To arouse and awaken interest and attention we must begin with a person’s personal or natural interests and instruct him so that everything can be viewed by him in the light of those interests.
However, the law or rule as given above is worthy of note also for another reason. Note, please, that an object must exist in which a person already has an interest. This is true even in the natural sphere. We may be able to cultivate and nurture interest and attention. We cannot create or instill it. It is a pertinent fact that worldly psychologists recognize this fact. All men cannot be carpenters or doctors or lawyers. To inculcate the intricacies of law or medicine into one who simply is not interested in law or medicine would surely fail to arouse his interest and attention. Is it not, in this connection, a parent’s duty to discover the mental tendencies, likes and dislikes of his (child, and then to encourage that child to pursue that line of endeavor (to which he is adapted? We know this to be an indisputable fact. We must learn to know the object in which he has a natural interest. Only then will it be possible to awaken his interest and attention to subjects which he must learn to attain unto his goal.
What does this teach us as far as the spiritual sphere of the development of God’s church and covenant is concerned? Of course, five can distinguish, also in these spiritual matters, between natural attention and spiritual attention. Spiritual attention is spontaneous, signifies that our heart and mind are occupied with the things of God’s Word and (covenant, that the beauties of God’s Word fascinate us and have become the object of the love of our heart and mind. On the other hand, it as possible to conceive of one who will, for the time (being, give his attention to the Word of God, although himself not spiritually interested. Concerning this temporary, intellectual (in distinction from spiritual) interest we may safely declare that it (will cease as soon as his own personal interests are threatened. In this brief article as now applied to the things of God’s Word and covenant, we refer specifically to attention in the real, spontaneous spiritual sense of the word. Only then, when we are actually, truly interested in the Word of God, be it during the preaching of that Word or in society activity, will our attention (also intellectual) to the truth be assured. Only then will our society activity serve to help us grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ Jesus, and will our discussions be interesting and beneficial.
Attention to, spiritual interest in the Word of God is possible only when that Word of God has become the object of our love. What is a recognized fact in natural life and recognized as such by leading psychologists of the world, certainly applies to the realm of the spiritual. The truth of God, the development of His covenant, the history of Jehovah’s dealings with His covenant people can captivate our attention and interest only when we have been led to recognize and see their beauty and significance. As long as other matters, the things of time and which are below, have the love of our heart, spiritual interest in and attention to the spiritual matters of God’s covenant and Word will be impossible. Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. One may avail himself of every pedagogical ingenuity, particularly when dealing with children (and we do not deny the usefulness of these means); yet, attention, wholehearted interest in the works of God must be preceded by the work of the Holy Spirit whereby He leads us spiritually into the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven.
However, this is exactly the point of contact which the preacher of the Word and Christian instructor must ever bear in mind. We must believe that the holy Spirit not only must work this interest in our heart but also that He does. Besides, this work of grace is revealed in the Scriptures, also in the sense that that which is affected within us is the truth of God’s Word. Hence, to obtain true attention, we must not deviate from the truth but adhere strictly to it. We must not try to make the divine worship, school life society activity attractive apart from the beauty of Holy Writ. Many such external attempts are made today, particularly in our modern and Arminian evangelical (?) churches, to arouse the interest of the people and draw their attention. These so-called evangelists will engage in all sorts of acrobatics for the purpose of arousing their people out of their spiritual stupor and lethargy. We must remember that spiritual interest and attention can be aroused and maintained only through the instrumentality of the unadulterated truth of the Word of God. This is an undeniable fact for the simple reason that the Holy Spirit operates within the hearts and consciousness of men only in connection with the truth of God. It is ‘exactly this work of the Holy Spirit which constitutes the point of contact for all Christian instruction. The Lord will establish His covenant with us and with our children.
Hence our calling is clear. The preaching in Divine worship, the discussion at our society meetings, the instruction in our Christian schools must be in harmony with the Word of God. We must proceed, the preacher of the Word and the Christian school instructor, from the belief that we must not make people of God or form Christian characters, tout that we must prepare and equip the man of God unto every good work. We will believe then that God operates by His Spirit in the hearts of His people and their children, and that the Holy Spirit will indeed apply the instruction to the consciousness’s of the children of God. We must indeed proclaim the beauties of the Word of God and God’s people will be attracted to it. Interest in and attention to the beauties of God’s testimony will then be permanent and abiding. And we can further maintain that interest and hold that attention by continuing to hold fast to the Word of God as the only lamp before our feet and the light upon our path. True preaching, true instruction will always arouse true interest and attention. There, where the Word of God is purely preached and taught, God commends His blessings and establishes His covenant, the Spirit operating mightily within the hearts of His own. With this instruction we must begin not in the school, not when a child has become a young man or young woman, but at home. Our children must be trained in this truth of God from Infancy on, and we need have no doubts tout that spiritual interest and attention will be safeguarded and assured.