With the closing of this parenting series, comes perhaps the most crucial part. Now that you have children, what are some of the best ways to continue the faith in the family? It seems like a simple enough question. I think we as Christian parents might assume our children will accept our faith and that will be that. What happens if they don’t though? What about those tough questions? Peer pressure? Going away to college? Why are there so many stories of kids that grew up in the church that just leave and disown their faith? What can we do to try and prevent this from happening?
What The Bible Says
The Bible clearly says in Deuteronomy 6: 5-7 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words (the Ten Commandments) that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
One survey done by Focus on the Family seems to cut to the point. It asks three telling questions:
1. “Do you think it’s important to pass down your faith to your children?” As you might expect, more then 90 percent said, “Yes! It’s very important!”
2. “Do you think your child will have a strong faith when he or she gets out of college?” Again, 90 percent of those responding said, “You bet!”
3. “Outside of going to church, what are you doing intentionally to introduce and build a growing faith in your child?” Fewer than 30 percent were doing anything purposefully to meet that goal during the 166 hours a week their children were at home. Adapted from FaithLaunch: A Simple Plan to Ignite Your Child’s Love for Jesus by John Trent, Ph.D., and Jane Vogel (Focus on the Family/Tyndale, 2008)
Two big problems were brought up by an article on the CRI (Christian Research Institute) by Chris Sherrod:
1. We let our youth get overexposed to the world’s humanistic philosophies via the Internet, movies, and other TV) The average American child sees 15,000-30,000 hours of TV by the age of 17. In comparison, they spend about 2,000 hours or less of quality time with their parents (www.khouse.org/articles/1997/134). With these kinds of numbers, as parents we may not be counteracting this exposure with positive influences at home. There aren’t strong alternatives being offered by parents to some of the more culturally prevalent topics like pre-marital sex and drug abuse that are so frequent in movies.
2. Over-dependence on church programs. Many youth just see fellowship groups as a “social gathering” instead of for spiritual growth. When asked who influences their attitudes and actions the most, seventy-eight percent said parents. Once they leave the “Christian bubble” of the youth group, their values return to those that their parents hold.
Since I’m a relatively new parent and did not grow up in the church, I looked to some more experienced Christian parents for some nuggets of wisdom.
I asked three of my friends, Thomas, Donna, and Don the same five questions:
1. How do we nurture spiritual growth in our children?
2. How do parents encourage Christianity without stifling the flame of it?
3. Why do a high percentage of kids raised in a Christian home never embrace the faith or walk away from their faith? What are their parents doing that is so unappealing to them?
4. Is it a good approach to choose a church because it has a good “children’s ministry?” Or does that put too much pressure on the ministry?
5. Should our faith be equally or more lived out at home in front of our children?
On Spiritual Growth
So how do we nurture spiritual growth in our children? Thomas says, “By identifying, describing and demonstrating how Jesus’ world view is, in fact, the best view of reality. What Jesus said and did, what he thought about, what he valued–I want my kids to see that Jesus is the very best example, the very best model, not just now, but for their entire lives. My task is to help them navigate their daily experiences by integrating and relating to Jesus as the frame of reference.”
Having multiple expressions of the Jesus-following lifestyle reinforces that this is not simply their parent’s peculiar way of looking at things. In other places like at school, Sunday classes, family events, children can be exposed to others who live a Christian lifestyle. Having them experience the relationships that form around those places: school mates, teachers, leaders, friends, siblings of friends, parent’s of friends, relatives, they see variety in how people integrate God into their lives.
Another way is to maximize their experience of celebrating meaningful Biblical events like the birth of Jesus (Christmas), and Jesus’ resurrection (Easter) with decorations, TV specials, attending events, services, having dinner discussions, etc. You can also use historical holidays to talk about and live out your faith like celebrating God’s provision, serving others, and being grateful on Thanksgiving, or discussing different ways to live out your faith when celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and others. It’s important for children to understand why these holidays warrant such effort. Then, making every Sunday something worthy of anticipating as a fresh experience with God and looking forward to something new from God. Expect to learn something new and apply it. Plan a picnic after church service and discuss what you learned or felt that God spoke to you during worship and discuss with your children how God’s Word is changing your life and how you look at life differently because of Jesus. It’s important to incorporate your Jesus-following lifestyle into everyday life and not just on Sundays and holidays. Otherwise your faith may seem trivial to your children.
Donna says, “Nurturing spiritual growth always starts with the parents. You have to have a relationship with your children. They have to love and respect you as parents. Not that we have to be perfect, but show Christianity through pain and hurt and anger and that through our imperfections we need Jesus…Help them see that Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus; not a religion. That being a Christian is not about “doing” but “being.” That the Bible is not just about rules. Showing our kids how Jesus has changed our life.
My pastor, Don, also expounded on this subject by saying, “Principally, we do our best to impart that ‘church’ is not something we go to. It’s a part of who we are. We are a part of a larger community of diverse people that love Jesus. That’s one of the reasons why we encourage our kids to call other older people, ‘Uncle’ or ‘Aunt.’ If you are a real uncle, you’ll always be an uncle…not just for an hour on Sunday.”
In addition Don says, “I’m discovering that the keys to effective spiritual growth are very similar to the keys to a good marriage: communication and intentionality. My children are at an age where they’re starting to have doubts and ask challenging questions. It doesn’t matter whether I know the answer or not. What encourages their spiritual growth more is if I take the time to listen and help them process their answers. It helps to be curious in how they even came up with the doubt or question. They appreciate an active listening ear that wants to help find answers. And that kind of communication takes intentionality. I have to choose to listen. I have make time to listen and care for them instead of just saying answers like, “Just believe it!” or “Because the Bible says so…now go to bed!”
Obstacles To Faith
Though we’ve covered some of the ways of encouraging spiritual growth and the importance spiritual growth, it’s necessary to remember that we can’t force our children or any other children to accept our beliefs. It’s ultimately a choice they will have to make on their own. Sometimes the choice is made more difficult though by the examples children see (i.e. hypocritical) or other obstacles that hinder the understanding of and truth of the Bible.
Thomas says the main obstacle is the “Lack of observable, detectable patterns of the integrated life. The people they look up to, don’t demonstrate a clear form of relying and depending on God in matters large and small. They see that the faith life is marginalized, compartmentalized for private experiences, not public – a duality. Another reason for tune out for older kids is the absence of training and opportunities to think and communicate their faith, to defend and make a case for Christianity up and against skepticism and competing world views. They see big disconnects between saying and doing. They see big decisions being made, but don’t see the spiritual work-through, especially through challenging times, not just the sunny side. Also discouraging or not taking their questions, doubts seriously.
Donna adds, “There are many different reasons children reject the faith: 1) Because Christianity is forced upon them vs making it a relationship. 2) They sometimes feel that their parents have double standards. 3) Sometimes kids feel that their parents put more time into others and not into them. Making them 2nd priority. 4) Sometimes they are more worried about the action vs being. Works vs grace. Or what others think of them.”
As Christians, we are all flawed in how we live out our faith, but it’s important to be upfront and honest about our shortcomings as people, even as family leaders. Wouldn’t it be a much more powerful to admit a mistake in front of your children, than for them to think you are perfect?
Don talks about the pressures of being a pastor and having children in the spotlight so-to-speak, “As for ‘Pastor’s kid syndrome,’ this is a unique situation all in itself that most lay-children will not have to face. PK syndrome goes beyond Sunday School and its negative effects shouldn’t necessarily be attributed to good or bad Sunday Schooling. PKs have to deal with additional social pressures from the congregation along with normal peer and parental pressures.”
“‘Shouldn’t you know that? You’re the pastor’s kid?!’ An adult member said jokingly to my daughter once and I wanted to punch them because though it was said in jest, it just adds to the pressures pastor’s kids have to face.”
Intentionality in their spiritual growth also plays out in our actions as parents. As parents, do we really believe in and depend on Jesus? Or have we reduced our faith to an hour on Sunday and possibly a midweek small group meeting? Kids are observant. They know. How often do we bring up how good Jesus has been in our conversations at home? Is God present at home or is his presence assumed? If it’s the latter, I’d doubt the children pick up on those assumptions.
Choosing A Church For Your Children?
Many families feel that the spiritual growth of their children is more important that their own spiritual growth and will choose a church because it has a strong children’s ministry. While some argue that the Biblical foundation laid at a young age through Sunday School is extremely important, others argue that if the parents aren’t being equally spiritually encouraged in their own life, that it may have more of an adverse affect on a child’s spiritual foundation than good teaching can produce.
Thomas says, “We chose our church specifically for the children’s program. While we recognize that church is a family affair, in that it should provide sustenance and engagement for the whole family, we believe that during the kids formative years, we’ll prioritize their spiritual development.”
Thomas also adds, “Both parents and Sunday school teachers should understand that we’re partners in the child’s spiritual development, that it’s a shared responsibility, that we have a vested interest, and our goal is common.”
Donna says, “I think that we as parents are ultimately responsible for our children’s spiritual growth. The church is only there to help guide us. It truly takes a village to raise your children.”
Don adds, “As for Sunday school, I believe it’s a great supplement and catalyst to their spiritual growth, but whatever is learned and experienced needs to be lived out at home. It’s like trying to learn French. If you go to an hour long class for once a week and French is not spoken at home at all, you may pick up a few words here and there, but you won’t master the language. You could be learning from the greatest French linguist, but it won’t necessarily produce better results. However, if my child goes to that class once a week and it’s also spoken at home with parents and other family members, the child’s fluency in French will skyrocket.”
Being A Good Example Of Jesus
Living by example and living life as Jesus would is so important in raising up children well. So much of our own behavior and habits we learned from our own parents: the examples set by them, we undoubtedly imitate in someway, if not many ways. How can we let Christ shine in our parenting?
Thomas believes, “It is important to find the right moments and opportunities then vary the application methods. It is living it out while teaching, but doing the best to make it consistent, at home, in public, when kids are present or not.”
Don says, “As for other practical steps, I know of a few parents that hold weekly family worship services where they sing a song and read through the Bible. That’s amazing! I grew up in a similar context, but never really enjoyed it when I was a kid. However, now that I’m older, I do appreciate my parents for their intentionality with the time together and the discipline it took.”
In addition Don says, “I had some awesome Sunday school teachers growing up. They made me want to come back each Sunday. They helped shape a strong foundation in my faith. I also had awesome parents that lived their life in a firm faith through highs and lows, through arguments and laughter that helped make that foundation unbreakable.”
Even though my own son is only three and a half now, I still need to keep in mind a lot of the wisdom that my friends have imparted to me. How will I choose to integrate God in my life in a way that will be both real and practical? Will I let my children see me depend on God in the good times and bad? How active will my prayer life be? When and how will I show my child weakness and rely on God? It is a challenge for sure, but a challenge worth pursuing. If we can’t live out our faith in front of our children, how can we live out our faith in the presence of anyone else and share Christ with those around us?