When I was interning at a local Pentecostal Church, we used to have little hand-outs to give to parents as their children were leaving the Sunday school class. These hand-outs briefly identified the main themes in that week’s lesson and some ways to continue to build the conversation at home. Yet week after week, faithful church attenders would turn us down. They would simply say “no, thanks,” “I’m not interested” or hand us back the sheet once they read it and saw what it was about. There were likely other parents who took the forms out of courtesy, but then left them somewhere on a messy table and forgot all about them until next week. I do not fault those parents nor do I think they lack the necessary skills to encourage their kids in their faith (who knows, maybe they are engaging with them in other ways), yet since then, it has made me curious about why more parents don’t think instilling Christian values is important in a child’s daily regime.
Nurturing and building Christian foundations is paramount for being able to create a long-lasting successful spiritual walk once the child hits adulthood. Yet too many parents fail to see the importance of fostering these building blocks at home and instead relegate them to an hour on a Sunday morning making Christian education the sole responsibility of a dedicated Sunday school teacher or a trained children’s pastor. And while I do value my role in children’s ministry and believe it is of utmost importance, I want to let you all in on a little secret – I can’t do it with my team alone. And I definitely can’t do it just as one person even if I do have two theological degrees with a third on the way.
Here’s why: let me explain an average children’s event for you. On a Tuesday evening approximately 30 kids, wild, excited, and full of energy walk into the basement of our church. They are a lively bunch, inquisitive, and eager to learn – yet they are still kids. And because they are kids, it takes them a minute or two or sometimes ten to be able to calm down. And once they do calm down, their attention span lasts approximately 15 minutes and then we have to move on to the next thing. In this group of kids, we have a mixed bag. Some kids are being properly nourished at home (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) and others are in the midst of a painful home life. Some of the kids grew up in church and others are just hearing about Jonah and the Whale or Noah’s Ark for the first time. Some kids have already committed their lives to Jesus and others aren’t even really sure who Jesus is. And then there’s the age range, the different learning styles, preferences, and personalities each person brings to the group, and the different attitudes parents have as their drop their children off. And my goal (along with my wonderful team) is to find a way to reach each one of them. To find a way to challenge the church kids and encourage the un-churched kids. To find a level playing ground and a story that can relate to 5 year olds and 10 years old without the little ones being lost and the older ones feeling like they are being talked down to or ignored. We run through the evening. We start with a catchy song or two, move on to a craft, do a game, and tell a Bible story. But when you factor in the movement time, getting kids quiet enough to listen, troubleshooting what to do about the fact that half the glue sticks you just bought yesterday no longer work, and wiping up juice spills, I’d say that in an hour long program I really only have 10 minutes maximum to instill any Godly wisdom into your kid. And while there definitely is something to be said about the ministry of presence and reaching out to kids through fun, the fact is that 10 minutes really is not all that long if that’s the only spiritual instruction they will be getting all week.
But let’s say you not only drop your kid off at a midweek program, but you also have them in Sunday school while you are upstairs listening to a sermon. That’s great, but the average Sunday school still only has about 20-30 minutes MAXIMUM of religious instruction for your kids. Which means if the mid-week program and Sunday school are the only opportunities they have to hear the Word of God, we are still averaging less than one hour a week. And when you think about all the other voices that are contending with the Gospel (be they advertisements, schooling, media, or friends) one hour a week is definitely not enough time to undue any negative belief structures imposed on your child’s young and impressionable mind. This means, that the primary task of raising Godly children must belong to you – the parent, not left for a Sunday school teacher to pick up the pieces.
I’m assuming you’re a good parent. I’m assuming you want what’s best for your child and would go to any length to ensure their health and well-being because you love them. I’m assuming you make sure your kids have three square meals a day and that they are eating their fruits and veggies not just candy and chips. I’m assuming you want them to play outside in order to get fresh air and exercise and I’m assuming you take an interest in who their friends are because you want them to hang out with the right crowd. If you do all of these things to ensure your child’s physical well-being, then why should their spiritual state matter any less to you (after all, that is the only enduring and eternal thing?) You might bring your kid to a restaurant once in a while as a special treat or to celebrate a big occasion, but I’m guessing, most of the time, you nourish them with a nice home-cooked and balanced meal. But you see, only relying on a mid-week program and Sunday school to feed your kid’s soul is the equivalent of trusting the local Montana’s or Swiss Chalet with all your child’s dietary needs. These places are great when visited sparingly and everyone likes having someone else wash up the dishes, but going too often will make such times lose their specialness and depending upon them will likely make your kid discontent when one day you are in a rush and have to give him a peanut butter sandwich instead of chicken wings.
So, if you’re reading this and are convinced that you play a pivotal role in your child’s spiritual development, but are unsure where to being, let me give you some easy suggestions. You see, you don’t have to be a theologian or even invest an hour a day to make a lasting spiritual impact in your kid’s life. In fact, even if you only dedicate 15-20 minutes a day, you can help show your child what is truly important in life.
#1: The Long Ride Home
If you are like most church-goers, I’m sure there are things you don’t like about your home church. Yet, I would encourage not to complain about them in front of your child. Perhaps you can discuss them when the kids are asleep or when the grandparents are babysitting, but your kids look up to you and if they see you criticizing the pastor or the church, they are most often going to do likewise. So during the ride home, ask the kids about Sunday school and what they learned or even tell them something interesting from the “grown-up” church if they ask, but refrain from critiquing the sermon or mentioning that anything was “boring” or “a waste of time.” Most kids are too young to understand complex theological concepts, so don’t get into a debate with your spouse about all the things the pastor said that might be wrong, but instead focus on what was shared that you really resonated with.
#2: Teaching Kids to Pray
Fun prayers with silly actions have their place – at a church camp, but at some point, kids also need to learn how to REALLY pray. It is easy to give into the temptation to do a rote prayer such as “God is great and God is good, let us thank Him for our food, Amen” and there is an argument that they engage kids by their simplicity and being easy to remember, but I urge you not to let that be the sole extent of teaching your kids to talk to God. Instead, find different ways to help your kid pray. Don’t correct a child’s prayer (unless they are being incredibly silly) and when you pray demonstrate a prayerful and thoughtful posture because kids will pick up on genuineness. Don’t allow silliness or jostling during prayer and don’t rush through it if the kids are getting restless. Instead, teach the kids that praying is the most important activity of all.
TIP: Because kids pick up on authenticity, it is important to be consistent in your prayer life. This means that even if you go out to eat at a restaurant, you need to keep your prayer posture. Don’t look around to see who is listening in or noticing because your kids will pick that up and make a connection that prayer is “uncool.” Follow the same procedures regardless of where you might be.
#3: Find your child’s natural interests and run with them
Use your child’s natural talents and interests as a gateway to talk about Godly things with them. If they are artistically inclined, what a great opportunity to discuss how God is a wonderful artists who paints sunsets and sunrises. If they love playing with Lego, use it to illustrate how God is the Master Designer. If they are athletic and enjoy team games talk about how God created our bodies to run and jump. If they are naturally extroverted share how God is the expert relationship builder and formed us for community. And if they are more introverted share about how they can begin to hear God in the silence. There are so many ways to bring out spiritual conversations in day-to-day life and to be honest, not all of them require a Bible.
#4: Comfort Your Child Using Biblical Truths
When your kid is struggling with insecurities, and they most definitely will, instill in them that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that God knows and sees them for who they are and takes pride and delight in them. In fact, the Bible tells us that God rejoices over them with singing and jubilation. If they come back after having lost a game or feeling like a failure, remind them that God sees our hearts and motivation and is just thankful that we tried to do the right thing and gave it our all. And if their friends abandon them or leave them out, help them to find comfort in the fact that even Jesus’s closest friends forgot about Him when He needed them the most, but that God’s Word promises that He will never leave us or forsake us.
#5: NEVER Use Godly Activities as Punishment
This may almost seem like a no-brainer to you, but you’d be surprised at the many times I have seen parents use the Bible or Christian activities as a means of punishment and discipline. Two of the most common examples of this would be making your child repetitively write out a Scripture verse speaking about why what they did was wrong and revoking their opportunity to go to a club they enjoy. It seems almost natural that when you have tried everything to get a child to stop their behaviour and they refuse, you revoke an activity they wish to be part of. And oftentimes, because church is free and other classes might not be, church seems the logical one to get rid of. However, I believe this may very well be the most spiritually destructive thing you can do to your kid.
Church is already seen as being an “uncool” activity. Our culture already pressures kids and teens to think that belief in God is ludicrous and childish. Kids are already at a great risk of eventually losing their faith and statistically we have seen more and more kids drop out of church once they reach university age (if not before). Therefore, we must do everything in our power to encourage church attendance and help our kids view it as a positive choice rather than as a negative one. If you want to make a point and take away a privilege, take away the TV, the internet, their IPhone, or their time with friends…ANYTHING, except your mid-week Bible club. And if you want your kids to write lines, than do the stereotypical “I will not tell lies” and resist taking Bible verses out of context. This will help your kids know that you are serious but also help them realize that skipping church is not an option in your books.
CONCLUSION: Raising your children to be spiritual leaders is not an easy tasks and some days you might be tempted to compromise because you feel tired and worn-out, but I urge you not to. It is during those very times when you want to quit, that you may actually be having the greatest spiritual impact in your child’s life. Your kids look up to you. They need to see how much of a priority the Gospel is to you in order for them to begin to apply it to their lives. You wouldn’t skip feeding your kids dinner just because you were overwhelmed, so don’t skip out sharing Biblical truths with them either.
When I was a child I did not have regular “devotional” times with my family. Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but we were not huddled around a Bible reading the book of John and deconstructing it. But today I still have a strong faith and belief in God, attend church every Sunday and am even a pastor. Why? Because even though we didn’t have these formal times, my parents were instilling Biblical truths into me informally at every opportunity they could. That’s why as an adult, I can still have meaningful and deep spiritual conversations with them and refer to them as my “favourite lay theologians.”
Almost every child sees their parents as their greatest heroes. So use that opportunity rather than taking advantage of it. At every juncture, find a way to share your faith with your child even if it’s as simple as going for a walk in the park, watching a sunset together, or packing an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. The more opportunities you have to develop faith at home, the more well-rounded your child’s understanding of God will be and the more likelihood that they will develop into a strong Christian leader of their own home one day. May God bless you on your journey of fostering and creating these deep spiritual links with the very people you love the most – your own kids and your own family.