Every now and then our church’s Children’s Ministry invites Pam and me to talk to groups of young parents about how to raise children to become adults with a real and vibrant faith all their own. In other words, how do we as Christian parents pass our faith on to the next generation?
We’re always glad to speak at these kinds of events but the truth is there’s not a simple answer to what’s a complicated question, even though that’s what most Christian parents are looking for. They want to know things like which family devotional materials are best, if they should home school or send their kids to public schools, how to have meaningful prayer times with their kids, which software is best for monitoring the internet, when to purchase a smart phone for your child (this is an easy one: let them buy their own when they move out of your house), and when to allow your daughter to begin dating (this is even easier: never).
The real keys to successfully leading our children to become adult believers are harder to quantify.
To start with, children are free moral agents and the way they turn out as adults isn’t always connected with how they’re brought up. Like their parents, kids will at some point define their lives by their own decisions. This means that even the most religious and dutiful parents often end up with adult children living at odds with their upbringing. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for the children of negligent or even abusive parents to grow up to be kind, tender and spiritually mature. I know it doesn’t seem fair or even biblical—notwithstanding the famous line from Proverbs that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” But the truth is that children are just as apt to make life decisions that move them toward maturity and success as are adults. They’re also just as capable of bone-headed decisions that ruin their lives. A colleague with experience in student ministry often reminds me that “every kid is seven seconds away from stupid.” After 37 years of pastoral ministry I’d add, “So are adults.”
So what do Pam and I tell the young parents? Before I try to answer that question, I should tell something of my own experience. I never had much success in leading family devotions. I read a variety of devotional guides at breakfast, but they were boring. I tried having a set time for prayer with the family in the evening, but there was always too many other things going on to make it successful. I even attempted to share the stately Bible readings from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but the result was the kids snickering at the archaic language. So I spent twenty years feeling guilty about my lack of spiritual leadership of my family.
Somehow the kids turned out, not just alright, but passionately in love with Jesus and devoted to his Kingdom.
Our daughter Katie and her family live in California and are active in the worship and ministry of a small Reformed Presbyterian church. They love the fellowship, the mission and the Bible teaching their church makes possible and are raising their daughter in the thick of congregational life. They wouldn’t consider any other way of living. My son Will and his family joined a small Anglican church in North Carolina and love everything about it—from the liturgy to the priests in robes to reading out of the Book of Common Prayer. I’m eclectic enough to appreciate spiritual truth wherever I find it, and I rejoice that the kids have landed in denominations and faith-traditions that, even though different from the Southern Baptist church they grew up in, are yet, biblical, faithful and missional. They talked with me and Pam about their respective churches before becoming a part of them, and we gave our blessing to both.
So back to the original question. I honestly don’t know how our kids turned out the way they did. I know parents who were more godly, more spiritual and more faithful in doing the spiritual things at home you’re supposed to do than we were, but their kids made different choices when they grew older. And I know other parents who weren’t remotely Christian in their child-rearing but their kids grew up to love Jesus. What we’re after as parents—I tell anxious young dads and moms—is that we can improve the odds of our children making wise decisions by paying attention to two values above all else. Pam and I talk a lot about the years when our children were at home and we agree that where we might have failed in other areas of offering spiritual leadership to our children, we tried our best to build these two values into the foundation of our home life. Maybe they explain some of the motivation behind our children’s choices later in life. The first value is authenticity and the second is integration.
By authenticity I simply mean that for Christian parents to raise children who are Christian, they must be the same people at home that they are in church. If dads and moms act all syrupy and spiritual at church then come home only to gossip, slander, hurt and manipulate then their children will get such a mixed message that the chances of them wanting to embrace the faith of their parents is almost nil. Why would a child with any sense at all want that kind of hypocrisy? A warm, loving and affirming home is the greatest witness for Jesus we parents have—more important than memorizing Bible verses or attending church functions several times every week.
The second value is just as important. Integration is when we take the things we claim to believe in church and apply them to the non-religious areas of our lives. What I mean is how we live as Jesus followers in our jobs, our schools, our Home Owners Associations, our recreation, our entertainment. The life of faith—if it’s real—must have a noticeable impact on every other part of our existence. Otherwise it’s nothing more than a mask we wear on special days or to fit into certain circumstances or to impress important people. Our children sense if our faith is a narrow sliver of life or if it’s the passion of our hearts. And they will usually follow our lead. The difference, though, is how this kind of casual Christianity diminishes from one generation to the next. If the faith of the parents is shallow, the faith of their children will be even more diluted and their grandchildren will have little reason to believe at all.
We always end our encouragement to young Christian parents the same way. Be yourself, we tell them. Learn how to live for Jesus in every area of your life and don’t apologize for a biblical lifestyle. Let your kids see your life as it really is. Laugh with them. Read to them. Give them chances to try new things and the freedom to fail when things don’t work out. Go to church with them and help them grasp the real presence of Jesus in their lives. Keep your family life centered on Jesus but not saccharine with religion. Lead them to spiritual truth but don’t expect them to be super-spiritual. Let them be kids. Be patient with them but keep the highest standards of achievement. Celebrate their religious milestones more than their sports and scholastic awards. Be vigilant about their present but not anxious about their future. Most of all, pray: God can do more in their lives than you could ever dream of.