Nurturing and building Christian foundations is paramount for being able to create a long-lasting successful spiritual walk once a 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. 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.
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 10 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-year-olds 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 hourlong program I really only have 10 minutes maximum to instill any Godly wisdom into your kids. 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 kids 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.
So, if you are convinced you play a pivotal role in your children’s spiritual development, but are unsure where to begin, 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 kids’ life. In fact, even if you only dedicate 15-20 minutes a day, you can help show them what is truly important in life.
The long ride home
If you are like most churchgoers, 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 children. 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.
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 he is 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.
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.
Find your children’s natural interests and run with them
Use your children’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 not all of them require a Bible.
Comfort your children using biblical truths
When your kids are 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. 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.
Never use (or withhold) 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 withhold 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 she did was wrong and revoking his opportunity to go to a Christian club he enjoys. It seems almost natural that when you have tried everything to get a child to stop his behavior and he refuses, you revoke an activity he wishes 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 smartphone, their time with friends — anything except your mid-week Bible club. And if you want your kids to write lines as punishment, 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.
Raising your children to be spiritual leaders is not an easy task, and some days you might be tempted to compromise because you feel tired and worn out, but 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. 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 “favorite lay theologians.”
Almost every child sees her parents as her 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 participating in a simple service project. The more opportunities you have to develop faith at home, the more well-rounded your children’s understanding of God will be and the more likely it will be that they develop into strong Christian leaders of their own homes one day. May God bless you on your journey of fostering and creating these deep spiritual links with your own children and family.
Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a children’s pastor at Trulls Road Free Methodist Church in Courtice, Ont., and a field associate for the Anabaptist Disabilities Network. She writes at Zwiebach and Peace, where this post first appeared.