As parents, what does it look like for us to be the light in our homes? This is not just a light to switch on when we pitch up at work, drop our kids off at school or manage to get our whole family along to a Sunday service. We need to be light to and with our children, sharing the faith journey with them throughout their lives. As our children grow, the where and how we nurture and encourage their faith might change, but despite our own feelings of inadequacy or lack of confidence their need for us doesn’t diminish.
In Youth for Christ’s Gen Z report, young people were asked who or what influences the way they think about faith or religion. More than 70 per cent said family and just nine per cent said youth workers. From a list of priorities respondents could choose, “making my family proud” came out on top.
More recently, Youthscape’s No Questions Asked report asked young people to rank 15 cards in order of importance. Family consistently ranked highest and was also a key factor in their religious affiliation.
Our influence matters. Our engagement matters, even as they become teenagers. Let’s be there for the long haul, as interested in their experiences with God as we might be in their sporting and academic achievements. I want to explore three areas in which I believe we can invest, whether our children are 1 or 17.
In Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli argues that we don’t know how to “be” with God or with ourselves. By implication, we don’t know how to be with other people, including our teenagers. In our constant doing, are we making time to just be with our children?
I’m challenged every time I read Deuteronomy 6. No children’s or youth worker is mentioned. The onus is on family, on parents, on me. Moses says: “Impress [these commandments] on your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
So what does it look like for us to practise God’s presence? We should be present to him and our children in such a way that is natural for us to talk about the things of God, the stories of his faithfulness and the truth of his word.
One way to get started is to literally go for a walk, even if it’s just on the way to somewhere you were already going. If it is natural and normal for us to bring God into our day as we talk – our hopes and fears, expectations and excitements about the day – we can create a culture of “God with us”. Discuss and pray together as you walk along the road.
As our children get older – gaining greater independence around their movements and walking themselves to school or taking the bus – time spent together outside the home becomes scarce and it is even more important to make a conscious effort not just to be together but to talk about Jesus as part of our regular conversations.
When they were young you probably had a specific routine. Ours revolved around bath time, brushing hair, then a mug of milk and a story. At the end of the story we would pray together. As our children have got older, getting ready for bed has changed (certainly when they get ready for bed has!). However, what has not changed is their eagerness to still have that dedicated time with one of us at the end of the day. As parents, we have to make that a priority. How do we top and tail the day with our children as they get older?
In our constant doing, do we have time to just be with our young people?
The older our children get the more difficult it might be to have a ‘walk-around’ faith. Here are a few things you can do as they hit their teens:
• Text them: “Have a great day” or “Thinking of you” are great, but if they have a faith of their own, why not also lob in a prayer or a Bible verse
• Sweet and sour: What are they looking forward to? What do they loathe? Take a moment before they head off to school to pray with them, for both the sweet and the sour.
• Verse of the week: We have a verse emblazoned on our kitchen wall alongside our weekly activities. It acts as a constant reminder to all of us that God is with us and his promises are true. We see it every morning during our staggered breakfasts. This week our verse is: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him” (Romans 15:13a). We come back to it occasionally through the week, mentioning it at mealtimes. We allow the verse to permeate our week and all our comings and goings. Scripture isn’t reserved for a moment. We encourage each other to meditate on God’s word and let it sink in.
What child hasn’t cried “do it again” when we have thrown them up in the air and caught them? Younger children love repetition. This isn’t simply a childish habit, it is essential for their learning and development. They might grow out of the “do what you did to my brother to me”, but this comment from GK Chesterton might make us think about the habits and practices we instil and seek to model:
“Children…always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”
What are spiritual disciplines if not doing it again and again? When our children are young, routine can be fairly fixed and we set the tone. As they become older, we can give them the freedom to work out their own rhythm. But we remain an influence. If my predominant habit becomes looking at my phone when we are supposed to be eating a meal together, what sort of message and example does that send? The same goes for regular prayer and Bible study.
Things don’t need to become a daily practice to become habits, for example binge-watching the latest series on Netflix. Young people’s devotion to watching YouTube videos tells us they have no problem developing habits! So whether it is general chores or specific things young people start to take greater responsibility for in the home, how does the habitual become something we can use for God’s glory and cultivate in his presence?
As our children grow, the where and how we nurture and encourage their faith might change but their need for us doesn’t diminish
A great place to start with children of any age is Six Sacred Rules for Families by Tim and Sue Muldoon. Full of practical wisdom, I particularly like their emphasis on ritual and family practices around mealtimes. This isn’t about aiming for the impossible, with everyone around the table at 6pm every night. It is about being intentional; marking occasions and creating unique family practices that reflect the character of your children and their interests. It’s about presenting a shared space where each family member can bring worship, a thought, a prayer or an activity that everyone can join in with.
Let me tell you a youth work secret. Teenagers like creating and making stuff just as much as children do when given the chance. Don’t jettison activities or family fun that you have decided were the preserve of childhood.
As your children find their voice and participate more in decision-making at school and church, what does that look like in your home? What would they choose to do for family worship if it was up to them? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Church at home: We have done church at home since our children were small. Recently, they prepared and led this for us. They picked the theme, Bible verses to explore, an activity to do together, an illustration (YouTube clip!) and prayer stuff. We have tried to model this kind of thing over the years, but they are now making it their own and putting their own spin on it. This is not a time to teach them, but to share the journey and give them permission to lead.
- Serving as a family: There is a great event at our church once a month: a mashup of Messy Church and Kids Club called Friday Superheroes. We all serve as a family, and our eldest daughter helps set up and lead an activity. We all muck in.
- Families together home group: We meet on an ad hoc basis with two other families. It is relaxed and informal. We share life, tell stories of faith, eat food and pray. Each family takes it in turns to host.
Something I have witnessed in my own home is my children’s growing awareness of the world around them. They don’t suffer fools lightly and they get frustrated when they see injustice. Something that stands out from Youth for Christ’s Gen Z research – for those with or without faith – is young people’s desire for their lives to mean something and to make a difference in the world.
Young people volunteer more of their time than any other age group (including their parents’ generation) apart from the over-65s. How can we encourage this and champion it? This has echoes of “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s prayer. There is a desire for justice, for God’s rule and reign, for fairness and righteousness. Young people don’t just look for others to solve the challenges of our world; they want to get stuck in and make a difference.
How can we, as their parents, support them as they petition for change? We are called as Christians to “petition the Lord” in prayer (Philippians 4:6). How do we encourage our teenage children to petition the powers that be, lobby for change and use their voice? Here are a few ideas:
- Mission agencies: Whether it is Tearfund, Christian Aid, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Compassion or Toybox, there are so many ways we can encourage our young people to make a difference. Many of these organisations have youth teams or a mission focus that seeks to engage young people in activism and giving.
- Talk about giving: As your children grow they will begin to have their own money, whether from you, benevolent grandparents or a part-time job. If you haven’t done it before, get talking about your own giving. What do you give to? What charities and initiatives do you support? Encourage your children to think about how they might tithe or give a portion of their income to something they value.
Each of these three things – presence, practice and petition – takes effort and requires us to be intentional. I’m still working this out as a parent, but as my children grow I don’t want some kind of spiritual drift to set in. By my inaction or expectation that someone else will pick up the reins and run with my kids through their teenage years, I don’t want to give the impression to my children that the faith they have as little ones is something I’m expecting them to grow out of. Will you join me?