I now have two daughters, aged 3 and 5 and I still feel underqualified. I want to help them physically: to grow up healthy and active. I want to help them academically: to ask good questions and to understand how to interact with the world. I want to help them emotionally: to be able to deal with their feelings. I want to help them socially: to be able to make good friendships. And then there is their spirituality. I want them to find faith in a God who loves them, a God who is more committed to them than I ever can be.
Throughout scripture there is this continual reminder of the importance of passing on the stories of God’s faithfulness to the next generation. Psalm 78 talks about teaching our children about why God can be trusted. In the New Testament, Paul writes that Timothy, one of the young leaders of the church, had been taught the scriptures as a child and that it was significant in him understanding what the gospel was all about (2 Timothy 3:14-17). In Proverbs 22:6, we see this concept: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Now that’s not a guarantee but it is a general principal: if we help our kids learn to make good decisions, to love others and know God when they are young, then these things tend to stick with them.
We all have a role in helping the next generation understand the promises of God, but in particular, the Bible would suggest that as Christian parents we have a duty to live out and share faith with our children. But with so many areas in which to help our children develop, among the already hectic daily schedule of making packed lunches, tidying away toys and doing enough washing to make you feel like you work in a launderette, it can be difficult to work out how we create time to help them understand the Christian faith.
The temptation is that we end up feeling guilty and try to dodge our responsibility. In the same way we might delegate football tuition and ballet classes to a professional, we can try and delegate the passing on of the Christian faith to the hour a week at Sunday school and an annual holiday club. But we know that the heart of the Christian faith is about being in a relationship with God. The Christian faith is best modelled in our daily lifestyle. As parents, we have at least 30 hours of contact time each week with our children - lots more than the average Sunday school teacher! The reality is that we, as parents, are the most influential people in our children’s lives. They look to us for how to understand and navigate the world, and they watch our actions closely. We have this responsibility to introduce them to faith in the everyday - in the successes as parents, as well as in the mistakes we make; in our certainties, as well as in the questions we still wrestle with.
Research shows that for every ten children who grow up with Christian parents, only five will grow up to have a Christian faith of their own; before many kids have even reached the age of 10, they have already made up their mind to stop going to church as soon as they can. Recent research from Care for the Family suggests that 92 per cent of Christian parents felt they should be doing more.
With these statistics as a backdrop, where do we start? Unfortunately there is no step-by-step guide in the Bible to pick up and use but I think the answer lies in being more intentional. We’re no experts, but here are four key questions that my wife and I are wrestling with to try and support our kids in their faith development.
We have a responsibility to help our kids understand why we do what we do: why we sing songs; why we close our eyes when we pray
What kind of an environment will help faith flourish?
The environment we create in our homes can model what it is to live as Christians. The Christian faith should not be limited to a certain time slot of the week but should be a part of everything we do. Having a loving home might seem pretty obvious but it might be worth giving some time to thinking and talking through how we parent with grace and truth. What does that look like in terms of discipline? How do we re-affirm our love for our children after they have just thrown yet another tantrum? How do we make sure that we don’t become overly judgemental?
Each home will tackle these things in different ways but making sure we have thought these things through is important if we are going to model our Christian faith, in the crunch moments. Perhaps the big danger about modelling our faith is that it can become just about getting our kids to adhere to rules. More than blindly following rules, we need to help them discover that God can be trusted. The Christian faith is not about earning God’s love but about discovering his love and living our lives in response to that revelation.
As parents, whenever we are faced with questions, we can easily resort to: “Because I told you so.” Instead perhaps, we need to share the reason behind what we are asking them. For example, when they ask: “Why do we have to go to church?” we need to take their question seriously.
Another simple idea that we’ve been practising in our home is about celebrating their character. We often praise children for their achievements but it’s vital we look to how we can praise godly behaviour - things like sharing, looking out for the child who’s lonely or choosing not to help themselves to the last piece of dessert.
There is also something really important about just being present with our kids - not just physically but in terms of our attention as well. I sometimes find it really hard to put my phone away (particularly when I’m trying to finalise my fantasy football team!). The truth is that although we can’t protect our kids from everything, we can be there for them.
How can we model prayer regularly?
Prayers don’t have to be long and complicated. Helping our children to understand that God is the father of our whole family is really important. Practically, this may look like saying grace before we eat and giving our kids the opportunity to ‘say thanks’. More than just meal times, I try and punctuate my daily routine with short prayers. They are often silent but in order to model that we can bring all things to God, I have been trying to pray these short prayers out loud, such as when we hear that someone is sick or when we are talking about the day ahead at school.
I have also been really challenged about how we hear God. When we as a family are facing decisions I will often ask my children: “What do you think God might be asking us to do?” They might not have an answer but it models to them the expectation that God leads us and guides us.
Prayers can also be more than words - using paint, leaves, playdough and felt-tip pens to creatively depict prayers demonstrates how we can express how we are with God. Different styles of prayer are also helpful; my daughter learnt a liturgy from her Catholic primary school with actions. She told us how much better it was than some of the prayers we just made up.
Each night I try and say a prayer as part of our bedtime ritual. I ask my kids what they would like us to pray for and try and see how the previous night’s prayer may have been answered. I recently came across a great way to end this time, by praying: “Thank you God, that you have given your child for me to look after, to know and to love.” There is so much theology in that tiny phrase.
How can we have deeper ‘god’ conversations?
In Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are commanded to teach God’s commands diligently to their children. They are told to do it as they sit in the house, as they walk down the street, when they’re going to bed and when they’re getting up. We have been challenged to make more of our family conversations about God, so that talking about God becomes even more natural.
In practice, many parents have found it helpful to try and debrief the day with their children after coming back from work, or picking them up from school. A brilliant question to ask is: “How did you see God at work today?” They might not always have an answer but it’s a good question to get them looking out for God at work. And if it’s going to make sense to them, then we need to model it by sharing what we saw God do - from answered prayers to seeing his provision.
Sharing our faith journey is also important. We might, as we’re heading back from church, ask our kids to share what they learned about but I’ve also recently started to then share what I’ve been learning about too. That doesn’t need to just be on a Sunday; we can share what we’ve explored during our own devotional times.
If you have more than one child, having meaningful conversations can be difficult. You might want to intentionally make space and time for quality conversations by scheduling to take one of them out for a walk or a hot chocolate and giving them your undivided attention. Why not ask your kids: “Can I tell you about why I am a Christian?” to open up a conversation about your own faith journey - sharing both the ups and the downs.
Knowing how to take conversations deeper can be a challenge. Remember, they haven’t all got to be about Jesus. You might use a TV programme they’re watching as a prompt to talk about things such as responsibility or honesty.
You can also make space for them to ask difficult questions. Try not to shut your children down with: “Well, this is just what we believe!” but instead when they offer a very different perspective, you could respond with: “That’s interesting, why do you think that?” Our children have to own their faith and so we need to provide a safe space for doubts to be aired, and at times, if we can’t answer their questions, then telling your kids you don’t know, is not only acceptable, but can be helpful in modelling that they’ll never have all the answers.
There is also something really important about being present with our kids - not just physically but in terms of our attention as well
How can we involve others in helping our children develop their faith?
God puts us together in community to help one another in our journey and in seeing his kingdom come. My wife and I know for sure that we need community to help us with the task of helping our children on their faith journey, especially on those tough days, when we’ve slept badly and our patience is wearing thin.
One of the things we are learning is the importance of being proactive in asking others to get involved. You may already have godparents for your children, people who have committed to nurturing faith in your kids. But sometimes we as parents get so caught up in life, that we don’t utilise that support. I know that texting godparents with prayer updates for our kids is something we don’t do enough.
It might be that you don’t have godparents for your kids or that you have lost touch with them. Could you identify a few people you know your children relate well to, and ask them if they would consider building on that to positively invest in your kids, inviting them to be a part of their lives? You might want to put photographs of these people on your child’s bedroom wall and encourage your child to pray for them too. We have just asked two young people in their early teens to help with nurturing our children’s faith, as we know that our kids massively look up to teenagers. A community of caring people who pray for, encourage and spend time with your kids will help them flourish, not only their faith but their whole life.
When it comes to gathering together on a Sunday morning, we have a responsibility to help our kids understand what is happening: why we sing songs; why we have different symbols in the sanctuary; why we close our eyes when we pray; why we do what we do. If we want our children to feel that they belong to the church community, we need to explain what it all means.
The longer I’ve been a parent, the more I am aware of the mistakes I make. I don’t always represent Jesus brilliantly to my daughters. I have to say sorry regularly, but the good news is that there are very few situations that are irredeemable. Jesus loves them more than I do.
Rob Parsons says: “We all know that with regards to our children knowing faith that there are no guarantees. We also know how easily parents can fall under a weight of false guilt in this area, those ‘if only we had…’ moments. And yet even God, the perfect parent has trouble with his children. Nevertheless, we believe that we can learn from each other in this area - so that we can help one another foster homes, families, churches where our young people can see vital expressions of faith that will influence their lives for ever.”
Whether you’ve been intentionally living out your faith with your kids for years or whether this is all new to you, the truth is that each day is a new beginning. It’s never too late to be more intentional in sharing our faith with our children while remembering that, actually, we are just stewards and, as with all things, we have to trust our children to God. Why not try out just one of these ideas today?