My son Will is home for spring break. As usual, we spend a lot of time talking about his college studies, his future plans and whatever new ideas he has for how to spend his free time (I’m not always on board with him on some of those). We also talk a lot about faith. Just like his sister and her husband, Will has a deep and authentic relationship with Jesus. My wife and I take no credit for this. We did the best we knew how in raising our kids, but faith in Jesus is a mysterious and deeply personal experience and parents can only do so much. In the end, our kids choose for themselves.
But down through the years I’ve discovered in my own life as well as in the lives of people I know that there are some essential things all parents have to do in order to lead their kids to find their own faith. I believe there are five crucial steps.
First, Parents have to put their children in a position to believe. We can’t just turn our children loose, to believe anything they want to—it’s a dangerous world out there! Kids are exposed to all sorts of ideas, philosophies, life choices and others’ opinions on a regular basis. Many of these are wrong-headed, silly, erroneous and just plain dumb. Some will lead to ruined lives. For parents to sit back without comment—as I’ve known some parents to do—and just let kids experiment and find their own way through the thickets of world views today is a gross dereliction of duty. We can’t control everything they think, of course. Neither can we become constant critics of everything our kids encounter. We can, however, stay vigilant and engaged with them through their formative years. The Christian faith is far superior to any other belief system or world view. We parents have to take responsibility to get that message through to our kids.
Second, Parents need to make church a spiritual reference point for their families. I know first-hand, as a parent as well as a pastor, that church can become tedious, boring and irrelevant to how life is actually lived. Still, I’m a fan of church, not as substitute for a relationship with Jesus, nor in the sense of religious traditionalism, as though church attendance by itself will somehow give a person spiritual peace. I believe in church because it’s by far the best spiritual reference point for families. When a family knows every Sunday morning that they’ll get up, have breakfast, get dressed and go to be with other families who are likewise serious about God, that habitual experience becomes a powerful way to re-focus their spirits on God. It re-calibrates whatever spiritual drift that occurred during the previous week. Families who understand that do well, and their kids take with them into adulthood a sense of the spiritual enrichment that churches offer. Families who don’t, and who choose instead to engage their families with the wide variety of entertainment, sports or whatever other activity that happens to catch their attention on Sunday mornings, send a strong message to their kids in the wrong direction.
Third, Parents must show their children first-hand how faith is integrated into life. This is the easiest point to understand, if the hardest to practice. If we as parents tell our kids about Jesus then live like unbelievers, our kids stand very little chance to become believers themselves. No parent is perfect, of course. We all do things and say things we regret. And part of real faith lived out in real life is allowing our kids to see first-hand how we handle those times of failure, sin and mistakes in redemptive ways. Still, there are many parents who relate as husband and wife in ways that make their kids wonder if they have any spiritual commitments at all. Other parents treat people poorly. Or are dishonest at work. Or rarely demonstrate any kind of spiritual sensitivities. That’s just hypocrisy, and kids will sniff that out quicker than anything. If we as parents aren’t on a real spiritual journey, we shouldn’t be surprised if our kids never start their own.
Fourth, Parents should celebrate the important spiritual occasions of their children’s lives. When your child makes a commitment to Jesus and is baptized, make a big deal of it. When she or he comes home from Sunday School with a Bible verse memorized, talk about that around the lunch table. When they go off to youth camp and come back determined to have a daily quiet time, encourage them. When they overcome a season of discouragement, celebrate with them. It’s in the transition points of their spiritual life that they can gain strength and resilience to overcome the further struggles that lie ahead. Take those moments seriously.
Fifth, Parents must back off and let God do His work. This is maybe the hardest step of all. Our children aren’t our personal possessions: they’re God’s gifts to us. At best, they’re loaned to us for a period of time. Our ultimate goal isn’t to make our kids into what we want them to be, but to put them into a position where they’ll listen to God, and become what He wants them to be. The holiest moment in the life of a mom or dad is when they realize that God is speaking to their child and their child is listening. That’s the moment we all long for, and the moment when we as parents must have the wisdom and strength to back off and let God do His work.