Discipling Christian Children
From my pastor's letter this week:
One of the most important things we will do at Second Presbyterian Church is disciple our children to a living, personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We live in a society that assumes that when children grow up they will jettison the family's beliefs and values. But the Bible sees things differently. The book of Proverbs says that the childhood years have a formative influence that lasts throughout life: "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6).
There are a number of mistakes that I have observed Christian parents making over my years in ministry. One mistake is to think that our duty as Christian parents consists solely of disciplining our children. To be sure, the Bible clearly states that Christian should be disciplined (see Heb. 12:6; Prov. 13:24). But discipline - the process of bringing the will into submission - is not enough. Another mistake is have seen consists of the belief that need only provide a good Christian environment for our children. We bring them to Sunday School and church, we home school them or educate them in Christian schools, we ensure that their friends are from believing families, we send them to Christian camps, etc. I am certainly not against any of these things. But providing a Christian environment and structure is simply not enough for the Christian nurture of our children. Our generation is seeing a shockingly high percentage of young people raised in a Christian environment who do not continue in the faith outside of the home. Surely, the primary reason is the poor quality of Christian faith in so many churches and homes. But I am persuaded that another reason is that many parents do not recognize their role in discipling their children in the faith.
What do I mean by discipling our children? Ted Tripp put it this way in his excellent book, Shepherding a Child's Heart: Discipling is "the process of your children embracing the things of God as their own living faith... to see your children develop identities as persons under God" (p. 198). Discipling arises out of the bonded relationship parents are to have with their children. We see this throughout the book of Proverbs, which was written in the form of counsel from a father to a son. Proverbs 23 is especially filled with this kind of language. Solomon writes, "My son, if your heart is wise, then my heart will be glad" (Prov. 23:15). He adds, "Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old" (Prov. 23:22). My favorite - and this verse presents the heart behind the wisdom of Proverbs - reads: "My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways" (Prov. 23:26). How important that statement is: children will follow our ways only if they have given us their hearts.
So how do parents foster a close relational bond that results in their children following in our ways? I would offer parents four commitments designed to build a strong discipling relationship with their children. I base it on four easy-to-remember words: Read - Pray - Work - Play.
First, parents (especially fathers) must read God's Word to and with their children. Countless Christians raised in strong believing homes will remember the influence of their father's fervent and faithful ministry of reading (plus explaining and discussing) the Scriptures. Paul states that "faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Therefore, our children's faith will feed off the hearing of God's Word from the mouths of their fathers and mothers. This takes many forms. Little children should be read Bible stories and memorize simple verses. The every-day speech of parents in the home should liberally include the truth of God's Word. In my view there is no substitute for regular family worship, in which the whole family gathers to study God's Word and pray. And of course, our children need to see our own devotion to God's Word lived out in the home, experiencing first-hand from us the righteousness, peace, and joy that comes from the gospel.
Second, parents must pray for and with their children. How it warms a child's heart to know that his or her parents are fervently praying on his behalf. Parents should have regular times of prayer with the children and should frequently pray individually with their children. A child's heart should be warmed by the voice of her mother and father beseeching God's blessing and help for her. Thus parents should make sure that their children know they are praying for the specific challenges and trials that they are facing. This requires us to be involved in the affairs of their hearts, which discipling always requires.
Third, parents should work with their children. This means that parents should be involved in the children's work - mainly schoolwork - both to help and guide them. But it also means that we should invite our children into our work. Shared work builds relationships. Work in the kitchen, work in the yard, work painting walls or repairing furniture. Children love to work alongside their parents, and the process of growth and shared experience forges a strong bond. Families should also engage in works of Christian service together.
Fourth, parents should play with their children. This involves our participation in their play and our invitation for them to join in our play. When a father gets down on his knees to work on a model or Legos with his boys or to do crayons with his little girls, the relationship bond is strengthened. When mothers share books that she loved growing up or sits down for a game with the kids, her knits their hearts with hers. Parents should share their passions with their boys and girls and invite them into the fun of hobbies and pastimes. All of this play has a very serious purpose: the bonding of hearts in loving relationship through joyful, shared experiences.
"My child, give me your heart," says the Bible. This assumes, of course, that the parent has already given his or her heart to the child. This will always take the form of time: serious time and play time, time in worship and time in service together. If we will give our hearts to our children, we will find their hearts eagerly offered back to us, so that we may then lead them into the reality of our faith in Christ. Indeed, the nurturing, discipling bond between a parent and a child is one of the promised results of Christ's coming: "He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers" (Mal. 4:4).
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