By Teresa Welch
Discipleship—following after Christ—is an expectation for every believer. But sometimes we forget that discipleship can—and often should—begin during childhood.
I recently enjoyed spending time with “my kids,” who were part of the children’s ministry I led prior to joining the faculty at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. As with all of my former kids, I was curious to find out about their lives, as I felt responsibility for their continued spiritual formation. During my visit with them, it became apparent what I see in their lives now is directly connected to the time I was with them and their families. These young men and women, many of them now in high school, are in many ways just older (and much taller) versions of the children I ministered among. Much of their personality, and many of their habits and interests, are still the same—but now they are more mature and, sometimes, more intense.
I had already been considering the question of when discipleship begins; but “my kids” are proof that discipleship starts during childhood. As children they were given a framework for following after Christ. I hoped that framework remained intact. So the question to consider: How can children’s ministers (and more importantly, parents) create a foundation for lifelong discipleship that will guide children through their years of adolescence, into young adulthood, and throughout their lives?
Create Discipleship Habits and Practices
First, discipleship finds a foundation in leading children to create good habits and practices. Parents can begin to create good habits by attending congregational worship every week. (When families do not place a priority on coming together with the community of faith for worship, children learn from the lack of a regular habit and will adopt the same habit when they grow older.) When they worship with their parents and other adults, children learn from their actions. But you can do more than just let them observe. Talk to children about the importance of the weekly remembrance at the Lord’s table and teach them the meaning behind this practice. Help children understand they are part of the congregation by providing opportunities for them to lead and serve in worship.
Daily prayer time with children helps them develop a lifelong habit of regular communication with God. This begins by providing children with appropriate prayer language and training them about the purpose of prayer. How should they pray? Why should they pray? Children will ask these questions and others, so make sure you answer them. Regardless of where they are or what they are doing at the moment, encourage children to pray when they feel a need to talk to God.
Children can also develop the habit of giving to God with their abilities and resources. Allow children to serve alongside adults and teenagers in service projects. Bring children along when the church serves food to the homeless or collects items for a food pantry. Encourage children to regularly donate items from their toy chest, or give up a birthday or Christmas gift, to create a culture of giving. Train children about sharing their financial resources through regularly giving an offering each week. These habits won’t just naturally develop later in life, and they definitely won’t develop through infrequent reinforcement. When parents find age-appropriate ways for children to serve and give regularly, generosity can begin at an early age.
When parents make worship, prayer, service, and giving a regular part of a child’s life rhythm, they are building a foundation for discipleship.
Give Them Bible Study Tools
While childhood is a time when children hear the stories of the Bible for the first time, they also need to be trained to study the Bible on their own. Children love to hear their own voices. Allow them to read aloud from the Bible, but be sure they use a version with appropriate vocabulary for their reading level.
Build on a child’s innate inquisitive nature to ask questions and seek answers. Nourish this so they might spend a lifetime seeking to understand God’s Word. Allow children an opportunity to ask questions, but rather than providing the answers to their questions, show them how to discover the answers for themselves. Provide children with tools they can use to understand what they are reading, such as Bible dictionaries and maps. Train elementary children how to use a concordance, and show them websites for researching answers to their questions.
Teach children about the different types of literature in God’s Word so they can understand the differences between history, poetry, parables, and epistles. Find graded exegetical study materials of the Gospels or New Testament letters. Help them explore the interaction between the books of the Old Testament that hold the history of God’s people.
In many congregations, this will require better biblical training for those who teach children. You may even need to recruit teachers already skilled in biblical studies. Nonetheless, churches need to invest time and resources in their youngest learners so they can grow in the knowledge of the Scriptures from childhood.
Point Them to Jesus
At the heart of discipleship is the call of Jesus to follow him every day. Children indeed hear this call from an early age, even before they decide to follow him and make a commitment through baptism. From infancy, we should teach children to hear Christ’s call by understanding right from wrong, based on God’s Word and the commands of Christ. Younger children should be taught the two primary commands of Christ: to love God and to love others.
As they grow older, show them Jesus’ commands recorded in the Gospels so that they can make decisions based on Scripture. Encourage children not just to seek after knowledge and intelligence, but more importantly, to seek after the wisdom that will guide their choices and decisions.
Childhood is also a time to establish relationships with people who will encourage children to follow Christ. While serving as a children’s minister, I recognized the importance of scheduling church activities that some might label as “just for fun.” While children enjoy an all-nighter at the church, riding a roller coaster, or hunting for Easter eggs, they are also building relationships with other Christian peers and adults. These relationships can assist children in lifelong discipleship as they find others to walk alongside them.
I recently saw wedding pictures of one of “my kids.” Standing beside her at her wedding were two others who were also “my kids.” These three young women built a relationship with God and each other that began in childhood and developed through spending time together at VBS, church camp, children’s choirs, and an after-school program for elementary-age girls. Their relationship with each other helped them follow after Jesus. Children need opportunities to develop relationships with peers and adults who will spur one another on toward following Christ.
Don’t Wait to Develop Disciples
As I sat around a table with my kids, we laughed about funny things that happened in Kids Worship, at weeks of church camp, and at one very memorable all-nighter. They started singing songs they had learned during Vacation Bible School and children’s musicals. As I listened to them recall stories and sing songs, I realized how much they had retained from their childhood. My prayer for them was that the foundation for discipleship that had been laid was providing an anchor to hold them steady through their adolescence and into adulthood.
I have heard the complaints about the biblical illiteracy of our congregations and the lack of maturity among believers. Other times, I have heard that our church tradition focuses so much attention on conversion and baptism that we fail to follow up with discipleship. Perhaps we should rethink when discipleship begins and take advantage of the opportunity that childhood presents. Discipleship does not begin after someone makes a commitment to Christ through an act of obedience; rather, it begins the moment they first hear the name of Jesus.
Discipleship is simply the desire to be transformed into the likeness of Christ through following Christ’s example and teachings. Let’s encourage this transformation to begin as early as we can.
Teresa D. Welch is assistant professor of Christian education at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. A former children’s minister in Ohio and Illinois, she also serves on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.