By Peter Buckland
All too often, parents assume the church is responsible for the spiritual formation of their children. This assumption is a mistake. It is the parents’ responsibility to train their children to know and love Jesus.
Whether parents are biological, step, foster, grandparents, or temporary parental substitutes1, they do a better job of prompting childhood and adolescent faith in Christ than the church staff, volunteers, or programming.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9 places the spiritual development of children squarely on the parents’ shoulders. If we were to apply this old covenant commandment to our new covenant relationship with Jesus, the admonition to train our children might sound something like this:
Hear, O church. Jesus is the Son of God, the only way to the Father. You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; you are to love your neighbor as yourself. These commandments are to be upon your hearts. You are to faithfully live them out for all to see and model them for your children. Teach your children all the time! Teach them when they are at home with you, when they travel with you, when they arise in the morning, and when you put them to bed at night.
Deuteronomy 6:4-9—which I’ve just paraphrased—was originally written to parents, not the nation of Israel. Likewise, today’s parents are to live out these truths rather than delegate their responsibility to the church.
And God’s not the only one to emphasize the power of parental instruction and example in childhood faith development. Contemporary socialization models have also placed parents at the center of child and adolescent faith formation. For example, a 2005 study asking children and teens how they learned about their faith found that parental teaching, modeling, and meaningful parent-child conversations promoted their spiritual development.2 According to another study, teenagers with faith affecting personal practice experienced fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts, participated in fewer acts of violence, and practiced greater sexual restraint than did nonreligious youths.3 Additionally, adolescent devotion to God was associated with significantly less personal depression, according to a 2002 study.
What Parents Can Do
How can parents accept this role and improve their faith-building methods?
• First, parents align themselves with God’s redemptive work in the lives of their children (Philippians 2:13) by praying for their salvation and maturity. It is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to convict children and teens of their sin and their need for Christ’s righteousness (John 16:5-11). Parents need to pray for their children to have soft hearts for the Lord to mold.
One way to encourage this is through the blessing prayer. This prayer expresses a parent’s unconditional love for the child and is spoken over the child each day. My wife and I used the following blessing as a template for each of our children. For example, “Lord, please bless Audrey to always love and obey you, to grow up to be a wise woman, to enjoy reading the Bible and learn of its truth, to serve you all of her life, and be filled up with your Holy Spirit. Please help Audrey to be a woman of compassion” (one character trait that needed to be developed). Regardless of where you live in relation to your children, you can write, say, or even text a prayer of blessing for them.
• Second, parents must capture the heart of their children every day through emotionally supportive interactions. If they don’t, something or someone else will! Parental “heart capturing” means that children know they are loved and cared for.
Meaningful conversation is one way for parents to capture hearts. First, before you talk together, invite God to give you the wisdom you need to talk with your children (James 1:5). Then, ask your child about their day and carefully listen without interruption. Provide reminders of God’s love and pray for any stated concerns.
Fathers must choose to interact with their children in spiritual ways by initiating spiritual conversations with them as well as by spending time devoted to spiritual activities. Research has reported mothers to be the primary spiritual trainers in the home. Dads need to step into this role and share it with moms.
Surprisingly, one of the most important ways parents can capture the hearts of their children is to refrain from yelling. Evidence links frequent parental yelling to higher antisocial child behaviors, lower self-esteem, and more psychological problems.4 Nonyelling Christian parents also reported a more emotionally close relationship with their children than did yelling Christian parents.5
To stop yelling, a parent must find a replacement method. The apostle Peter said God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him” (2 Peter 1:3). God’s power is able to transform an impatient and angry parental heart. The anger of Christian parents does not create healthy spiritual development in the lives of their children (James 1:19, 20).
If you resort to yelling, pray that God will help you to change your parenting style. To do so, you will need to learn a new way to respond to your children and commit to it (setting one’s heart and mind in Colossians 3:1, 2). One approach is to rehearse how that new style would work when you put it into practice. Also, ask your Christian friends to pray for you and to encourage you to achieve your goal.
Finally, apologize to the children to whom you’ve directed your anger. They will most assuredly welcome the change. I did this years ago when I changed my style of parenting with my son, Austin, by learning to refrain from yelling. The end result—a more positive parenting style and a closer relationship with Austin—was well worth the effort.
• Third, parents must incorporate and model biblical truths into daily life. Your personal obedience to God is the foundation of passing on faith to your children (Deuteronomy 6:3). To encourage your children to make faith in Jesus their own, talk with them about what you are learning from God and tell the stories of how he has been faithful to you.
Show them your favorite Scriptures and explain why. Discuss with them how God’s Word makes sense to you, and invite them to accept Christ and live for him. Use the Bible to teach problem-solving skills. Teach your children to seek the Bible’s counsel to honor God in their personal relationships. It’s especially important to help them develop a biblical mind-set regarding social issues, media choices, and political views. Teach them how to pray and focus on the commandments to love God and love others by showing them how to do so.
What the Church Can Do
Church leaders are already invested in parents and in the faith development of their children; however, they often find the needs of families can overwhelm the church’s limited resources. Two practical ways churches can support families are by conducting parent education classes and providing parent mentors. Additionally, when parents and children experience serious problems, professional counseling should be recommended to address these issues.
Parents’ daily spiritual relationship with their children is the most important way childhood and adolescent faith is formed. The Bible commands parents to embrace this role, and research highlights its value. All that remains is for parents to accept this God-given responsibility and strive to raise their children for his glory.
1 For the purpose of this article, all types of parenting will be grouped under the role of “parents.”
2 Chris J. Boyatzis, David C. Dollahite, and Loren D. Marks, “The Family as a Context for Religious and Spiritual Development in Children and Youth,” found in The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, et al. (Eds.) (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2006), 297–309.
3 James M. Nonnemaker, Clea A. McNeely, and Robert W. Blum, “Public and Private Domains of Religiosity and Adolescent Health Risk Behaviors: Evidence from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” Social Science and Medicine, vol. 57, no. 11 (December 2003), 2049–54; accessible at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0277-9536(03)00096-0.
4 John P. Bartkowski, W. Bradford Wilcox, “Conservative Protestant Child Discipline: The Case of Parental Yelling,” Social Forces, vol. 79, no. 1 (September 2000), 265–90.
5 Boyatzis, Dollahite, and Marks, 2006.
Peter Buckland serves as professor of Christian education and family ministry at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.