A couple of years ago, my husband and I got this text from our older daughter: “I know this might seem random, but I just want to thank you for raising us to believe in God. I have been so thankful for my faith lately, and I know it would not be nearly as strong if I did not have you two as role models and if being a Christian wasn’t so important in our family. Thank you for raising us in the church, for having us go every Sunday, and just for being examples of Christians to us. We are so, so blessed.”
To be clear: my husband and I have missed at least as much as we’ve hit. We’ve depended on God’s mercy and grace again and again. We’ve stumbled blindly in the dark. But here, in the light of hindsight, are six faith-feeding practices we’d do again (given the chance), practices that might work for you, too, while you lead your children along the way toward home.
1. Walk before you talk.
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!” (Revelation 3:15)
Last summer, when my family and I were at a lake cottage we’re grateful to be able to use, I came inside in the middle of the day and found my swimsuit-clad teenager sitting at the dining room table doing her devotions. What struck me most about the scene was that in the foreground was a pile of my husband’s devotional books and his own Bible.
My girls grew up seeing their dad read the Word and avail himself of tools to help him dig into it. They got used to me saying to them at the dinner table, “Listen to what I learned at women’s Bible study today! This is the coolest thing!” My point is not that my husband and I are candidates for Hebrews’ “Hall of Faith”—we are cracked pots, grateful to be used by the Master Potter to mold the minds and hearts of His children. But if, as parents, we want our kids to get excited about God and about what He loves, we need to get excited about God and what He loves ourselves. How can we expect our children to invest their lives in something we only ever throw a few spare pennies at?
On this side of heaven, it’s never too late to get excited about your own faith and to let your kids see that excitement. Ask God to create a hunger and thirst in your soul for more of Him. Find something that fires up your faith and lights you up – a podcast, a book, a Bible study, a worship song, a church, a sermon, a devotional, a book of the Bible. Get into it, and then let what you find there come out in your interactions with your kids.
2. Make God the center hub, not a spoke on the wheel.
“These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6: 6-9)
I grew up in a church-going family. We prayed before meals. We went to church camp, Sunday School, and vacation Bible school. I am beyond thankful for this foundation of faith, and I’m so grateful to my parents for giving it to me. But looking back, I can see that God was more a spoke on the wheel of life than He was the hub.
Bringing kids up in the knowledge and reverence of God is a 24/7 opportunity to demonstrate that faith is strongest when it is not compartmentalized but overarching—the fabric of life rather than just a fringe element. Following the Deuteronomy 6 model, pray with your kids when you’re sitting down to meals but also when you’ve just gotten bad news about someone or when you’re in the car and see an ambulance go by. Let your children see you making time to serve at church, and look for opportunities to serve together. Hang Scripture prints on your walls at home, and work Bible verses into regular conversation (don’t worry if you don’t get every word exactly right).
3. Introduce them to the body.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Covid made church in our pajamas not only possible but, to some extent, the norm. But in the “new normal” we’re forging as a society, our children still need to be introduced to how the bride of Christ—the local church—can radiantly encourage, pray for, guide, and model truth about life with God for our kids.
You might tell your son or daughter something about faith or God or the Bible a dozen times and get nothing more than “uh-huh,” only to have them hear it from a Sunday School teacher or youth group leader and come home talking about it like they’ve just had their own burning-bush moment.
I know getting up and around for in-person church every Sunday morning is practically an invitation for the enemy to hit you with his best shot. In our family, we joked that the four of us never liked each other less than we did in the half-hour before we pulled into the church parking lot. Intertwining your life with a local congregation is messy, tricky, and often disappointing. But somewhere out there is a local gathering that is right for your family, where you and your children can teach and be taught, serve and be served, love and be loved. Not a perfect church, but the right one for you. Finding it will be worth it.
4. Recognize when it’s time for a change.
“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14)
The way you’ve always done things can be reassuringly stabilizing, or it can be stagnating. Parents need to recognize when change is good or even necessary to advance their child’s faith. Once my daughters both had their phones, they started using them at church to access the Bible apps they had on them. They were hounded quite mercilessly about this by an older member of our congregation, who regularly accused them of “being on your phone again.” I told them to ignore him (and offered to go to bat with him on their behalf) because I knew that on those phones, they had not only an entire Bible but also daily devotion apps, Scripture wallpaper, and hours of worship music.
And when, midway through high school, our teenager came to her father and me and told us, “I would like to look for a church where I can grow more in my relationship with God,” her father and I readily gave our blessing—even though ministry commitments and other ties kept us at the church where we’d taken our girls since they were days old. Our children’s mature faith and true love for God are the goals, and while our kids often get to these by way of paths we’ve broken for them, sometimes, they forge their own paths.
5. Choose your lesser battles.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
The greatest battle you will ever fight for your kids is for their eternal souls—for their relationship with the God who made them. Beneath this are lesser battles. Some of these are non-negotiables clearly prohibited by Scripture (see Colossians 3, for example). But others have some margins to them.
As a parent, your job is to determine which battles you will fight with your children (against what they may want) and which you will fight for them (against what others in your life may want for them). The enemy loves distraction. He would like to get you so focused on the lesser battles that you take your eyes off the greatest fight. In our family, regular Sunday school and church attendance and predominantly Christian music were our areas of emphasis; youth group and Christian summer camp attendance were not. Knowing your children and their personalities and temperaments, only you can decide which lesser issues you need to take on and which you can wave the white flag over.
6. Pray, and then pray some more.
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.” (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
From the beginning of our children’s lives, my husband and I asked God, “Please write Your name on their hearts. Please draw them to Yourself. Please save their souls.” We prayed this over and over again. Once they said yes to God’s offer of salvation through faith in Christ, we continued to pray for their spiritual maturity, hunger and thirst for God, and continued relationship with Him.
Asking God to birth and then mature faith in our children is not begging Him to do something He does not want to do. It is not to plead with a miserly master to release some crumb of bread. To boldly approach God’s throne of grace with confidence again and again on behalf of our children’s souls is to cooperate with what God wants: “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14). Pray for your children to come to faith. Pray for them to hunger and thirst for God and recognize that He can only satisfy that longing. And pray for the people in their lives who influence their minds and hearts: their friends, their coaches, their teachers, and yourself.
Sometimes Christian parents are accused of “shoving religion” down their children’s throats, forcing them to buy into their parents’ beliefs blindly. But this is not what bringing your children up in the faith is about at all. It is not about forcing them to buy into someone else’s beliefs blindly; it is about opening their eyes to truth so that they can accept the proffered gift of redemption purchased for them at so great a cost. It is not about shoving religion down your children’s throats: it is about feeding their faith so that one day, they might choose for themselves to take their seat at the banqueting table and feast on the goodness of God.
Photo credit: @GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages
Elizabeth Spencer is a wife, mom, freelance writer, baker, Bible study facilitator, and worship leader from Battle Creek, Michigan. She writes about faith, family, and food (with some occasional funny thrown in) on her blog, Guilty Chocoholic Mama, and on Facebook. She is the author of the devotional Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.