Discipling Our Children: Will Our Kids Keep The Faith?
By Wrutheran Sinnadurai
REFERRING to the Christian community, someone once quipped that the first generation knows God, the second generation knows about God and the third generation knows not God. Over the years, I have seen the truth of that statement many times.
It is rather tragic that there are thousands of parents who profess belief in Christ and are regular and active in church, but whose children seem untouched by their faith. The same also holds true for some pastors and leaders who labour hard to disciple others but whose own children seem to have drifted away from the faith.
There is no guarantee that children will follow the faith of their parents. But there are at least eight practices the family and church can apply to facilitate the discovery of meaningful faith in Christ amongst the younger generation.
1. Constant and intentional teaching of God's Word
Parents must take seriously the valuable instruction found in Deuteronomy that has been a central practice in the Jewish community for about 4000 years:
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. … so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land ... (Deuteronomy 11:18-21, TNIV).
God and His ways are to be constantly taught and discussed in the home. Children have to be made familiar with God's Word and His ways from a very young age. This means that parents should have lots of interaction with their children and impart biblical teachings and values during these times. Most parents constantly remind their children of the importance of studying hard and earning good grades in preparation for a prestigious career. But there appears to be a lack of similar fervour in emphasizing the importance of God's Word and faith in Him.
2. The family altar
The family altar is a crucial avenue for imparting faith to our children. It is the place to nurture faith in their hearts and minds, besides being a spiritual adventure for the whole family. It offers the setting and atmosphere for nurturing a love for God and his Word, and provides the opportunity for the family to worship God, interact on spiritual matters, and pray together. The frequency of observing the altar may vary depending on factors such as the age of the children and schedules of the parents and children, but it needs to be regular.
Unfortunately, this is probably the most neglected family practice. Churches seem pre-occupied with ambitious and visible projects and activities but have generally failed to teach, emphasize, and encourage this spiritual discipline for the family. For many believers, church activities are an end in themselves, and are seen as fulfillment of spiritual obligations while spiritual responsibilities in the home are ignored or neglected. There may be many who are aware of the importance of the family altar but it is not a priority in their busy routine.
3. Parents lead by example
Like it or not, our words, actions and attitudes always rub off on our children, even if by varying degrees. A genuine and dynamic faith often rubs off in a positive way. But an insincere, "put on" and "image-preserving" or "imageenhancing" faith can cause children to be cynical and turn away from a religion that they have perceived over the years to be hypocritical.
Richard Stearns, President of World Vision U.S., in his book The Hole in our Gospel, cites a study done in the U.S.:
Based on a study released in 2007, we found that most of the lifestyle activities of born-again Christians were statistically equivalent to those of non-born-agains … Bornagain believers were just as likely to bet or gamble, to visit a pornographic website, to take something that did not belong to them, to consult a medium or psychic, to physically fight or abuse someone, to have consumed enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk, to have used an illegal, nonprescription drug, to have said something to someone that was not true, to have gotten back at someone for something he or she did, and to have said mean things behind another person's back. No difference. (p. 229)
While the above study was on American Christians, could it also be true for Malaysian Christians? A sincere and genuine faith must be reflected in the lives and lifestyles of parents. Parents can easily put on a show of faith to people outside the family. But children are quick to spot incongruities in their parents. If a parent's faith is not seen to be genuine, children may grow up perceiving religion as merely a "game" that people (especially adults) play.
4. Good communication
Communication habits need to be cultivated from the time children are born. Good communication enriches the parent-child relationship. The fruits of good communication are only realized when children reach adulthood, when parents can continue to be friends and confidantes to their children. In such a relationship, issues regarding faith can readily be discussed and with ease. My three children are in their twenties and are able to discuss many "adult" issues with my wife and I. I find great pleasure discussing doctrinal, theological and philosophical issues with them.
5. Faith in a community setting
Parents must ensure and encourage their children's participation in Sunday School where the Word of God is taught, discussed and applied in a community of other children. These are valuable opportunities for young minds to be nurtured in the ways of God. Older children should be required to attend Youth activities and camps where they not only engage in healthy activities but also where their faith can be clarified and strengthened through bible studies and teaching sessions. Children who are shuttled from one tuition class to another to the neglect of such activities cannot be expected to suddenly embrace the faith of their parents when they reach adulthood.
An often neglected practice is ensuring that our children serve in ministries. Service is at the core of Jesus' ministry and it is frivolous to speak of God's love without showing it through works. Children can be taught to serve at an early age, beginning with the simplest of tasks that are age-appropriate. Failure to learn service can lead children to become self-centered, selfish, greedy and demanding. Through service they not only learn practical ways of showing love and concern for others, but also gain a holistic view of the gospel and a deeper understanding of faith.
7. Interacting with other adults
Encourage children to talk to other adults in the church. This is especially true for teenagers who are in transition to adulthood and are keen to have a peek at the adult world. They have an innate curiosity that drives them to communicate with adults other than their own parents, and they are very pleased when adults speak to them. Our teenage children should be encouraged to discuss issues, including faith, with adults whom we know will be a positive influence. Likewise, we should also take the initiative to engage other teenagers in discussing life and faith issues.
8. Praying for your children
Parents must be fervent and unceasing in praying for the spiritual well-being of their children. All human efforts at imparting faith to the younger generation are limited. It takes the Spirit of God to do the actual work of convincing, convicting and converting. God works with individuals in his own ways and on his own time. We must trust Him to do that with our children.
Finally, we need to bear in mind that every child, being created in God's image, has his/her own rights, including the right to make decisions regarding faith. Parents cannot impose, coerce or force their faith upon their children; they can only nurture it while the children are still in their care. On the other hand, children cannot live on a faith borrowed from their parents. They need a personal encounter with God and to make a personal commitment to follow Christ. As the old adage goes, God has only children, no grandchildren.
Some children take longer than others to fully comprehend the meaning of a personal commitment to Christ. Some others may seem to have found their faith at a young age, only to be plagued by doubts and confusion on reaching adulthood. Whatever the case, all children will have to grapple with this issue and make their own decisions. However, the responsibility lies heavily upon parents as well as the church to nurture faith in children while they are young and impressionable so that they are set on a firm footing to begin their own spiritual journey.
(The writer, a retired teacher, is Elder of the Kuala Terengganu Baptist Church and author of the book Families Matter: Concepts and Principles for Enriching your Family.)