by Michael Kelley
I don’t know a single Christian parent that doesn’t harbor at least a little anxiety about the spiritual development of their children. Many of us have read the statistics over the last several years about how frequently kids drop out of church once they leave the home of their parents, and have wondered if there is anything we can do now as parents to help our kids own their faith.
Certainly, we would acknowledge (I hope) that this is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit. That it’s only through the Spirit and not some clever program we can design as parents that kids persevere in the faith. And yet we also know that the Spirit uses regular moms and dads like us to have significant conversations and develop spiritual habits in our kids.
I was very interested, in light of that, to read the results of our recent LifeWay Research study on how kids really grow spiritually. The study analyzed 2,000 Protestant adults who finished their parenting journey with one or more kids now between 18-30. The study looked at faith characteristics of those kids now, all grown up, and looked at the parenting practices and habits of the children as they were growing up and identified the key influencers of spiritual health.
My friend and colleague Jana Magruder unpacks the research in her new book, “Nothing Less: Engaging Kids in a Lifetime of Faith.” You should read it and be influenced by it. I have. But in the meantime, let me give you a peek into some of those practices and habits that can help our kids own their own faith:
1. Help them read the Bible for themselves.
This one shouldn’t surprise us because the same thing that, statistically, is the most important practice for our own spiritual growth is the most important for our children – reading the Bible. There is no replacement for this. As parents, then, the absolute best thing we can do for our children is to help them read the Bible for themselves.
This can get a bit tricky, I’m finding, because as a parent you want to walk the line between encouraging this practice in your children and forcing it upon them. How do we do that? I think it’s through practices like reading the Bible with them, providing them with tools so they can read for themselves, and to actually let them see you doing this as a parent. I sense that if a kid sees that reading the Bible is not only normative, but necessary, for their mom and dad, that they will be more likely to pick up on the practice themselves.
2. Help them to serve in the church.
There is a distinction here. Attending church is important. Very important in fact. But even more than attendance, a child should have the opportunity to actually serve in the church growing up. Of course, there are limits here, and there should be. But every time we help our kids to pass out worship guides, or volunteer on a Saturday, or even pass the offering plate we are emphasizing to them that church is not just a place you attend and receive; church is something that you are where you give.
If kids can, right now, understand the participatory nature of being in the body of Christ, then they will begin to own their own faith by God’s grace.
3. Sing the truth together.
This element of the research surprised me. But the research says that the fourth biggest contributor to a child’s spiritual growth is whether or not they listen consistently to Christian music. I suppose, though, that this shouldn’t surprise me.
God has designed us this way. Singing, and music in general, connects with us at a level nothing else does. It lifts the eyes to heaven and the soul follows with it. Perhaps that’s why, throughout the history of Christianity, one of the greatest tools for teaching theology has been music. After all, one of the earliest Christian hymns is the great Christological passage of Philippians 2.
Kids need to listen to the truth, sing the truth, and see you as their parents singing right along with them.
Now if you do these things, and the others that Jana points out in her book, have you discovered the formula to absolutely, positively, guarantee that your children will own their faith?
No. You have not. This is not a formula like that. The best we can do as parents is to try and instill practices like these in faith, trusting that the Spirit of God will do what we cannot. And that the Spirit of God will make up for what we lack in our tainted intentions and sinful parenting hearts. That God, in His grace, would use even us to point our children to the gospel.