I’ve had the privilege of serving in vocational ministry for the past thirty-three years, much of which I’ve served as a pastor. God-called pastors are preeminently concerned with the spiritual health of the people they serve, thus they “keep watch over the flock,” always looking for signs of spiritual weakness or sickness. They are usually astute observers, because they care about their people, both young and old. As a pastor and traveling minister, I’ve observed a phenomenon in many, if not most churches, which troubles me more as each year passes. It’s one that can be detected only by someone who observes a congregation very carefully for several years, which is probably why many “laypeople” miss it.
What have I noticed that concerns me so deeply? The fact that many children, who are raised by good Christian parents and who regularly attend church, slowly grow cold toward God. These children, upon “leaving the nest,” give no evidence of possessing any real relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m not speaking of children raised by hypocrites and counterfeit Christians, but of children whose parents love the Lord, parents who faithfully attend and support their church and who sincerely want their kids to know and serve God.
Because of many factors, few believers realize the frequency with which this happens. One of those factors is the general mobility of Americans, who are always changing jobs, homes and churches. They just aren’t in one location long enough to realize what is happening with so much regularity in so many places.
It’s also true that most Christian married couples tend to associate with other married couples who have children about the same ages as their own children. Consequently, like the proverbial frog in the boiling kettle, they and their married friends don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
Are parents the ones to blame? As difficult as it is for me to say it, I think God would point His finger first at pastors. Too many are failing to tell their flocks the truth and, at the same time, are promoting a lie. Specifically, they aren’t teaching that God has given responsibility to the parents to teach their children about God. Moreover, they’re promoting a system of spiritual education for children that leaves the impression in the minds of most church members that the church has been given that responsibility.
How many times have you heard a pastor promote from the pulpit his church’s “fun-filled” children’s church or “dynamic” youth ministry? Any church hoping to grow or even survive in 21st-century America is almost forced to offer an exciting cradle-to-diploma Christian education program that “your kids will just love.” If we hope to compete with every other church in our city for a larger share of the church shoppers and hoppers, we must heed the bottom line of the church-growth surveys: “People are attracted to churches where there is exciting ministry for their kids.” And so the message we send is clear: “Come to our church, and you can rest assured that your kids will grow up to love church and serve Christ. The only part you need to play in your children’s spiritual growth is to make sure they’re here to participate in our exciting programs.”
Unfortunately, by the time parents realize that the church can’t deliver on its promise, it’s too late. Their kids are adults who are heading down the wrong road. (Praise God for those who eventually turn back to the Lord, but how much better it is for kids to find and keep their parents’ faith their entire lives.)
But the fault doesn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of pastors. Pastors often promote the lie because they believe it themselves. At a recent prayer gathering for pastors only, the one prayer request I heard more than any other was for wayward children. Pastors, like laypeople, are victims of a lie built upon tradition. “We’ve always done it this way,” and so our church programs continue as always, and only occasionally does a pastor wonder why there are no examples or instructions for children’s Sunday school or special kids’ ministry recorded in the New Testament. Following the lead of modern society, the church contributes to the fragmentation of families and the abdication of parental responsibility through a customer service policy that says, “leave the driving to us.”
Please understand that I’m not discounting the value of church Christian education programs and the many wonderful people who serve in those programs. Certainly there is fruit for their labor. I am saying, however, that church Christian education programs, if they exist, should only serve to supplement and reinforce what children should be learning at home all the time from their parents. The problem is not Christian education programs in themselves, but Christian education programs by themselves. The solution is not the elimination of children’s Christian education programs; the solution is the parental reclamation of their God-given responsibility. They should be teaching their children about God, as Scripture directs:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up (Deut. 6:4-7, NASB, emphasis added).
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4, NASB, emphasis added).
Probably the most well known verse in the Bible about raising children is Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (NASB). Christians have been known to disagree on whether this verse is a guaranteed promise of salvation for properly-trained children or just a general principle that is true much of the time, but not always.
Regardless of which interpretation is correct, a much more important issue is the definition of the phrase, Train up a child in the way he should go. The understood subject of the sentence is you, indicating that parents have the responsibility of training their children. Can it be said that parents who play no active role in teaching their children the Word of God, leaving it all to the church, are training their children in the way they should go? No, they’re expecting someone else to play a major part in their children’s training. Those parents who consider Proverbs 22:6 to be a promise have no reason to expect the promise to be fulfilled unless they are doing their part to train their children. They can’t claim the benefit unless they meet the conditions. And for those parents who think Proverbs 22:6 is a general principle, there isn’t much difference. They’ve no reason to hope that the general principle will hold true for their kids unless they fulfill their God-given responsibility to train their children.
Parents often need help to teach God’s Word to their kids, and that’s where this daily devotional comes in. I’ve written it to assist parents who desire to teach their children the Bible. During the 147 devptionals, you and your children will be reading a small but significant portion of God’s Word. We’ll cover the life and ministry of Jesus. For each day’s reading, I’ve provided a short commentary that highlights the most important spiritual truths. Also, I often pose a few questions that parents might want to ask their children.
The important thing is that you and your kids talk about what you’ve read. As your family grows more comfortable doing daily devotions, your kids will spontaneously instigate discussion. That is when it becomes fun.
“But what happens if my kids ask a question for which I have no answer?” you ask? Simply tell them you don’t know the answer. That in itself can serve as a wonderful example of humility to your kids and a lesson about telling the truth. If it’s any consolation, there are scores of questions about the Bible for which no one has yet come up with a truly satisfying answer. Honest theologians admit they are often stumped. If our daily reading raises an obvious question that I don’t attempt to answer in my commentary, it’s probably because I’m stumped as well.
What about those passages that contain sexual terminology or describe violence? As a parent, you are the most qualified to make a decision regarding what to do. You may just want to skip over certain verses if you think your children are too young. Or you may want to supply age-appropriate definitions, such as explaining adultery to young children as “when someone who is married falls in love with another person.”
We must face up to the fact, however, that the Bible describes life as it is on planet Earth. Unregenerate people have the capacity for incredible acts of wickedness, and our children will discover it sooner or later. Exposure to such things within the moral framework of the Bible is much better than through the polluted rivers that spill out of TV sets into our living rooms. We want our kids to be trained regarding what is right and wrong, and the Bible doesn’t conceal either. Your daily devotions will be springboards to life-directing conversations, many of which you’ll cherish.
There will be other challenges you’ll face, but which will pay rich dividends in your life and the lives of your family. Your first challenge might occur when, after reading a clear command in Scripture, one of your children asks you, “Why didn’t you do that the other day at the grocery store when that lady ran her shopping cart into our shopping cart?” That is another positive benefit of family devotions—you’ll grow spiritually and your kids will have the benefit of watching God work in your life. No longer will they be exposed only to the apparent perfection of Sunday morning Christianity contrasted with rest-of-the-week application, which otherwise appears as hypocrisy to younger minds. They’ll learn what it means to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12, NASB) by observing you.
Here’s how I suggest you conduct your daily family devotions: Gather your family together and pray a short opening prayer, such as, “Lord, help us to understand Your Word and apply it to our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Then read the day’s portion(s) of Scripture out loud. I suggest that you use the New Living Translation, which is one of the easiest translations to understand. Then, either read my commentary, or explain the scriptures yourself in your own words if you’ve read my comments previously. The idea is to help your kids understand what you’ve read.
When you finish reading, ask them questions about spiritual principles that surfaced in what you just read. I’ve usually included a few questions (with the answers) that you might want to ask to provoke dialogue. Work toward a discussion about how you and they can apply what you’ve learned in your own lives. Allow your kids to interrupt at any time with questions. When they do, you’ll know they’re interested.
Then spend a few minutes praying together. The idea is to get your kids comfortable with praying sincerely, out loud. Prayer can easily become a meaningless ritual, and the quickest route to ritualistic prayer is to pray the same thing every day. Don’t let that happen. I suggest that you model your daily family prayers after this sequence: God, Others, Us. Give each member of your family a different part of the sequence to pray each day. Begin by praising and worshipping God, expressing thankfulness or affirming something about one of His attributes that surfaced in the Bible chapter you just read. The person who is assigned this sequence might simply say, “God, You are really powerful” or, “Thank You for Your great mercy.” Next, pray for others. You could pray for a ministry in your church, a missionary you support or know, a sick friend or an unsaved neighbor. Finally, pray for your own needs. These could be material, emotional or spiritual needs among your family. (“Lord, help us to become more like You” or, “Lord, I request Your help on my English test today.”)
When you first begin praying as a family, you may want to solicit ideas from the whole group for specific prayers for each category and then assign each member one item on your list. Once everyone grows more comfortable praying together, your prayer time will probably grow more spontaneous. Keep your prayer time short. One-sentence prayers are just fine. If they grow longer, let it happen naturally. Make sure that your prayer time is always meaningful and fresh, never just a time of “going through the motions.” Your total time spent in family devotions can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as your schedule permits. If your kids are asking questions, keep going as long as you can!
I suggest ending each gathering with a short song and hugs all around. You’ll need to set a regular time for devotions each day, depending on your family’s schedule. Right before or after breakfast, right after dinner or just before your youngest child goes to bed are possibilities. Very young children who can’t really participate will benefit by realizing that family devotions are something that is done every day. And they’ll love the singing and hugs at the end. Curb your children’s silliness during your time together but don’t be too serious. Enjoy yourself. If you do, your kids are more likely to enjoy themselves too.
You’ve made a great decision that will pay off in this life and the next. My prayer is that your family will grow closer to the Lord and each other as you fulfill your God-given responsibility to teach your children God’s Word.