Many Christian parents face a paradox: How can some children hear the good news of the Bible and believe, while others hear the same message and remain unaffected? While the process of faith may be miraculous, it is not entirely mysterious. Jesus explained it in His parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). Teaching received without understanding kills the yield. Faith with shallow roots withers and dies. Distractions, worries and desires for other things choke the Word. But one who hears the Word and understands it bears fruit.
How can we help our children receive the Word and bear fruit? Jesus' parable inspires several practical planting tips.
Focus on understanding. Many parents and teachers attempt to impart faith primarily through the transfer of Bible facts. Those seeds will not likely take root unless kids truly understand the meaning of the facts. Sunday school worksheets often use fill-in-the-blanks and word puzzles to drill children on their factual knowledge. But unscrambling the word forgiveness in a puzzle is far less important than understanding the meaning of forgiveness. Hearing is not enough. Reading is not enough. Memorizing is not enough — unless your goal is to produce a Bible "Jeopardy" champion. Concentrate your time on helping kids really understand God's Word, its relevance today and how you apply it.
Let them experience the message. People remember and are affected by vivid experiences. When Jesus wanted His disciples to learn about servanthood, He got down on His knees and washed their feet. You can be sure those disciples never forgot that faith lesson! You can do the same with your children. For example, to help them experience the concept of grace, involve your family in giving to others without expecting anything in return. Or to encourage kind words as mentioned in Ephesians 4:29, invite family members to write or draw a kind note to one another. (For more ideas on teaching through experiences, visit Heritage Builders.)
Use teachable moments. Typically, when your kids are enveloped in emotion-packed situations, they are the most ready to grow. When circumstances provoke feelings of fear, sadness, anger, exhilaration, awe or wonder, be prepared to help them see how God is working. When Johnny is scared may be the opportune time to teach about God's presence. Jesus took advantage of teachable moments often, such as during the storm on the lake and with those who threatened to stone the adulterous woman.
Reinforce for long-term retention. Some information we quickly forget. Other things we remember a lifetime. We can help move more of God's message into long-term memory through "interval reinforcement," review or use of the message repeatedly over time. If the brain registers information just once, less than 10 percent of the message is likely to be remembered after 30 days. But if there are six exposures to the information over 30 days, 90 percent of the message is likely to be retained. If you want your kids to understand God as Creator, repeat the message frequently — when you drive through the mountains, when you witness a sunset, when you visit the zoo and when you marvel at the intricacy of the human body.
Avoid bribes. Many well-intentioned parents and teachers attempt to grow their kids' faith through the enticement of rewards. "Learn this verse and get a ribbon." "Go to Sunday school and get a cookie." It may seem harmless, but bribing kids actually sets up a distraction. The "do this and get that" approach causes kids to focus more on the "that" than the "this." Jesus never said, "If you do unto others what you want them to do to you, you get a lollipop," or "If you feed My sheep, you get a Twinkie."
Employ delight. Your kids will learn more when they enjoy the process. Make learning about God fun! Some parents and teachers wince at this suggestion. Few people gain a love for anything that is marinated in drudgery. No one ever accused Jesus of being dull or boring. In fact, consider His first miracle: turning water into wine for the wedding at Cana. And remember how He told Peter to find cash for the temple tax — go catch a fish and pull a coin from its mouth. Delightful! So, make faith learning delightful.
Jesus concludes His parable: "The one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown" (Matthew 13:23). What crop are you plotting with your kids?
Home from college, my son Josh perched on a stool at the kitchen counter while I fixed dinner. The glint in his steel-blue eyes indicated an internal struggle. "Mom, how do you know the Bible is true?"
I groped for words and responded, "Because God says so." Dissatisfied with my lack of reasoning, Josh left the room. Concern replaced my tension as I began to realize the damage of my thoughtless answer.
Questions like that made me gulp. How was I supposed to know? Did answers even exist? If they did, I didn't know where to look for them or have the time to do the research. Cleaning house, soccer games and grocery shopping constantly competed for my attention.
In the days to come, Josh's difficult questions became more frequent and significant. "How could a good God send my friend to hell?" "If He's powerful enough to overcome evil, why do children die?" "Don't all religions lead to the same God?" The tough questions increased until my son turned away from the Christian faith. For me, separating sound reasoning from emotional feelings had been too difficult.
Genuine intellectual difficulties do exist, and these can draw our children away from faith unless they are taught a rational and biblical foundation for their beliefs. By the time they reach college, young people have been bombarded by conflicting intellectual messages: science — evolution as opposed to creation; philosophy — a relative truth; history — revisionist accounts. Paraphrasing philosopher C. Stephen Evans, it's no wonder that young people, when separated from an environment in which religious faith functions as a kind of social necessity, find faith no longer a viable option.
During my son's years of questioning, my faith no longer felt comfortable. My pat answers failed to satisfy Josh's quandaries, and his uncertainty built hunger in me for mind-satisfying truth.
Once I began to study and base my faith on facts, Josh and I found common ground. Attending a one-day seminar at a local Christian university convinced me of many historical and scientific reasons why the Bible is true. Archaeology, eyewitness accounts and comparison of early manuscripts all gave me sound reasons for believing that the Bible is the reliable Word of God. This knowledge began to strengthen my understanding of the Lord.
As I studied and learned all I could, I discovered factual reasons to justify why I believe in Jesus Christ. Being able to discuss these concepts with my son gave him some of the answers he hungered for. It's been many years since then, and I still search for more answers. No longer afraid of difficult topics that challenge faith, I've discovered a bigger faith, a bigger truth and a bigger God.
I have also realized that I will never know all the answers. Some issues are beyond my understanding. No easy or comprehensive answers exist for such topics as the problem of evil. God is simply bigger than my mind can grasp. It is important for me to learn all I can, and yet I need to understand that my lack of complete understanding is OK.
The bottom line remains: Answers to difficult questions won't solve every problem. Intellectual reasoning alone doesn't instill faith. But acknowledging good questions and investigating difficult topics can lead to fruitful conversations. Knowing all I can gives me faith to love beyond differences. And that kind of love keeps me close to my son.
A rainbow, a tube of toothpaste, a holiday dinner — how can these ordinary things be used to teach kids about the Bible? They can all be used to illustrate a "teachable moment." The teachable-moment method of faith building enlightens your children about God in a way that captures their attention and changes their lives. No lectures. No manuals. No rolling of the eyes. No kidding!
Your children will learn biblical principles that they'll never forget.
A "teachable moment" is like creating an on-the-spot commercial for biblical principles using simple, everyday language and familiar objects. If you see a beautiful tree growing near a lake, for example, you can point it out and say to your child, "Isn't that tree magnificent? God says that people of faith are like that tree. Trees stay strong because they grow near the water. People stay strong when they grow closer to God."
Once you discover the three ingredients of a teachable moment, you will have a method to make a life-changing spiritual impact through everyday events. A teachable moment gives you the resources to make the Bible relevant to your children today, right now, this very moment.
Teachable moments are perfect for working or single parents who don't have a lot of free time to build a spiritual legacy. They can be incorporated into any family routine, no matter how busy. Teachable moments require no preparation. In fact, they often work best when you're driving in the car or just having plain old fun with your kids.
But whenever you do have a chance, also try planning a teachable moment. Either way, your children will feel affirmed and will learn biblical principles that they'll never forget.
Before you begin trying to teach your children about God by using teachable moments, it's a good idea to build up your parent-child relationship by having some fun. Being lighthearted creates the right atmosphere for teachable moments and cements the parent-child bond. If your children know you can relax and just play, they will see you in a whole new light and be more receptive to adopting your values.
Be sure there are times in your family life when you watch a movie, just for fun. When you have a water fight, just for fun. When you pitch a tent and sleep in the backyard, just for fun.
Here are more ideas:
Parents can deliberately and intentionally teach their children biblical truths using teachable moments — and the children can enjoy it. It's not some fanciful dream or nebulous ideal you hear about only on the 700 Club. And you don't have to be a natural-born teacher to use them. You just have to try out teachable moments and work with them for a few weeks, and soon you'll know the secrets of teaching without preaching.
A teachable moment requires three simple ingredients.
The first is an open relationship between the parent and child.
Second, you need a catalyst — an event or object that illustrates the spiritual point. A catalyst is the conversation starter, the reason the teachable moment is occurring at that specific time and place. Often the catalyst is an everyday object like a bridge or a mousetrap. Or it can be some big milestone in your child's life, like baptism.
Third, a teachable moment requires a biblical truth. The truth can be a Bible fact, a truth about God's character, or insights into living a life of faith. You can gather a lot of truths through personal Bible study.
Here's an example. A family of six went on vacation (ingredient #1 — a good relationship with time for fun) and the father found a billfold in a hotel parking lot. (The billfold is the catalyst, ingredient #2.) The billfold had money in it but no identification. The father took it to the front desk, tossed it on the counter and told the clerk, "In case someone comes looking for a wallet, here it is."
His children witnessed the event, and he could have left the matter there but chose to talk about it instead. As a family, they discussed the virtue of honesty and why the father turned in the money instead of keeping it. He wasn't trying to impress them with his virtue; he was impressing them with biblical truths. Perhaps they would have learned the lesson just by watching, but he couldn't be sure without asking them what they were thinking.
The father wasn't preaching. No one got a lecture; no one left feeling inadequate, overwhelmed or bored. It took only a couple of minutes to make the point (ingredient #3): "Each of you should look not only to your own interest, but also to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4).
Cultural mores of casual sex, violence and relativism are redefining the traditional family, so Christian parents have an even tougher job of training their children in the ways of God, passing along their faith to the next generation.
I've tried, you're probably thinking, but it just isn't working. My kids dread Bible times. How are they ever going to understand the reality of faith and Christ's salvation?
In a recent Focus on the Family survey, spiritual training was reported as one of the top three issues with which parents need help. Building a spiritual heritage takes a bit of planning, effort and creativity, but the most important thing is to make it meaningful.
Everyday experiences are a good place to start. You can use mealtimes, homework, games and such to teach biblical principles to your children. Still feeling a bit wary? The Heritage Builders ministry is available to spark your imagination and give you all the tools you need for passing faith on in these core areas:
Family Moments: Creating special, teachable moments with children is a precious, yet difficult, responsibility. But parents can capture moments throughout the day to teach and impress biblical principles on their children. Instead of listening to a secular radio station in the car, how about turning on a Christian station or playing a Bible song tape? When reading to your children at bedtime, choose a Bible story instead of a library book.
Family Fragrance: If your home is filled with tension and chaos, it would be difficult for spiritual values to be taught or caught. But if your home environment is sweet and restful, it's more fertile ground for spiritual training. Heritage Builders encourages parents to create a home that fosters a Christ-centered AROMA through Affection, Respect, Order, Merriment and Affirmation.
Family Traditions: Whether you pass down stories, beliefs and/or customs, traditions can help you establish a special identity for your family. Heritage Builders encourages parents to set special milestones to help guide their children through spiritual development.
Family Compass: Ever had someone give you directions by saying, "Go north eight miles, then east five miles" when you had no idea which way was which? Parents have the unique task of setting standards for normal, healthy living through their attitudes, actions and beliefs, which give children the moral navigation tools they need to succeed on the roads of life