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?
I remember the moment when, as a young father, I awoke in the middle of the night and realized, my little girl is completely dependent on me to provide for her needs. At the time, I was 24 years old and barely getting by paying bills and learning about life.
My anxiety grew with another thought: She is an eternal soul who must come to know God to know everlasting life. Am I up for this? What have I done?
That is the ultimate question for all parents. Our children have eternal souls in need of salvation, and we have a significant role in ensuring they know and love God. Many parents clearly grasp this reality.
But many other parents don't seem to understand the eternal questions regarding their children. Their actions are passive and distracted. They cannot articulate how or what they are doing to ensure their children know God. They abdicate responsibility for spiritual training to their church (as though an hour a week in Sunday school will do the trick). In short, they lack a vision for their children and have failed to prepare them for the future.
Parents must establish a vision for their children. When children are adults, who will they be? Will they serve God? Will they have the capacity to love others? Will they be equipped to pass on a spiritual legacy?
There was a time when parents understood the stakes. They knew they were establishing a legacy of faith that would live for generations, eventually encompassing thousands of people in their family tree. Today, I fear we've lost the perspective of time and tend to view our lives only in terms of our immediate family and personal ambitions.
Perhaps that's why we have an epidemic of divorce, fathers abandoning their families and parents who prioritize only those things that offer their children a competitive advantage in life. Here's my challenge to parents: Teach your children the laws of God as commanded in Deuteronomy. Train them as instructed in Proverbs. Lead them to fulfill God's Commandments; call them to the Great Commission.
To do so, first capture a Godly vision for your family then aggressively pursue His call on your lives.
Where to start:
When properly applied, loving discipline works! It stimulates tender affection, made possible by mutual respect between a parent and a child. It bridges the gap which otherwise separates family members who should love and trust each other. It allows the God of our ancestors to be introduced to our children. It permits teachers to do the kind of job in classrooms for which they are commissioned. It encourages a child to respect other people and live as a responsible, constructive citizen.
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).
Deuteronomy 6:7 - Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road…
In the beautiful relevancy of God's Word, this phrase from the Shema covers the twin tensions most families feel these days: at home and along the road. Your family may spend most evenings at home. Then again, maybe you're an on-the-road-on-the-go family. Scripture does not say one is better than the other. What it does indicate is that regardless of whether you're coming or going, at home or on the road, the command is still the same: TALK.
Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road…
A conversational relationship with our children is vital to their spiritual formation. You may hear that and be pleased; you talk often with your children about spiritual things. However, spiritual conversation with your children may be about as frequent as leap years or the appearance of a comet. If that aspect is present in your relationship, then there's always room for improvement. If that aspect is missing, then it's never too late to begin; it may be harder, but never too late.
A good friend of mine says, "In all things natural, be as spiritual as possible. In all things spiritual, be as natural as possible." I love those words for they portray the needed consistency in the conversations we have with our children. Putting on our "spiritual voice" may lead to monologues, but it does not lead to conversations. And conversations are the goal.
I'm not sure that at this stage it eternally matters whether you're reading portions of the Gospels to them or talking through the op/ed page in that lilting voice as you weave through traffic. The important thing is that you're talking/reading to your children. What you are doing in these years is building a voice-recognition container they come to know and trust. In the following years, you fill the container.
Here's where you really start filling the container. As I write this, I'm simultaneously having a conversation with my five-year-old daughter about her heart. She's worried about something poking in and hurting her heart. The conversation ensues that God thought about that and created us with layers of protection (skin, ribcage) to protect those vital organs. She responds with, "Wow, that's cool! Can I have a goldfish?" Short and sweet, huh? Remember, you're placing small, brief deposits in the container. But over time, little things mean a lot. They discover things gradually.
Let me make a suggestion. Be confessional in your conversation with tweeners. My tweeners love to hear about mistakes I made at their age. Now obviously, discretion is called for here, but for some reason, hearing about my blunders and the fact that the world didn't end is a surefire way to have a conversation with them, at home or on the road. If we'll but confess our sins, He will forgive us. Our tweeners will listen and hear and learn of the God who is faithful and just. And when they make that mistake that they're sure will stop the world from turning, they might just seek us out and ask us to help them approach the throne of grace.
If you didn't build the container in the Early Years and naturally, confessionally, fill it through the Discovery and Tweens, this may be a hard season for conversation. Hard, but not impossible. There are times when conversation is best achieved shoulder to shoulder as opposed to face to face and the teen years may be just such a time. I could talk to my dad about almost anything as long as we were changing the oil in my pickup or on the way to a ballgame. But sit me down in front of him at the kitchen table? I'd clam up faster than white on rice. Sometimes, the gaze of the father or mother is too much; it must be mediated by something. Do the hard work of parenting and find that "something" and utilize it. Whatever it takes, don’t let the conversation run dry in these years. It's never too late to talk. Never.
Your child's schedule probably already includes bath time, nap time and bedtime. But there's always room for five minutes of Bible time. No child is too young to learn from the most important book in history. Here are some pointers.
Set a routine for Bible time. Try to have it at approximately the same time each day, perhaps after breakfast or before snack.
Sing fun songs. Bible songs sold on cassette or CD at Christian bookstores can get you started. Enjoy clapping and jumping.
Read from a children's Bible. Use a toddler or picture Bible. Keep the stories short. Some children enjoy holding the Bible while you read. Using a puppet to tell the Bible story is always a treat.
Introduce additional material. Bible coloring books are a great way to share a story. You may want to read a holiday book depicting the story of Jesus at Christmas or Easter.
Toss in real life. If the Bible story contains any objects you have in your home, use them. Visual aides make the story real to a child. If you are reading about Noah's ark, pull the cushions off the couch to make a boat, then bring aboard all the stuffed animals.
Include a memory verse. Pick a verse from the Bible and repeat it each day until your child memorizes it. Practice by allowing her to fill in a word that you leave out. Reward her with a sticker, then move on to another verse.
Make prayer easy. In the beginning, you'll have to model a simple prayer. For example, "Thank You, God, for sunshine. Thank You for today. Amen." After a while, ask your child if there's something she'd like to pray for.
Be patient. Occasionally, Bible time may have to be cut even shorter due to a sleepy child or a bad day. The goal is to stay committed to providing as much of a positive Bible routine as possible. It will become a part of your child's day that says, "Let's take time to have fun with God!"
"Every generation has its defining challenge. Ours is the systematic annihilation of the biblical family." — Doug Phillips
We see such enormous destruction in the families of our nation today. The Scriptures tell us that the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy. There is no doubt in my mind that he is systematic in trying to annihilate the biblical family. The only place we have to stand is on the authority of the Scriptures. When we know, live and speak His Word, the enemy must flee. He must bow down to the King of Kings.
The greatest legacy we can leave our children for the battlefields that will be theirs is to teach them the Scriptures daily.
Deuteronomy instructs, "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon 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" (6:6-9).
Proverbs 4:23 also teaches, "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." God is very clear to tell us the primary things that should be influencing our hearts — His commandments, His ways and His laws. We can teach and impress them on our children's hearts only if they are truly the primary focus of our own hearts.
So, moms and dads, are you spending time in the Word of God? Do you wake up early, stay up late or set aside a few minutes in the middle of the day to soak in the Word? Are you accountable to anybody? Involved in a small group? Whatever it takes do not neglect the Scriptures. We cannot give to our children what we do not ourselves possess.
We are commanded to impress upon and teach the Scriptures to our children. We are to talk about the Word when we sit down. Do you spend time talking about the word of God when you sit with your children at the dinner table? By their beds? On the floor? While they play with their Legos or toy sets? These are the places where we must discuss and rehearse the power of God's Word.
We are to talk about God's commands when we walk along the road. In modern language, that would be while we ride in the minivan, or SUV, running errands, going to the grocery, to the library, to sports events or to the mall. We are to use that time to constantly teach our children. Invest in worship tapes, or in other great Bible lessons that you can listen to in the car. Teach your children to ask questions constantly about who God is and how He relates to their everyday lives.
We are to teach God's command when we lie down, and when we rise up. The last thing our children should hear before bed, besides "I love you," is verses from Scripture. The first thing our children should hear in the morning, besides "I love you," is more verses from Scripture. The Word of God should be on our walls, our white boards, and on our refrigerators. The Word of God should be on post-it notes on the dash boards of our cars. Our children will know that the Word of God is our number one priority when we exalt the Scriptures in these ways.
The systematic annihilation of the biblical family will stop with me and with you, one home at a time.