This month, we continue our series on passing our faith on to the next generation. One thing that is often overlooked is that, if we want our children to have an authentic faith, we must have an authentic faith. In the Old Testament God desired authentic love. (Psalm 51:16-17, Hosea 6:6) Outward acts of sacrifice, when divorced from a heart of repentance and love, were actually offensive to God. We may not offer physical sacrifices or burnt offering like the Israelites did, but we do offer other types of sacrifices and offerings to God. We sacrifice our time by volunteering in the church, and we give offerings of money. But there is a danger in these becoming empty forms of worship if they aren’t accompanied by a heart that loves God. God wants authentic worship. God wants us to love him, and when we love him, we will give him all of our lives.
So how does this apply to our children? Sometimes children's programs in the church can become like empty sacrifices and offerings. It’s easier to put our kids in Sunday school or youth group than it is to cultivate a genuine love for God in our own hearts and then share that with our children. But in Deuteronomy 6, God calls for parents to display a love for God in every corner of their lives. This is much harder than dropping your child off at the child check-in, but it also offers something much more lasting.
When a genuine love for God emanates from parents’ lives, their children notice. We can sometimes wonder why our kids pick up certain habits or mannerisms. But most likely they picked up these things by observing us! Children are observers of all our actions–even our unpleasant ones. Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit, talks about how much influence our actions have. She describes a psychology experiment at Stanford University in which the children observed the adults playing with toys. Half of the children watched them play with tinker toys the entire time. The other half of the children watched them play with the tinker toys for a few minutes, but then the adult turned and started hitting a life-size inflatable doll. The adult yelled and screamed at the doll and eventually kicked it out of the room.
Next, the children were given opportunities to play with the same toys. Those who watched the adults play peacefully with the toys did the same. But those who watched the violent outburst were aggressive towards the doll, sometimes even copying exactly what they saw the adult do. Much of a child’s learning takes place through informal observation. So parents must ask themselves what their children are observing. Do their children see parents who love God in their thoughts, words, and deeds?
When we understand this organic way our children grow it both simplifies our task as parents and makes it much harder. It simplifies our task because faith is often best passed on to your children through simple, ordinary means, such as conversations around the dinner table, prayers together, and making church a priority. Little things like this over the course of years add up to something substantial.
But this organic way of raising our kids is also harder. It means we must actually love God. We must live a life that reflects what it means to be a follower of Christ. Is it any surprise when a grown child walks away from the faith after observing his parents make hundreds of little decisions that show a priority of sports, vacations, and other things over the regular worship of God? Unfortunately, I sometimes get the impression that parents who seek the most exciting church experiences for their children do it because they are trying to give their children something that they have not actually experienced themselves. The decision a child makes regarding his faith doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is often the fruit (whether good or not) of the spiritual environment they grew up in.
In the next months we will get into some of the practical ways we help our children grow in Christ, but it must start with us and our authentic love for God. This is the foundation for everything that follows.
This is adapted from the booklet “Helping our Kids Grow in Christ.” It is freely available on the JVC website.