Last weekend I traveled to Pinehurst, NC to play three rounds of golf with my dad, brother and son. It was a poorly played (but competitive because the poor play was consistent), joyful and relaxing few days. I laughed often and loudly each of the four days we were together. The food and beer were tasty, and the cigars were excellent. But the most meaningful and encouraging parts of the trip for me were the devotionals, prayers and discussions about Christ we had together. Seeing my son engage as a man about his faith with other men I love is an unwarranted and incredible blessing. I take no credit, but I claim every right and duty to rejoice in this gift (along with the golf, laughs, food, beer and cigars). And I hope and pray that my son’s faith and sanctification continue to grow as he walks the path “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
The same prayer applies to my daughters (replace the third word of the above passage with “womanhood”). Lia and I have made countless errors and committed many and sundry sins in parenting. Like any other parent I know, we have had plenty of moments of regret and angst. But regardless of our many missteps, the greatest God-given privilege and responsibility we have as parents is to lead our kids, as best we can, towards a vibrant faith in Christ.
This is a privilege and responsibility every Christian parent shares. It is daunting, and some parents have tougher rows to hoe than others for all kinds of reasons – a late start in understanding the importance of passing down the faith, a spouse who has no interest in God, divorce, kids who have broader and deeper rebellious streaks than most, etc. Whatever our situation though, we are commanded to make discipling our kids the highest priority. God’s covenant people have been so commanded since the giving of the Law. Here we see it intertwined with the most important commandment of the Old Testament, known as the “Shema,” (the Hebrew word for “Hear”):
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7You shall teach them diligently to your children, 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. 8You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
A sharp teaching of the faith is like a knife that pierces hard hearts with the love of God, using His Word to prepare children to face the onslaught of godlessness in our culture with the right weapons.
In 6:7, the word “diligently” in the Hebrew actually means to “sharpen,” or “whet,” as in a sword or arrow. A sharp teaching of the faith is like a knife that pierces hard hearts with the love of God, using His Word to prepare children to face the onslaught of godlessness in our culture with the right weapons. Hebrews 4:12 comes to mind:
12For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
The rest of the Deuteronomy passage suggests the comprehensiveness of this sharp teaching, at all times in all places – when you get up and when you go to bed; when you walk and when you sit and when you lie down; on your hands and between your eyes; where you walk in your house and where you leave your house.
How this Plays out Today
Christian Smith just released a book on this topic called Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation. I have not read it yet, but he wrote an article summarizing the book here.
The data is crystal clear: parents are by far the most influential people in the religious lives of their children, whether they are committed or nominal in their faith.
What makes every other influence pale into virtual insignificance is the importance (or not) of the religious beliefs and practices of American parents in their ordinary lives—not only on holy days but every day, throughout weeks and years. American youth who have grown up to be religiously committed almost always had parents who were very religiously committed. Successfully passing on faith is by no means guaranteed. Outcomes vary widely. Children choose their own lives. But setting aside exceptional cases, what is nearly guaranteed is that American parents who are not especially committed, attentive, and intentional in passing on their faith will produce children who are less religious than they are, if they are religious at all.
The sword cuts both ways – if we humbly, faithfully, normally live out our commitment to Christ in everyday life, our kids will very likely be influenced. If we do not, they will also very likely be influenced.
Beyond this very basic and important observation that we must “walk the talk” if we are going to teach our kids Jesus, Smith lists some parenting traits that tend to make the most impact:
Strong and warm parenting. “First, [these parents] consistently hold their children to clear and demanding expectations, standards, and boundaries in all areas of life. Second, they relate to their children with an abundance of warmth, support, and expressive care.”
Faith conversations in everyday life. “As a normal part of family life during the week, [parents] talk with their children about religious things—what they believe and practice, what it means and implies, and why it matters to them. In such families, religion is part of the warp and woof of everyday life. It comes and goes in talk easily. It is not compartmentalized in certain slots of the week, nor is it an unusual or awkward topic. It is part of ‘who we are and what we care about.’”
Supportive faith influences outside the home. “Among the most important of influences is the presence of non-family adults in religious congregations who know the children well and can engage them in talk on serious topics, beyond superficial chitchat. The more such adults are present, the more a church feels like a community or an extended family, which is itself a strong bonding force.”
Don’t Ever Stop Praying
Two final words of encouragement for parents who lament their own inadequacy in leading their children towards Jesus (to a certain degree that includes everyone reading this as well as the one writing this). The influence that parents have on their kids faith extends beyond the years that children are in the home. Often, parents are the primary influence on children’s faith for the rest of their lives. This is good news – if we were nominal or blew it when they were growing up, we still have tremendous influence when they are adults!
Second, we have to remember that in the end, we do not have the power to give our children saving faith in Christ; only God does. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 3:8); it is His and His alone to give. The most apathetic-toward-God parents may witness their children convert to Christ and honor Him as Lord; the most diligent, conscientious, faithful parents may experience the heartbreak of a prodigal who appears to have no interest in coming home. I was reminded of this last week at the Gospel Coalition conference that Ken, Brady and I attended. One of the main speakers is a pastor I respect tremendously named John Piper. The day the conference began, a story ran in the New York Times about his adult son who has left the faith and now mocks Christianity on TikTok (he has around a million followers). I was haunted by this story. Suffice it to say, Abraham Piper learned the faith from parents who “taught him diligently.” His story is not fully written yet, and I am sure his mom and dad continue to pray for him. In the end, our best Christian parenting efforts are an offering to the God who alone calls people to Himself. He commands us to teach our children Jesus; therefore we do it and let Him work out the results.
And it only helps if we beg him to make our efforts effective. May we persistently, passionately ask God to rescue our children from their sins the only way anyone can be rescued, through repentance and faith in the Risen Christ. As with the persistent widow of Luke 18, may we “always pray and not lose heart.”