Most Christian parents know that they have a unique role in pastoring their children. The majority of these parents also know that they are the primary pastors of their children. How do you pastor your family, though? This is the question that most parents struggle with. What do we actually do to bring our children up to know and love Jesus?
Here are five things that parents can do to begin making a difference in the spiritual lives of our families. These five things are not by any means a definitive list. Instead, they are simply five principles or ideas that have either made a big difference in my approach to parenting or have been observed in other parents who are older and wiser than me.
#1 Work on your own relationship with Jesus
‘What has this got to do with my family?’, I hear you ask. Well, everything. In order to be good shepherds of our family, we need to be sheep that follow the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18).
How are you doing at meeting with Jesus in his word and in prayer? If you are doing okay, then praise God and ask to be kept from pride. If you are not doing too well, then simply repent and get going again.
This is particularly something that us men need to be aware of and work on. Whether we want to be or not, God has designed us to provide the spiritual lead in our families (Ephesians 5:25, Ephesians 6:4). As the old saying goes, if we aim for nothing then we are certain to hit it. Instead of being cowards who neglect our God given duty and joy, let us rise to the challenge and set the pace for the spiritual discipline of our families. John Piper sums it up well:
Where a man belongs is on his knees beside his wife, leading in prayer. Where a man belongs is at the bedside of his children, leading in devotion and prayer. Where a man belongs is in the driver’s seat, leading his family to the house of God. Where a man belongs is up early and alone with God, seeking vision and direction for the family. Men, I challenge you in the name of Jesus Christ our King, be where you belong! 1
This first point is also the foundation for the remaining four points. Without a personal disciplined relationship with Jesus (flowing out of God’s grace to us in Jesus, Ephesians 2:8-10), we will be poorly equipped and inadequately prepared to pass on the truths of Jesus to our children. Our priority is to be parents that love Jesus above all else.
#2 Share your relationship with Jesus with your family
When we put the hard graft into our own walk with Jesus, the job of discipling our children actually becomes more and more a natural outworking of the relationship we have with Jesus. Having spent time with Jesus in his word and in prayer toward the beginning of the day, it is not much of a chore to share that time wth your family.
For instance, most families have a point in the day where they come together. This usually involves the evening meal, but for some families (particularly where one or both parents are often working late), this may be bathtime or story time. These whole family moments are golden opportunities for parents (with Dads ideally taking the lead) to share with their children something they have been encouraged or challenged with from their time in the Bible earlier on that day.
These don’t have to be Bible study moments (although I would wholeheartledly endorse studying the Bible with your children). These are simply ‘doorpost’ moments where you get to impress God’s word on the hearts and minds of your children (see Deuteronomy 6:6-9 and Psalm 78:1-8) by sharing with them how God’s word has spoken to you and changed your heart.
#3 Make use of otherwise ‘dead’ times
Parents are naturally part-time taxi drivers. My estimate is that the average parent spends at least an hour in the car each week with some or all of their children. Likewise, there are many hours spent doing nothing (‘nothing’ being another term to describe watching TV, playing computer games or browsing the internet). These are valuable times that can be put to use pastoring our families. I don’t mean that we need to cancel any/all TV watching in our homes, or have a debate every time we get in the car. What I mean is to engage with our children during these times in order to facilitate real-life application of God’s word.
Let’s imagine you are driving your teenage son somewhere one evening. The conversation might go something like this:
Parent: Anything interesting happen at school today?
Parent: Nothing, eh? Wow, school really has changed since I was there. What do you do at break time?
Teenager: Kick a ball around with my friends.
Parent: How many people are there on each team? Ten or twenty I bet. Jumpers for goal posts, and all that!
Teenager: About twenty.
Parent: Did you score any goals?
Teenager: Yeah, three.
Parent: Well done!
Teenager: Yeah, but the other team won by twenty six goals.
Parent: Twenty six! What was the final score?
Teenager: 52-26. Our goal keeper was rubbish.
Parent: Wow. How did the goal keeper feel by the end of the match? I bet he felt really bad…
That last question is where the rubber of Biblical truth gets to hit the road of everyday life. Not many teenage boys stop to think about how the person being blamed by twenty of his peers for a 52-26 defeat might be feeling. The above hypothetical conversation illustrates how a normal conversation can lead to a golden opportunity to talk about something important and potentially life/worldview changing (the specific instance of the not-so-good goalkeeper being picked on leading to the general principle of not showing favouritism or getting alongside people who are rejected by others, for example). However, if the car radio were on or the teenager had their music playing in their ears, the conversation would never have taken place and there would be no possibility of such opportunity presenting itself.
The same principle is true even with watching TV or playing computer games. We can engage in and talk about them with our children and young people in order to find out what they think and help shape their viewpoint on the various aspects of life that might be raised. ‘What does God think about killing?’ might be a question that comes up from asking about their latest 1st person shooter game. ‘Do you agree with what that character did to her brother?’ could be a question asked after watching an episode of a prime-time soap together.
Our 21st century lives are filled with apparent ‘dead’ times that actually can be reclaimed to be useful discipling times with our kids.
#4 Never switch off
This brings us on to our fourth point. We are parents 24/7. This means that we should be ready to help pastor our children and (even more so) our teenagers at any time of the day, whatever the situation.
In his excellent book, Age of Opportunity, Paul David Tripp retells how he was faced with a situation that needed his involvement as the primary pastor of his teenage son, Ethan, late one evening after a busy and consuming day at work.
Here was one of the unexpected moments of opportunity, one of those mundane moments ordained by a loving and sovereign God where the heart of my teenager was being exposed. It was more than an Ethan and Dad moment. This was God’s moment… A petty argument with his brother opened the door to discussing things that were far from petty.
Age of Opportunity, p21
If we ‘switch off’ as parents, if we disengage or withdraw from the melee of family life (again, this is particularly aimed at us fathers, who have a tendency to adopt a cave/castle mentality concerning our home life), then we will be neglecting some of the richest and most fruitful times for shaping and nurturing our children and teenagers that life has to offer.
#5 Anchor discipline and authority with God
Lastly, we need to make sure that we are shaping them in and from God’s authority. One of the major parts of parenting is discipline: giving instruction and applying correction. ‘Don’t do that’, ‘get your feet off there’, ‘you need to do that first’ are commonplace phrases in every family.
But why should our children do as we say? Often, the reason given is ‘because I told you so’ or ‘because I am your mother/father’ (captured so well by Anita Renfroe’s Mum Song). Yet that reason doesn’t seem to cut it. Are we really a definitive moral standard? I don’t think so. Eventually, our children will come to realise that mum and dad are not perfect. In fact, they are far from it. What will happen then to our parental authority?
As parents we do have authority over our children. But this authority comes from God. It is founded in him.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
Therefore, the answer to the ‘why?’ question is nothing to do with us but everything to do with God. At a Biblical Parenting conference in 2008, Tedd Tripp (author of Shepherding a child’s heart and Instructing a child’s heart) retold how his father used to answer every objection to his authority with one simple phrase: ‘Ephesians 6:1’. In other words, ‘you are to do as I say because God expects you to.’ Are our children going to obey God by doing as we say, or are they going to disobey him by disobeying us?’
Obviously we need to be careful here. God given responsibility for authority does not equal perfect execution of that authority. That is found in God alone. We need to be ready to admit when we have misused our authority or have made errors in carrying out discipline. This will involve asking for forgiveness from our children. However, we do need to firmly anchor our authority in God.
This means that we must recognise that at the heart of every disobedient action in our children is a deeper unwillingness to trust God and obey his commands. It is this distrust and disobedience of God that we are primarily concerned with. Whether or not they honour and obey us as parents does not matter so much as whether they trust and obey him as their God.
Whatever you do, do it for Jesus
To sum up, let me point us to Colossians 3:17. This verse comes just before the Apostle Paul gives instructions on the conduct of Christian households in Colossians 3:18-4:1, and it is a helpful bookend to this blog post. As point #1 explained, our chief aim as Christian parents is to love Jesus and serve him in all we do – including raising children – as an outworking of the relationship we have with him by his good grace and mercy.
Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
I hope that the above points prove useful and encourage us as parents in our key task of pastoring our children to know and love Jesus more.