No single human endeavor raises more questions than the duties of parenting. Books, workshops, blogs, and seminars abound on all aspects of parenting. Whether we seek to deal with particular topics such as special needs or step-families, or we simply want some guidance on the basics of raising children, there is no shortage of advice to be found.
As Christian parents, we naturally want a Biblical answer to all of our parenting questions. But the Bible is a big book, and the world is an ever-changing, complex place full of pitfalls. What does being a Christian parent in the 21st century look like?
Christian parenting starts with Christian living. As parents, we are the most influential people in our children’s lives. The more we aim to faithfully live our faith and engage our children in the process, the more effectively we witness to our children and encourage them on their own faith journeys.
1. Modeling Christians Discipleship
The first responsibility for a Christian who wishes to be an effective witness for Jesus is to live a life of Christian discipleship. This is especially true of our witness to our children, who see and imitate our behavior more than we often realize.
For this reason, we as parents are more influential in shaping our children’s worldview than their peers, teachers, pastors, and pop-culture icons combined. Children form their ideas of what is normal and acceptable based on what they experience in the home.
A child who observes (or experiences) violence, profanity, arguing, greed, insults, sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, and selfish ambition will be inclined to seek after these things.
Paul warns against allowing these behaviors and attitudes to find a foothold in the church (Galatians 5:19-21). And if we live by these values in our homes, they will inevitably creep into our churches, as well as into our children’s ideas of normalcy.
But in the very next sentence, Paul encourages living by the Spirit, marked by attitudes of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). And when our children see these attitudes and behaviors at the center of our lives, they are observing the power and presence of Christ.
2. Putting the Spirit into Action
Of course, there is much more to effective parenting than just living a good, morally sound life. One obvious problem is that it is impossible for us to live perfectly. We all have shortcomings and we all have moments of failure. And living a Godly life is indeed a tall order.
Fortunately, God doesn’t ask us to live by His standards without His help. Remember, as parents, we desire for our children to know Jesus. So before we can even begin to model a moral code of conduct for our children, we must first model our dependence on Jesus, both for our own sake (because we will fail without him) and for the sake of our children.
3. Jesus at Home
If I may digress for a brief moment, I am inclined to share a piece of my personal testimony. I began attending church at age eight and spent my grade school and teenage years enjoying the youth programs, Bible stories, and other offerings of my church. But I didn’t experience Jesus at home, or anywhere else, except at church.
In my late teens, I dated a girl whose parents were very sincere, committed Christians. And as I got to know her and spend time with her family, I experienced something very new and different. I saw what happened when Jesus was present in a home, and it changed my life.
So what did a household that included Jesus actually look like? Let’s continue with some common characteristics that I observed then, and in interactions with other Christian families since then.
4. Praying Together
As parents, it is essential that we pray with our children and for our children. Most Christian families make time to pray prior to a meal, or before bedtime. And these are great starting points. But where can we, as parents, exemplify prayer beyond just routine?
If your church distributes prayer requests, take a moment to pray over them as you receive them. Let your children see this, and even participate. When you experience joys, blessings, and victories, make time to offer a prayer of gratitude to God.
Similarly, let your children see you praying over major decisions. And encourage them to ask if there is anything they would like to bring to God in prayer. When you pray with your children about a sick puppy, a school bully, or a skinned knee, you teach your children that prayer is a right response to just about everything that we experience.
5. Reading Scripture Together
For even the youngest of children, it is not hard to find age-appropriate collections of Bible stories. And as your children get older, you can progress to devotionals, Sunday school materials, or Bible reading plans that help you to continue to engage as a family with the Word of God.
Biblical literacy is vital to our faith formation and ongoing discipleship. The world is full of ideas and philosophies, and many of them might sound logical or appealing. But only Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. As we teach our children not only the content of scripture but how to search and apply it, we prepare them to test the teachings and temptations that they are sure to encounter in the world.
6. Making Church a Priority
Until the late 20th century, the church enjoyed a great deal of deference from Western culture. Activities were generally not scheduled for Sunday mornings, and some teachers even skipped assigning homework on Wednesdays in order to accommodate weeknight services and youth programs.
But in the 21st century, the culture has no issue with running TV programming, sports leagues, and other activities in the time slots that we one set aside for church. Having time for the church is no longer assumed by our culture. We have to make the time and protect the time.
As parents, we need to make a habit of showing up on Sunday mornings and making church participation a part of our normal life. And we need to deprioritize other activities during our worship time. Do the work emails keep pinging your phone on Sunday morning? Turn the phone off. Let’s demonstrate to our children that God is a priority and that He deserves our attention.
7. Giving and Spending
Another way that we demonstrate our commitment to God and to His church is with our finances. God calls us not only to give but to be good stewards in other ways, too. We tend to hide our finances from our children, but it is good that they see a visible commitment to the church in our giving. This becomes especially powerful when our giving means helping the needy or providing some other benefit that our children can readily see.
Similarly, our spending ought to be governed by the principles of good stewardship. As we prioritize giving, we might spend a little less on electronics, or buy more modest cars and houses. When we are good stewards, we teach our children to overcome the idols of excess, the futility of self-indulgence, and the sin of envy.
If so far, it looks like all we’ve discussed is how to live as a Christian day-to-day, that’s absolutely correct. It is necessary to establish that we must visibly be Christians in order to have a Christian faith to pass on to our children. Without the basics of discipleship, we are reduced to outsourcing our children’s Christian training, and/or passing on a self-made moralism in which our best hope is to raise up ‘nice’ people.
Unfortunately, this is the approach that many parents take because it is easy. It’s easy to let the Sunday school teachers cover the Bible lessons, and make sure the children go to youth activities so they can be around the ‘good kids’. And as long as we end up with good kids of our own, we call it a success. Easy, right?
The trouble with moralism is that it can’t lead us to Jesus, and it can never save us. The Bible reveals that the best of our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And as Christian parents, this leads us directly to what is probably the most vital Christian discipline for us to proclaim, live, model, and pass on to our children.
“Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” – Colossians 3:20
Without forgiveness, there is no salvation. All of us depend on God’s grace for our eternal security and for overcoming the defeats and setbacks of sin in our daily faith journey.
As we mentioned earlier, our children are always watching. And that means that they know when we’ve messed up. Sometimes, our children even feel the brunt of our sin in the form of an angry outburst, a broken promise, or our selfish distractions. They know that we are flawed.
And when our flaws are visible and tangible, we must be quick to apologize, to seek forgiveness from God, and (when applicable) from our children. And let’s be intentional about it, not just with a quick apology, but by directly asking our children to forgive us.
Similarly, as parents, we are going to face times when our children need correction (remember – they are just as flawed as we are). And so we must be both quick and intentional to forgive them. Again, it’s not enough to ask for an apology, we must respond with the grace of forgiveness, using our words and our affection.
When we say “I forgive you,” to our children, we relieve them of the burden of their guilt (even if they still have to pay a consequence), and we affirm that they have not lost our love. There is no better model of God’s love that we can show them. No amount of new toys, cool gadgets, and exciting vacations will establish the deep roots of Godly unconditional love in our children as effectively as forgiveness.
9. Beyond the Foundation
“Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” – Proverbs 22:6
As parents, we recognize that we can do everything correctly, and still end up with wayward children. Our best intentions do not guarantee results, only the work of the Holy Spirit can bring our children into their own relationship with Jesus.
What we’ve done thus far is create an environment where Christian discipleship is practiced visibly and purposefully. And in doing so, we’ve established a foundation for training and passing on that discipleship.
But how do we build out the rest of that environment?
Christians in the affluent West have developed a whole subculture aimed at making our environment (and our children’s environment) as ‘Christian’ as possible. We Christians have our own movie studios, recording labels, TV services, and social media platforms. Our local megachurches host sanitized activities to provide us safe alternatives to proms, trick-or-treating, and countless other mainstream cultural events.
We’ve created what many call the ‘Christian bubble’, where our children can be free from the evils, temptations, and dangers of modern society. But is the ‘bubble’ really the best environment for training disciples of Jesus?
10. Trouble in the Bubble
To be fair, our children need a proper environment for learning the word, growing in discipleship, and wrestling with the challenges of both. Our homes and our local churches should be exactly this sort of refuge.
As parents, we may consider including our children’s schooling as a key component of their discipleship as well. (We don’t have space here to discuss the choice between public and private schools. We will explore this topic in a future article).
But if we are training our children in discipleship for the purpose of keeping them in ‘the bubble’ for as often or as long as possible, we are inviting trouble in several ways.
First, we are instilling fear as a primary driver for our decisions and actions. John writes that “there is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear,” (1 John 4:18).
When we teach our children to rely first on the love that God has for them, we teach them to seek the peace that overcomes fear. Yes, the world is filled with tangible and spiritual dangers, but God sends us into the fray, equipped in His love.
And this reveals the second problem that we encounter when we rely too heavily on the ‘Christian bubble’ for security: we fail to fulfill our purpose in Christ.
Jesus established the church not only as a body of believers who worship him but as people who serve him by continuing the work that he started during his earthly ministry. And that work is the ministry of reconciliation, sharing God’s grace and love so that others might be saved. Jesus commissioned all of us to this work when he commanded us to go into the world and preach the gospel to all people.
It is for this reason that Jesus prayed to the Father that He would not remove his disciples from the world, but that He would protect them from the evil one (John 17:15). Jesus called his disciples and us to be in the world, but not of the world. Our ‘Christian bubble’ may be a safe place for us and for our children, but it is not where Jesus instructs us to remain.
11. From Bubble to Base Camp
As parents, our charge is to raise our children to be Christians who use their gifts and honor their calling in the world as ambassadors of God’s kingdom. And while it is proper to limit our children’s exposure to gratuitous violence, sex, or drug use, we also must prepare them for the realities of the world as they mature in their wisdom and knowledge.
Our homes, and not just our churches, must be sanctuaries where our children can worship, study, and pray. They must be places where young believers can wrestle with questions of faith and doctrine as they grow in wisdom. They must equip our children to go into the world not with blind ignorance or paralyzing fear, but with discerning minds.
The world is our mission field, so that is where we belong. But our homes and churches serve as base camps, where we are instructed, equipped, and encouraged to carry Christ into the world. And as Christian parents, this is the most effective and God-honoring environment that we can provide for our children.