Kids and church, part 3: Who is responsible to feed the lambs?

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Being a parent isn't easy under the best of circumstances. Our kids don't come with instruction manuals. As if the challenge of helping them mature physically and mentally isn’t enough, the challenge of helping them mature spiritually seems impossible. And it is. As parents, God has blessed us both with a great treasure and a great responsibility (Psalm 127:3). But what does that responsibility look like practically? Are there others who are responsible, too? If so how?

Parents

Parents are the primary disciplers of their kids. Scripture is very clear on this point. It is the responsibility of both dad and mom to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” But how do we do this? According to Deuteronomy 6:4-9, we are to use the ordinary “teachable moments” throughout any given day or night to point our kids to God.

Brothers and sisters, the work that you have to do for Jesus is in no sense for yourselves. Your pupils are not your children, but Christ’s
— Charles Spurgeon

This means that we not only live our lives in such a way that our faith can be practically seen, but also we guide our kids towards God by helping them see how faith intersects with their daily lives. Both of these things can happen in a lot of different ways, depending on circumstances. The bottom line for parents is faithfulness. Make the most of the time God gives you.

Church

The church bears some of this responsibility as well. While yes, parents are the primary disciple-makers in their kids' lives, they are not the only disciple-makers in their kids' lives. The church exercises this responsibility when it comes alongside parents, encouraging and training them; and the church exercises this responsibility when it comes alongside kids, teaching and encouraging their faith as we seek to help them become lifelong worshipers of God. This responsibility God has given to the church community calls for the same faithful commitment that parents should have toward their own children.

Jesus

Finally, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He feeds little lambs as well. God does not call us to convert our kids, but rather to be faithful with his message of salvation. We sometimes get this wrong. We sometimes think cultivating our kid’s faith is within our power. But even if it doesn't seem proud on the surface, that's a gross over-estimation of our abilities. Such parental pride can get in the way of what God is trying to do. Only Jesus can take our kids from death to life. Only Jesus has the supernatural ability to transform our kids' hearts for his glory. This is the part he plays, to do what only he can do.

This bring up a number of questions. Do we trust him? Do we trust him to hold up his end of the bargain? Are you being faithful to hold up yours? If not, what needs to change?

Here’s a quote from Spurgeon's Spiritual Parenting,  that sums up this truth: “Brothers and sisters, the work that you have to do for Jesus is in no sense for yourselves. Your pupils are not your children, but Christ’s” (p. 57).

He's Got the Whole World in His Hands—Including Your Kids

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Parents are responsible to provide and care for their children. We are the primary disciplers of our kids. But parents are most fundamentally stewards. Though we’re called to faithfulness with our kids, they ultimately belong to a promise-keeping God who is more faithful than we are.

As Psalm 127 says, our children are a heritage from the Lord, an unmerited reward from him. The older our kids get, the more it becomes clear we can’t control their destiny. It doesn’t rest in our decisions or in theirs’. Our children’s future, their health, their skill, their will and desires for life, who they will choose as a spouse, and even how long they will live—all this belongs to God.

The enemy of stewardship is entitlement mixed with sentimentalism. An entitled dad with a sentimental vision thinks, This kid is mine. He’s going to be just like me. He’s going to be into the music I like. He’s going to love Alabama football just like I do. But when Dad’s expectations aren’t met and his kids don’t turn out the way he hoped, he’s angry, and he doesn’t know how to engage his child.

Likewise, the entitled mom thinks, I deserve better than this. Don’t you know how I suffered to bring you into the world. When her teenager rebels, she can turn bitter and feel lost with God.

Scary Stewardship Vision

A stewardship vision of parenting—one that says my kids belong to God—is scary, since God doesn’t always meet our expectations. He doesn’t see as we see, nor should he. His vision for our lives is better. Embracing this truth is ultimately freeing, and it will lead us to gratitude.

James K. A. Smith wrote the following in a letter to young parents in his church:

You’re going to think it’s incredible when Liam smiles, or says “Mama,” or rolls over on his tummy, but let me tell you: that won’t even compare to the afternoon when, in what feels like an out-of-body experience, you realize you’re having a conversation with this man—you might be sitting on the front porch talking about Mumford & Sons or Andy Warhol or World War II artillery, and for a moment you can hardly believe that the little bundle you brought home from the hospital has grown into this beautiful, mystifying, wonderful young man. And you realize that, in your son, God has given you one of your best friends in the whole world, and you try to suppress your smile while thinking to yourself, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

A covenantal way of thinking frees us from the pressure to get everything right with our parenting. In a fallen world, some kids will be sick, and some will fall away from the faith. We can never accomplish all our good goals for their health, education, manners, and athletics. Even the kind of future relationship Smith describes isn’t guaranteed. But a stewardship vision frees us to be thankful and enjoy God’s good gifts when they do come, because our kids (and all good things they bring into our lives) are undeserved gifts. As Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7).

Three Confessions

In the Baptist tradition, the practice of child dedication in corporate worship can help us to stop and begin to cultivate an attitude of grateful stewardship. It’s a way of publicly celebrating the good gift of children before our people. It’s a way of publicly practicing gratitude for our kids rather than complaining about them. It’s also a public confession that any good we receive at our children’s hands comes from the God who gave them to us.

Here are three confessions that can be made in a child dedication service.

First, God wants our kids, and ultimately their hearts and lives, to belong to him. So we confess together, “God, all we have—even our children—belongs to you. Everything we have is yours.”

Second, we don’t just dedicate our children; we dedicate ourselves. So we confess and affirm our God-given responsibility as parents.

Third, we ask for help in the form of a commitment from our local church, the believing community. So we ask them to confess, “We’re standing with you. We’re partnering with you as you raise your children in the faith.”

May the Lord inspire and encourage you as you consider planning a child dedication service for your church community.

This article was adapted from Before the Lord, Before the Church: ‘How-To’ Plan a Child Dedication, an eBook published by Sojourn Network. The notes in the book unpack each of these three confessions with more detail. It first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

Legos and Theology: The Joy of Knowing and Experiencing God

One of my favorite things is when my kids are interested in something so much they seek to learn about it for themselves. The more they learn about it the more they grow to love it, and the more they love it the more they want to know. A main way they do this is by looking up their topic of interest at the library. 

High on the list of great loves for my kids are Legos. A book often checked out is the Lego Idea Book. They’ll spend hours looking through it to gather more ideas. They love legos, so they want to learn more about how they can build great new creations. Their love for Legos leads them to learning, and then they put into action what they have learned.  

I want to cultivate that same kind of excitement for my kids when they are learning about God. But when we hear the word theology, many of us fall asleep. The word is almost a hypnotic trigger. What do you think of when you hear the word? Does it conjure up images of a stack of big, dusty books or is there something more?

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Mark 12:30 ESV

Theology is simply the study of God. It’s a good practice for us all, young and old, to continually be learning more about him. More about who he is, what he has done, what he desires, and who he says we are. Studying theology invites us not only to gain more knowledge, but to align our hearts and minds to God’s way of thinking and living. What an incredible inheritance we leave the next generation when we help them to love and treasure Christ! This is why our families and churches should strive to aid kids in learning about God in ways that are deep, engaging, and captivating. In his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer says:

“We do the greatest service to the next generation of Christians by passing on to them undimmed and undiminished that noble concept of God which we received from our Hebrew and Christian Fathers of generations past. This will prove of greater value to them than anything art or science can devise.”

Knowing Him leads to loving Him. The hope in developing a love of God through the study of theology goes deeper than kids purely gaining knowledge for its own sake. We want our kids to study theology because we want them to meet the One they are studying about. Jen Wilkin explains the connection between theology and loving God in her book Women of the Word, “If we want to feel a deeper love for God, we must learn to see Him more clearly for who He is. If we want to feel deeply about God, we must learn to think deeply about God…...The heart cannot love what the mind does not know.”

Loving God will be caught. We must continue to grow in our own understanding of God if we expect to be able to challenge our children to do the same. The temptation for many parents and teachers is to introduce their kids to a list of information about God rather than modeling for them what a loving relationship with God looks like. But theology becomes a joy when it's an experience--like building with Legos. A friend of mine once told me teaching is more than seeing a child as bucket waiting to be filled with information. Kids need to know and experience what they are learning about. We must help them love God with their minds and hearts, guiding them to form a relationship with their Creator beyond knowing only facts and details. If kids know a ton about God but haven't experienced Him personally then all we have accomplished is growing Pharisees.

If our kids have a relationship with God he will change their hearts and they will want to know him more. They will want to start building. They will want to study about Him. And they will want to tell others about the God they know and have experienced.

What practices help your kids know and experience God?

Teaching kids about Ash Wednesday and Lent

Back in 2010, my friend Sam Luce was on a children's ministry road trip across the country with Kenny Conley. They stopped in Louisville and met Tony Kummer and me at Quill's Coffee. It was Ash Wednesday. I still had ashes on my forehead. It think it was a bit surreal for Sam--hailing from very Catholic upstate New York. I am not Catholic. I clarified that right away for Sam--probably just a bit uncomfortable in my own skin when he asked about the ashes. I'm a Baptist by confession, but I'm part of a church community that follows the church calendar. And, for that, I'm really thankful.

To know the seasons of the Christian year is to know the milestones of Jesus' earthly ministry--from the promise of his coming at Advent through his resurrection at Easter and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As Christians, we want our personal story to be shaped by his story. One way the universal church has practiced this historically is by letting Christ's life shape our time--not just at Christmas and Easter but throughout the year.

What is Lent?

To know the seasons of the Christian year is to know the milestones of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Lent is all about preparation. We prepare our hearts and minds for Good Friday and Easter, those days that mark Christ's passion and then his victory over death. We experience the significance of holy week more when we're prepared for it by retracing Christ's journey to the cross. The season of Lent starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter, lasting for 40 days (not counting Sundays). Each day of Lent symbolizes one of the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness before Satan tempted him. During Lent, Christians fast from something that can pull our minds way from Christ (TV, social media, chocolate, etc.). The goal is to fill the void with an invigorated prayer life and increased reflection on God's holiness, our sin, and Christ's perfect obedience even unto death. 

What is Ash Wednesday? 

“Dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
— Genesis 3:19b

On Ash Wednesday, we acknowledge that no one gets out of this world alive.  Those who gather around the world for Ash Wednesday services receive a sign of the cross on their foreheads from ashes (usually made from the palms used on Palm Sunday the previous year). This mark is a reminder of our mortality--we are all going to die--and a call for repentance. The person who gives the signs says over you, 

"Dust you are, and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:19b) 

Lent with Kids

As I've reflected about on how to pass the practice of the church calendar on to my children. Here are two brief thoughts.

This is an opportunity for a parent to intentionally pass on the truth that life is but a breath

First, I think it's really appropriate for kids to receive ashes during an Ash Wednesday service. We wait until after kids are trusting Christ and give a faithful confession to baptize them and allow them to take communion. But there is nothing about the Ash Wednesday service that needs to be reserved until kids are converted. It's good to have sober conversations with children about life and death. The sage teaches us, "It is better to go to a funeral  than to go to a party, because death is the destiny of everyone. T he living should take this to heart" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). The goal isn't to scare kids out of Hell in some manipulative way. But I believe Ash Wednesday provides an incredible teaching moment for kids. Particularly for a child with a more reflective temperament, this is an opportunity for a parent to intentionally pass on the truth that life is but a breath.  

Second, Lent gives your family an entire forty day season to remember Jesus is best. We fill our busy lives with candy, toys, sports, extra curricular activities, video games, television--you name it. During Lent, we remember the happiness we find in those things is temporary. Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). Every toy your child has will one day lie in a junk yard. The treasure of this earth makes us happy, but that happiness is temporary. During Lent we stop filling our lives with temporary happiness and make more room for Jesus.

Consider fasting as an entire family during Lent this year. When you do so, don't just give up something. Also, be intentional about adding a practice, a new affection like serving at church together or volunteering at a local non-profit, to help set your family's heart on God instead of the thing you are giving up. One great resource we've used to teach about Lent with our kids is an old episode of Adventures in Odyssey from Focus on the Family (Episode #152: The Meaning of Sacrifice) that explains the purpose of Lent and the practice of fasting as a family in a way with which our kids have really connected. 

Are you planning to celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent with your family? What practices have been helpful for you? 

Some portions of this post were adapted from the 2015 Sojourn Church calendar devotional written by Daniel Montgomery and Bobby Gilles.