Energizing Your Family’s Spiritual Life: You Set the Pace
Mark Holmen, a family ministry expert, tells a story about his days as a youth worker. He gave the students in his church a questionnaire to fill out in order to establish how much his ministry had influenced their faith. He laughingly says he thought it might help the church leadership consider raising his salary. The results weren’t what Mark expected. By far the most significant influence was moms, with dads a distant second, followed by grandparents, other relatives, siblings, friends and then the church. Similar conclusions have been found in more formal studies. This is not to downplay the incredibly important place youth ministry and church can have in the lives of students, but rather to remind us that as parents we set the spiritual pace for our kids, for good or bad.
In his excellent book on teen spirituality, Soul Searching, which was based on the conclusions from the landmark National Study on Youth and Religion, Christian Smith states, “Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught by their parents.” When you think about it, it makes sense. Teens with parents who attend church regularly will also be inclined to attend church regularly. With a healthy faith modeled from home, kids will naturally develop more of a faith mindset.
The good news is that we do not need to be perfect parents and raise perfect kids. That would be discouraging! Teens today are looking for authenticity more than anything else, and it is possible to model a life of integrity even in the midst of developing your own spiritual life. When the Bible says, “The man [or woman] of integrity walks securely” (Proverbs 10:9), the assumption is that if you live your life with integrity, not only will you have a more secure life, but so will your children. According to research authority George Barna, parents are beginning to understand that they have the primary responsibility for teaching their children spiritual values. In a HomeWord parent podcast, he shared that 85% of parents believe they have the primary task of teaching their children about spiritual beliefs and spiritual matters. However, he also found that the majority of parents do not spend any time during a typical week discussing spiritual matters or studying religious materials with their children. This disconnect is alarming and yet understandable. It’s difficult to take the time to lead our kids in spiritual principles when we are either too busy or too distracted.
Wayne Rice, in his most excellent book on spiritual legacy, Generation to Generation, says, “Busyness also keeps a lot of parents from being the spiritual leaders of their families. That’s why the job so often gets outsourced to the church.” It is alarming how many well-intentioned parents will pour decades of intense effort into developing their children’s ability to play soccer, gymnastics, or a musical instrument and yet completely ignore the spiritual dimension. Obviously, it’s complicated, and there are other reasons besides being too busy, but the point remains: the primary task of spiritual training comes from home, with the church having a very important role of coming alongside the family, not in place of the family.
The Biblical method of transmitting faith to the next generation is quite clear. The Hebrews call it the Shema. Found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the Shema is still the most often quoted Scripture. Recited every morning and evening in Orthodox Jewish homes, it is also the standard for our Christian faith:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord, our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
Notice that the Shema teaches three key elements of faith: loyalty to God, transmission of your faith to your children, and how you should daily go about sharing your faith with your family. The key to transmitting your faith is found in verse 6: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.” Then, only after you nurture your own loyalty to God can you “impress them on your children.”
Excitement for God and His Word is caught, not just taught. Children see, children do. If our teenagers watch us cut corners and compromise integrity repeatedly, why wouldn’t they do the same? If our teens watch us pursuing our own faith development with authenticity, they will most likely want to follow in our footsteps. When our daughter, Christy, was young she was sitting in our living room reading a devotional book. When I asked her what she was doing, she smiled and said, “I’m pretending I’m mommy.” Why? She had seen Cathy sit in that same place day after day reading her devotional.