Parents have a huge influence on the faith of their children. We know this from what we see and experience in parish ministry but also from research. The 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS) has once again shown us that the majority of people in our churches became Christians before they were 20 years old (78%). This just reinforces the importance of equipping parents to raise their children in the knowledge and love of Jesus, alongside our established church programs.
So how can the church equip parents?
Acknowledge and validate parents as spiritual leaders in their homes
Sometimes an unexpected result of ‘giving parents a break’ on Sunday mornings by taking their children away to separate programs is that we give the message that church leaders are better at educating their children in the faith than parents are. Age-appropriate programs are great, but they work best in partnership with home discipleship.
Is there real and helpful communication between church leaders and parents?
Are parents encouraged to be involved?
Perhaps your church can’t fit all the kids and adults into one space on a Sunday morning, why not invite the parents to visit the kids' program regularly instead? Perhaps include a term dinner where parents and leaders and kids can talk about what has been learned, how kids are going and what parents can be doing at home (and actually have an agenda where these things are explicitly shared and discussed).
Provide opportunities for family discipleship as a church community
Many parents feel overwhelmed when reminded that they should be teaching their children the Bible at home. Many single people feel alienated and left out when this is mentioned. But we actually all need each other. The church congregation together is the family that seeks to encourage, teach and build up the children and youth. I’d bet even the most ‘together’ family in your church, with two parents and however many ‘perfect’ kids would still confess they need encouragement and support. What might this look like?
It might be an event where families (including the extended church family) come together to serve together (for example, working bees, cooking nights) or serve the community (for example, packing Christmas boxes or doing a fundraising fun run). And alongside this ‘doing’ together, we can encourage conversations about Jesus, and what it looks like to face the different challenges in life as one of Jesus’ followers. Again, don’t just hope these conversations will happen, make sure they do (suggest questions or stories as conversation starters or a verse to reflect on). It might also look like events where children get to join parents and adults in prayer and Bible reading, with just a little extra effort at making it welcoming and accessible for younger minds.
Let God’s word loose!
We really want to encourage parents to be opening the Bible at home. There are so many different ways to do this. The first step is deciding it is worth putting the time and effort into working out what might work for parents in your church. As a working parent, allow me to give you three tips:
Make it attainable: If it’s too hard or too much, I won’t even try.
Keep me accountable: Ask how it’s going, keep Bible reading on the agenda, remind me it’s important.
Keep spurring me on: Sometimes I need your energy to help me keep trying.
Sending home short devotions that can be done over a meal is one option: just a Bible passage, three questions and a reminder to pray. Recommend a published family devotional or encourage everyone at church to be working through the same one over the term.
Start encouraging family memory verses. Instead of teaching the memory verse on Sundays, send some suggestions and talking points home and regularly check in to see how it is going. Interview different parents about what they do, or what their parents did with them when they were young.
Another option, particularly for children who are in homes where family devotions are unlikely to happen, is encouraging personal Bible reading and reflection. Spend five minutes at the end of your time on Sunday mornings or at Kids’ Club talking about what kids could read during the week for themselves. Allow time for questions and following up on how they are going. Primary children are encouraged to read between 10-20 minutes a day by their teachers at school. They are capable of reading the Bible for themselves and keeping a journal of thoughts, questions, drawings, and prayers if we show them how.
We are, amazingly, God’s fellow workers as he grows His church. Pray for God’s wisdom in knowing how to support parents in your congregation. Pray you will listen well to the ideas and reflections of people as you try new things. Pray that God would be working in people’s hearts.
One last thought: let’s keep this an area of grace in our ministries. Many parents are already overwhelmed by the innumerable and competing demands on them to provide their children with every opportunity, the best education, the best nutrition and so on, as well as working themselves, spending time with a spouse, friends, ageing parents … We all live in a busy world. Rather than placing another burden on their shoulders, let’s work hard at coming alongside each other in our congregations by encouraging mums, dads, aunties, uncles, grandparents and godparents to keep persevering. There are times when we forget or fall behind - but just start again. Keep trying to leave the Bible open on the dinner table, beside the bed or on the coffee table. Keep speaking the words of eternal life to each other.