Last time we saw that our children are our apprentices, following us as we follow Jesus to maturity in life and faith. Discipling children is about forming or shaping their heart, mind, goals, habits, character and behaviour into the likeness of Christ, who is the perfect image of God.
Disciple-making at home requires us to be both idealistic and realistic. Firstly, we do need to have ideals to strive for: we need to keep looking to God’s word and to the Word, Jesus, to remind ourselves of what kind of people we are aiming to be and raise.
But we also need to stay realistic, knowing that we and our children will regularly fall short of those ideals. Family discipleship must be built on a foundation of grace:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)
Now let’s look in more detail at how parents can disciple our children.
The first step is to be active disciples of Jesus ourselves. Our children need to see us striving to know Jesus, to love and worship him and to follow his teaching in our daily lives.
Remember—we aren’t aiming for perfection, but for growth. In some stages of life, a daily ‘quiet time’ may be out of our reach. However, we can still strive to grow in our faith in other ways, such as listening to podcasts, audiobooks or Christian music, going for ‘prayer walks’ or simply turning up to church or Bible study each week.
Our great challenge is to be able to say what Paul said to his spiritual children:
In Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. (1 Corinthians 4:15–16)
Discipleship involves knowing our children, so that we can lead them on to become more like Jesus. This will mean lots of time spent talking. We can look for natural opportunities for conversation during the day, such as mealtimes, car trips or saying ‘good morning’ or ‘goodnight’ to each child.
Those little conversations can also become opportunities for us to share our Christian perspective. As our children talk about their fears, failures or friendship dramas, we can gently help them to see things from God’s perspective and tell them how God has helped us through similar experiences.
Parents are their children’s primary teachers in faith and life. Psalm 78:1–6 describes our responsibility to the next generation:
Things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done …
so the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children. (Psalm 78:1–6)
The easiest way to teach children about God is to have a short family devotion at the same time each day. We can sit down together to read a children’s Bible or devotional book or, as our children get older, part of the actual Bible. Teaching children also includes answering their questions about God (even if we can’t always answer straight away).
Since discipleship is about practical learning, we’ll need to spend time doing things with our children; and since that learning is a process, we’ll need to give them time to practise their new skills.
We can train our kids in the skills of the Christian faith like reading and understanding the Bible, praying, and joining in at church. We can train our children to develop a Christian character by giving them opportunities to serve, help and encourage other people. It’s also important to train our children in life skills like cooking, cleaning and shopping.
Training involves several steps: demonstrating the skill, letting our children join in, letting them do the skill with supervision and feedback, and finally using their new skill without our help.
God’s people have always placed importance on including children in the wider community of faith—in weekly worship, special celebrations and even mission.
Bringing our family into the family of God—our local church—is good for everyone. Parents benefit from the support and encouragement of our brothers and sisters in Christ; our children benefit from having Christian role models and teachers besides us; and the church benefits from having all ages worshipping God together.
In the Bible, discipline and discipleship are much the same thing. Discipline is more than just punishment: it includes all of the strategies we’ve mentioned already that help our children grow towards maturity in faith and life.
But at times, we will need to set boundaries and respond to our children’s misbehaviour. Our response can range from words of correction, to allowing natural consequences, to enforcing other negative consequences.
Hebrews describes the role of discipline in discipleship:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
The truth is that our children are also being discipled and shaped by many other people and influences. They spend many hours at school being taught by others, and thanks to the internet a whole world of influences can come directly into our living room.
Discipling our children involves monitoring and filtering these other influences. This starts with educating ourselves—for example, finding out what they are being taught at school, sitting down and watching television with them, or doing some research about the games their friends play. Then we can decide if we think that particular influence is shaping them in the right ways.
With older children, it’s not just a case of permission, but discussion. We can talk together about whether or not a particular show or game or friendship is helping them to grow in godliness.
The hard truth is that the discipleship strategies we’ve looked at will only be effective to the extent that our schedule allows them to be. We can get so busy with school, work and other activities that we run out of time for the things that will really help us to grow in the likeness of Christ.
So we’ll need to be intentional about our schedule, building good discipleship habits into each day and each week. We can use the natural rhythms of the day—beginnings, endings and mealtimes—to point our family to God. If we attach a short family devotion to one of these routine parts of the day, it will quickly become a daily habit. We can also make the most of the natural rhythms of the week, intentionally making Sunday special and spending our other days off in meaningful ways.
In this short series of articles we’ve seen that making disciples at home involves much more than a daily family devotion—although this is a great place to start. It’s a wholistic approach to life and faith—one that invites our children along as our apprentices, as we follow Jesus together.
Harriet Connor is the Content Editor for Growing Faith and the author of ‘Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life’ (Wipf and Stock, 2017). She lives on the Central Coast of NSW with her husband and three sons.
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