Last weekend, my parents brought me a few of my old toys to pass along to my kids. It was a walk down memory lane, watching my kids enjoy the toys that once had given me so much pleasure. In addition to my childhood treasures, my parents also handed down our family storybook bible dating to my toddler years. As I flipped through the pages and enjoyed anew the full-color illustrations, memories flooded my mind – memories of sitting around the dinner table each night as my dad read the well-loved stories that make up the grand story of scripture. I could even make out the faded pen marks where he had recorded the dates we began and finished our way through the Bible. God used this Bible to shape my faith from an early age!
As parents, we have the privilege and responsibility of shepherding our children into a love for Jesus. Proverbs 22:6 urges us to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” While this is no guarantee that doing our part as parents means that our children will automatically exhibit strong faith, this wisdom reminds us that habits that we teach our children become deeply embedded in their hearts. Faith is a gift only God can give, but the Holy Spirit is pleased to use certain disciplines as the means to create that faith.
Many useful practices can help you form the faith of your children. The following are three basic building blocks for nurturing faith in your family.
At a young age, one of the most important things you can do is read and re-read the stories of the Bible. Even more important than grasping the “moral” of the story is simply learning the story! There are many good story bibles that tell the stories of scripture in a way that is easily accessible to children. In particular, the Jesus Storybook, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones, is especially good because it connects each story to the person and work of Jesus. Consider asking age-appropriate questions meant to teach careful listening to scripture. Questions can start by looking for content, and as children grow older, can help them understand meaning, and finally, can help them connect a particular story with the bigger story of scripture. Encouraging children to read the Bible on their own is also a useful way of helping them grow in their faith.
Learning to pray means learning to enjoy being in the presence of God. As early as two, we taught our children a simple prayer to say at bedtime. At about the age of three or four, we’ve encouraged them to pray before bed, simply talking to Jesus about their day – concerns they have for friends, worries about school, reasons for giving thanks, and expressions of love for Jesus. Prayer is not mastered in a short span; it is learned through the crucible of crises, in moments of sadness, as well as in spontaneous expressions of thanks. Such moments can be occasions to model turning to God in prayer, and expressing gratitude, dependence, sadness, or happiness. As a family, we’ve also practiced saying the Lord’s Prayer together, each morning before breakfast, and sharing prayer needs with one another around the dinner table. This has the added advantage of keeping us connected to one another as a family.
It is sometimes said that children are “the future of the church.” While this is true, it is equally true that children and youth are the church of “right now.” Children ought not to wait until they are older to get involved in the life of the church – in fact, involvement now is vital for their long-term spiritual health. Children learn the rhythms of worship as they sing and pray with the body of Christ on Sunday morning. You can help by explaining the meaning of the various elements of worship. For example, listening to a sermon isn’t just “Hearing a pastor teach us,” but is actually learning to listen and understand "what God says to us.” Equally important is helping children play an active part in the life of the church. This could include serving as a helper in nursery, reading a scripture passage, participating in a church-wide service project, taking a meal to a family in need, or praying for members with specific concerns. If your church doesn’t yet offer ways for children to participate, why not talk to your pastor about age-appropriate ways for your children to get involved? In doing so, children begin to see that they belong to the church, and that they are not passive observers, but active participants.
There are, no doubt, many more ideas that will help nurture your children in the faith: Singing together, learning the Apostle’s Creed, writing to missionaries abroad, or learning to share about Jesus with others. It’s important to remember that faith-nurture is not a sprint, but a marathon! The signs of growth will often not be recognized immediately, but by God’s grace, these disciplines will help shape the faith of your children, and when they are old, they will not depart from it.