By M. Steve Heartsill
All parents anticipate their child’s first words. We can’t wait to hear the unrecognizable babble that comes during infancy. A little later, we celebrate one-word sentences, “Mommy,” “Daddy,” and “Mine.” Then, parents glow when they first hear their child say, “I love you.”
Yet, the greatest words a Christian parent hears are not those one-word sentences or the early expressions of love for the parent. The greatest words come when a child confesses Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord.
A good foundation
Moving from babble to a confession of faith takes time. Usually, the confession comes after a spiritual foundation has been laid by parents as they work to ensure their child understands the gospel and turns to Christ in genuine salvation. Yet, parents face the reality that some children hear the gospel and believe, while other children hear the same message and seem not to believe. Why the difference? What can parents do to help their children hear the gospel, receive God’s Word and live missional lives? Several thoughts come to mind.
Parents must help their children understand the gospel. Often, parents attempt to teach children about faith by transferring Bible facts to them. However, facts alone do not lead to a profession of faith unless the child understands what the facts mean. Fill-in-the-blank worksheets or word puzzles that test children on their factual knowledge are good and are appropriate. However, adults should not forget that unscrambling forgiveness in a puzzle is far less important than understanding what forgiveness actually means. Hearing, reading or memorizing facts about faith is not enough. Parents should help their child to understand God’s Word and how it applies to everyday life.
Children must experience the gospel. Everyone, especially children, remember experiences that are well-taught. When Jesus wanted His disciples to learn about genuine servanthood, He knelt and washed their feet. That’s one lesson the disciples never forgot!
Parents must strive to give their children the same kinds of experiences. If we want our children to experience godly love, we can involve our family in giving to a neighbor, expecting nothing in return. If we desire to teach our child to use words of kindness, we can have family members write a kind note to someone and then deliver it to them personally.
To build a spiritual foundation, use teachable moments. If a child feels sadness, frustration, happiness or doubt, parents must be prepared to help them understand how God works through those situations. If our child is frightened, we have the opportunity to teach him about God’s presence with us.
Jesus regularly used teachable moments. Two examples come to mind. Jesus used the storm on the water to teach truths about God’s power over nature. Jesus also used the example of the adulterous woman (who was threatened with being stoned) to teach about God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Reinforce what you teach. Some lessons are quickly forgotten, while others are remembered for a lifetime. Parents help their child retain God’s Word long-term by reinforcing those lessons day in and day out.
Avoid bribery. Many parents attempt to develop their children’s faith through rewards. A parent says, “If you learn this Bible verse, I’ll give you a sticker.” Or, a parent says, “Read the Bible and I’ll give you a cookie.” Those “rewards” seem harmless, right? However, bribing children usually causes them to focus more on the reward than on the act itself.
Having fun can be a learning tool. I know it seems obvious, but children learn more when they enjoy learning. We must make learning about spiritual truths fun! Remember, Jesus was neither dull nor boring. While you read a Bible story, have your child draw images they hear in the story. Involve the entire family in acting out a familiar Bible story. During your family’s Bible story time, include time for your kids to ask questions and make sure they understand what they’ve read.
Building upon the foundation
Once a spiritual foundation has been laid, parents must continue building upon their child’s understanding of spiritual truths. How? Think about these ways.
Talk often with your child about Who Jesus is (God, Savior, Lord, King, Redeemer, Friend) and what He did for us (died for our sins on the cross, rose from the grave).
Be clear that everyone needs their sins to be forgiven and will be judged for their sins if they do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Encourage your child to personally turn from her sins and trust in what Jesus has done for her.
Think long-term about how you disciple your child. A parent knows their child best. Parents must always be looking for ways for their children to learn about discipleship and personal growth in Jesus.
Encourage your children to talk with you, your family and their friends about their relationship with God. Pray every day for your child to be His witness. Parents should expect God to use their child to lead others to a saving knowledge of Christ.
Finding their place in missions
Your child has accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. He has been baptized. He regularly attends church. He is growing in his knowledge of Christ. Now what? How do we help our children become missional in their worldview?
As Christian parents, we have a biblical mandate set forth in Deuteronomy 6:5-7 to teach our children to love and obey the Scriptures, one of the foremost being the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:19-20. Teaching our kids to go and make disciples, whether here at home or across the ocean, is our primary privilege and responsibility as Christian moms and dads. Here are some practical ways you can train your child to be a Great Commission kid.
Take a virtual mission trip. For infants, this “trip” could be walking across a blue rug to represent the ocean, or climbing over playground equipment or a pile of blankets to represent a distant mountain range. For younger preschoolers, parents can arrange chairs to represent an airplane and “fly” to Canada to build a church (with building blocks). For older preschoolers, make passports and experience what it is like to go through customs. When they “arrive” in a different country, try foods they’ve not had before. Make crafts or play games from other nations. Listen to international music. Read about current events in North America and around the world. Learn about the culture, the people and their spiritual needs from a missionary.
Engage in outreach activities as a family. While involvement in international missions is commendable, sometimes we forget that mission work begins at home. Jesus’ admonition in Acts 1:8 is clear: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We can help our children cultivate an awareness of the people right next door who need Jesus.
When a new family moves in, take them a welcome basket with home-baked goodies and an invitation to your church. Have a food drive for those less fortunate in your community. Collect school supplies before the beginning of the school year and donate them to families in need. Involve the entire family in helping others.
In the summer, consider hosting a backyard Bible club for neighborhood children. Be sure to include recreation time, a Bible story, refreshments and crafts. Have the kids make sock puppets with yarn hair and button eyes. You can construct a simple puppet stage out of a large cardboard box or string a dark sheet up between two trees. Let the kids take turns acting out Bible stories using their puppets as the Bible characters.
Don’t forget to teach your children how to share the gospel with their friends. This should be a natural outpouring of God’s work in their lives.
Teach missions in your church. Use missions education material to teach preschoolers, children and youth how God is working throughout North America and around the world.
Take a family mission trip. Many opportunities exist for families to participate in missions together. Consider helping a church planter with a sports camp or VBS during the summer. Or find a local church planter and commit one weekend a month to go and help with Sunday worship services. (See “Family Vacations with a Purpose” for more ideas.)
My son, Evan, is three and a half. His vocabulary is growing. He’s questioning everything. Currently, his favorite word is “Why?” I love to hear him call me Daddy. I smile as he talks without taking a breath without really saying anything.
However, none of that compares to what I will experience when he accepts Christ as his personal Savior. I am laying the foundation for that now. OM
Fun missions activities for the whole family
1. Plug your child into praying for missionaries. Daily prayer calendars are available from WMU® and from LifeWay. Or sign up for NAMB’s PrayerConnect e-newsletter at www.namb.net/prayer. Prayer calendars can be used to pray for missionaries by name, people group or ministry assignment.
2. Read missionary biographies with your children.
3. Send a missionary kid a “Birthday in a Box.” Include fun things like stickers, candy, activity books, etc.
4. Support missionaries financially as a family. Give to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®. Decide with your family on a goal amount to give. Have fun searching for extra change or set up a lemonade stand and donate your money to the offering.
5. Host a missionary family during an annual church missions conference. Spending time with missionaries in your home is one of the best ways to expose your children to missions.
6. Encourage a missionary or church planter family. Help your children write letters to them. Learn about where they serve and keep up with current events in that location. Pray for a particular need each day of the week. Visit www.namb.net/missionaries.
M. Steve Heartsill is the managing editor for Royal Ambassadors and Challengers at national WMU. He lives in Chelsea, Ala., with his wife, Tonya, son Evan, and overly pampered dog Peanut.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC