Thursday, 26 July 2012

Train up a child in the way he should go...a challenge for us all.

I had had this on my mind for a long time, when my study with GoodMorningGirls on the Proverbs 31 woman took me to this verse this week: Proverbs 22:6 "Point your kids in the right direction - when they're old they won't be lost. " (The Message). Indeed.

Please don’t look at the title and think ‘This won’t apply to me, I don’t have children.’  Yes, it does. Children are our future and we can all help them grow into the people God means them to become.

I was saddened recently when, at a wonderful local church conference, there were very few children. The event was held over a whole weekend and had carefully planned, age appropriate activities. The leaders were hugely creative and energetic: the children who joined in had a wonderful time. While the Sunday morning was well attended, the Saturday was not. Even a church known for its thriving children’s ministry had only a few children attend. I wondered why.

We are fortunate to live in a place where there are wonderful opportunities for people of every age. Thriving sports clubs; an active Music Centre where talents are developed; and a huge variety of other activities, from cooking to candlemaking, are all on offer. Weekends are VERY busy. Church is fitted in on Sundays around football practice and outings with the family. There is little – or no – time for anything extra.

Yet...where do priorities lie? Do we seek to teach our children how to put God first, when we choose a rugby match over worship, swimming club over walking on water, pantomimes over prayer?  I’m not suggesting that children should not develop their talent for sport, or music, or art and craft, but I do think we need to keep alert for opportunities where our children have the chance to meet with God.

As a teacher, I know how thirsty children are to experience God. A few months ago we hosted a Prayerspace in school. Over the two day period, the children crowded in at lunchtime, forgoing the chance to play football or run around outside. They pored over the prayers put up on sticky notes, chatted about how special they were in God’s eyes and sat thoughtfully in the ‘quiet tent’. A couple of weeks later, when I referred to the Prayerspace in assembly, there was the most incredible sigh of eager expectation from the whole school – a truly holy moment which I have never, in all my years of teaching, experienced.
Children long to know and have an encounter with God.

Now, before I go any further, I am well aware that, whatever we do or don’t do, ultimately a child’s decision whether or not to follow Jesus is entirely their choice. We cannot force, cajole or manipulate them to do so – temporarily, possibly, but not in any lasting way. There are many prodigal children of godly parents and we pray for their return. Nothing we can do will make them love God any more and nothing we can do will make them love God any less.

We can, however, encourage them. To paraphrase Romans 10:1, 13 – 14 (NIV):
‘ heart’s desire and prayer to God for children is that they may be saved... for “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ And, may I add, how can the children be told about Jesus unless they are brought to places where his life is demonstrated and taught? (Emphasis mine)

Many churches have good children’s programmes running on Sunday mornings, with classes for all ages up to the teens. Often, all may be well until the age of 11. Then children may start to complain, dragging their heels so that it becomes harder for parents to take them. Eventually, as they enter their teens, children refuse to attend church. The primary school age is of tremendous importance, the best chance to “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6, NIV.)  Attending church every Sunday is a brilliant place to start, but we need to take every opportunity to encourage our children in the development of their faith.

Here are a few practical suggestions:

Put them in places where they can hear the Word  and experience the Holy Spirit. This is, obviously, Sunday school or children’s church on a Sunday morning.
Vacation Bible school – holiday clubs at half terms and during the holidays are wonderful opportunities. Many churches organise these, either themselves or booking a visiting team. If your church doesn’t have anything like this but other churches in the area do, take your children along. Or perhaps get a team of like-minded folk and organise one yourself – even two or three days long. There are numerous resources available to help you.

Age doesn’t matter: children are never too young to experience God. We need only to look at how John the Baptist ‘leapt in his mother’s womb’ when he recognized Jesus, or to Samuel when he heard God calling him in the night. I was privileged to serve on the team for 3 – 4 year olds at one of the New Wine summer conferences: we were soon reminded that God’s spirit is not confined to age, as these tiny children prayed for each other and their leaders, as a consequence of which we saw physical healing take place. Not only that: I was moved to tears as one mother related how the life of her three year old, as a result of attending the sessions for just one and a half hours a day for just five days, had completely turned around. This is not normal: this would not have happened in a day nursery: this is the Holy Spirit.

Encourage children by your example: Let them hear ‘God talk’ around meal times – don’t hide your faith from them but don’t be super spiritual either. Let them hear your prayers;  see you make your home group a priority above your own convenience; welcome friends and strangers into your home, hosting gatherings whenever you can. Inviting a missionary to a meal can have a powerful impact on your children as they listen to the discussion of the missionary’s work and calling.

Model to your children how much you value learning more about God. Apart from letting them see you study your Bible and pray, show your appreciation for their Sunday school teachers with an occasional gift, or discussing their teachers’ good qualities and hard work  over dinner.
Listen to the children when they talk to you and encourage them to ask you questions. Discussion helps develop their interest and understanding in a way that talks and sermons, however good they might be, cannot do.

Take them out of their comfort zone. Nowadays, children can sometimes be over-protected. We are so aware of health and safety in all aspects, particularly ‘stranger danger’, both physically and online, that we are careful to shield our children from anything which might be at all risky for them.
Yet we as adults know that faith is often spelt R.I.S.K. We need to make sure that our children are gently challenged to grow into faith and we can do this by taking them out of their comfort zones, with our loving support. Taking my children to a huge Christian conference was challenging for all of us, not just my children: it was the first time we had experienced worshipping with thousands of others. But it was also the first time that my daughter had a powerful experience with the Holy Spirit – before, even, than I myself. It was an experience which has stayed with her many years later.

Persevere with independence. If there is a child-friendly Christian event such as a conference or holiday club, but you don’t know anyone else attending: take your child anyway. Children may be a little nervous if they don’t know anyone to go with, but in my experience children’s leaders are so welcoming that children rapidly settle in and are more enthusiastic about returning the next day than adults would be. Don’t let them miss out because of initial nervousness.

Choose to act sacrificially.
Putting your child in a place where he or she has the opportunity to come closer to God comes at a cost: time, convenience, money – even status. For example, many parents sacrifice their holiday time to take their children to a Christian conference. This doesn’t quite have the same cachet as a week in Biarritz! Your colleagues or neighbours may think this very strange.
Challenge your children. A  dear friend related how Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators (renowned for its discipleship ministry and emphasis on memorizing Scripture) was visiting her parents. He asked her which Bible verses she knew – not many! She explained that she had a poor memory and couldn’t learn Bible verses. He then started chatting to her about the latest top music hits. She replied enthusiastically, reciting several of the lyrics. When Dawson Trotman gently showed her that she knew the lyrics well simply because she had listened to them over and over again, she realized that she could apply the same principle to learning the Bible and so developed a lifelong habit of memorization.

Encourage godly friendships. Invite other families over: for coffee, to lunch after church, planned or potluck. Make arrangements to do things with other families – pick things the children will enjoy!

Finally, for parents: be careful about the choices you give your children.
There have been several times when I did not allow my children to ‘opt out’ and God blessed them in an amazing way. Another friend, when her children started to complain about having to go to church on a Sunday, took them to a church with a less child-friendly program. Within a couple of weeks they started begging to go back to ‘their’ church and never looked back in their spiritual development. We need to listen to our children while not necessarily giving them whatever they want – we know the truth of this regarding diet, sleep and exercise and this applies to spiritual growth as well.  As adults, protecting  our children can mean saying ‘no’ at times. Choose their activities carefully, as far as you can. Make quite sure that you really do want your child to be a rugby star if  a commitment to Sunday morning practices means that they will not be able to go to church. You may have the chance to attend church on a Sunday evening but, in my experience, evening services rarely cater for the under 11s.

What about older children and teens?
All is not lost! Volunteer to help and get them to come along with you. Although they won’t often admit it, teenagers love to hang around adults when they can listen to interesting conversations. They go through a ‘wallpaper’ phase – as silent as the walls but all eyes and ears. They soak up God talk without knowing it.

I feel passionately about our children’s spiritual development. My own children are now adults:  this has not diluted my eagerness that we should take every opportunity to encourage the children we know. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, neighbours... one of my friends became a Christian because a neighbour first took her to church when she was two.  We should not forget that children are adults in the making: that our prayer for them should be that “ our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage their hearts and strengthen them in every good deed and word.”  (2 Thessalonians 2:16 – 17)
Let us remember that, unlike physical growth, our children’s spiritual growth doesn’t happen automatically – God has no grandchildren. We know this deep down but culture tries to tell us otherwise, with its individualistic emphasis on choice and freedom. Let’s take every chance we can to help our children make WISE choices so that they can find true freedom – in Jesus.

So I should finish by pointing you to much wiser sources of help and information in this parenting adventure: here is a link to Women Living Well - a list of recommended reading and a blogging gateway of endless tips and encouragement!

Also linking up with: 

Life In Bloom

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