Last week I kicked off a series on raising the next generation of Christians. (You can read it here). In this series, we will be covering the 6 E’s of raising Gen-Next Christians: Engage, Exemplify, Equip, Entrust, Edify, and Entreat. Each “E” will contain about 3 articles as we will address raising children, training new Christians, and helping each other grow. Today’s article will cover building relationships with children in our congregations.
A Barna Group study reported in 2013, states, “Seven out of 10 Millennials who dropped out of church did not have a close friendship with an adult and nearly nine out of ten never had a mentor at the church.” Furthermore, they report “Those who stay were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church (59% of those who stayed report such a friendship versus 31% among those who are no longer active). The same pattern is evident among more intentional relationships such as mentoring—28% of Millennials who stay had an adult mentor at the church other than their pastor, compared to 11% of dropouts who say the same.”
As that study indicates, relationships are not a guarantee that children raised by Christians will remain in the church, but it is apparent that meaningful relationships influence that choice. Your teaching, advice, and (in some cases) rebuke will be better received if you are in a favorable relationship with a child or young adult. If we want people to remain part of the church, we need to do more than wave at them on Sunday morning.
Before we get into the “how’s,” I want to take a moment to make one important note: when I refer to relationships, I refer to those that are appropriate, healthy relationships. I do not condone sexual abuse, rape, extra-marital affairs or anything of the sort. To guard against such things, parents need to get to know the people their child is spending time with. If you aren’t comfortable with a situation, don’t leave your child alone with those individuals. Accompany them, send someone you trust to watch over them, or don’t allow them to go at all. As a preacher, elder, (or any adult male), do not allow yourself to be alone with women or girls to whom you are not related or married. Always have your spouse or a relative present to protect your reputation and that of the child/young adult. For girls/women, the same is true: do not spend time alone with a man without having a relative/spouse present.
How do we build appropriate, effective relationships with our children?
Help children get to know strong, older Christians
It’s vital that children connect with Christians outside their peer group. Older Christians are typically more grounded in their faith and are less likely to be fickle in their relationships. The younger the child is when you initiate this process, the more amenable your children will be in stepping outside their peer group to make these connections when they leave home.
No matter where I have gone, there have always been amazing Christians in and out of my peer group who have encouraged and strengthened me. Many of these men and women are as dear to me as my own blood relatives. As a parent, encourage and nurture healthy friendships with older Christians who will show your child the value of following Christ and encourage them to continue in their walk.
As an adult, ask children questions beyond their age and grade. Ask what they like to do. If you find out they’re into sports, ask questions about their team or their games. Follow up with them the next time you see them. If they’re into music, ask what music they are learning and how they like their instructor. Get to know them. Invite their families into your home, get to know their parents. Help them to realize that big people can be kind and have integrity.
Spend quality time your own kids and grandkids
How can you teach your children about the Lord if you are never with them?
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
~ Deuteronomy 6.4-7, ESV (emphasis mine)
The example is there for us. We know the Israelites fell short in this commandment. Let’s not do the same thing. Let’s do what God asked the Israelites to do, which is to diligently teach our children about God, Jesus and right living. How can we teach our children if we are never actually with our children? Furthermore, why would they want to spend time listening to the word if we never spend time with them in other pursuits?
Being a parent is hard. You can’t exactly be “friends” with your child because you have to discipline and withhold things from them. Such discipline does not prevent a meaningful, loving relationship with them if it is done out of love and outweighed by positive experience. One of the best things you can for your child is to spend quality time with them. Build good memories together.
I can’t tell you how many times my kids ask me to simple spend time alone with them. My 5-year-old will often come and say, “Come watch me play.” He’s not asking me to engage in play (thought I often do), but to simply be present. My middle child just about fell apart the other day when I had to take not only her but her two siblings to violin. She treasures that time when it’s just she and I. My oldest child and I are often at loggerheads, but we connect through a mutual love of books. I try to make sure we have time to read together every day. This desire for my presence may or may not change when they’re teenagers, but I’m only guaranteed today, and I need to let them know they are valuable to me today. Spend time with your kids, even if it’s just reading books, playing games. building legos, or going out for ice cream. Grant your children the gift of time.
As a grandparent, you are in a unique position to influence your grandchild, whether you are near or far. Their parents may or may not be faithful Christians, but you can be the light of Jesus to them. Their parents may allow them to attend services with you, or they might not. It never hurts to ask. Do not undermine your children’s wishes, just be an example to your grandchildren. Make your house and company a place of peace and joy.
Take interest in their interests
I have to admit that if my kids got into sports, I would be a bit lost. I never played sports—I was always into music and academics. I love watching a good game, but know little of the in’s and out’s. If my kids suddenly decided to do sports, however, I’d be asking them all sorts of questions to fill in the gaps, and I’d want to learn what they loved about it. I’d attend most if not all of their games and practices. Why? Is it because I’m a nosy, hovering, helicopter parent?? No! I would take interest because it’s important to them. If I show zero interest in what my kids love, why would they show any interest in what I love? Strong relationships require give and take. I want my children to love the One that I love (God), but I can’t pound my fist on the table and command them to do so (nor would I want to!). They need to come to God because they desire to know Him. It is my job to demonstrate the same unconditional love that God shows us.
Children who grow up in our homes and congregations are in our care for a limited time. Make the most of it. It’s so easy to grow weary of their boundless energy, to get distracted by our own pursuits, or foist them upon someone else. If you need a reminder of how little time you have, pull out their baby pictures—you’ll quickly realize that the days are flying by.
What are you doing with the days, the hours, the minutes?
Engage with your children today to establish the church of tomorrow.