My oldest son, Joshua, took up soccer this past spring and will continue this fall. My wife and I have really enjoyed watching him play, and even as a beginner at the age of 12, he seems like he has the temperament, body frame, and ability to develop the necessary skills to be a solid player. I’m looking forward to seeing how he progresses this season which begins in a few weeks. But as much as I am enjoying Joshua playing soccer, there is something that frustrates me about it as well.
I can’t help him.
When I was a kid, I played baseball and football. That was it. Spring and summer was baseball season and fall and winter was football season. There was no time for other sports like basketball or soccer; why would you even play them if you can play baseball or football instead? So I know nothing about soccer. (I learned about off-sides just a few months ago when Joshua learned about it!) And that is where my frustration comes in. I want to help Joshua. I want to encourage him. I want to spend time in our backyard helping him develop his skills. But I just don’t know the game well enough to do any of that. I want to. I see the need to. But I don’t have what it takes to do it. So I just tell him to listen to his coaches and do what they say.
I think that is how many parents feel when it comes to discipling our kids. We know that we should disciple our kids—it is one of our primary ministries as parents (Deut. 6:4-9)—and we want to, but when it comes to actually doing it, we feel lost. Where do we begin? What do we say? Do I really know enough myself? And so, because of our overwhelming feeling of inadequacy, we tell our kids to listen to their leaders at church and do what they say.
This is understandable, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It can’t be this way. Discipling our kids is far too important to hand off to others—as godly and loving as they may be. And that takes us back to our primary concern—we know we need to disciple our kids and we want to do it, but how do we actually do it? Here are eight tips to help you disciple your kids:
1. Set realistic expectations. One of the main problems we have as parents is that we expect way too much of ourselves when it comes to discipling our kids, and when we can’t live up to them, we feel like failures and often quit. Family worship doesn’t have to look like worship with your church family with singing, prayer, and lengthy and in-depth Bible teaching. Gospel conversations don’t always have to end with some profound theological gem from you. We need to be realistic of what our family discipleship will look like. Perhaps that means talking about a Bible story for 15 minutes one night a week at dinner and trying to find one or two times each week to move conversations toward the gospel. Wherever you are, start there and develop rhythms and habits that work and then build on them to get to where you want to be.
2. See family discipleship as a way of life, not a program. There is nothing at all wrong with having a more organized time of family worship—it is actually a great idea to do that. But we can’t see our role as disciplers as a program; we have to see it more as a way of life as Deut. 6 describes. That means that you want to strive to talk with your kids about Christ naturally as much as possible. Look for themes in shows, movies, and music and talk about how they relate to the gospel. Talk about the character of God, especially as you experience them in your own life. We have natural opportunities to talk about the gospel every day—we just have to look for them.
3. Focus on Jesus. Our goal should be to always point our kids to Jesus. It is easy to fall into the trap of moralism—focusing on our kids’ behavior and wanting them to act right. But that is not God’s heart for them! God is less concerned with their behavior and more concerned with their hearts. And the way our kids will develop hearts that love Him and want to obey Him is through the gospel transforming them. This is why we always need to point our kids to the gospel and allow that to inform how they live. Their behavior matters—but why they behave the way they do matters far more. Focus on heart change through Christ.
4. Be a guide, not a general. As parents we often think ourselves as generals—we have the authority to tell our kids what to do and point the direction they are to go. There is certainly a place for this at times, but when it comes to discipling our kids, we are better off seeing ourselves as guides instead. Think of a trail guide who travels with you and beside you. He or she doesn’t stay back at camp and just point the direction or give you a map—he or she goes with you! That is what we need to do with our kids in the journey of discipleship. We aren’t supposed to be the experts with all the answers boldly pointing the way our kids should go; we are to travel with them as guides—guides who have more knowledge, wisdom, and experience of our journey but who are still learning ourselves. Positioning yourself as a guide means you don’t need to have all the answers and that is important because none of us do. But it does give you the freedom to tell your kids that you don’t know something and you want to seek the answer together.
5. Feed your own growth. The best teaching comes from the overflow of what we are learning. If you are looking for the one way to improve the most as your kids’ discipler, this may be it. Spend more time feeding your growth and growing in your understanding of, and joy in, the gospel. Dive into God’s Word more deeply. Read helpful books that will build your faith. Worship in meaningful ways with others and by yourself. As you grow your confidence will increase and you will also have more to share with your kids.
6. Teach by your example. It has been said that people will remember more of what we do than what we say. We often focus our discipleship on what we tell our kids—and that certainly matters—but we cannot forget that our kids are learning far more from what they see us do, for better or for worse. As a follower of Christ, you need to be working out your salvation through God’s power (Phil. 2:12-13), but this is even more important as parents. How is the gospel framing how you live each day in the home, in the community, at work, and beyond? Are God’s love, grace, and mercy working their way out of you? Is the fruit of the spirit evident in increasing measure? Are you obeying God with gospel gratitude and joy? Model gospel transformation to your kids.
7. Connect them deeply into your church. While God designed parents to be the primary disciplers, He did not intend for us to be the only disciplers. He has given us the church—our local community of faith—to come alongside us, encourage us, and echo what we are teaching in our homes. Just as it is essential for us to be part of the church, our kids need to be as well—for their good now and in the future as well as the church’s vitality. Prioritize involvement in church, not because you have to or should, but because you want to. This is one reason I love The Gospel Project so much—the heart of this resource is not only to help individuals see the gospel story throughout Scripture but also to position parents to have meaningful conversations in the home based on what they are talking about at church. The church and home aren’t to work in isolation of each other—they are to work hand-in-hand in partnership.
8. Pray with them and for them. Just as you want to have meaningful gospel conversations throughout the day with your kids, you want to pray with them and for them as well. Think about the opportunities you have each day, such as in the car on the way to school and as part of your bedtime routine, and use some of that time to pray together.
Brian Dembowczyk was the team leader for The Gospel Project for Kids from October 2014 through March 2017 and now serves as The Gospel Project’s Managing Editor. Before coming to LifeWay, Brian served in local church ministry for over 16 years as a pastor, discipleship pastor, and family pastor. Brian earned a D.Min. from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Kids Ministry and Cornerstones, which is slated for a spring 2018 release. Brian, his wife, Tara, and their three children—Joshua, Hannah, and Caleb—live in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.