Any program for recovering the vitality of the Church—whether the Benedict Option or some other—must have as one of its goals that ministers work “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:11-14, NIV). The goal is that the saints be equipped for works of ministry, so that they can build the body of Christ up to maturity. Accordingly, one of the core tenets of every treatment of Christian discipleship is the idea that discipleship is incomplete until it includes multiplication: I mentor you, you mentor others, and they in turn mentor yet others. The goal is that each person’s training in the faith includes the ability to train others to train others in the faith.
This applies in formal mentoring relationships we initiate in our church life, of course. But it also points to the first responsibility of a Christian parent. Our hope is not merely for our children to grow up and succeed in their vocational aims (though I certainly do hope that for my own own children). No: a Christian parent hopes to see their children so flourish in faith that they pass on their faith to their own children, who do likewise in turn.
I sometimes hear of families where generation after generation have walked, and are walking, with God, and my prayer is that it be true of my own family. Gladly, this isn’t an abstract ideal to me—not just an ambition I hope to see realized in my own children. Rather: I am its first-fruits in my own family. My parents were first-generation Christians, who taught me to walk with God. Accordingly, my task is not laying the foundation, but building on it. I steward and grow the work my parents did as I mentor my children. By the grace of God, they in turn will teach their own children to follow Christ. My prayer is that my parents’ faithfulness bear fruit to their grandchildren’s grandchildren and beyond.
Our approach to that is to prayerfully establish both formal and informal rhythms for our family that we hope will in God’s grace shape all of us to walk with him.
The formal rhythms of our day are the things we (try to) do in roughly the same ways day in and day out, albeit with some variation in thoroughness on weekends and on evenings when we are out or are hosting others in our home.
First, we read a short section from the Bible every morning with our girls (we’re starting with the gospels), and I ask them simple questions about the passage: the almost-three-year-old gets questions about the characters in each sentence, and the almost-five-year-old gets questions about the main plot points of the narrative. I make a point to explain what the passage is showing us as we read it. My goal is to help them learn how to read and not just that they should read. (This is a theme we’ll come back to more than once!) I will admit, though: “every morning” is an aspirational statement: we’re still developing this particular rhythm and we’re so far up to about three days a week of successfully doing this. This really falls on me: I just have to build it into my own routine. I normally begin working on the day’s tasks around 6:30; I need to plan for a ten or fifteen minute break around 8:00 to read, talk, and pray as a family.
Second, we each pray for various concerns in our lives before our meals—about everything from toothaches to the salvation of non-Christians we know. We have always prayed before meals this way, but historically that was just my wife and me. In the past month, we have introduced the idea of having each person pray for some concern in their lives. Our little girls love this. (They also love getting to pick the order we pray in, so we alternate having them choose.) Again, this gives us a chance to teach them not only that they should pray but also how to pray. One of our ongoing challenges with our oldest daughter is helping her understand that prayer is something we do all the time, not just when in trouble; this seems to have helped make that concept stick in a way that all of our instruction hadn’t. That’s more than suggestive: kids need direct teaching, but they also need to see and hear the ideas practiced to internalize them.
Finally, each evening before bed, we begin our evening routine with prayer and singing. Our prayers here are a mix of extemporaneous prayer for everything from our own sanctification to the work of missionaries we support, and from healing for colds to the salvation of lost friends. Every night, we sing the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” together: its simple words have been easy for our girls to pick up, but despite its brevity it is delightfully dense with good theology. In fact, for both our girls, the doxology was what helped them hold onto the idea that God is triune: “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” Yes, we started on the Trinity early—first, in fact!—and so we all should. The Trinity is a mystery whose depths we will never fully plumb; but our story is the story of the Triune God at work saving his people. We don’t graduate to the Trinity as an advanced course in theology; we start with the Father who sent the Son in the power of the Spirit to rescue us from sin and death.
Our evening routine concludes with catechetical questions and Scripture memory. Our younger daughter has just finished working through the simple children’s catechism I put together for our older daughter a few years ago,1 and is now memorizing Genesis 1. Our older daughter memorized that short catechism long since, and memorized Genesis 1 up through v. 12 or so before we got derailed, but once her younger sister catches up I expect we’ll finish out the chapter all together. She is now working through the Heidelberg Catechism—and if that sounds like a lot for an almost-five-year-old, well, I encourage you to give it a try. She has learned it impressively well (and often corrects me on the wording of the questions). One delightful side-effect of that is that my wife and I are also learning the Heidelberg Catechism, and more than once it has been helpful in my own sanctification and in mentoring others.2
All of that may sound like a lot, but in practice it takes a maximum of half an hour, and most evenings is somewhere around fifteen minutes. All told we probably spend forty-five minutes or so on these routines throughout each day. The point is not to overwhelm our girls with spiritual activity, but rather to make spiritual disciplines a regular part of their lives. Gratefully, so far we seem to be accomplishing that goal: both of them now ask us to do different parts of that routine.
Beyond these more formal and structured rhythms to our spiritual lives, we also have a number of informal patterns we have worked to build into our days.
The first of these is publicly repenting of our own sin. From before our oldest daughter was born, my wife and I have committed to being parents who are quick to confess our sins and model repentance to our children. Our prayer has been that both in our successes and in our failings, we would point them to Christ. In other words: we know ahead of time that, sadly, we will fail. We will be impatient with them, or rude to each other, or otherwise sin. When we do, we need to confess our sin as sin, pray for forgiveness and help in defeating sin, and apologize to them or each other directly. We certainly do not get this right every time, but it is our aim. We want them to be able to follow us as we follow Christ, and that means following us in dealing with sin, too. I suspect all parents are tempted to think that admitting their sins will somehow undermine their authority with their children; the reality is quite the opposite.
A close corollary of this is teaching the girls to confess their sins and pray for help when they sin. It is easy in disciplining our children simply to mete out a justly-deserved consequence for sin. Much harder, but far more fruitful, is to talk through their sin with them and showing them that it is not merely a matter of a specific behavior that we dislike but in fact a matter of rebellious hearts. One of the most helpful tools for us here has been the language of disordered loves: we often tell our daughters, “Your loves are out of order! You are loving [things, television, etc.] more than your sister, and you’re not showing that you love God in that!” The specific sins matter; but far more important is helping them see that the sins are symptoms of deeper rebellion which needs addressing, and that’s what we teach them to pray about.
Note well: I’m not assuming anything about my children’s faith or lack thereof when I describe them as having rebellious hearts. My own heart is rebellious; all human hearts are. Indeed, we teach them to pray in gratitude for God’s grace, for Jesus’ death and resurrection on their behalf, and for the Spirit’s power in their lives. We do our best to sit down with them and help them both confess their sin and pray for help in loving God and others rightly—though the reality of two-year-old and four-year-old disobedience means we cannot do this fully with every infraction, else we would get nothing else done! Those aren’t long prayers, by any means, but they help our girls understand that the right response to discipline is to repent before God and pray for his help. We’ve been amazed to see how much they’ve internalized this: we often hear each of them pray aloud for God to help them love others and love him whenever we send them to a time-out where we can’t sit and pray with them for whatever reason.
We are also trying to build room in for them to ask questions of us about the world, about the Bible, and about God. Much of the steadiness of my own faith comes from the way my parents and my youth minister were entirely unintimidated by questions about the faith. My youth minister’s refrain that if our faith is true it can handle any question, even if some answer remain mysteries has served me well. As such, we want to encourage our daughters to ask good and hard questions as they grow up. Their faith will be stronger, not weaker, as a result.
Finally, and this is probably where we’re weakest, we’re working to make explicit reference to Scripture, out-loud prayers, and teaching them theology a regular part of our daily doings as well. My wife is much better than me at leading them in ongoing prayer. She does a great job of pointing out opportunities to pray for friends, neighbors, and so on when challenges or difficulties come up. Meanwhile, I am more often ready with theological answers as questions and ideas come up in our girls’ lives. And both of us need to do more quick application of Scripture proper!
The net of all that, we hope, is that our girls grow up with both structured and unstructured habits that help them love God and walk with him.
Returning to my opening theme: how does this build on top of my own spiritual formation? For one, one of the most spiritually formative aspects of my own life growing up was an evening routine of family prayer—a routine we carried on up until the time I left for college. This was (unsurprisingly!) also the first routine we adopted as a family with our own daughters: from the time our oldest was about eight months old, we started regularly praying as a family before her bedtime. For another, my parents faithfully modeled a habit of reading Scripture themselves—some of my earlier memories include seeing my parents reading their Bibles with their morning coffee—and they taught me and my sisters to read our own Bibles daily. We have aimed to do the same kind of modeling and teaching. Both my parents and my wife’s mom (her father is not a Christian) also prayed aloud often, and this set a great example for us.
The more formal rhythms of specific times of prayer and family Scripture reading throughout the day, the use of song, and especially the use of Scripture memory and catechisms, are all things we are building on top of the foundation our parents laid for us. Our hope and prayer is that our daughters in turn will surpass us in wisdom and godliness as they help lead their own families in a few decades.
- If you’re curious why I did that rather than another existing catechism, you can see some of the reasons in that post.↩
- Why the Heidelberg? After reading a number of the catechisms, I landed on the Heidelberg for its mix of beautiful language and robust theology. The summary of the gospel in the first question alone is just wonderful:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Will you please speak briefly to how you memorize scripture with young children if they can’t read? Are you reading (repeatedly) the scripture to her and having her say it back? My girls are almost 4 and 2 and I’m thinking about how it would work for them. Thanks for the great post.
Hi David! Your guess is exactly right: with both the Scripture memorization and the catechism, we do it all verbally. I’ll say the verse or question aloud—in chunks, if it’s long—and have them repeat after me. They pick it up quickly. Especially the almost-three-year-old still needs prompting in the middle of the verses or answers a lot of the time, though usually just one or two words will prompt her for the next phrase.
Thanks for this, Chris! How much did you practice some or all of these rhythms as a married couple before having kids, verses how much of it was developed in “ad hoc” response to needing spiritual formation for your kids? And how would you recommend planning ahead for the spiritual formation of our children before we have them?
I ask because I’m thinking that my wife and I should perhaps explore and develop some of these rhythms in our life before children. Of course, we actually practice some of them, but not formal reciting formal catechisms, for example.
I would like to know if I can translate this article for a french reformed blog.