“How do you raise your kids to have faith?”
That was a huge question on our minds as young parents. Also on our minds was a chance to get away. With two boys under the age of 3 we were needing a few days away from the task of parenting. So we did what any other resourceful young parents would do: we enlisted my parents to come for a few days of bonding with these baby boys.
They came to Denver and we left for Malibu. As soon as we were out of the house Kristofer turned to his grandparents and said, “Now I’m the boss.” They did their best not to laugh in his face. When they called us to tell us about his desire to be the head of the household, our concern to pass on the faith increased.
We hoped Malibu could help. If you think we were shallow enough to be heading to the beach and to rub shoulders with the stars, think again. To be exact, we went to some Bible lectures at Pepperdine University. One class that caught our attention had to do with passing on your faith to your children. We had already attempted some family devotional times with our little ones and the results were nothing to write home about…which we would have had to do back then because we did not have texting or email.
We expected the class to tell us exactly how to conduct a family devotional at home. We envisioned a wonderfully choreographed mini-church service: Karen would lead some songs, I’d preach, the boys would repent. Then we’d all go out to eat somewhere.
What we expected and what we got were entirely different. The couple leading the class were both very educated and were working with Christian universities. The first thing they told us was that they had tried to hold family devotional times and had failed miserably. I felt some relief. “We’re in good company!” I thought.
Then they proceeded to picture for us another way of going about passing our faith on to our children. They took us back to a book in the Torah, which we call the books of the Law: Deuteronomy. Instead of Law these books might better be labeled “instruction” or “guidance.” The Hebrew word for the noun Torah—which is often rendered “law” in our English—comes from the Hebrew verb yarah. Yarah means “to throw something, a javelin, say, so that it hits its mark. The word that hits its mark is torah.”
That’s what we wanted: to find a way to let God’s word hit its mark, in this case, our children. Our teachers took us to the place the people in the first century church would have gone to when they placed their faith in Jesus as their Messiah after his resurrection. They did not have the New Testament writings that we have, at least not at first. What they had were the Jewish Scriptures, or our Old Testament.
They also had their way of life and teaching. It was different than our ways today. Today we tend to think we either attend church and hear a sermon or get involved in a class or maybe listen to a podcast online and that is the way we receive instruction. Formal education like that is needed and it is good.
But the Hebrew people practiced another dimension of “instruction” or “guidance.” Two related words to yarah are moreh and horeh. “A moreh is a teacher. Horeh is a very particular teacher—the male parent (horah is the female parent).”
The father and mother in the home are the primary teachers of faith. And although they have information about God that comes from Scripture, more than anything they are to be people who embody those teachings. Abraham Heschel, the twentieth-century Jewish rabbi and theologian, said, “What we need more than anything else today is not textbooks, but text people.”
This is the idea our Malibu mentors were sharing in that class. And their text was Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates.
Notice what the Torah taught. First, we listen. That was the primary way any instruction took place. The average person had no books. No iPads. No Bible apps. You learned by listening. Listening was a part of their life.
Listening was also a way they learned to show love. We love the Lord our God by first listening to him. Isn’t that true in any relationship? The person who really listens to you is someone that loves you. But attempt to nurture a friendship where the other person only talks and you will seek out a better friend elsewhere, won’t you?
We show God that we love him when we listen to him. That listening leads to his words being in our hearts. We become text people when that happens. And it is crucial for that to happen if the rest of this commandment is to be followed. Did you notice where the “talking about them [the words]” are to take place?
- When you sit in your house.
- When you walk along the road.
- When you lie down.
- When you get up.
“What? You mean you don’t have to have some formal family devotional time?” No, you don’t. If you can do that and it works for you, great! But the rest of us can take a cue from these faith ancestors and learn to talk about God and his ways as we go.
Jesus seemed to think that was the way to pass on the faith too. “Go, therefore, and make disciples…” he said (Matthew 28:19). This verse is better translated, “As you are going…” In other words, we can pass on our faith in the natural rhythms of our lives.
Apparently the early church did this well, starting with their families. There are three, maybe four, instances in the New Testament where we are told that entire households were baptized. The “household” could include extended family and even servants. They were text people, and as they walked through their days with their families they talked about the Way of life as it is lived with God.
Paul would later stress the importance of how families were to interact in his writings. “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The word translated “training” has to do with cultivating their souls. The word for “instruction” has to do with “calling attention to” something. It can mean a gentle correction too.
But notice what the training and instruction is in. Sports? Instruments? Academics? Business? Sure, we need to pass on that kind of wisdom to our children too. But Paul says it is to be “of the Lord.” Paul is reminding fathers of the role they have had since the beginnings of God’s people. The parent is to know the ways of the Lord and cultivate those ways in their children as they are going.
In Paul’s letter to Titus, he instructs Titus to teach the older men and older women in the church to parent the younger men and women in the ways of the Lord. There may have been some formal teaching of these things. But mostly it came from the way Titus would live his life among the people in the church of Crete. As they watched him and interacted with him, and then as the older men and women interacted with the younger men and women, the faith and life and behaviors of Jesus would be passed on to another generation.
What then does it take to pass on the faith to our children? The answer is nothing new. The secret is found where it was found back in Deuteronomy and in the New Testament: parents in the home. The National Study of Youth and Religion revealed some sobering information. Only one percent of teens between the ages of 15 and 17 who were raised by a parent(s) who had little importance for religion in their lives were highly religious in their mid to late 20s.
In contrast, 82% of kids who are raised by parents who talk about their faith at home, who attached great importance to their beliefs, and were also active in their church were also active in their faith as young adults.
Christian Smith, a lead researcher for the study, said that one of the most important factors connected with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was that they had parents who talked about faith and spirituality at home.
One final note from the study: attending church together and worshiping together as a family is another important factor in teens remaining active in their faith into their young adult years.
“How do you raise your kids to have faith?” It’s not rocket science parents. Here are three ingredients you need if you want your children to have faith.
First, listen to the Word. Read the scriptures. But more than read them, embody them. Your children may not read a Bible so much, but they will read you. They watch you. They listen to you. When our oldest son Kris was young he asked me one night after we read a Bible story, “Daddy, what does God look like?” I did what any growing theologian would do. I threw the question back at him.
“You go first. What do you think God looks like?” His answer came quickly. “Like you Daddy.”
In many ways this is true. The first picture our children will have is the one they have of us as fathers and mothers. So listen to the Word.
Second, spend time with your kids. It’s hard to plan for quality time. Inevitably when we planned for quality time, something messed it up. Usually it was me! We learned quickly that when you have quantity time together, quality will show up. Maybe it’s time we pursue our children and their faith more than we pursue our work and our hobbies and our recreation. You only have so much time to spend, so spend it with your children.
Then be intentional in sharing your faith with them. Look for moments to casually talk about God and his ways with your kids. Are they having an issue with another kid at school? Discuss with them how Jesus would want them to deal with it. Have they just been hired for their first job? Talk about money and how God would want us to manage it. Are they in love for the first time? Hand that one over to mom. No, talk to them about appropriate ways to think about the opposite sex and how we are to treat each other in any kind of relationship.
You’ll run up against some things you won’t know how to handle. When you do, go to the fathers and mothers in your church who have traveled the road a bit further. Find the ones who have been listening to the Father and have embodied his ways.
Find text people. You probably don’t have to go to Malibu to find them.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1989), 25.
 Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2009), 150.
 Ibid., 147.
 See Acts 10:47-48; 11:14; Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33-34; and 1 Cor. 1:16.
 See Titus 2:1-8.