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Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6 may be one of the most quoted scriptures on parenting and it never gets old for me. The idea that I could spend the first 18 years of my children’s lives teaching them and leading by example, so that they might be a straight and true arrow as they leave the quiver and fly out into the world (Psalm 127:3-5).
Unfortunately, this task is not as easy as this proverb makes it sound. Parenting styles are as varied as the children we raise. Not to mention the host of values we want to imprint on them as they are under our care. How do we pick what’s important? For which battles should we gird our loins and which ones should prompt a white flag?
I have been hearing an alarming statistic about our youth. They are leaving their churches and forgetting their faith as they head to college. Sources disagree on actual numbers, but the trend has been described as an exodus. Ed Stetzer comments on the “why” behind this in his thoughtful piece for Christianity Today. He says, “Our teenagers aren’t primarily leaving because they have significant disagreements with their theological upbringing or out of some sense of rebellion. For the most part, they simply lose track of the church and stop seeing it as important to their life.”
My heart breaks at this and yet I understand - I was there once. I stood in the doorway between my childhood faith and adult potential. I looked out into an expanse that I could choose to fill with whatever pleased me. By the grace of God and the wisdom of my parents, I decided to make a path for my own faith through the wilderness that I would encounter. I chose to do so within the boundaries of community and church.
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How Do I Instill a Love of Church in my Children Before They Leave?
I have thought long and hard about this. I have made lists. I have crossed them off. I have researched what others think is important and also not wanted to know lest I’m already falling short. I keep coming back to a simple truth void of legalistic trappings.
I must instill a love of church in me.
Did everyone breathe a great sigh of relief? I hope so, because I do daily. When I think about molding and forming my children’s character, there is so much that is out of my control. In fact, most of it is. I can only control myself – my words, my actions, my feelings, my leadership, my prayers. Any influence I bring is determined by their response to what I can control, but their response is out of my reach.
Instead of focusing on what I can make happen in them, I am choosing to focus on what I can make happen in me. I pray that they would grasp the passions of my heart and take them for their own one day.
Passion for a relationship with Jesus.
Passion for the Bible.
Passion for consistent Biblical teaching.
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Passion for community and life with other believers.
Passion for a life full of service and mission.
I can’t make their heart love Jesus and love the Church, but I can model this love by cultivating it in my life. I can lead by example.
Practically speaking, my church has a beautiful vision for this and is executing it well. Todd Wagner (pastor of Watermark Community Church in Dallas) has said, “we partner with our students.” Once students reach high school, they are encouraged to attend “big church” with their families and other students. They are brought into the membership process and asked to serve. Instead of relegating them to a back room with loud music and donuts, they are asked to take on the responsibilities of being a member of the church. Because they are capable and they need practice.
A favorite saying of mine is that we are raising adults, not children, and I believe that this mindset encourages that. Instead of forcing them to do certain things that will cultivate certain traits, why don’t we take them by the hand and lead them to follow in our example? Why don’t we ask them to walk alongside us, increasing their responsibilities as we go? Why don't we allow them to first fall while under our watchful eye? In doing so, we send them off with confidence and a toolbox full of tools to be successful and contributing adults, particularly as members of a church body.
I pray that my heart will continue to grow in affection for Jesus, fondness for authentic community, and desire for Biblical teaching. As I pursue this, my hands are full of little children trying to keep up, coming alongside, and being encouraged to find their own way. My grip will loosen and tighten during those eighteen years, I’m sure. My prayer is that their faith would become their own while they toddle by my side so that when they reach the open door, they will step with sure feet towards a Savior who loves them and a community of believers to help them along the way.
I can't hold their hands forever, but I pray that they will learn to stretch out their hands and grasp their new community with fervor.
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Sarah Elizabeth Finch is a wife to Jake, mother of two children under two, and a storyteller at heart. Outside the home she works contract as a medical Speech-Language Pathologist and volunteers with Student Ministries at her church, discipling a small group of girls from sixth grade through high school. She is passionate about uncovering beautiful stories in seemingly mundane moments. Some of her life-long goals include getting an MFA, running a marathon, writing a book, and seeing her children know Jesus. Connect with her on on her website, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.