On Raising Kids Who Follow Jesus

I was a college pastor for nearly ten years. Toward the beginning of every fall semester, I received at least one phone call (and usually more than that) from a parent or a grandparent of a freshman student. The conversation typically went along these lines:

“Hi, my son is a freshman, and I would like for him to attend your church.”

“Great!” I would reply. “Here are the service times and our website address. If he has specific questions, he’s free to email me or call me. I can’t wait to meet him!”

“Actually,” the parent would say, “Can you call him and invite him to church? He doesn’t seem to want to go, but I want him to go. Just don’t tell him that I told you to call, or he probably won’t show up.”

At that point, I usually explained to the well-meaning parent that I couldn’t fulfill their request. As hard as it was to accept, their son or daughter was a young adult. If the student had no internal motivation to attend church, or to walk with the Lord, then my phone call wouldn’t help (and it might do more harm than good in some cases).

Now that my own daughter is about to leave for college, I understand the anxiety. How can we raise kids who want to follow Jesus, even after they leave our homes?

It’s an important question, because recent statistics tell us that in the United States, we aren’t doing a great job of passing the faith down to our children. Each successive generation is more likely than the previous generation to walk away from the faith once they reach adulthood.

For parents who believe in Jesus, then, what can we do to keep our children from walking away? I can’t answer that question exhaustively in a short article like this, but let me offer just a couple of thoughts:

First, recognize that there are no guarantees. Even the godliest parents sometimes have wayward children. Some of the best parents I know have “prodigal” kids. God is the greatest Father in the universe, and His children routinely disobey Him. Read Hosea 11:1-4 if you want to see a description of God’s anguish over His own rebellious children. Our rebellion was the reason that Jesus was necessary in the first place.

If you have a wayward child who has chosen to walk away from the Lord, keep praying and never give up hope. We believe in a God of miracles. At the same time, trust God’s timing and sovereignty over the situation, and refuse to give into the voices of shame and defeat that threaten to fill your mind and heart. There are simply no guarantees that doing all the right things will result in the right outcomes. Our children are human beings, ultimately accountable to God for their own lives.

Second, though, recognize that the most effective way to train your kids to walk with Jesus is to walk with Him yourself. This is not only a biblical principle (for example, see 2 Timothy 1:5), but it’s backed up by tons of research. Telling our kids to prioritize their walk with Christ is vital, but our words are no substitute for a Christ-like example.

A few years ago the National Study on Youth and Religion found that 82 percent of teens aged 15 to 17 whose parents talked about their faith at home and attached great importance to their faith ended up becoming adults who maintained and practiced the faith. In contrast, only 1 percent of those teens whose parents attached little importance to their faith were still religiously active in their mid-to-late 20s.

In other words, the single most important factor in whether or not our kids grow up to walk with Jesus is whether or not we walk with Him ourselves. It’s not so much what we say, in other words. It’s who we are and how we live.

Do our children see us reading the Bible and praying on a regular basis? Do they see us making sacrifices to prioritize going to church and worshiping with the community of faith? Do they see us giving our hard-earned money and our valuable time to help influence the world for Christ?

Example trumps exhortation. Who you are matters more than what you say.

Again, there are no guarantees, but there are some strong correlations.

One final thought: Even if you feel that you have failed as a parent, God’s grace is infinite. You can’t go back and change the past, but you can walk with Him today. You can pray and you can still influence your kids to know Him, even if they’re already grown.

God is in the business of transforming lives through the power of His Spirit. Nobody – not you or me or any one of our children – is beyond the hope that He offers us in Jesus Christ.

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