(I wrote this several years ago ... )
Bedtime prayers in our house follow a predictable pattern. Since I’m the Dad, I pray first. I thank God for the day, for the opportunities, pray for protection, pray for guidance. Erica, age 14, goes next. She prays a prayer that is pretty much a summary of my own prayer. She often adds a request for a good night’s sleep. Mathea, being the youngest at eleven years old and eager for any attention she can get, waits for someone to prompt her. Then she prays over the highlights of the day. Julie, my wife, winds us up with a recap prayer that hits the high points. True to our form, she usually adds something or someone I have forgotten. Then we all pray the Lord’s Prayer together.
It’s as predictable as the church Christmas program. Each of us parades into prayer wearing our wings and halo. We say our memorized line (or ad lib just a little), and exit.
I hate it.
I worry that I am teaching my children to be Pharisees. Have I taught them to repeat empty phrases in prayer? Do I model a lifeless, passionless faith that is safe and dead?
As Christians we worry about appearances. We concern ourselves with how we come across to the world, but too often that same concern keeps us from being real with our children. We hide behind safe walls we believe will protect us from dishonoring our Lord – but in reality, we are hiding from other Christians, from our families, and even from God.
How can parents model a real relationship with God rather than dead hypocrisy? How can we teach our children to be disciples of Jesus, rather than religious Pharisees?
My wife and I have covered the bases of raising our children in faith. Worship is a priority in our family. We read the Bible together almost every day. Evening prayers are not optional. Christ-centered music, books, art and conversation fill our home. Yet I am often nagged by fear that all we’re doing is going through the motions.
Recently, though, I see signs of hope for my children’s faith. I stepped back to look at what’s happening and found a few important – and uncomfortable – places where the Spirit is moving in our family. I’m convinced many Christian families long to get past same-old-same-old religion. These priorities that are working for us may work for you as well:
1. Tear down the walls in prayer. Deal honestly with your own difficult issues. If you were rude to someone at work today, bring it up in prayer with your family that evening. Confess the sin, ask forgiveness, and ask for wisdom in how to correct the situation. Then invite your children and / or spouse to hold you accountable for the correction.
2. Teach your children to listen to God – then listen to your children! When we are honest in prayer as a family, we sometimes take time to discuss the issues we’ve prayed about after prayer time. Our children often have profound insights that help us deal with difficult issues. One night after we had prayed about our finances and trying to get the bills paid, my older daughter piped up, “I think we need to quit nickel-and-diming ourselves to death with lots of little things – eating out, car trips we don’t really need to take, and stuff like that.” It was one of those “ouch!” moments when you know God is speaking directly. It was also the answer we needed to hear!
3. Follow Jesus into the uncomfortable new stuff. As we began praying together as a family, we asked for specific things we knew would stretch us. My wife prayed for opportunities to share her faith, and she was asked the next week to share her testimony at a women’s retreat. (She has a tough time talking in front of others!) Because I am a pastor, I have many opportunities to tell others about Jesus in large group settings – but I have always struggled with one-on-one evangelism. We prayed about my desire to grow in this area, and within a month I had three opportunities to introduce people to Jesus, one-on-one. These were scary, hard things – but they were also exactly what we prayed for!
4. Start to see your children as ministry partners, not students. You don’t have to be the teacher, and your child doesn’t have to be the student. Ministry is a partnership, and we each have different roles. My younger daughter became a role model for me as she naturally shared her faith with friends in the neighborhood. She invited them to church and asked them why their families didn’t attend. I’m watching her and learning to be bold! My older daughter loves to play piano, and she (at 14 years old) is sharing her gifts by playing piano in our church’s worship band. Who am I to say she’s too young? She is not my student – especially not musically speaking. She is a partner in ministry!
5. Never get comfortable. Remember that God’s Spirit is working on you, and it is more about the process than any goal you’ll see this side of heaven. Keep seeking Jesus, keep asking him to work on you and on your family. When you find your family sliding back into a routine, find ways to challenge yourselves to grow together.
The hardest lesson to learn in all of this came from the mirror. Not the one in my bathroom, but the one the Holy Spirit kept holding up to my heart during bedtime prayers. I began to see that my children did not need to be broken – I did. It was my heart that was hidden away, invulnerable. I am the Pharisee living behind walls of religious habit. I need to be broken.
Each day I have to choose whether I will be real, open, humble, and transparent in my relationship with Jesus and with my family. Or I can choose to be religious. Either way, my children will follow my lead.