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Developing a Pattern for Family Discipleship

…and they followed Jesus (John 1:37)

I love the way John’s gospel depicts the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The opening scene is found in 1:35-51, where Jesus begins calling his first disciples. I regularly refer to this narrative as an excellent paradigm for discipling others. Maybe it is the brevity of the words of Jesus – filled with theological weight and brilliant spiritual insight – or the life altering response of the disciples – who are changed instantaneously by their encounter with the Messiah. This passage provides a wealth of instruction for our ongoing mission to make disciples of Jesus. This is especially true when this passage is applied to our mission of discipling those under our own roof and responsibility, that is, our family.

What are you seeking?
In John’s gospel, the first recorded words of Jesus are stunning. Jesus asks his first two would-be followers a penetrating question, “What are you seeking?” (1:38) This question calls for a full disclosure of motivations. Before these two “wannabe followers” can even take a step in Jesus’ direction they must first address the motivations of their hearts. Why are they coming to Jesus? What hopes, dreams, or ambitions are connected to their desire to follow Jesus? What do they really want?

This question – What are you seeking? – is just as relevant to present discussions of discipleship. True discipleship addresses the motivations of the heart of those who would follow Jesus. It isn’t enough to just train children “in the way of Jesus”. Yes, following Jesus (obedience, allegiance, commitment, etc.) is absolutely necessary for being his disciple. But as this question shows, it is entirely possible to follow Jesus for all the wrong reasons. As D.A. Carson writes, “The Logos-Messiah confronts those who make any show of beginning to follow him and demands that they articulate what they really want in life.”

As a parent or spouse, you have to realize the significance of what Jesus is doing by asking his disciples this simple question. By calling on his followers to articulate what they are seeking, Jesus is forcing thoughtful reflection and exposing true beliefs. Jesus is addressing the motivations of the heart that drive the decisions and behaviors of his soon-to-be disciples. When we seek to see those in our family grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, we too must begin by addressing the heart.

There are a number of great books, sermons, articles, and blogs devoted to applying the gospel to the heart. Rather than regurgitating the information here, I’d like to list a few possible places where “What are you seeking?” is a really helpful question to expose the beliefs and motivations of the heart.

  • When your child obeys: The practice of “shepherding a child’s heart” is usually applied to instances of disobedience. While that is great counsel, I have found that asking questions aimed at exposing motivations is just as important when a child obeys. Jesus is asking “What are you seeking?” as his disciples take a step toward him.

Do the hard work as a parent to discern the why behind your child’s obedience. Have them explain the reasons for their compliance. Sure, they may simply obey because you asked them to do something or because they want to honor your authority. If so, praise God! But it is entirely possible that your child, like all of us, could be clutching their obedience as a false savior. Self-righteousness is as common a form of rebellion as disobedience, so be aware of this tendency as a parent.

  • When your child is afraid: Fear is usually a manifestation of false belief. In other words, fear arises in our lives when we come to realize that what we are trusting in will not come through for us or deliver us. When our children reveal a deep fear (verbally or with their actions), we have an opportunity to ask “What are you seeking?” Those fears are always tied to a savior that does not have the power to deliver or can’t follow through on promises. When their hopes or securities are being challenged, help them to drill down and discover the unbelief, and then point them to Jesus.

“Come and see…”
In John 1:39, Jesus invites the soon-to-be disciples to take a deeper look into who he is. It appears that these prospective followers are intrigued by Jesus. They ask, “Where are you staying”. Jesus responds with the invitation to “Come and see”. Jesus is going to make disciples out of these men by giving his time and energy to their inquisitiveness.

You may have learned by now that discipling your family is a 24 hour-a-day job. It is absolutely necessary that you set aside time to teach your children the gospel, educate them in the Scriptures, and model prayer and worship for them. Family worship and catechism training are time-honored tools for teaching our children the faith. But disciples are not made on a schedule or with a neat and tidy curriculum alone.

Jesus is often interrupted and inconvenienced by the demands of his followers. He is willing to give up the good of healing and miracles for the greater cause of making disciples. He has a singular focus, coming not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In discipling our families and children, we must adopt the same posture and mindset. We must be willing to be interrupted, to answer questions as they come, and to drop whatever we may be doing in order to fulfill the calling on our lives to make disciples. Yes, we catechize. Yes, we have family devotions and prayer times. But we also must hold our schedules and commitments flexible for the sake of discipling our children and families.

I recently heard a pastor say that in order for you to have quality time with your family, you must also have quantity time. You never know when the opportunity will present itself to say to your inquisitive child, “Come and see”, and then point them to Jesus. If your children are like mine, the deep, probing questions concerning the faith and Christ rarely happen when I have scheduled them. Rarely do my children interrupt our family Bible study or catechism exercise to ask, “Why did Jesus die?” These sort of questions tend to come up at random; playing soccer in the backyard, discussing the lunch menu at school, or playing Yahtzee on the living room floor. Make sure you have given space and flexibility in your life that allows for on-the-spot discipleship.

“…and he brought him to Jesus”
John 1:42 includes one of the greatest summaries of discipleship found in the New Testament: “he brought him to Jesus”. This is discipleship, boiled down to its barest essence.

Your task in discipling your family is to bring them to Jesus.

Practically, this works out a few ways in our home.

First, we talk about Jesus. We bring Jesus into our conversations whenever possible. Our oldest recently had a problem with a friend that led her to feeling insecure and unaccepted. We did our best to help her understand her identity and acceptance in Christ, how Jesus reveals that he loves us and accepts us as we are because he gave himself for us.

Sometimes we are called to account as parents by one of our children because something is not “fair”. We attempt to explain justice and grace, how Jesus gives us grace, and how this really isn’t “fair” because we deserve punishment. We want to bring the gospel to bear on as many instances and situations as possible so that our children can be brought to Jesus.

Secondly, we catechize. Catechesis is a formal structure for educating our children in the faith. It usually follows a question and answer format so that the child learns what we believe as Christians and why we believe it. This may seem like an archaic practice, but we think it is essential for making disciples in our home.

Our faith is as secure as the object of our faith–Jesus.

In order to strengthen faith, your understanding and knowledge of the object of your faith must grow. A limited understanding of the person and work of Jesus results in a limited faith. Therefore, catechesis strengthens the faith by broadening the understanding of who Christ is and what he has done.

Finally, we aim to demonstrate a life lived in response to the gospel. A gospel-oriented life is an incredible apologetic for the faith. When our children witness their parents exercising grace, forgiveness, trust, obedience, and holiness because of what Christ has done, this gives them great assurance that the gospel is in fact true. We are far from perfect in promoting the truth of the gospel with our lives. In fact, we fail regularly. But the beauty of approaching discipleship with the centrality of the gospel is that even our failures become teaching opportunities. When we fail, we can openly and honestly admit our sin. We can confess our sin, repent, and ask for forgiveness. This too does much to point our children to Jesus. It shows them that everyone, every moment, is dependent upon the righteousness of Christ. We never grow beyond our need of grace!

Search the hearts of your children. Dig down deep to understand their motivations. Invite them to “come and see”, to look more intently at Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the good news of the gospel, bring them to Jesus. Teach them about his character and his accomplishments on their behalf. Show them a life lived in faith and model repentance and faith in Christ when you fail. There’s nothing new or innovative about this approach to discipleship, but by the great grace of Jesus, I believe it will yield fruit in due season.

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Greg “Gib” Gibson (@GibGibson) is an elder and teaching pastor at Living Hope, a church in the suburbs of Memphis, TN. Gib and his wife, Jill have three adorable kids.