Success by Religious Conformity
It was one of those moments when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So I opted to just shrink lower into our second-row pew, stifle my giggles, and thank God for my seven-year-old son and all his glorious honesty.
My husband pastors a rural church in SW Virginia; and while we do our best to keep our kids out of the fishbowl, we do expect them to participate in the full-scope of congregational life. This includes our mid-week Bible study. This isn’t usually a problem, but like all of us, there are days when our children would rather stay home. Sometimes they’re tired, busy doing other things, or in the case of my seven-year-old son, simply finds his Legos more interesting than sitting still for an hour.
On this particular Wednesday night, my husband and I had dealt with the standard objections over dinner, and by 7:05, everyone was safely ensconced in our pew with our heads bowed. The head deacon was opening the service with prayer as only a head deacon from a rural Baptist church can when about half way through, he asked God to touch the hearts of “those who could have come tonight, but chose not to.” Not missing a beat, my son piped up, “Well, I didn’t want to come, but I HAD to.”
My son’s resistance to church is not the only discipleship hurdle we face as parents. It is easily matched by his older sister’s recent acknowledgment that she finds God’s eternality “weird” and by the fact that their five-year-old brother regularly asks to pray at meal time for the sole purpose of controlling the length of the prayer. (“Dear-God-Thank-you-for-this-food-help-us-to love-each-other-Amen.”) If parenting success is measured by religious conformity, we’re batting 0 for 3 here.
Discipleship Through Fear
These kinds of situations have the potential to worry Christian parents who desire to pass their faith on to their children. With reports of widespread Millennial angst and stories of apologists’ daughters rejecting Christianity, it easy to fear our children will not come to a personal relationship with Christ. It’s even easier to respond out of that fear by simply doubling our efforts to force faith into them through more catechism, more Bible memory, more “church.”
Part of the reason we do this is because we tend to believe discipleship happens through the accumulation of religious knowledge. A quick Google search for “children’s discipleship” brings back resource after resource—everything from catechisms to Bible memory systems to pint-sized devotional books–all promising to produce faith in the next generation of believers. What I rarely hear discussed is the necessity of discipling our children through “natural revelation.” When theologians use the term “natural revelation,” they are referring to what God has revealed about himself through the world around us. “Specific revelation,” on the other hand, is what God has revealed about himself through the Scripture.
And while I believe Scripture is essential to the process of belief, Scripture was never intended to be engaged in a vacuum. Instead, faith happens as the Holy Spirit impresses the truth of God’s Word (specific revelation) onto a heart that has been primed to accept it by experiencing the truth of God in the world around it (natural revelation). Like a pair of chopsticks, the two must work together.
The Apostle Paul understood this and it’s precisely why in Acts 17—that famous Mars Hill sermon—he begins by appealing to what the Athenians already knew through their experience of the world. They already believed in some “unknown God” because they could see his works both in them and around them. Most of us understand the importance of this approach in adult evangelism; we craft winsome arguments and appeal to the nature of the cosmos and the intrinsic code of right and wrong that seems to be written on every human heart. What fewer of us recognize is that we must evangelize and disciple our children in this exact same way. We must evangelize and disciple our children through wonder as much as through catechism.
Wonder as Much as Catechisms
In Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton, that great British philosopher of the last century, writes that he gained his understanding of the world as a child:
“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery . . . a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by mere facts.”
It is this “certain way of looking at life” that many Christian parents neglect—or perhaps have never even acquired for themselves. We are not merely stuffing our children’s heads with facts; we are shaping hearts to believe that certain realities are true so that when they do finally encounter the facts essential to faith, they will already have hearts that can recognize them. When they finally memorize “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” it will find lodging because they have already gazed up into this same heaven and marveled at its brilliant stars; and they have already let the sand from this same earth slip through their chubby fingers.
So that in the end, they don’t believe there is a Creator simply because Genesis 1 tells them so; they believe there is a Creator because they have seen his Creation.
As you go about discipling your children, as you teach them their Bible verses and correct them when they disobey, do not neglect the sacred discipline of awe. Take them to the mountains to walk forest trails in search of the millipedes and butterflies that are the works of his hands. Take them to the seashore to be knocked over by the power of a wave so that one day they’ll know how to be knocked over by power of God. Take them to the art museum to thrill at colors and shapes and textures whose beauty can only be explained by the One who is Beauty himself. Take them to the cities to crane their necks to the see the tops of sky scrapers and shiver at God’s miracle of physics that keeps them from tumbling down.
And then take them to church.
Take them to church to bow their heads and receive the Word that gives them the ability to know the God behind all these wonders in a personal way. Take them to church to let the joy of their little hearts overflow in worship of the One through whom all these things consist. And take them to church, so that in the midst of other worshipers, in the midst of other image bearers, they too will be able to find their place in the great, wide world he has made.
Hannah Anderson lives in the hauntingly beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She spends her days working beside her husband in rural ministry, caring for their three young children, and scratching out odd moments to write. In those in-between moments, she contributes to a variety of Christian publications and is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). You can connect with her at her blog Sometimes a Light and on Twitter @sometimesalight.