One of the biggest joys in youth ministry is helping students begin to own their faith and to live it out beyond high school and into whatever realms of life God brings them–to not only walk closely with Christ but to disciple others and find their unique ways to build up the church. On the flip-side, one of the hardest parts is watching students who seemed passionate about God fizzle out once they graduate—often because they flounder when they no longer have the familiarity and fun of youth ministry, they struggle to find their fit in the larger church, and they often give up altogether.
Watching this has caused me to do a lot of research into the factors that contribute to students keeping their faith for the long haul, and what we as a church and youth ministry can do to contribute. But in the process I’ve been reminded over and over again of the huge role parents play… and how much of it starts long before kids enter middle school.
From my experience and research, I’d like to offer four eternally significant things you as parents can do with your kids, no matter how young, to best equip them with a faith that lasts for life—and the good news is, any parents can do them:
- Prioritize your own faith. While God can work in anyone, statistically it’s rare for students to take their faith further than their parents did. They learn the value of faith from watching you. An intimate and joyful walk with God is the most compelling witness to your kids.
- Participate in gathered worship as a family. I think many of my generation pushed away from “organized church” because it could be routine and legalistic and because following God was so much more, but in the process we lost sight of the great value of gathering with our church family in worship and making it part of the rhythm of life. Some studies have shown the frequency of participating in gathered worship with their family to be the number-one indicator of how likely students were to make faith their own. Programs like Explorers and The Edge are fabulous, but they can’t replace the church.
- Involve them in the life of the church. Include them in your Gospel Community (before they’re old enough to resist or think it’s “weird”!), global partners nights, picnics, and work projects. Teach them to tithe, and model the joy of giving. As they get older, help them find ways to serve at their own ability level so that they feel invested. Let them feel like it’s their church, their family, where each member has a valuable role.
- Connect them inter-generationally. It’s natural to segregate by age, but it’s vital to help your kids foster meaningful relationships with adults who will care about and invest in them personally. The more adults from church personally connected with your child greatly increases the likelihood that he or she will own their faith for the long haul and want to stay connected with the church–which will then truly feel like family. Invite other adults or families over for lunch after church. involve your Gospel Community in your kids’ sports or music events. Encourage connections with Explorers teachers or other volunteers. Invest your friends’ children, and perhaps their parents will do the same for yours.
- Encourage them to question and discover for themselves. If their beliefs consist simply of statements they’re repeating because they know them to be the “right answers,” it won’t last. It can be uncomfortable as a parent (or youth leader) to have students asking tough questions, challenging your deepest values, or wanting to approach their faith differently than you do, but allowing them to walk that journey of coming to their own faith will allow it to be so much stronger. Embrace the questions (or give them some to wrestle through!), help them discover habits and practices that connect them with God, and continue to encourage this discovery in the context of gospel community.
As youth leaders, we can tell when students have had parents supportive of their faith—it shows in their knowledge of God’s Word and often in their attitude and values. But so often it’s their interconnectedness with the larger church community that determines how vibrant and resilient their faith is when faced with trials, temptations, or the exciting new choices of adolescence. And too often if we wait until middle school to help students connect, it’s too late.
As parents, we can’t control whether they will choose to walk with God. But we want to do all we can to help them love God, His people, and their role in His Kingdom.
And that’s why we’ll be the parents with the noisy, squirmy 3-year-old sitting in church surrounded my crayons and crackers—praying that someday her faith will be as big as the mess she’s currently making 🙂
– Jennifer Kvamme