Angel and I have a nineteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old. On the precipice of empty-nesting, I’ve been reflecting upon what has worked and what hasn’t worked as I have tried to lead our family spiritually over the years.
I have experienced ebbs and flows of successes and failures as the spiritual leader of our family. By God’s grace, our kids are faithfully following Christ and have vibrant spiritual lives. Angel and I give God all the credit and glory for the ways in which we have been able to encourage Camille and Soren’s spiritual development; anything good we gave them the Father first gave us. We cannot lay claim because “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17) We own the times we have unintentionally and foolishly put obstacles in their spiritual path. Perhaps our wins and losses might help you walk a wiser course.
None of the basics will surprise a mature Christian. While uncontroversial, these are more important than my suggestions for spiritual rhythms below. If leading your family spiritually is playing jazz, the basics are the structure that keep the music cohesive, and the spiritual rhythms are the improvisation that make the song unique to your family.
I’m not able to properly lead my family into spiritual health if I myself am not intentionally growing spiritually. They are watching you closely: lead through your example. There is no faster way to give Christianity a bitter taste than for your kids to sniff out that you don’t take your walk seriously.
Similarly, the spiritual temperature in your marriage will impact your children. The depth of spiritual intimacy in your marriage will directly affect the depth of spiritual intimacy in your family.
If your spouse isn’t a Christian or isn’t committed to the spiritual development of your children, it’s far better to act alone than to wait for your spouse to get on board.
Just as your relationships with your children change as they get older, so too will your spiritual relationships with them change. Expect this to happen and welcome their growth in spiritual maturity. As you walk alongside them, you will be blessed watching God transform them and even through their struggles you can experience joy in seeing God sanctify them.
I’m that dad – the one who introduced his kids to great books about two years too early. A great book isn’t great if the reader isn’t ready for it. Similarly, I often made the mistake in our family’s spiritual life of trying to push the kids ahead of where they were developmentally. How about you? Our goal as parents isn’t to have the most theologically astute eight-year-old, but rather a child whose walk with Christ is marked all the days of his life as having run the race well.
Infant and toddler stage: this was the most straightforward stage for me. The main goal is to create a warm environment where children come to love singing praise to Jesus and reading his Word. For us, this meant that our bath and bedtime were times where we sang simple songs of praise (such as “Jesus Loves Me” and “God is so Good”) and read Bible stories (The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Biggest Story Bible are both excellent).
Elementary stage: this transition was very hard for me because of several challenges. First, most families will begin to have after-school activities (sports, music, and clubs) that impact dinner and bedtime. If you also have toddlers and other elementary-age kids, this is exacerbated. It took me far too long to ditch a bedtime routine and switch to a morning routine. Your family might be able to create healthy daily rhythms in the evening, but our schedule made our evening family devotion times too haphazard for us.
The other challenge is that, if you’re a fellow eager beaver, you might become too focused on the content of your family devotions. I must have bought half a dozen books that we tried out as a family. While solid theologically, most of my efforts of taking us to the next level removed the joy from our family devotions. Whether trying to memorize catechisms or jumping too early out of children’s Bibles to the regular Bible, I tended to focus on theological formation too much which made our devotions too long. Just as important as not rushing your children to develop theologically is having your children intrinsically enjoy devotional time as a family. Is it more important that your child loves spending time singing, praying, and reading the Bible together, or that they can explain the atonement or the Trinity? If I were to do it over again, I would have worried far less about theology and far more about having the kids love our time together.
Teenage stage: as your kids enter middle and high school, they gain autonomy and their schedules become busier. For us, switching from evening to morning devotions were vital at this stage. While we tried to keep as many family dinners a week as possible, the reality of their busy lives meant that trying to protect family devotions at night wasn’t realistic. More than ever at this stage make sure to create rhythms and an environment that your kids want to be a part of. Allow them to have more and more leadership in family devotional choices. If they are interested in studying specific topics, follow their interest. Let them have the loudest voice in choosing worship songs. Encourage them to lead in prayer. The most important thing is engagement and warmth. During this stage, give your kids nudges to begin studying the Bible on their own as well. It is healthiest for family devotions not to replace individual quiet times, but to be done in addition to them. But again, the goal here isn’t to lay down the law for your children, but to invite them into a deeper and richer spiritual life.
In each of these stages consistent involvement in the church is significant. Build into your children the rhythm of gathering in worship. Include them in corporate worship (regular church) earlier rather than later. Invite them to serve alongside you when they are young and let them discover their giftings and place in the body of Christ when they are still kids. Church ought to be a place where they form friendships with peers and also with those younger and older than they are. Teach them to love the family of God.
Think of your family devotions not like a sermon or a Bible study, but rather as an invitational time of spiritual engagement. Your role, then, isn’t to have done a lot of homework beforehand and deliver your talking points, but rather by the Spirit’s leading to pull your family into honest and vulnerable conversation.
The foundation of your devotions ought to be God’s Word and prayer. Generally, for us the best rhythms from later elementary age on have been to read one chapter of the Bible, ask some basic questions about the chapter, sing a song, and pray. Don’t overly complicate the time. It’s better to go shorter than longer. I would rather have five ten-minute family devotions a week than one hour-long devotion. The daily rhythms help draw us into closer intimacy not only with Christ, but also with one another.
Our daily bedtime rituals were as equally important as our daily devotions. For most of my children’s lives (even when they were teenagers), we closed the day by praying blessings over them before they went to sleep. Those prayers of blessings call them back to the truths of who God says they are and remind us of who God is. Our rhythms of devotions in the mornings and prayers of blessing in the evenings allowed us to begin and end the day at God’s feet. One of the things I focused on in our evening prayers were prayers of blessing over their character. I tried to lift those prayers beyond the day-to-day and pray big prayers for who God was forming them to be. Every day I wanted them to hear promises of God’s faithful work in transforming them into the woman and man of God he was calling them to be. Parents, we have a big Jesus, so pray big prayers over your most precious ones!
Finally, consider your family’s life more broadly in spiritual terms. How are you engaging in the Christian community as a family (going to church, attending a small group)? How are you serving as a family? How are you being generous as a family? All of these components contribute to a healthy spiritual environment in your home.
At the heart of your family’s spiritual health is your own. When I look back to times when we struggled as a family, my spiritual struggle was usually the root of that struggle. When I wasn’t spending enough time with Christ, my anxieties would often come out in fear-based parenting that moved toward my children with control, not love, with law, not grace. The best thing you can do for your children’s spiritual health is to first ensure that you are spiritually healthy.