When my oldest son, Michael, was 10 years old, he came to my wife one morning and casually said:
"Mom, I'm not like you and Dad. I'm probably not going to go to church when I grow up."
To Michael, this was a casual aside. To us, it was gut-wrenching. Our foremost goal as parents was to pass our faith and love for Jesus onto our children. His off-hand comment instantly showed us that we were failing, miserably.
When Michael said he wasn’t going to “go to church”, he wasn’t actually talking about church attendance, he was talking about the whole package - Jesus, scripture, the Gospel and living our lives to serve God. The spiritual aspects of our family were like entrees on a Chinese buffet – good enough, but nothing special.
What we found most unsettling was that we had no idea there was such a disconnect in his heart. There were no signs! Michael enjoyed Sunday School, liked it when we read him Bible stories, loved going to camp and never complained about anything church related. Additionally, our friends, family and even acquaintances were frequently telling us what “great” parents we were. We knew that “great” was probably a stretch, but we did think we were doing pretty well. Why wouldn’t we? All the evidence was there: our son was bright, well-behaved, polite, and seemed to like church. However, none of those wonderful attributes have much value if he was going to walk away from God when he left home – and that’s exactly what he’d decided by 10 years of age!
On that day, Cheryl and I both died on the inside. “How did this happen?” “What did we do?” "Did we miss something?" “Was it too late?”
I don’t remember how long we were in shock, but when we snapped out of it, Cheryl and I both gravitated toward our strengths. My wife, Cheryl, started praying, reading and ordering books from Amazon like they were free – which they weren’t. I didn’t know why Michael had this disconnect and I didn't know how to help him, but I knew what we were doing wasn’t working, so I started doing what I do naturally – teach.
I started looking for opportunities to naturally bring God into the discussion. I started emphasizing the “whys” of being a Jesus follower, instead of the “whats”. Naturally, Cheryl dove in too, teaching when opportunities arose, reading books, and going through age-appropriate curriculum on what it is to be like Jesus, and why we live like we do.
Over the years, we’ve figured out that Cheryl and I (for the most part) were on the right track. We were doing all the things you’d expect of someone serious about following Jesus, but we’d made a common, and potentially devastating, mistake – Our faith was part of our family culture, but it wasn’t part of our family dialogue! We thought that Michael would appropriate a vibrant faith of his own, through some sort of spiritual osmosis, just be being around us. Big mistake! Huge!
Once we realized this, our parenting became much more focused and intentional. It’s also when Deuteronomy 11:18-19 moved from being a nice verse, to a pivotal part of our lives.
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart…teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
We started explaining what we were going to do and why it was important. We also started pointing out what it looks like when people live by different standards. We would subtly point out things like, “Do you see what that child is doing with the cookies? That’s what it looks like when someone is being selfish. Would you like to be treated like that?” or “Did you see how that man talked to the clerk? Do you think his words were kind? That’s why the Bible teaches us to be careful with our words. Do you think she was hurt?” Though we had to be careful to focus the conversation on the behavior without judging the person, it helped Michael to see that we had good reasons for following Jesus. More importantly, it helped him see that following the examples of Jesus would be good for him as well.
You see, Michael knew that life was pretty good, but he didn’t know why! He couldn’t see that the reason our lives and family had peace, order, love, compassion, hope and purpose was because we loved Jesus and used his precepts as the guide for our lives!
Almost a decade later, I’m happy to report it wasn’t too late and that Michael has an active, vibrant faith – of his own.