—Melissa Kruger, editor at The Gospel Coalition
Parenting is tricky business and most Christian parents are committed to doing it right. So they turn to others for guidance. And there is no end of help out there—from foolproof programs to guaranteed strategies, all designed to produce perfect kids. Except . . . parenting that focuses on how to raise kids to behave according to someone else's expectations will never succeed.
Our first step must be to ask why instead of how.
It is not the how-tos of parenting that will accomplish what we're hoping; it's intentional discipleship. When we concentrate on shepherding our children's hearts instead of managing their behaviors, the result is a child who knows Christ intimately, loves him deeply, and has a heart to serve him fully.
"I wholeheartedly agree with Shelly Wildman that there is no better word to summarize what God calls parents to do than discipleship. She unpacks in detail what this discipleship looks like practically, while she reminds us that being intentional simply means being willing tools of the Great Discipler in the lives of the children he has entrusted to our care."
—Paul David Tripp, author of Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family
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About the Author
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From Failure to Freedom
The same scenario played out time after time in our home when our girls were young. Our family of five sits around the dinner table to enjoy a meal. Sort of. With three little girls, it's hard to get anyone to actually sit their bottoms in a chair for five minutes, let alone through an entire meal. And as far as enjoying that meal, well, that's a relative term. Squirmy kids. Picky eaters. Long days. I'll just be honest and say that dinnertime with little kids isn't always the Ozzie-and-Harriet scenario I want it to be.
So there we are, just trying to get through another meal, when my husband looks at me and says, "Should we try it tonight?" I know what he means because we've talked about this so many times I could recite it by memory.
Family devotions. The concept fills us with both anticipation and dread.
Anticipation, because tonight might be the night we have a breakthrough. What if tonight one of the girls "gets it" and begins to appreciate what we are trying to do?
Dread, because we're pretty sure we know how this will go down. We've traveled the family devotions road before, usually with a crash-and-burn ending. Why can't we seem to get this right? Why do these few moments never go as well as we hoped? And our biggest fear: Are we failing our kids?
My husband, Brian, and I both think having family devotions is something we're supposed to do after dinner. It has been ingrained in us since before we even had kids. Every good Christian family has devotions. After dinner. Every night.
Except us. We can't seem to make it work. One girl is too young and keeps getting up from the table, even though we've told her a hundred times to stay in her seat. Another is crying because she hates peas and doesn't want to eat them and we're making her. Another is eager to learn but keeps talking over her sisters.
With each passing non-family-devotional day, our guilt mounts.
Brian grabs the devotional book we've been working through for the past year — I think we're on chapter 2. He starts to read. Julia jumps from the table to let the dog out. Caroline moves the peas around on her plate. Kate is engaged ... maybe just a little too engaged since she's the only one talking.
Finally, Dad gets frustrated and puts the book away. "We'll try it again another time," he says, his slumped shoulders revealing his defeat.
I'm just over it. Between trying to wrangle the kids to sit in their chairs and act interested in what should be a precious family moment, all I can think about is how late it's going to be before I get the mess from dinner cleaned up. And the homework done. Never mind piano practice.
Brian and I have discussed our mutual concerns about the family devotions scenario. Why are we trying to fit this square peg into a round hole? Will we ruin our kids forever by forcing family devotions? Is this what discipleship looks like? Why should we bother?
We know that we bear the responsibility of teaching our children about Jesus — we feel it deeply. But what exactly does that look like? What should it look like? All we know is that it doesn't look like the scene around our table after dinner.
* * *
Later, I scan my memory of the New Testament. Jesus had disciples. What did he do?
I remember a dinnertime scene in which Jesus taught his disciples, but he didn't open a book or read from a set of ancient scrolls. You know what he did? He stooped down and washed the disciples' feet (John 13:1–9). He instructed them by showing them what a life lived with him looked like. In that instance, it looked like service.
Sure, there were other meals and other moments of discipleship in the New Testament, but for some reason I cannot think of a single scene in which Jesus and his friends stopped to read the Bible, or perhaps a devotional book, and discuss what it meant after they finished eating a meal. Not one.
What I see in the Bible are many scenes of Jesus and his disciples walking down a road or through a field or in a village. Living life. And then something would happen, and Jesus would stop what he was doing to tell the disciples how the situation fit with what Christ had come to do. He would explain the gospel in everyday terms so his disciples would understand it.
Yes, Jesus explained the Scriptures; he did a lot of Scripture teaching. But I don't see his teaching as structured time right after dinner when people are tired, worn-out from their day, thinking about the homework that needs to be done or the instruments that still need practicing. I think Jesus understood that the best time to teach was when his disciples were listening.
A Parent's Number One Role
Thinking of Jesus and his disciples brings me to the focus of this book: discipleship. I believe with all my heart that parents are and should be the primary influence in the lives of their children, especially where matters of faith are involved. I want for my children what Paul wanted for the Colossians when he wrote, "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving" (Col. 2:6–7). Paul feels burdened that the Colossian people, now that they have heard the truth about Jesus, grow in Christ, and throughout the book he offers several suggestions about what that life in Christ should look like in their lives. My job as a parent is to bring the truth of Christ to my children every day, and to intentionally guide them throughout their lives so that they will grow deep roots of faith. That's discipleship.
In this book, we will look closely at several areas of discipleship, particularly discipleship with intentionality. Because without intentionality we may very well feel as though we're treading water, never really getting anywhere, and, on most days, like a failure.
Discipleship, in its simplest terms, means teaching and learning the basic principles of faith. There are those who teach, who disciple (a verb), and there are those who learn, who are disciples (a noun). This discipleship scenario implies a relationship between those who teach and those who learn, and it also implies a subject matter that is deeply important to both.
When we take our babies home from the hospital, in fact the moment we become parents, we become disciplers, whether we realize it or not. Our primary responsibility is to teach our children to follow Jesus throughout their lives. How discipleship happens is different for everyone because no two families are alike. Why discipleship matters is the issue I want us to think deeply about in this book.
Please hear me: I do believe there is a place for discussion and Bible reading as a family. I do not want to discount that or discourage you from trying to have family devotions. Some of our sweetest family memories are of seasons when we memorized large passages of Scripture together.
On one memorable occasion, we unintentionally left our youngest out of the experience; I guess we thought she was too young to memorize Scripture, let alone Psalm 19. But one day, as we asked each of our two oldest daughters to recite a few verses of the psalm, three-year-old Julia got our attention and said, "Could I try it too?" To our amazement, Julia stood and, with her sweet little-girl lisp, clearly recited, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge" (vv. 1–2 NIV).
Four mouths hung open as our youngest taught us something about God's Word — it penetrates even the youngest of hearts. Our baby girl was listening to and absorbing God's Word because of those moments around our kitchen table. So, no, I would never try to discourage you from structured family devotional moments.
But in our discouragement over how things usually went in our family, Brian and I felt that we were failing our daughters or that somehow we were missing something. As we talked and talked and talked about how we could best teach our daughters what our faith in Jesus meant and how it looked in everyday life, we finally decided that discipleship in our family should be so much more than five minutes a day after dinner when everyone was distracted, tired, and crabby.
For me that often meant talking through my daughters' days over cookies and milk at the kitchen island after school. For my husband it often meant teaching our very young girls the great hymns of our faith at bath time or, when they were old enough, enjoying God's creation together on hikes in nearby forest preserves. For all of us it meant talking about important topics of faith while we walked to town for ice cream or, yes, sat around the dinner table.
As our thinking about discipleship began to change, Brian and I realized that we needed to be intentional about how we went about instructing our kids about faith in Christ. We took a step back from the how-do-we-disciple-our-daughters question and started to ask, Why should we even try? Because, honestly, there were days we wanted to give up.
Reactive Versus Proactive Parenting
We parents all experience moments that require us to react — our child slams her finger in the car door, gets sick at school, or breaks a bone on the playground. These are unforeseen circumstances that need our immediate attention. But the spiritual development of our kids is not something we should be reactive about. It's not as if we wake up one day in a cold sweat because we suddenly realize that Johnny doesn't know how to pray or Suzie doesn't want to go to church. The spiritual growth of our kids should be something we invest in proactively throughout their lives. Colossians 2:8 is a good reminder: "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ." This verse spurs me on to proactively encourage the spiritual growth of my kids, for good reason. The enemy is eagerly searching for a chink in their armor, hoping to take our children captive for something other than living for Christ.
Intentionality simply means being purposeful or deliberate — something done by design. Words meaning the opposite of intentional are accidental, haphazard, or random. When these opposite concepts are considered in the context of our families, I know which I want. When I think of my children learning the most important aspects of my faith, I certainly don't want it to be an accidental process that's left to chance. Proactive parents are those who are intentional about instilling the gospel into the hearts and lives of their children.
God's Purpose for Our Families
What if we intentionally set aside the world's distractions and took time to think about our kids — their personalities, their needs, their unique place in our family? What if we became convinced that our family is important enough to think about strategically? Because it is, you know. God didn't give us families just so we can all live together under one roof and have a good time. We know there's got to be something more because, let's be honest, some days really aren't that much fun. Some days the basement floods, and people panic trying to save old pictures and books. Some days the washing machine breaks, or our teenager scrapes the house with the car, or our fifth grader just can't get the hang of math. Some days moms and dads disagree. Some days are hard.
Some days a bigger picture, a longer view, is just what we need.
God had a plan for families right from the beginning, and his plan was that the world would see his redemptive process lived out in our messy families every day, in all its glory. Restoration, reconciliation, redemption — it's all there within the four walls of our home. When we mess up, when our relationships are broken within the family, we ask for forgiveness and are restored to one another. When we disagree but try hard to see each other's perspectives, we become reconciled to one another. When we show grace to one another, our relationships are redeemed for the sake of Christ. And the world sees.
Our families are a flesh-and-blood picture of the gospel. When our neighbors see us living out our messy day-today lives, they get a small glimpse into what Jesus has done for us. God doesn't expect our families to be perfect, but he does want us to know that we are here for something more than mere shared existence. He wants us to shine the light of Jesus into the dark corners of the world, and sometimes he uses our families to hold the lantern. Our effectiveness depends on our intentionality.
How the Bible Helps Me Understand Discipleship
It might seem a little strange, but the book of Deuteronomy is one of my favorite books of the Bible. (Stay with me here!) See, Deuteronomy follows Leviticus and Numbers, two books that lay out the hundreds, if not thousands, of rules for the Israelites' worship — rules that are impossible for humans to follow, rules that, in light of the New Testament, point us to the need for a Savior.
But here in Deuteronomy — and this is why I like it so much — we find out why it's important to follow God's rules: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" (Deut. 6:4–5).
Why were the people of Israel commanded to follow the rules that Moses had shared with them? Because the Lord, the God of Israel, who had led his people out of slavery in Egypt, is a holy God, deserving of their (and our) complete devotion. As a parent, I wonder how on earth I am supposed to teach this to my children. It feels like a pretty big task, an important lesson, and something that might take some time.
Thankfully, Moses continues: "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deut. 6:6–7).
Suddenly, everything clicks into place for me. Discipleship of my children is not simply a five-minute devotional after dinner (thank goodness); discipleship happens all day long — when we are at home, when we care for our pets, when we get ready for bed, when we eat breakfast. Discipleship is meant to dig its roots deep into the hearts of my children and change them.
Discipleship is intentional.
As the book of Deuteronomy unfolds, Moses reminds the people of Israel of the rules he laid out for them in Leviticus and Numbers, the rules for living a holy life. Once he has finished instructing (or you could say "discipling") the people, Moses again answers the why question, in chapter 30, where we find some of my favorite verses in all Scripture. These are verses that remind me over and over again why I do what I do as a parent. They are verses that help orient my thinking and guide my choices as I teach my children how to live a life of faith: "Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him" (Deut. 30:19–20 NLT).
Here we find a loving God who desires good things for his children. Here we see that, as his children, we have a choice to make — we can choose either life or death, blessings or curses. As a parent, I want so much for my children to choose life, an abundant life, a life of following Jesus wherever he calls them to go. I want their lives to be fully committed to him. And so, as a parent, it is my responsibility to help guide them toward this life intentionally.
This guidance takes on so many forms and will look different in every family. But the best way to begin to figure out how it will look for your family is to first ask why.
Why Intentionality Is Important
There are many reasons to purposefully and proactively nurture the spiritual development of our children, but let me highlight two that have guided my thinking as I've raised my daughters.
Excerpted from "First Ask Why"
Copyright © 2018 Shelly Wildman.
Excerpted by permission of Kregel Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Our Charge
1 Discipleship 101: From Failure to Freedom 19
2 Families Are Like Road Trips: Have a Clear Destination 30
Part 2 Our Challenge
3 The Problem with Triangles: Intentional Discipline 43
4 He Is Here, and He Hears: Intentional Prayer 54
5 Loving Our Team: Intentional Worship 67
Part 3 Our Compassion
6 "My Word Is My Bond": Intentional Truthfulness 81
7 Having Eyes to See: Intentional Kindness 94
8 Heart Work: Intentional Service 104
9 Money Matters: Intentional Stewardship 114
Part 4 Our Contribution
10 Strengthening Our Ties: Intentional Family Memories 129
11 Same but Different: Intentional Cultural Awareness 142
12 The Long Walk Toward Trust: Intentionally Letting Go 152
Appendix: Some Helpful Financial Resources 173
About the Author 183