A parent’s role in the faith development of their children is extremely important. God says, “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deut. 5:29). Here we can see that by one generation choosing to follow God and to keep His commandments, both those parents and their next generation of children will reap the benefits and leave a legacy of influence for eternity.
If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ve spent some time considering what you’ll pass on to your children. After you’re gone, what will you leave for your sons and daughters? Perhaps their childhood home or a sum of money or a prized family heirloom? The greatest gift you can give them, though, is the legacy of faith. Money, heirlooms, and property will eventually all be destroyed, but the legacy of faith is eternal.
Here are three ways you can leave a legacy of faith for your children.
To build your child’s faith, several primary elements should be kept in mind. First, the caregiver must pay attention to the instruction that God gave to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6. In the years and centuries that followed, all Israelites memorized this command, known as the Shema; and it’s a command that we would do well to follow today:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:4-9).
Money, heirlooms, and property will eventually all be destroyed, but the legacy of faith is eternal.
A key implication of the Shema is the ongoing experience of educating children. The Lord instructs parents to teach their children about Him at all times: from morning until night, at home and while in the marketplace, in the field or at school—at every given opportunity. God’s love for us and our love for Him must continually be on our lips, passed along to our children.
“I will open my mouth in a parable,” writes the psalmist. “I will utter dark sayings of old, which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wonderful works that He has done” (Ps. 78:2-4).
How can parents possibly spend all their time teaching their children? When we begin to look through the lens of daily instruction, we can begin to see lessons about God throughout all our daily experiences.
Nature can be an effective way to teach your children about God. The Psalms are filled with examples of ways to connect creation to the Creator.
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1, 2).
In their article entitled “Best Practices in Children’s Faith Formation,” John Roberto and Katie Pfiffner state that “effective faith formation with children respects the ways children learn today by offering learning activities that are experiential, image-rich, multisensory, interactive, engaging, and varied in learning.”1 There are lessons to be learned throughout everyday life. As events transpire, as your family experiences life together, see what connections to Scripture you can find. What lessons of morality can be learned? What aspects of God’s character can be seen?
Pray that God will open your eyes to see what lessons you can bring out of everyday life, and then simply begin sharing with your children. Ask them questions about what they see and experience. Ask them how it connects to what they know of God and the Bible. Point out Christian values and morals. As you practice having these conversations with your children, it will gradually become part of your daily routine, and your children will eagerly engage.
Another element to consider is what the caregiver is modeling to the child. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The light that we shine for our children will direct them to the source of all light, meaning that the actions we choose to take have the potential of teaching them about God.
If you don’t buy into your faith, your children will not buy into it either. Vern Bengtson notes that parents who are active in living out their faith produce children who are more likely to stay committed to Christ; however, “if the parents are not themselves involved in religious activities, if their actions are not consistent with what they preach, children are rarely motivated to follow in their parents’ religious footsteps.”2 Parents need to demonstrate godly values in their own lives; otherwise the lessons they would teach will be but empty words. This nonverbally explicit teaching is as important as intentional lessons you give your child.3 It’s in watching your behavior that your child learns what’s right and what’s wrong.
It is both what you say and how you say it that makes a difference.
The apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12, NIV). There are five key aspects of modeling that Paul touches on in this single verse, and although he’s speaking to a young person, these are universal principles of modeling.4
Speech: Our conversations should be kind and helpful to others, building one another up. It is both what you say and how you say it that makes a difference. As you communicate with others, do so lovingly. Your children will see and learn that this is the Christlike way to engage with other people.
Conduct: From the books that you read to your reaction when someone cuts you off in traffic, conduct yourself in a manner worthy of God’s heavenly kingdom. The ways your children see you behave will guide them in their own behavior and teach them what’s appropriate for a follower of Christ.
Love: Demonstrating authentic and unselfish love as the basis for everything you do and say will give your child a picture of what their heavenly Father’s love is like. Love others well, and your child will do the same.
Faith: Put your trust in your heavenly Father. When times are tough, turn to God and demonstrate your faith to your child. If your reaction is to put your faith in God, your child will learn that He is trustworthy and will do the same.
Purity: Devote yourself wholly to God and allow Him to cleanse you of your sinful tendencies. As God works within you, He will purify you and give your child a better picture of the life He wants to give us.
Your children are always watching and listening, observing all that you say and do. You’re the one who gives them cues of what’s right and wrong, and it doesn’t always involve words.
Spend devoted time in prayer for your children. In everything, every day, bring your child to the throne room of God in prayer.5 This is an important
part of your child’s faith development. As you pray for your child, remember to pray for these key areas:6
Their Salvation. “Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).
God’s Direction in Their Lives. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Prov. 3:5, 6).
Compassion. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
Physical and Spiritual Protection. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; the God of my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge; my Savior, you save me from violence” (2 Sam. 22:2, 3).
Character Development. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
Joyful Spirit. “Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
A New Heart. “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26).
God’s Love. “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:14-19).
God’s Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105).
A Servant’s Attitude. “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Eph. 6:7, NIV).
Prayer is a powerful tool. Continually pour out your prayers to God on behalf of your children, and He will hear and answer your prayers. Parents who are consistent in praying for their children may have the joy of seeing their sons and daughters grow and remain in the faith.
“Your compassionate Redeemer is watching you with love and sympathy, ready to hear your prayers and to render you the assistance which you need,” Ellen White writes.7 The prayers of a mother, father, or caregiver seeking God’s intervention in the life of a child will not be ignored.
It’s God’s desire and command that mothers and fathers train up their children to follow Christ. Ellen White writes, “You must instruct, warn, and counsel, ever remembering that your looks, words, and actions have a direct bearing upon the future course of your dear ones. Your work is not done to paint a form of beauty upon canvas or to chisel it from marble, but to impress upon a human soul the image of the Divine.”8 Everything that is done—every word spoken, action taken, and prayer prayed—should be Christ-centered and biblically based for the sake of your children.
In Genesis 18:19 God speaks of Abraham, saying, “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.” This is what parents are called to do: grow and instruct their children in the way of the Lord through teaching, modeling, and prayer.
S. Joseph Kidder, D.Min., is a professor of practical and applied theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Katelyn Campbell Weakley, M.Div., MSW, is a pastor in Portland, Oregon.