How to raise a Pagan in a Christian home

By Barrett Johnson

Every imperfect and normal family wants their kids to turn out right. So, we establish goals for character development and try to create an environment where our kids can mature.

Church, school, sports teams, family relationships … each of these provides a context where our kids can learn to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Unfortunately, our “good” objectives might have absolutely nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And we inadvertently end up raising pagans instead of Christians.

Too many times, (Christian) parents have it as their goal to make their kids good and moral. It is as if the entire purpose of their family’s spiritual life is to shape their children into law-abiding citizens who stay out of trouble.

The only problem with this goal is that it runs in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches. The gospel is not about making bad people moral, but about making dead people alive.

If we teach morality without the transforming power of the gospel and the necessity of a life fully surrendered to God’s will, then we are raising moral pagans.

We end up teaching the wrong thing because we have the wrong objectives.

This sentiment was stirred in me afresh when I read an interview with Veggie Tales creator, Phil Vischer. He was reflecting on how the “Christian message” he was trying to teach wasn’t Christianity at all …

“I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. … 

And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god.”

So what is your objective?

Do you teach your kids “be good because the Bible tells you to” or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.

I want my kids to be good. We all do. But as our kids grow up, the truth of the gospel can easily get lost somewhere between salvation (where we know we need Jesus) and living life (where we tend to say “I’ve got this”). My experience is that the vast majority of parents are encouraging moral behavior in their kids so that God will bless their (usually self-centered) pursuits. It’s the American Dream plus Jesus. And it produces good, moral pagans.

Consider the key objectives you have for your kids. Seriously, take a minute to think about what would deem you a successful parent. If your goals are focused on your kids’ behavior, their happiness or their accomplishments (but don’t include a dependence upon Christ and a submission to His will and work), then you might want to make some adjustments.

Because the world has enough pagans. Even plenty of really nice ones.

What we need is kids who fully grasp the reality that they have nothing to offer, but who intimately know a God who has everything they need.

The most common response I have heard from people who were intrigued by the issues above has been, “What do I do now? What does it look like to parent with a gospel focus? How does an Imperfect and Normal Family like mine raise my kids to have a faith that lasts once they leave home?”

The bad news is that there are no formulas. As I have posted before, there is no secret recipe that will guarantee that your kids will develop a sincere personal faith. Everybody makes their own spiritual choices. Forcing your faith on your kids will probably not end well.

But there are some things that parents can do that can create an environment where God can get to work in our homes.

1. Clarify your parenting goals.

Start by giving an honest answer to this question: “Do you want to raise good kids or fully devoted followers of Jesus?”

If you want your kids to be happy and fit nicely into society, there’s nothing wrong with that. The American dream is pretty awesome.

But don’t fool yourself. “Pursuing personal happiness” as an end in itself is the polar opposite of “building the kingdom of God.”

And your kids can’t successfully do both. Following Jesus is unbelievably fulfilling, but joy will be a byproduct. It can’t be the goal.

Here’s another way of looking at it: All parenting should be rooted in discipleship. The ultimate goal is to help your kids find their part in God’s agenda of bringing His redemption to the entire world. If it’s not, then you’re missing the point. You’re just raising your kids like the rest of the world with a little Christianity sprinkled in for good measure.

2. Have a biblical theology of life-change.

As I mentioned in the original post, Christ didn’t come to make bad people good but to enable dead people to come to life. In suggesting that, I’m not advocating a Christianity that downplays goodness. When rooted in the One who is truly good, our faith will certainly transform us into good people.

And for the record, all those mean-spirited people in our world who claim to be Christians are likely practicing a form of self-righteousness that Jesus spoke the most harshly against.

We can be sure that goodness (and Christ-likeness) will be the fruit of our faith. But it will happen most powerfully when our kids are made alive in Christ because of a transforming encounter with Jesus; not because we force them or discipline them into goodness. With that in mind, you must …

3. Help your kids fall in love with Jesus.

The foundation of a God-driven life is found by living daily in the Spirit.

The common theme I hear from the parents of kids who have walked away from the faith is this: “We regularly brought our kids to church. They were very involved when they were growing up.”

Here’s the problem: Too many of our kids fall in love with the church (and all its activity) instead of falling in love with Jesus. They like the trips and the group and the experience they have. But they don’t personally get to know Christ. We must teach our kids to walk in a relationship with Him, where they listen to His voice, find Him to be altogether satisfying and get caught up in His plan for their lives. This all happens because of love, not because of religion.

The best way for them to learn this?

By watching you. They will learn what Christianity looks like by seeing your Christian life in action. If your life doesn’t regularly reflect joy in your relationship with Jesus, your kids will have a hard time embracing Him themselves.

4. Operate with an accurate view of the Gospel.

Many evangelical parents think of the gospel as helping their kids “ask Jesus into their hearts.” Unfortunately, that concept is not found in Scripture.

What the Scripture talks a lot about are things like the magnitude of our sin, our desperate need for forgiveness at the cross, a sincere repentance—turning away from our old life, and a full commitment to the Lordship of Jesus. I’m not sure that most of our kids can grasp these abstract concepts at seven years old when many of them “get saved.” (I realize that opens up a big old can o’ worms. I plan to explore that further in a later post.)

It is like we have presented our kids with a very incomplete picture of the gospel, one that says you need Jesus so that you can have a peace about eternity and heaven. Then, when you have that box checked off, you are free to do what you want with your life. Blunt as that sounds, it’s what I witness in the attitudes of many church-goers.

Which leads me to a final thing that parents can do …

5. Teach your kids to daily submit themselves to God.

Perhaps the thing that is missing in most of our Christian homes is a fundamental realization that our lives are no longer our own. We have been bought with a price, so our daily pledge must be: “He died for me. I will live for Him.”

That means helping your kids to lay down their wants in order to serve and bless the people with whom they live, work and play. It means training your kids to see that there is a lot more going on in the spiritual world than just what they can see with their own eyes.

It means you asking them, “How does God want to use your life for His purposes?”instead of the standard, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That subtle change in your wording has huge significance.

It’s not about them. It’s about Jesus and making His name great in the world.

I want to stress that all of this must be done within the context of grace. Your home must be an environment that personifies the love, forgiveness and enduring compassion of Jesus. This is not easy stuff we’re talking about here. Your kids are going to get this wrong. So are you. That’s why our goal should be to be known as gracious parents, not militant ones. We must be known for the second chances we offer our kids (and the third and fourth ones, etc.). God’s love for us is marked by tender mercy and our parenting should always reflect that.

What changes do you need to make in your philosophy of parenting in order to help your kids have a lasting faith?

The needed adjustments may be radical or they may be simple. But every Imperfect and Normal Family needs to keep growing and changing. How is God leading YOU to change today?

Barrett Johnson Barrett Johnson is the founder of INFO for Families, a ministry designed to resource imperfect and normal families just like his. He also serves as the Family Minister at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church outside of Atlanta, GA. Barrett’s recently released his first book, The Talk(s): A Parent’s Guide to Critical Conversations about Sex, Dating, and Other Unmentionables, designed to help parents prepare their kids to navigate our sexually-charged culture.More from Barrett Johnson or visit Barrett at infoforfamilies.com

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