Causes

How shall the young secure their hearts: The importance of child discipleship

All over the country, summer break has ended, and a new school year has begun. Kids are cracking open fresh notebooks, ready to learn. But while kids are engaging with important subjects like math and reading, recent research tells us some are disengaging with the most important book of all – the Bible.

A 2020 study conducted by Barna in partnership with OneHope indicates a significant drop in interest in the Bible and church in children ages 10 to 12. Simultaneously, these 10- to 12-year-olds are entering a developmental stage characterized by significant brain growth. Could the two be related?

This developmental stage is when kids build cognitive abilities like abstract thought. They start asking deeper questions. They start seeking real answers. And they develop a keen radar for patronization.

At this age, “it’s not just Bible literacy anymore,” says OneHope president Rob Hoskins. When you’re discipling kids in this critical stage of development, “it’s not just, ‘Here’s the story.’ Now it’s, ‘How does the story apply?’” he says. “When you’re not helping them apply wisdom and knowledge, then you lose them.”

When 10- to 12-year-olds get the same pat answers they got when they were eight or five or three, they are more likely to disengage from church and seek answers elsewhere – answers they will use to form the foundation of their beliefs about God, humanity, and life.

So how do we secure the hearts of the young during these crucial, formative years? Scripture tells us the key to securing their hearts – to them living clean lives full of wisdom and virtue – is found in them knowing and applying God’s Word.

That’s why it is so important to keep kids connected to Scripture throughout childhood and into young adulthood.

But how? And where does that responsibility lie?

The stalemate

For more than three generations, Awana has partnered with local churches in the U.S. and all over the world to ensure Scripture stays close to the hearts of the young. Countless children have hidden God’s Word in their hearts by participating in a midweek Awana Club or attending a church that uses their Brite curriculum.

However, a 2021 Barna study with Awana found that the Church alone cannot disciple a child effectively. When asked, 95 percent of ministry leaders said the primary source of discipleship should be in the home, while 51 percent of parents placed that responsibility on the church.

“We call this stat the stalemate,” explains Matt Markins, president and CEO of Awana. “Although discipleship should be happening in the home, we know that often it isn’t. And when there’s a stalemate and it’s not happening, whose job is it to solve the stalemate?” he asks. “The Bible says it’s the Church’s job to equip the saints.”

Image: Barna

Aligning the Church with the home

But there’s only so much the Church can do. “Church leaders only get around 40 hours a year with a child, while adults in the child’s home get more like 3,000 hours,” says Kristen Ivy, president of Orange, a nonprofit dedicated to aligning churches and homes. “What happens at home matters more than what happens at church.”

The reality is parents are the best stewards of their child’s faith. The Bible emphasizes the important role a parent has in bringing Scripture into their child’s daily routine: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NIV).

What’s more, parents know their child. In a 2022 study conducted by Arbor in partnership with Orange, 62.1 percent of all parents said they know their child more than other adults do. More than one-fourth of the parents surveyed went as far as to say other adults frequently don’t understand their child.

But just because parents are the best at knowing their child doesn’t mean they have all it takes to disciple them well. In that same study with Orange, Arbor reports that one in four parents feels extremely unable to instill important character and values in their child, and nearly half of all parents (44.2 percent) report some level of inability to transfer important values successfully.

Many parents weren’t discipled well themselves as children. Some parents didn’t even grow up attending church. Few have the master-of-divinity-level knowledge seemingly required to usher in a new generation of disciples. This can leave them feeling ill-equipped for the important task of discipling their child.

That’s where the Church comes in. While the responsibility may rest on the shoulders of parents, it is the Church’s role to provide the tools and knowledge needed to equip parents to disciple their child well when they sit at home and travel along the road, when they get up in the morning and lie down at night.

Engaging with Scripture

While having a church home and especially a community of fellow believers is important in the life of a child, the Barna/OneHope study reveals that attending church regularly has significantly less impact on a child’s faith development than regularly engaging with Scripture. In other words, how much time a child spends in God’s Word is a better indicator of the development of an authentic, vibrant, and resilient faith than church attendance.

What can a parent do with this information? OneHope’s Hoskins says, “Engage!” Through their research, OneHope found that the number-one reason parents stop engaging intentionally with their child about the Bible is they feel inadequate to do so. “They really felt like the questions kids were asking were questions they had never been equipped to answer,” Hoskins says.

But Hoskins encourages parents to stick with their efforts to share God’s Word with their child, especially as they reach the age of seven through the preteen years. “Please do not disengage,” he says. “Lean in. You do not have to come up with all the answers. Search out the Word of God with your child, and help them comprehend it.”

Where should parents start?

“Talk is the infrastructure of discipleship in your home,” Markins says. “If you can talk, and dialogue is happening, everything you need for discipleship is there. Talk is the KPI [key performance indicator] that discipleship is happening in your home.”

However, in her book, Sticky Faith, Dr. Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, warns that, in most homes, these conversations aren’t happening. By the time they’re teens, a survey of 11,000 children conducted by the Search Institute shows, only 12 percent of kids (1 in 8) talk with their mom about their faith and only 5 percent (1 in 20) have regular faith or life conversations with their dads.

Parents and caregivers are exhausted. Most days, they are more focused on the immediate goal of bedtime than the everlasting goal of fostering authentic faith in their child.

But the alternative to the tyranny of the urgent doesn’t have to be intricate and complicated. “It’s the small routines you do over time that make the biggest difference,” Ivy says. “The best way to raise kids with lasting, authentic faith is by building a consistent rhythm of faith conversations in your home.”

“Think about the words you say when you wake your kids up in the morning,” Ivy says. “Be intentional with the conversations you have as you ride down the road together. Talk about application when you sit down to eat meals. Pray together at night when you are tucking them in.”

It’s no surprise that study after study has proven what Scripture has said all along: The best way to build and safeguard the hearts and faith of the young is by keeping them engaged with God’s Word (Psalm 119:9), and the most effective way to keep them engaged with God’s Word is by integrating it into your family’s daily routines (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).

The seemingly small moments we create consistently for our kids now will compound into great spiritual wealth for them in the future.

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