Bed-headed, footed jammies Joy padded into our living room where the Sarah, Joel, and Nathan were gathering after breakfast on a cold, winter's morn.
"Today, we are going to read the story of a very wealthy man who was rejected by the leaders in Jesus' day. But Jesus saw that inside, he had a heart that wanted to know God." And so we began to read the story of Zacchaeus. "Let's listen to what happened and think if we have any friends like this man?"
So I read the story. "You know, mama, I know a friend who has been coming to church, but everyone has been making fun of her because her clothes are different. Maybe I should be friends with her," one child offered. Opinions were given about what it meant to be a tax collector, because they took so much money from their countrymen. The kids thought about who that might be in our culture today. Just from this one story, so many ideas about how Jesus reached out to an outcast and what He wanted us to do in our neighborhood, spawned a "Let's make cookie plates for the people we know are lonely, mama."
As I see my adult kids befriending outcasts today, reaching out the lonely or "different" ones in their lives, I know that the seed of their understanding started in just such readings as this story, that took place in our home on a normal day.
As we look at the life of Christ, we learn so much about how to make ministry to others a part of our normal life. One important principle of reaching children's hearts that we can observe in Jesus' life is that of intentional instruction. Jesus talked to his disciples about the Scriptures and their meaning, He talked to them of God and His ways and laws, and He talked to them of the future. In their time together, he covered every possible subject from faith to humility to prejudice to forgiveness, adultery, murder, love, food, and morality.
Family devotions can be a very useful device for teaching not only the text of the Bible, but also the importance of spending time with God on a regular basis. This instructional tool, however, like all the others, needs to be introduced gradually and in a way that is appropriate to the ages of the children involved.
I remember a time many years ago when Clay and I decided to start having daily family devotions. We first attempted to do this at mealtimes and quickly learned that teaching toddlers can be very frustrating if we expect them to behave like adults. Just when we would begin, one child would spill his drinking cup or another would interrupt or another would have a reason to cry. I remember thinking, Why do I even try? They aren't getting anything out of this!
Over a period of time, though, I began to find other ways of establishing devotional times that really got through to our children. They loved it when I sang them songs in the rocking chair before we put them to bed at night and shared with them a dramatic story beginning with their names: "Sarah, imagine what you would do if a giant came to attack our country and you were the only one who could rescue us! Well, that happened to a little boy named David many years ago!" If I cuddled up my children on our couch and had grapes or cheese and crackers to eat, they would pay rapt attention while I read Bible stories and showed them picture books. Often I would give them markers and paper and let them draw while I read.
Little by little we accustomed our children to sitting still and listening and even participating in family devotions. This became a familiar time to them because we did it day after day; it was simply a part of their lives.
One important thing that Clay and I learned as we struggled to instruct our children in spiritual matters was that our attitude makes a huge difference. If we want our children to enjoy participating in devotions and to learn God's Word joyfully, then they must sense that these are important to us personally. They must feel that we love our Lord and are excited to share him with them. Even as we give instruction, we must also model what we are teaching. When it comes to reaching hearts for Christ, we cannot just tell our children what to do. We have to lead the way.
For more on reaching your child's heart, click here for The Mission of Motherhood