"Papa, tell me a Freddy story.” So continues the breakfast tradition when our little granddaughter Macy comes to visit. Still in her pajamas and barely awake, she wiggles herself under a throw blanket next to me on the family room couch, and we begin the tale of Freddy the Squirrel. Our fictional friend, manufactured on a whim several years earlier, has adventures with a host of other buddies that live in the neighborhood. Other squirrels, of course, but also birds, raccoons, bats, and even a lizard. I’m amazed how she maintains the mental catalogue of all the character names between visits, along with their previous hijinks. It’s amazing how many adventures Freddy and friends find in the fruit trees, Italian Cypress, and backyard bushes along the freeway of wood fences around our block. But all’s well that ends well as Freddy learns about listening to his mom, being kind and honest with friends, and how to be a happy Simi Valley squirrel. Although Macy is getting older now, her younger sister, Chloe, is ready for more stories. Papa is happy to oblige.
What is it about little kids (and big kids, as well!) and good stories? The Creator has programmed our brains to respond to tales of uncertainty and adventure and to identify with heroes choosing the right path toward a satisfying ending. In fact, the greatest story ever told, which begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation, resonates with all these elements as the revelation of God’s actions in human history unfold. Here is a drama that never grows old in the telling and retelling.
Faith building comes from reading the Bible’s stories, praying together about things that matter to children, and a dedicated time for family sharing about how God made a difference in the day.
Moses knew the power of story, and he reminded the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy chapters 10 and 11 about the power of their founding narrative. They received the command “to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12, NKJV). In reminding them that their religion is not just on the surface, he said, “Circumcise…your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (verse 16). And then moving from the personal to the social, Moses speaks of a God that “administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing” (verse 18). Later in the Bible, these very words are taken up by the prophets and Jesus.
So, what does this have to do with telling stories? This is where I am so impressed by Moses’ inspired wisdom. He looked at all those adult Israelites and said, “Know today that I do not speak with your children, who have not known and who have not seen” all that the Lord has done—I speak to you! You have been the eyewitness of God’s works, so your loving response to Him with all your heart and souls is the right one (Deuteronomy 11). But Moses has a work for these parents and grandparents: “Lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul…. You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (verses 18-19).
The powerful lesson of Moses for Israel is truly timeless. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, along with adults everywhere in the church, are given a work from God to do. To grow the next generation of God’s people of faith, and for that faith to inhabit the hearts and minds of the next generation, we must work and plan for it.
Of course, we know that the work of changing the heart is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. Genuine faith is nor coerced, nor is love for God a matter of force. Many children feel compelled into conformity until they can escape the influence of parents and other external controls. Rebellion and rejection often result. Many a parent’s heart breaks when children walk away from the family faith. Yet with God there is always hope! These precious children may appear to be “in a far country,” but they are not out of the sight of our loving Heavenly Father and His grace. The Holy Spirit still gently woos their consciences day by day, and only God knows the heart.
What can we do to fulfill the command of Moses in leading children to Jesus and nurturing them as grace-filled believers? Must it all be left to chance? Not at all, according to the excellent research done about faith development in children. In the compelling book by George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions,1 we read, “By age nine, most children have their spiritual moorings in place.” Throughout his book, Barna argues effectively for prioritizing the spiritual lives of children in home, church, and school as the path to anchor faith into their adult years. He makes the very persuasive case that doing this work also transforms the way we look at local church ministry. Rather than ministry to children being the last thing a nominating committee tries to fill (“Who will teach Cradle Roll Sabbath School?”), these churches are integrating an intentional faith development ministry for children as a cornerstone of their ministry.
But we know it usually takes more than good church programs. The foundation of every child’s faith is what happens at home. Faith building comes from reading the Bible’s stories, praying together about things that matter to children, and a dedicated time for family sharing about how God made a difference in the day. It comes from seeing adults who live out an honest and growing faith at home. Being genuine, honest, and open to conversations creates a spiritual atmosphere of discipleship. And children like to do more than just talk. Doing a service project together and then returning home to talk about the spiritual meaning of the activity over a special meal links faith with action.
We are praying for young leaders in the Pacific Union Conference to be trained and prepared for service in God’s church. It all starts with adults adopting God’s ordained methods—teaching by word and deed what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We know from the research that children are wired by the Creator to be readily receptive to loving spiritual leadership. My brothers and sisters, let us take up the work before us and be prepared to praise God as we see our children and young people arise to be a generation of true spiritual champions for Jesus.
1 George Barna, Transforming Children in Spiritual Champions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014).
Bradford C. Newton is the president of the Pacific Union Conference.