When my wife and I first shared with our Sunday School class that she was pregnant with our first child, most of the reaction was what you’d expect. There were delighted gasps, smiles, and congratulations all around. But our friend Anson (then a father of twin one-year-old boys) reacted quite differently. In front of the entire class he declared, “You don’t know what you just got yourself into!”
Certainly Anson was happy for us, and he deeply cherishes his sons – the carpal tunnel he developed from changing diapers notwithstanding. But many of us can relate. We may have thought we knew something about raising kids. But until we ourselves actually became parents, most of us really had no idea of what it would truly be like. Parenthood is just that different from anything else we’ve ever done.
For instance, like most of us B.C. (Before Children), my wife and I had never had another human completely depend on us for everything. But when we became parents, we did. It was immediately clear to us how dependent a child is physically, in terms of feeding, clothing, bathing, wiping, etc. But it also has become clear to us how dependent a child is spiritually and emotionally on her parents – so much more than on anyone else.
This may come as a jarring thought for some. After all, many of us are with churches that employ paid or volunteer children’s ministers, Sunday School teachers, Awana leaders, etc. We might think that they have the primary human responsibility to lead our kids to Jesus and nurture them in faith. But instead, we parents do.
We know this because the Bible tells us so. Parents are to take the lead, according to Deuteronomy 6.6-9 in the Old Testament. The New Testament affirms this through the example of St. Paul’s protégé Timothy (2 Timothy 1.5; 3.14-15).
The sociological evidence also tells us so. Based on years of research, Dr. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame writes that the “consistently best predictor of the character of the religious and spiritual lives of young people is the religious and spiritual lives of their parents.” Church ministers and volunteers do play an important part in children’s spiritual formation, but their influence typically just reinforces what parents are already doing. And parents have to keep it real: “Children learn mostly not from what they are told, but simply rather from observing and participating in the everyday assumptions, investments, concerns, and practices of their families.” Dr. Smith once summed it up this way: “Without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent.”
Perhaps we had no idea what we got ourselves into when we became parents – that we would also need to be our children’s most active pastors. But this can also give us hope. The best way to help our kids truly believe that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God is to show it by word and deed – as their parents, and as their pastors.