A Response to Parents
As promised, I’m writing three responses to the original post called “The Saddest Letter I’ve Ever Read.” I must confess, I’m in shock at the response to this letter—it obviously struck a nerve about which we all have strong feelings. So many comments have included helpful thoughts! You can read my first general response here.
In this second response I want to write primarily to parents, and in the third I will address the young lady who wrote the letter. (Also, there is a lot on this blog already written to parents, if you click on the parenting tag.) Warning—this post is a bit long.
This cannot be exhaustive, but first, I want to address what’s right.
1. If you are a part of a Bible-believing Church and faithfully involving your family there, you are doing the right thing. The local church, in its biblical form (not the current contemporary, seeker-sensitive, CCM version) is still God’s answer for His transforming work in lives. The church is to be the pillar and ground of truth. The church is commanded to preach and teach the Word of God to both the parents and the young people (see Titus 2 and 1 Peter 5).
I was saved at age seven in the ministry of a solid, Bible-believing church that proceeded to train me and my family quite well in how to develop a personal relationship with the Lord, how to walk like a Christian family, and how to balance the personal relationship with spirit-led living that honored that relationship. While there were rules involved—good, biblical, principled rules—we understood from the beginning it was not about rules or external appearances.
The ministries of this church—children’s programs, youth ministry, soulwinning, outreach, and special events all contributed to our family life and spiritual growth, and yet it was up to my parents to keep that in balance. Thankfully they did. The local church, in its biblical form, still works quite well. I experienced it as a child, and I’m watching it all around me as a pastor.
2. Church programs, Christian schools, and youth groups are a help when done biblically and in balance. Again, building on my first point, I don’t believe the local church (in principle) is the problem. There are certainly a lot of churches that are taking the wrong path, and a lot of programs that are more carnal than spiritual in nature. But in the right local church, the youth program is family focused—building both parents and teens. The youth program is not built or designed to divide the family but to help strengthen it. The Christian school is the same. I’m not saying that all models function this way, but when they are done right, these things help the whole family.
For my 21 years in youth ministry, I’ve been as focused on the parents as I have on the teens—sometimes more so. My constant battle is Malachi 4:6—trying to turn the hearts of the children and the fathers toward each other. I truly thank the Lord for families, like the family of the young lady who wrote the letter, who are committed to the Lord and the local church. One day, she will look back and be eternally grateful for the right things they did—even though at the moment she is burdened about the short comings.
If, as in some families, the programs and the activities rob family time, that is not the fault of the ministry. Every parent is responsible for setting their own family schedule, and sometimes Christian parents just need to say, “You’re not going to that youth activity.” Yes, this is a youth pastor writing this. I would much rather our teens stay home for a family night than come to a youth activity. (So long as family night is more than mindless TV or movies.)
So, while everybody’s experiences are slightly different, I’m dead set against pointing the finger at God’s institutions as though they are biblically flawed. Parents, find a Bible-believing church that practices God’s Word appropriately and keep your family well-grounded there.
Second, let’s discuss where we tend to lose our way, as parents. This is written with a humble spirit, because as a parent I have found myself doing all of these things at times. I’m not the expert—just a dad trying to get it right like you are.
1. We get too busy. In today’s culture, this is HUGE! From work, to more work, to sports, to internet, to other obligations, we just let events and opportunities rule our lives. Like a big dog walking a small child, we get dragged around by the agenda, and we fail to spend authentic, heart-to-heart time with our kids. The older they get, the easier it is, because they get busy too! Teenagers have sports practices, music lessons, activities, school trips, homework, projects, work, and on and on the list goes.
Successful families own this challenge and face it head on—they don’t let life run over their family. I wrote about this in Hook, Line and Sinker. They make sure, on a weekly basis, that they are getting family time and one-on-one time. Dad, you need one-on-one time with your kids every week—or nearly so. You need a whole family night minimally a couple nights a week or more. You need conversations over dinner, laughter, and uninterrupted time together.
Perhaps most importantly, you need to pray with every child, individually, at their bedside, every night. We have done this with our kids since they were infants, and I know of nothing that keeps a parent and child’s hearts knit so well as prayer before bed. Express love for them, remind them of how thankful you are for them, and pour your heart out to God for them. If you are just starting this, it will seem awkward, but work through that. The rewards are too great. Parents whom I have counseled on this and who have taken my advice have seen radical transformation in their relationship very quickly.
Every so often, take a day off—no homework, no school—just get away together. Just you and your child go do something highly relationship oriented. Take a drive, go to a park, take a long walk, toss a football, enjoy being together. Once a year, take a whole day with each one of your children, alone. Just Dad and son, or Dad and daughter. Make it happen. You will never forget it and neither will they! An occasional line around our home when homework and family time conflict is simply this— “Take a demerit… no homework tonight, it’s family night.” A teacher may not always understand that, but in the end the teacher has a better student so everybody wins!
Don’t let busyness eat up your family life. If they will ever have a relationship with your God, it must begin with you!
2. We don’t know enough and we get intimidated. Let’s face it, we as parents do struggle with knowing how to parent. What do we teach? What do we talk about? How do we respond to our kids questions, trials, struggles? How do we help them become comfortable opening up to us and sharing their struggles, and how do we help them if they do? Generally, we know when we fall short and don’t have the right information, and that scares us frozen. Instead of dealing with the situations, we ignore the problems because we don’t quite know what to do.
First, I want to say, you know more than you think you do. You know how to pray, how to love, how to encourage, how to empathize. You know how to seek the Holy Spirit and ask God for wisdom—and He’s promised to answer that prayer. He will guide you in those moments and help you say the right things. A part of it is just stepping up with courage and trusting God to help you.
But second, I challenge you to become a student of biblical parenting. When is the last time you read a Christian book on parenting? When is the last time you listened to a CD set of messages or took a class on parenting teenagers? As parents we should become constant students—growing and discovering the biblical principles at play in parenting. They are not rocket science. It just takes time, study, and commitment.
I believe the same goes for youth workers. When a youth pastor asks me for a good book on student ministry, I always refer him to parenting books and challenge him to help parents as well as young people. When parents come to me for counsel, I give them parenting books and talk them through specific steps of principled parenting. Be a learner and a growing parent.
3. We find it hard to swallow our pride. Nobody knows our struggles as well as our kids. They see us at our worst. And sometimes, we as parents find it hard to make things right when we blow it. An authentic relationship, and a Christ-like model begins with humility. A humble parent is willing to own mistakes, ask forgiveness, and make relationships right. Many families carry a constant weight of unresolved conflict and past offenses—they were never dealt with or made right—so they just sit there like dead weight, dividing the hearts and burdening the relationship.
Parent, if we want our children to have the right relationship with Christ, we must model it through sincere, transparent humility. When you do wrong, and your kids see it or know about it, deal with it. When you offend your child or fly off the handle inappropriately, sit down and ask forgiveness and make it right. Prideful parenting is hypocritical. It shuts a child’s heart to the things of God. Duplicity is death for sincere Christian living.
Have you ever had an open conversation with your child when you ask, “How can I be a better parent? How have I offended you? How have I hurt you? Do you have enough time with me? Is there a struggle that I can help you with right now? Do you feel close to me, and if not, why not? What can I do to make it right?”
These are difficult conversations to have, and sometimes they take hours—but they are part of growing in Christ as a Christian family. It may take some time for your child to open up, and it must be a non-threatening atmosphere for that to happen—but it will change your relationship dramatically.
4. We do tend to focus on externals and behavior. In our busyness and rush through life, it is easy to get the idea that if everything looks good, it is good. Then our kids start to figure out how to “play the game.” “If I look good, then everybody is happy with me and will stay off my back.” It’s a natural drift more than an intentional shift of focus. It just happens over time because life is busy. But this is where Satan takes his advantage in the heart.
In parenting we must constantly ask ourselves, how is the heart? How is MY heart for the Lord? How are my children’s hearts for the Lord? Am I training and nurturing their hearts? Are biblical principles finding their way to the heart? Is my child’s heart for God and love for God developing? We must trace everything back to the heart. We must ask of every behavior—what heart attitude or condition is driving this?
5. We get tired or weary. Sometimes we’re just tired and we get lazy. After a long day, we want to come home and collapse, and it’s right about then that our most important work should be starting. Sometimes we’re just not up for a late-night discussion with our teenager—especially a stressful one. We throw up our hands in despair, walk away, and seemingly say, “Deal with it on your own, I’m too tired…”
This is the worst possible thing we could do. Successful parents pay the price. They make the sacrifice. They go the extra mile. The will stay up as late as necessary, rearrange whatever is needed, take time off work, skip a meal, or make major changes in life to facilitate the need of a child. That speaks loudly to your teenager! The love exchanged in such tense moments says, “I’m so committed to you, I will do whatever I have to do to make this right and help you through this.” That’s Christ-like love and it touches the heart deeply.
6. We sometimes believe that providing the right atmosphere makes up for our failures. Good atmospheres like church and school and youth group are wonderful and biblical, but they are secondary to the home. They can really only complement or assist with what you are putting in place first. There is a strong tendency in today’s Christian home to deflect spiritual responsibility onto an organization. Many parents feel that their responsibility is to provide food, shelter, education, and basic needs—and the spiritual stuff is the responsibility of the spiritual environments (church, school, youth group). This is a wrong way of thinking.
Parents, you cannot, in any way, abdicate your spiritual responsibility and hand it off to another. The church, school, and youth group can help. We can reinforce and support and strengthen what you are doing, but we cannot replace what you are not doing. Children gain their understanding of a relationship with God primarily from their parents. They learn principles of Christian living and their basic understanding of the Christian life from their home. If the home is not in agreement with the church and youth group, then we are conducting an exercise of confusion and hypocrisy in their lives that will eventually blow up in our face when they walk away from it all.
7. We must model an authentic relationship with Christ. Our kids don’t expect us to be perfect—just real. If your children see you in love with Jesus, walking with Him, knowing Him, growing in His grace, and honoring Him—and then they experience that love flowing toward them from you—they too will most likely fall in love with Him. It’s really that simple. Too many parents over use their authoritarian, harsh tones, and forceful control of behavior—to the neglect of Christ-like love and genuine heart connectedness.
Don’t misunderstand. Every parent must exercise authority. But a parent-child relationship shouldn’t be characterized by the constant presence of overbearing authoritarianism. In a Christ-like home, that shouldn’t be necessary. The love of Christ should be the overriding, presiding presence in your family life, and it should flow from your genuine walk with Christ as a parent. The hearts of our kids blossom and come to life in the light of such a relationship. Home life in this sort of Christian home is a taste of Heaven—certainly not perfect or conflict free, but at least healthy and whole.
8. We must genuinely enjoy our kids and help them genuinely enjoy their Heavenly Father. Sometimes I want to ask parents, “When did you stop liking your kids?” It’s almost as if some parents find every way imaginable not to spend time together as a family and not to enjoy their children. People use to warn us when our kids were small, “Wait til they become teenagers!” Their tone was filled with dread. To this day, I honestly don’t know what they meant. Our family life and relationships have become more sweet and close, and much more enjoyable as our kids have grown through their teen years—not to mention less work because they can now help with household duties! They’ve become our best friends!
Family life in a Christian home should be close, loving, funny, enjoyable, memorable, and something a young person craves! It’s not natural for a teen to never want to be at home, or always locked in their room, or never wanting to be around Mom and Dad. It may be common. Hollywood may promote this as the norm. But it’s not what God designed or intended. I believe I can speak for my whole family—when we get busy and don’t get time together, we genuinely miss it. All of us.
Families that play together stay together. I love that! It’s true. As a parent, you must plan the play time. Get creative and recapture the heart of your child. Laugh together. Laugh at each other. Hey, I’ve got cancer—and believe it or not, we even laugh at that some times, especially my bald head.
This post is much too long, and insufficient to the discussion, but if nothing else, let it place you on a search—a growing curve of researching and grasping balanced, biblical parenting with the assistance of a solid, Bible-believing, local church and pastor who can greatly help.
Parent—the letter the young lady wrote was a heart cry for parental connection—heart connection. It’s the desire and desperate need of every young person. Stay focused on the heart. Forever be in pursuit of your child’s heart, just as your heart should forever be in pursuit of God.
As you pursue God with your whole heart, and pursue your child with your whole heart—most likely the two will meet!