Over the next few years, Focus on the Family will hold Heritage Builders conferences across the country in an effort to give parents fun, practical tools for passing their faith on to their children. The movement also includes a new book, Parents' Guide to the Spiritual Growth of Children (Tyndale), that serves as a comprehensive resource for families. We talked with John Trent and Kurt Bruner, two spokesmen for Heritage Builders, to find out more about this exciting new movement.
Tell me about the thinking behind Heritage Builders.
John Trent: We felt like there had to be more parents could do beyond taking the kids to church or sending them to Sunday school. Those are both crucial, but they aren't always enough. We sensed the need for tools to help parents be more intentional about passing on their faith.
I didn't grow up with a heritage of faith. I had no example of how to be part of my children's spiritual development. There are other people who had family devotions as kids, but maybe they just sat on the couch and listened to Dad read some theology book until they all fell asleep. The Bible calls us to "train up a child in the way he should go," but there are a lot of parents who don't know how to do that. That's what we're trying to address. We want to empower parents and get them to say, "I can do this."
How are you helping parents to do that?
Kurt Bruner: When parents think of "spiritual training" for their children, they immediately think of family Bible studies or devotions. Those are valid tools, but if parents think that's all they've got to choose from, it can be discouraging. And to be honest, those things don't work with my kids. I've got three young boys and the idea of getting them to sit down together and work through some nice, quiet devotional is almost funny.
Instead, we've tried to offer ideas that families can pick and choose from. We want parents to understand that the routines of the day are opportunities to pass on a spiritual truth. Meals, the time you spend in the car, bedtime, these all present teachable moments. We want to give parents enough ideas to find a few that fit with their family's style. If one thing doesn't work, fine, try something else.
Give me an example.
Kurt: The other day I started our dinner with a question: "What's green, bumpy and red all over?" The answer is: A pickle with a sunburn. The boys loved that one. Then we went around the table and everyone had to think of a different kind of pickle. I said that one kind of pickle is a baseball pickle where you get stuck in the middle of two bases. Then I said, "Okay, who are some of the people in the Bible who got themselves into pickles? Was it their fault?" The boys thought of people like Jonah and Moses. Then everybody had to describe a pickle they've gotten into. We asked, "Was it your fault or not?" We ended with a short Bible verse. The whole thing took less than 10 minutes.
We call these Mealtime Moments and they're really just a way of steering the discussion toward something spiritual. Most families eat a few meals together each week, so this is one that's easy to incorporate into your regular routine.
John: We have another set of tools to use when you're driving somewhere. For instance, the Greek word for righteousness literally means to stay between the lines. When you're driving down the road, Mom could say, "What would you think if I drove on the other side of the center line?" Or maybe you've just seen an accident. You can talk about what happens when a car crosses the line. Then Mom can say, "Do you know what it means to be righteous? It means to keep your life between the lines. Why is that important?" The kids might say, "It keeps us safe," or "It gets us where we want to go." You can talk about how living inside the boundaries God gives us isn't confinement. It's really freedom to get where we want to go.
Kurt: We did one where we gave the kids the map to help us get to McDonald's. I told my 8-year-old, "Here's the map. You tell me where to go." He said, "You turn right at this street." I said, "Aah, I know where I'm going. I don't need this map." And I turned left. Boy, did he get upset. He really wanted to go to McDonald's and I wasn't following the map. We kept going and I kept ignoring his directions. After several turns, I ended up in a dead end alley. He was livid. He yelled, "Dad, you are supposed to follow the directions!"
So we were able to talk about how the Bible gives us directions for our lives. It took us five minutes out of our way but had a significant impact on my son.
What about parents who don't think they're creative or who don't know where to start on activities like these?
Kurt: That's why we created the book and the Heritage Builder conferences.
We also encourage parents to talk to each other. We did an adult Sunday-school class on passing on your faith. At the beginning of each class, we'd ask, "What topic do we want to cover this week?" We spent the Sunday-school hour coming up with a verse and an object lesson. Then each couple went out and did that activity with their kids during the week. The next Sunday, everyone would come back and share what happened.
This class was an investment in the parents' spiritual growth as well as the kids'. The parents realized they had to come up with something to tell their kids and it made them think about their own beliefs.
One of my favorite ideas from the book is Family Night. But how realistic is it for a family to pull this off every week?
Kurt: We actually tell people to plan on doing one every week, but consider yourself successful if you manage one every other week. These ideas are meant to be tools, not burdens. We've also tried to make them basic enough that anyone can do them and fun enough that kids will want to make time for them.
John: One great Family Night asks the question, "How do we know God is real even though we can't see him?" Everyone in the family blows up a balloon and then lets go. The balloons go shooting around the room. The lesson is that you can't see air, yet it fills the balloon. And this air that you can't see has the power to make that balloon fly across a room. Suddenly kids have an easy way of thinking about God and his power. They can understand that there are things we can't see that still exist. Honestly, there are adults who struggle with that.
I had somebody say, "Wait a minute. Isn't it denigrating the message of Scripture to blow up a balloon and have fun?" And I said, "Absolutely not." I came to know Jesus Christ in Young Life. We'd sing songs and watch a skit and then the leaders would talk about a personal relationship with Christ. Well, after all the fun, I was willing to hear that. The message is crucial. But if you take the time to build a bridge with your kids and to speak their language and open up their hearts, they will be ten times more receptive to what you have to say.
Kurt: The worst grounding we can do for our kids is say you can't be part of Family Night. Believe me, I never would have complained if my dad had said I couldn't do family devotions.
The idea of Family Night and passing on a spiritual legacy seems overwhelming. It's hard to picture little boys sitting quietly listening to Mom and Dad read from the Bible.
Kurt: At the conferences, we show a home video of my family doing a few Family Nights. The video shows our boys climbing on me while I'm reading from the Bible. You see our 3-year-old continuing to play while his mom's asking him to listen. People have this image of what a family devotional is like. We want people to see that it's okay for it to be chaotic. Kids are kids and you can use that to your advantage rather than trying to fight it.
To me, the chaos is a good sign. I'm more interested in my kids equating God with having fun and being excited than with left-brained theological discussions. The stakes are too high and the competition is too great today to keep trying to do it the old way.
What about families where one of the parents isn't a Christian? It is realistic for one parent to pull this off?
John: There are real barriers to doing this. We shouldn't pretend this is easy for everyone. But our challenge to parents is for them to say, "Even if my spouse can't or won't participate, this is still something my kids need. I can't change my spouse, but I can impact my kids."
Kurt: One of the people who worked with us on the book said, "I started out as a spiritually single mom and ended up a completely single mom. Throughout those years I thought there was little I could do to train my kids." She told me that family nights wouldn't have worked in her home while she was married. But she made a habit of praying over her children each night and putting little Bible verses on their beds. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but it was a huge deal in the lives of her children because she was being intentional. And the Lord will honor that. I think he will multiply it.
A single parent or, harder, a spiritually single parent doesn't have to do everything in the book. The point is there is something you can do.
Would you say the same is true for a family where a child refuses to participate, like a 12- or 13-year-old who thinks it's dumb?
John: We have a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old. One of the things we've seen is that once kids hit their teen years, they don't want to do something childish. But they love to be assistant teachers. Instead of forcing our 14-year-old to do something, we get her involved in the process. That does two things. Number one is it helps build a bond between siblings; Kari thinks about what would be fun for Laura. The second thing is it's training Kari how to be a spiritual mentor for her own kids some day down the road. Enlist a young teenager's help and ideas and I think you'll see them getting excited about some of these activities.
You also talk about letting the spiritual questions kids come up with guide your activities and discussions. If I'm a parent who feels sort of spiritually clueless, or I don't know the Bible very well myself, how can I guide my kids?
Kurt: The book has a section where we take each age group and talk about what kids can understand at each age. We include topics, biblical references and tips on how to address each subject with your child. It's a great guide for parents who don't really know what to say or how to say it.
John: I've found that you tend to learn best what you teach. When a parent gets stumped in this whole spiritual training thing, that's a great time to figure out the answer.
Kurt: There are more tools available now than there have ever been in the history of the Christian church. Don't let the fact that you may not be able to answer a question off the top of your head make you not talk about it at all.
How can these activities change a family?
John: I talked to a single mom who really had a tense relationship with her kids who were almost teenagers before she tried some of these activities. She started setting time aside to do Mealtime Moments and Drive Time discussions and just enjoying her kids. She told me, "I don't know if it's going to have an impact on their spiritual walk, but just having a better relationship is a huge thing."
Even with my own kids, I've seen the impact. We recently did a family missions trip to Tijuana. We built houses and the kids did a Vacation Bible School program for the Mexican children. I don't think I've ever been so proud as I was watching Kari and Laura walking hand in hand with these precious kids and watching my children serve God.
When your kids are walking with the Lord you sleep different at night. Any parent of a prodigal will tell you that. These activities won't guarantee your children won't stray, but they give you the chance to be intentional about talking about faith with your children and that's really what God asks of us as parents. The rest is in his hands.
For more information on Heritage Builders, call (800) A-FAMILY.
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