Category Archives: Family

A Year Ago

I was let go from my role at our church a year ago today. September 4th, 2012.

In part, I remember it because it was the evening of my fantasy football draft. I left my team co-owner hanging, wondering where I was. He did all right, though. Drafted a team that ended up winning the league championship for us last year. Incidentally, our league draft falls on the same night this year. Let the title defense begin. And the bad memories, I suppose.

That’s the other reason I remember the date, and probably won’t ever forget it. It was the worst night of my life. That sort of thing tends to stick.

Most of you don’t know exactly why I was let go. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that the people who lead the church I served were made aware of some very serious mistakes I had made, and as a result they had to end my tenure at the church I was deeply privileged to serve for 6 ½ years. I deserved it. They did what was right. Period.

Of everything that has happened in the last year, that’s the part that is easiest for me to understand. Sin and consequences. Action and reaction. My kids can wrap their young heads around that. What I don’t understand—what I cannot comprehend—is what has happened since.

This year… …Boy, I’m frustrated even as I begin this paragraph because I know that I’m not going to be able to convey what this year has been. Even looking pensively out the window of this hipster hangout coffee shop isn’t helping my wordsmithing. Isn’t it supposed to?

This year has been by far the most difficult of my life. I’m sure I speak for my wife, too. And this year has been by far the sweetest of my life. (I think I speak for Leslie too… Chime in anytime, m’love.) This year has been the most arduous of our 12-year marriage. But the resolve of our commitment to each other has never been stronger or deeper. I’ve learned more about myself this year, and seen more change in myself than in any year of my life. I’ve learned more about the church this year than in any year of my life—including the 6+ years during which I spent the majority of my waking moments in a church building. Or at a hipster hangout (wannabe) coffee shop near the church building.

This is the year of my life when I was most tempted to give God the finger and see if Kierkegaard and Thoreau wanted to meet me at the aforementioned hipster hangout (wannabe) coffee shop. And it’s the year of my life when I have grown most confident in the eternal existence and goodness of Jesus, and the indomitable truth of his word.

These are the things I can’t wrap my head around. How can these all be true? In the same year. I thought it was physically impossible for darkness and light to co-habitate the same space at the same time.

A few weekends ago I was sitting, reading and thinking by a lake. (Thoreau-like.) I hadn’t read the biblical book of Habakkuk in quite some time, and decided to read through it in one sitting. You should be impressed. It’s three whole pages long. Reading it reminded me that I’m definitely not alone in my confusion about how God can grab a few sweet potatoes, some really bitter herbs, throw them together, call it life stew, and make it taste good.

Habakkuk: I feel like something’s wrong, here, God. You’re good, and you’re in charge, but it seems like there’s an awful lot of bad people winning.

God: Yeah, about that… I’m actually planning on doubling down. The worst people are going to win big for a while.

Habakkuk: Oh, good, ‘cause I was starting to… Wait… what?…

[ominous music, commercial break]

God: Yeah, the worst thing you can imagine in your life is going to happen. I’m going to see to it that it happens. It’s going to be awful. You’re going to hate it. You’ll be filled with shame instead of glory. You’re going to wish you were dead. It’s going to be worse than you think. Are you writing this down? You probably should be…

Habakkuk: Hm. You sure you know what you’re doing? Do you need any advice? Probably not. But… Do you? Maybe I can help.

God: I’m good. I’ve been around longer than you. Here’s the thing, though (and this is pretty important): This is all going to turn out very, very sweet. It will be for your good. It will be for my glory. It will be for your joy. It will be for my fame.

Habakkuk: Okay. I guess I’ll just wait here, then? …And even as everything falls apart around me, I will rejoice in you. I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Not after.

Habakkuk didn’t say that he would be joyful after the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried and flowers grew again. He said he would choose to trust God during the calamity, and take joy in God’s plan—even though he didn’t understand it—simply because it was God’s plan and God’s plans are always good.

I wonder how long it took Habakkuk to put together the pieces and make sense of God’s plan after the carnage took place. Maybe he understood it right away. Maybe he never did. Maybe he never grasped the significance of what God had him write. But I know that with the benefit of only a year’s worth of reflection (mostly in hipster hang… nevermind…), I can already see the beauty in the brokenness of my and Leslie’s life. I see more of it every day.

And yet, here’s the conversation I’ve had with myself in my head a thousand times this year:

Me: If you could go back and change the past, would you?

Me: Oh, of COURSE. Absolutely. 100%. I’d give anything to go back and do things differently.

Me: So, you don’t think God’s plan and design for your life is the best one? You’d change it if you could?

Me: Oh… Well… I mean… You know what I mean… right?

Me: You’re asking me if I know what I’m thinking? … Yeah, I know what you mean. I know you regret your decisions and are repentant. I know that if you were in the same situation again, you’d do the right thing. But what I’m asking is: Do you believe that what has happened, happened because God planned for it to happen—that God planned it for his ultimate glory, for your ultimate good, and for the ultimate good of his people?

Me: Man… That’s a tough pill to swallow. I am finally becoming the man I want to be. And I doubt it would be happening if I hadn’t dropped an H-bomb on my life. But… I doubt I can help wishing that I could undrop the bomb. You know what I’m saying?

Me: Yeah. Welcome to Habakkuk’s world.

Anyway

I did a lot of looking backward this year. Looking back on what’s been lost. Looking back on what might have been. Looking back on the wreckage. I’m glad I did. Not to have done so would have been callous. And I don’t want to forget the lessons of our scars. The shrapnel (or thorn) in my side will be significant for the rest of my life.

But this year is for something else. This year is for looking forward. Looking forward to what might be. Looking forward to what could be built. There is a family to raise up and a bride to love. There are fields to plant. There are castles to build. There are dragons to kill. There are dreams to dream.

Maybe next September 4th I’ll be preparing for a campaign toward a fantasy football three-peat. Probably not. But I’m glad I’m where I am this September 4th, and not where I was last. And I can’t wait to see what God has in store for the next year. Whatever it is, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God, my savior.

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The Sins of the Fathers: A Theological Review of “The Place Beyond the Pines”

Earlier this week I saw Derek Cianfrance’s new film, “The Place Beyond the Pines.” With his latest film and with 2010’s “Blue Valentine,” Cianfrance is developing a well-earned reputation as a director who is capable of weaving incredibly heart-wrenching and true-to-life stories that delve deeply into incredibly heart-wrenching and true-to-life moral and relational dilemmas. He recognizes that life is messy and that there are rarely tidy endings to the stories of real people. Real stories may end well, or they may end badly, but they rarely end tidy. It’s a very well executed film and is a fine example of a director who has something valuable to say, and so crafts a film purposefully to say it.

But I don’t want to review it.

At least not in the ways films are typically reviewed. I don’t generally read film reviews—at least until after I’ve seen the film—for the same reason I don’t generally read the back covers of novels. The screenwriter (or author) has a specific way he or she wants to tell the story. He has a specific way he wants to lead you to discover and experience the main plot developments. He wants to do all of the introductions to all of the characters and intentionally shape how you feel about them. And we should let him do these things because he will tell the story best. If I let Richard Roeper tell me about the movie before I see it—or if I let some employee for Harper Collins whose job it is to sell books by writing back cover blurbs tell me about the novel—then I have robbed the storyteller of the opportunity to tell me the story the way he meant for me to hear it.

So, all of that to say, I’m not going to tell you much about the movie itself. There won’t be any spoilers here. I’m going to say very little about the plot so that Cianfrance can tell you the story himself, if you want to let him. If you want to know more about it in advance or find the parental advisory information, you can figure out where to find it. I just want to talk about what Cianfrance wanted to say, and engage with that message from a theological perspective.

The primary theme of “The Place Beyond the Pines” flows right out of the biblical book of Exodus, chapter 20, verses 5-6:

“…For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

In other words: The life of a father inevitably ripples into the life of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and so on. The Exodus passage is commonly misunderstood to mean that God will punish children for the sins of their fathers. But that isn’t what is meant by “visiting.” Rather, God is here telling us what we all already know: The way a father lives—whether he is good or bad, present or absent in the lives of his children—will inevitably ripple into the way they themselves live their lives.

Fathers do not have the luxury of hoping that their children will “do as I say, not as I do.” Children will inevitably have their lives shaped and formed in large part by the lives of their fathers. At least, that’s what Cianfrance is saying to his audience. In fact, Cianfrance at times seems to be saying that it is impossible for any of us to resist this inevitability. Even if we try to do good, and even if we try to break from the pattern of our fathers, eventually the tide of our fathers’ evil will overtake us and cause us to walk in his (largely evil) ways. Even the well-intended influence of good father figures in our lives will not be able to overcome the power of a father’s influence—even if he is an absent father.

So the question every serious thinker should pose after seeing this film is: Is Cianfrance right? Are his assertions true?

To the extent that I have understood him correctly, and from a biblical and theological perspective, Cianfrance is right. And he is very wrong.

So, first, Cianfrance is right. Children are deeply affected by the lives of their fathers. They are, of course, also deeply affected by the lives of their mothers. But Scripture is unequivocal: Fathers’ lives have a disproportionately powerful effect on the lives of their children.

The statistics themselves are overwhelming. They vary a bit depending on your source, but 85-90% of inmates come from father-absent homes. 80-85% of pregnant teenagers are from father-absent homes. Over 80% of felons had fathers with at least one felony. All of us—at least in our most pessimistic moments—have pitied a young boy or girl, wondering if they even have a chance in life because of who their father is. And most of us have at least a few “daddy issues” that continue to influence our thinking and behavioral patterns. It is undeniable. Fathers’ lives have a profound effect on the lives of their children.

But Cianfrance is also very wrong. Because the gospel is true.

One way to think about the good news of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection is this: God has himself provided an answer to the problem of Exodus 20:5-6. He has done it at his own cost, and given it to us by grace alone. God designed human beings such that they would be profoundly shaped by their fathers—for good or for bad. Which is what Exodus 20:5-6 is about. But in the case that a child’s father has failed to shape him for good, God has provided an opportunity for that child to receive a greater and even more influential father.

The apostle Paul writes,

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” (Romans 8:13-16)

When a person trusts their life to Christ and receives the Spirit of Christ, alive and present within them, they become the son of the Father. Their new sonship does not erase or make insignificant their earthly sonship. But it does supercede it. It increasingly becomes the center of their identity and the most powerful determining factor in their thinking and choices.

It’s also important to say that Cianfrance was intentionally focusing on the ripple effects that evil fathers have. I don’t want to criticize him for not writing a film he wasn’t trying to write, but it’s worth saying here that strong and good and Christ-centered fathers also have a profound effect on their sons, daughters and grandchildren!

This is my desire for my life as a father. This is God’s design and desire for the lives of fathers!

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. (Deut. 6:1-2)

But even the best fathers fail. The best fathers know this. And the best fathers are not threatened by a God who wants our children to see Him as their first father. Our role is merely to try to model Him for our children and point them to Him. The best fathers are happy to be in second place in the hearts of their children.

So may we as fathers (and mothers) recognize that we cannot play lip service in this role. We cannot tell our kids to “do as I say, not as I do.” Our lives will be a profoundly formative force in their lives. May we choose well what that influence will be. May we model for them repentance, brokenness, and recovery when we fail. And may we always remember that we will be at our best when we are happy to be in second place in the hearts of our kids, pointing them to our own Father.

Divided: A Youth Pastor’s Perspective

Hello TWOG readers.  Just in case you were wondering if my role here was more of an honorary or emeritus position, I actually do plan on posting occasionally.

You should know that, while I am a youth pastor, I don’t plan on having all or even most of my posts related to the subject of youth ministry.  Something recently came up, however, that I thought might be a nice introductory post.

I had the opportunity to view Divided, a somewhat controversial new movie about youth ministry produced by the National Center For Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC) and directed by the Leclerc brothers.  You can actually watch it free online for a limited time.  The premise of the entire film is that “modern youth ministry is contrary to Scripture,” but really, the film goes way, way beyond that.  I’ll explain below.

It’s important to point out in the beginning, however, that this isn’t a new argument.  The idea that youth ministry is not only unfounded Scripturally but opposed to the Bible has been argued ad nauseam.  At the same time, however, I am deeply troubled by how youth ministry has been done in many contexts in America, so when a proponent of the Family Integrated Church (FIC) movement writes a book, I’m in the habit of reading it.  I have always found voices like Voddie Baucham to be incredibly helpful.  This is why I was eager to watch the film.

So what about this movie? As someone who not only has a youth ministry major but also has been a youth pastor for the past five years in the Twin Cities area, am I now convinced that my college major and ministry position are somehow deeply unbiblical? That I have wasted not only my four years of undergrad work, but my previous five years as a youth pastor?  Not hardly.  I’ll tell you why.

A Fun Movie to Watch

First of all, let me say that in many respects, Divided was a fun movie to watch.  The Leclerc brothers are obviously very talented filmmakers, and their eye for cinematography makes the film not only engaging, but, dare I say, entertaining (which itself is ironic, considering that using entertainment and “worldly tactics” to get students interested in what you’re saying is a method that the movie lambastes, but I digress).

I also agreed fully with many of the ideas presented in the movie: the mandate for men in the church to raise up and disciple their families; the family being the primary place where discipleship of children/adolescence takes place; the need to get away from program based ministry and engage more intentionally in an organic, and at times even integrated, model of church; the destructiveness of entertainment-based youth ministry and the wrongheaded tendency of teaching in youth ministry to be based on the lowest common denominator.  All of these are major themes in the movie and I whole-heartedly agree with them.

A False Dichotomy

But here’s the problem.  Why does any church, anywhere, need to choose between actively discipling the parents in the church and having additional supplements and outlets for the training and equipping of young men and women?  In other words, I’m not saying that the FIC understanding of church is wrong.  Far from it. As a youth pastor I often find myself resonating with the FIC model, and refreshed by authors and writers who advocate for the primary role of the family in the discipleship of students.  However, the Leclerc brothers and the NCFIC make it sound as though any age specific model that any church has ever offered is contrary to the Scriptures and therefore offensive to God—that it has been influenced by Darwin and paganism but not the Bible.  This is unquestionably the point of the entire film.  This assertion, however, is not only untrue, but a false dichotomy.

We don’t need to choose between the primary role of discipleship that the family plays in the lives of students and a ministry that teaches, preaches, and lives out the gospel specifically with students.  A church can (and sometimes even should) do both.  That is to say that the church should always be raising up fathers to disciple their families primarily. But sometimes, and depending on the context, the church should spend at least some time building specifically into young people with the gospel.

One of the ways the film sets up this false dichotomy is arguing two points throughout, and these points can, at times, seem utterly contradictory.  For instance, one individual taking the FIC point of view on youth ministry argues that the reason that youth ministry in the church is dangerous is because it keeps youth from having many fathers, many grandfathers, and many brothers and sisters in the family of God (and I agree that this is a danger, incidentally).

But the very next person interviewed says that the reason youth ministry is dangerous is because it turns the hearts of the youth away from their fathers and toward many different people in the church—such as youth pastors, adult youth workers, and peers.  But which is it?  We need some clarity here.  Are they saying that youth can and should have many fathers, grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers, and brothers and sisters (mentors and peers) in Christ, but none of those people are a threat to turning hearts away from fathers unless that person is a youth worker?  If so, what specifically about a “youth worker” makes him or her dangerous in turning hearts away from fathers in comparison to others in the church?  Something seems strange here.

I would suggest that the reason they sound contradictory is that they’re setting up a false dichotomy.  Why can’t it be both?  Why can’t a child have their hearts turned in a positive, loving, respectful way to both their parents and their pastors?  After all, even if youth ministry is non-existent in the church, children and students in the church are still going to have pastors and pastoral authority.  And the Scriptures still command everyone in the church to submit to their pastors.  So what do we do with that?

Do we really want our students not to have positive, loving, growing, engaging, respectful, and equipping relationships with their pastors for fear that it will turn their hearts from their fathers?  Is it really an either/or situation?  Or is the idea for children to have both a healthy relationship with the pastor/elder role in the church and have a deep relationship and love for their parents, who have the primary role of discipleship?  In other words, I don’t understand why students can’t be influenced in a meaningful way by a pastor without that relationship threatening the family.  But this is exactly how the movie portrays the student/youth pastor relationship.

Actually, this is only one of many false dichotomies presented in this movie.  According to this film, you probably cannot both have age-specific classes and be a biblical church, believe in an old earth and have a high view of Scripture, or attend a rock concert and be committed to teaching against worldliness. And the list goes on.

A False Representation

If you have seen the film, at this point you might be saying, “okay, but Jeremy, didn’t you watch the movie?  Both sides were presented and the FIC model clearly won out.”  My answer to this is that yes, I did watch the movie, and both sides were presented in the same way that both sides are presented in a Michael Moore film, such as Bowling in Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11.  You have to be cautious when viewing any documentary, because they obviously are crafting an argument.  Granted, it’s more beneficial when a film says at the outset that they are crafting an argument rather than stating that the filmmaker is simply a person “on a journey” who is looking for answers, but we have to expect this when viewing documentaries.

The producers of this film were obviously very careful with who they selected for interviewing and equally as careful in the editing process. Straw men are easy to knock down, and the NCFIC create their share of straw men in this film.

Are there problems with the way many churches do youth ministry?  Absolutely.  Does that mean that all modern youth ministries are the same?  No.  Does it mean that there is only one biblical model of ministering to youth and family?  Absolutely not.

Tim Challies, who wrote a review of the film a couple of weeks ago, is absolutely correct when he says that “there are many conservative, biblical Christians who reject FIC and I am sure it would not have been difficult to interview a couple of them.”  So why didn’t they?  If it is true, as they claim, that nobody is able to make a reasonable argument from Scripture for youth ministry, why not simply interview some people who reject the FIC model? The reality is that if biblically faithful pastors like John Piper, Tim Keller, and Josh Moody, to name only a few, all have churches that from time to time use age specific models as a supplement to family discipleship, it is uncharitable not to let them explain why they think this is biblical before charging them with sowing “pagan seeds.”  It’s one thing to question the timeliness of certain methods for today.  It’s another thing entirely to assume that these men do not have any biblical grounding for the way they do ministry.

This misrepresentation is actually the most disappointing part of the entire film, as Challies Explains.

“Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the film, then, is it lumps all non-integrated churches together.  Those that have Wednesday evening classes for children end up in the same category as churches that have entire Sunday morning services geared specifically to entertaining the teenagers.  Churches that have an evening set aside for youth fellowship end up in the same category as churches that build their whole youth ministry around partying and Christian rock.  This is not only uncharitable, but also utterly ridiculous.  According to the subtle suggestions of this documentary, even the best youth programs are utterly unbiblical and will cause most of the young people to fall away from the faith.  That is complete and utter nonsense.”

Challies has put his finger on the fundamental problem with this film.  It is this misrepresentation that robs it of its credibility and therefore decreases its effectiveness.  This is heartbreaking and unfortunate, as the movie has so many great things to say—but it was completely avoidable.

A Few Remaining Problems

There are actually several other key problems with the film itself, such as (1) the statistic upon which the entire movie is based (the claim that roughly 70 percent of churched students will walk away from their faith in college), (2) the remarkably absurd claim that the movie actually devotes considerable time to that youth ministry is founded on paganism, and (3) the unconvincing attempts to make the FIC model of doing ministry a biblical mandate for every church.

For further thoughts on the trouble with this statistic, I would suggest an article by Kevin DeYoung entitled Beware the Over-Hyped Stat, where he actually calls this statistic of 70 percent of young adults leaving the church “a classic example of a good statistic gone bad.”  Tim Challies also writes an excellent piece on this stat entitled I Am Unalarmed, where he states that “far fewer than this number abandon the church when they have been raised in homes and churches that treasure and model and celebrate the gospel.”  Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, offers a general warning in his article entitled Evangelicals Behaving Badly With Statistics, where he claims that statistics in the church are commonly abused by individuals who “are usually trying desperately to attract attention and raise people’s concern in order to mobilize resources and action for some cause.”  While I am certainly not attempting to make light of this problem, we would be wise to heed DeYoung’s warning and “beware the over-hyped stat” that is at the core of the film.

For further thoughts on the biblical nature and history of age specific ministry, I would suggest the book Four Views on Youth Ministry and the Church, edited by my seminary advisor, Mark Senter.  It not only contains an FIC argument, but three others also, and these authors charitably and directly interact with one another in the book, leaving the reader in the end to realize that no ministry model is perfect. The reality is that the ministry model that works in our context in New Hope might not be the right model for a church in Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, New York City, or anywhere else.

Final Thoughts

So overall, this movie presented two extremes: Entertainment based youth ministries that exist primarily to give students a fun experience, and family integrated churches that believe age specific ministries to be completely unbiblical.  My position would have to be somewhere in the middle.

On the one hand, entertainment driven youth ministry is destroying the spiritual life of students in America.  There have been numerous articles written from youth pastors on this topic.  As Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean have noted well, students in our generation don’t hold to the gospel as much as they do a moralistic, therapeutic deism.  The hard reality is that we do need to continue to head toward a better way of doing youth ministry that expects more of students.  As Mark Driscoll notes in his book, The Radical Reformission, “the American concept of adolescence excuses immaturity among young people and welcomes rebellion and folly as rites of passage.  In our kingdom culture, young people are identified not as adolescents but rather as Christians of whom Christian living is expected.”

Youth ministries need to give students the truth—the gospel of Jesus Christ—as the gospel is not only what brings them into the kingdom, but what brings them transformation.  If I only have three years with students, I’m going to spend those three years relentlessly teaching the gospel.  And we certainly need to recognize the role of the family.  The family is the primary discipleship force in the lives of students, which is why we have ministries at our church that are designed to come behind the family in this role and to train up men to take on the leadership of their home.

I also completely understand when churches see the need in their context to not have an active youth ministry.  Youth ministry can become dangerously over-programmed to the point where the mission force of the church is stripped from their community because they’re always at church. This is one of the reasons why I think FIC is one among many models that is seeing real fruit and benefit for the kingdom of God.

On the other hand, I think that describing the FIC approach as the only biblical model is uncharitable and disingenuous.  Paul’s words have to be pretty strained in Ephesians and Colossians to somehow make them mandates for family integration in all situations. The reality is that we need to have many different models of family ministries in order to figure out what will be most effective in different contexts.

But that could be (and probably should be) another post altogether.  The bottom line is that while Divided offers some great thoughts about ministry, it may actually cause needless division—more division, actually, than the age specific ministries they are challenging.  So, while it could be great to watch this movie (there are so many great challenges throughout the film, especially in the last few moments), I’d suggest that you do so cautiously.  Normally I’d advise viewing a movie like this with a grain of salt.  For this movie, though, I’d bring the whole shaker.

Devotional Life: Married with Kids Edition

praying-hands-1.jpgFamily devotions have not always come easy for the McWhites.

I certainly don’t claim to be any sort of expert on the matter, but to the extent that we’ve learned from our failures (and they have been plentiful), we have by trial and error figured out what works—for us, anyway.

And that, by the way, is part of the difficulty of figuring out what to do for family devotions: Like personal devotions there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all formula for creating a fruitful and consistent family devotional life in the home.  My personal devotional life won’t adapt well for everyone else, and it has always morphed slightly from year to year.  The same is true for family devotional life.

That said, I certainly hope that you can learn from what we’ve learned, since I sincerely believe family devotions to be a critical and indispensable facet of healthy, gospel-centered, Christ-focused family life.  Here are some thoughts:

1. Determine to make it work even if it takes a while to learn how to make it work.

There is no doubt that Scripture lays the primary responsibility for the spiritual development of the family not with the church, not with the Children’s Pastor and his staff, not with a Sunday school teacher or a Christian school (valuable as all of these things can be), but with the parents.  Parents should not think of family devotions as extra credit or as something only super-Christian parents do.  The intentional spiritual development of the family is an imperative for the husband and wife, and therefore it is necessary to decide together at the outset that you are going to make family devotions work even if you stumble out of the gate (or stumble for a long time!).  Don’t assume that you’re on the same page on this.  Have a conversation about this together and agree that this is good and right and worth pursuing diligently.

2. Be consistent, even when it isn’t going well.

Both consistency and quality are important in family devotions.  But you can breed consistency even when you’re still figuring out how to get quality.  And, in general, quality is a product of consistency.  Make the decision to have devotions every night, and then work toward making it a more and more fruitful time.  Moreover, when and if you have seasons where devotions don’t go as well, established consistency will be valuable in helping you press on and pull out of the slump.

3. Make family devotions part of a larger routine.

Routine breeds consistency.  Have your family devotions at the same time and in the same place every day.  Right now, our son Owen just knows that the evening routine is dinner, wrestle with Daddy, bath time, pajamas, family devotions, story time, bed.  It has become second nature to all of us, and so no one (including Owen) ever says, “Should we have family devotions tonight?”  It’s become just as natural to us as ‘deciding’ to have dinner.

4. Men: Lead. Women: Contribute—and lead when he’s not there.

The husband and father bears primary responsibility for the spiritual development of his family.  He should call the family together to have devotions, and he is primarily responsible for figuring out how to do devotions (with his wife’s wise input, of course).  Leading well, as in all areas of home life, does not mean that the man needs to do everything.  In fact, it’s important that children see their mother contributing and providing wise input and guidance for family spirituality—especially for daughters, who need to learn from their mother what it looks like to be a strong, wise and Christ-centered woman who nevertheless follows the leadership of her husband.

So, practically speaking, I call the family together for devotions and I read the Bible for us. Every other component of our devotions might be led by either Leslie or me.  We feel this sends a subtle but strong signal that ‘Daddy leads with his strength and wisdom and mommy helps him with her strength and wisdom.’

That said, if I’m away at a meeting or something after dinner time, Leslie leads devotions anyway. We hope this will instill in our children an impression of Leslie’s strength and wisdom, as well as the understanding that a strong, consistent devotional life isn’t dependent on circumstances. Communion with God is an essential priority even when ‘life’ tries to get in the way.

5. Keep it age-appropriate and err on the side of the younger family members.

Family devotions can be simple without being simplistic—particularly if you find the right materials to use.  For example, as I’ve mentioned previously, Leslie and I were blessed and taught ourselves by The Jesus Storybook Bible. Keep the ‘main course’ of family devotions simple enough for the younger family members to grasp, and then you can build in more complex elements for the older family members, such as Scripture memorization or theological catechism.

6. Keep it brief enough for the youngest family member to stay interested.

Be realistic about attention span. Owen starts to get antsy after a few minutes, and this isn’t due to lack of discipline or ADD or something. He’s a little kid! They have short attention spans. So, tailor your family devotions to this reality.  This is yet another reason I so appreciate some of the better children’s Bibles—they pack a lot of truth into brief narratives.  That said, you can expand attention span by changing activities.  Owen’s attention span is brief, but because we do four different things during devotions (Bible reading, memory verses, singing and prayer)—none of which lasts more than a few minutes—we’re generally able to keep his attention for the entire 10-15 minutes of devotions.

7. Choose an age-appropriate Bible to read from.

The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible are both excellent, excellent choices for young kids and if you have them both you can rotate through them for a long, long time.  There are enough chapters in both of them that Owen isn’t even close to being bored with the stories (and neither are Leslie and I!), so I anticipate getting years of mileage out of these two.  That said, you can certainly read from ‘adult’ Bibles (see #8), but if this is the ‘main course’ of your family devotional life, I would suggest spending more time explaining what you’ve read or even acting it out while you read.

Owen is getting close to the age (he turned 2 in August) where we’ll start asking him simple comprehension questions (e.g. “So, Owen, who made the world in that story?” “Who did Saul see on the road to Damascus?”). Once he’s a little older we’ll start asking him slightly more complicated comprehension questions—questions that begin with “why” (e.g. “Why did Zacchaeus go up in the tree?” “Why did God send the flood?” “Why did Jesus have to die for us?”).  The aim in questions like this isn’t to quiz, but to encourage Owen to engage in what we’re reading.

8. Always read or recite Scripture itself in addition to any other reading you do.

My advice in #7 certainly does not mean that I think the actual words of Scripture should be avoided until children are old enough to comprehend them.  On the contrary, I think the actual words of Scripture absolutely should be built into family devotions.  The Word of God is living and active and possesses a power to sculpt hearts and minds that no children’s Bible has. Do not confuse children’s Bibles (excellent as they can be) with Scripture.  The way we weave the Bible into our family devotions is that we memorize short segments of Scripture together and recite them every night.  It is truly mind-blowing how much young kids can memorize.  Owen had 1 Cor. 10:31b (“Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”) memorized almost as soon as he could speak.

We began doing this as soon as Owen was able to repeat words after us.  We say one word at a time, allowing him to try to pronounce them after us, and we repeat the verse 2 or 3 times each night until he has it.  We avoid pressuring him, which means we don’t reprimand him when he gets it wrong and we cheer loudly when he gets it right. We want Scripture memorization to be something he thinks of joyfully, not loathsomely.  He generally is able to recite the entire verse without help after 4-5 days.  Every night, then, we work back through each of the verses he has memorized.  Once he has too many to do all of them, we’ll start picking 3-4 each night to help him keep them fresh.  Our goal here is to help him “hide God’s word in his heart” and to develop a natural, second-nature practice of memorizing Scripture as part of a devotional life.

9. Worship together!

This is absolutely my favorite part of family devotions. We sing hymns together every night. It almost brings tears to my eyes to hear Owen learning the songs and singing them without thinking about it even when he’s by himself.  Just the other day he was playing with the new firetruck he got for Christmas and I heard him softly singing parts of “Jesus Paid It All.” I’ll admit that I’m a softy, but man was I choked up.

This was also perhaps the hardest thing to integrate into family devotions, however, because neither Leslie nor I are… um… excellent singers.  So, we had to swallow our pride a little bit.  But we’ve gotten over that now and both love this part of family devotions. We began with simple songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Doxology,” but now we’re singing “Jesus Paid It All,” “Come Thou Fount,” “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” etc.  We learn them one verse at a time—sometimes using a hymnal if Leslie and I don’t know them perfectly by heart, and Owen learns them and sings with us within about a week.

We now let him choose at least one of the songs we’re going to sing each night and we always sing 2 or 3, making sure to sing one he doesn’t know well or a new one.  The goal, as with Scripture memorization, isn’t to learn as many as possible, but to start weaving the words deeply into his heart and mind through lots and lots of repetition.

10. Pray together and for each other.

We close with prayer.  Right now usually I just pray, but I pray briefly for each of us.  Soon we’ll ask Owen to pray.  I also try to tie my prayer to the Scripture or story we read at the beginning so that Owen begins to learn to root his prayer in Scripture and prioritize the priorities of Scripture in his prayers. So, we pray less about “God blessing us and keeping us safe and healthy,” and more about “Thank you for dying for our sins, Jesus. Help us to love and honor you and each other….”  I’ve recently begun asking Owen what we should pray about and what we should give thanks for before we pray.  He always says, “Jesus!” but I’m sure he’ll eventually start expanding on that a bit. In the meantime, that’s an excellent answer.

These are sweet, sweet times for our family. It’s the most important 15 minutes of our day and now that we’ve figured out how to do it well, I cannot imagine not having this time together.  If you have other ideas, I’m sure we’d all love to learn from them.  Let’s create a conversation in the “comments” section.

Fourteen Easy Steps to an Awesome Christmas Eve

tree.jpg1. Sleep late. Deal with (very) sore muscles from playing too much Wii at Grandpa and Grandma McWhite’s house.  √

2. Extended devotional time. √

3. Shovel 5-8″ of snow with Owen’s help. √

4. Eat a big lunch. √

5. Crash on the couch for a nap. √

6. Bundle back up and go out with Owen to build his first snowman (whom he named “Randy”) and build a huge snow fort. √

7. Come in, warm up and hang with Mommy and Ruthie. √

8. Go to church. Be bummed about church being canceled. √

9. Cure bummed-ness with Papa John’s and Leslie making her insanely good homemade chocolate chip cookies. √

10. Family devotions (Christmas Eve edition) and put kids to bed. √

11. Wish you all a very Merry Christmas! √

11. Unplug from internet, Facebook and Twitter entirely until Saturday morning. √

12. Watch A Christmas Story with Leslie, eat insanely good homemade chocolate chip cookies with milk, and wrap presents from Santa (he never wraps his own.  Just lazy).

13. Plan Christmas morning family devotions.

14. Get to bed early with my best friend.