I sat in a coffee shop holding my best friend’s hand as she wept hot tears of remorse over her teenage son. “I don’t understand why he would turn away from God. It feels like he is rejecting everything about our family.”

Her seventeen-year-old son had recently declared himself an atheist and refused to attend church with them anymore.

I was at a loss for words, so I simply squeezed her hand and we prayed, crying out to God to comfort a hurting mother and guide her son back into his arms. Later, I thought about my own three kids and their unique faith journeys. As pastor’s kids, they’ve had church forced on them more often than not. After a grueling season when we started a local church in our community, a wise friend suggested that I give my kids a breather and focus on the most important thing – encouraging them to pursue their own personal relationship with Jesus. She suggested I point them in the right direction and let God handle the rest. Her advice proved invaluable, and by focusing on these five things, we were able to steer our kids towards the right path without driving them away.

1. Weekly Teaching And Worship

Each week, my kids attend a church service where they are taught the word of God. When they were little, it was Sunday school. Next came junior high service, and finally, the regular adult worship service. Both of my older teens balked at attending high school service on Sundays because of concerns about cliques and coolness. However, it helped to let them choose where they wanted to go (as long as they attended somewhere with sound teaching).

Please, if your church is dull and boring as heck, get in the car and drive them to a place where God’s word comes alive. Pastor Mike Erre of Vox Church and author of “Jesus of Suburbia” suggests that it’s better to integrate teens into the regular service instead of keeping them isolated with their peers because once they go away to college, it will be difficult for them to transition to an adult service. I think this is an excellent point, but if your church has a dynamic high school pastor and they can’t wait to attend, do that! Truthfully, sitting next to my older kids during service is one of the best parts of my week. There’s nothing better than watching them close their eyes and lift their arms in worship. On another note, I occasionally let them skip a week for a special event. I didn’t take a rigid stance on attendance and that’s helped them to make it a priority without making it a command.

2. Camp

Camp is the place where my kids fell in love with Jesus. Maybe it’s the mountaintop experience or the bad food or the silly games, but they all came back giddy and toting their Bibles like it’s an iPhone. If your church doesn’t offer a great camp, find one that does. First it was Vacation Bible School, then big kid camp where you drop them off on the bus and see them five days later (often in the same clothes they left in). My kids will text me when sign-ups come online and pester me until they know they have a spot on the trip. Your children have likely been attending church their whole lives and, while tradition is important, offering this new and exciting way to connect with Jesus can significantly deepen their relationship with Him.

3. Discipleship Group

Once your kids are in middle school, it’s time to get them connected with a small discipleship group. Make sure the group has a leader who will mentor your kid and point them back to Jesus. Your children need to start spreading their wings and processing life though a different and more mature lens without you around, and ideally, this is where a good leader and group comes in. They can help your kid gain a Christ-like perspective when troubles come their way.

4. Service

As soon as your kids are big enough to help out, plug them into service opportunities at church or in the community. My daughter has lead worship, taught Sunday school and been a camp counselor. My son has taught the kinder class, ran tech and served in the homeless ministry. It’s one of the things they forward to the most and it keeps them connected to church and their friends who also serve. It also lets them see how their unique talents can be of service to others, which is vitally important as they consider potential career and life paths.

Seeing them grow to see service as an essential part of their relationship with Jesus couldn’t be more exciting. I’m actually looking forward to putting my oldest son on a plane to fly to Peru to build houses during his spring break. Service helps kids focus on others’ needs while learning how to give of their time, talents and heart. Experiencing the concept personal sacrifice first-hand will motivate your kids to be the hands and feet of Christ.

5. Model Spiritual Disciplines

Kids learn far more from what you do than what you say; it’s the “caught not taught” principle. So, I make sure that when my kids come downstairs in the morning they see me with my Bible and devotional open. I model a lifestyle of prayer by making time to pray with them daily and on my own.

Each of our actions can make an impact when it comes to the spiritual lives of our children. They watch us fast; this year, my middle daughter decided to join us at Lent and give up potatoes – something very dear to her heart. They also watch us sacrifice financially, like when we provide ongoing support to a child in Africa. My hope is that these small examples will imprint on their subconscious and without even thinking about it, someday they too will wake up early, put on a pot of coffee and dive into God’s word.

If you want to set your kids on the right path to God, hold the reigns loosely. While it’s important to steer them towards Jesus, making faith an obligation is no way to encourage a healthy spiritual life. Give your kids the opportunity to explore through different faith-focused activities so they can develop and strengthen their individual relationship with Jesus.

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