“Daddy,” my six-year-old leaned over and whispered in my ear, “should I change it to baseball? Because that’s what our family does”— and I was reminded that family discipleship can be far simpler than we sometimes think.
Three or four months had passed since this particular child was placed in our home for adoption. In her previous family, football and soccer had been the sports of choice. Our family, however, watches and enjoys only one sport—baseball, the consummate expression of all that is beautiful and good about human nature and recreation. And so, whenever our new child asked about rules or teams related to other sports, the response she typically received ran along the lines of, “I’m not really sure about that. Baseball is the sport that our family usually watches.” No one suggested other sports were defective or inappropriate; we simply pointed out the pattern that our family follows.
A few months into the adoption process, we began encouraging our new child to take notes during the Sunday morning sermon. Soon afterward, the pastor illustrated a point in his sermon by telling a story that involved playing football. And that’s when my child leaned over and asked, “Should I change it to baseball? Because that’s what our family does.”
I quietly assured her that there was no need to change her notes to exclude football—but it was clear that we had “discipled” our child in a particular way of life without even planning to do so. This “discipleship” had so deeply shifted her worldview that she was prepared to edit the pastor’s sermon illustration to fit our family’s recreational proclivities.
How had this happened?
1. It happened because we had pointed her attention again and again to a different set of habits. No one in our household criticized or condemned other sports; we simply oriented her attention to the particular pattern we follow in our household.
2. It happened because we enjoyed the experience of baseball together. When we head to a baseball game, we’re excited, and we choose clothing that supports our team. In our home ballpark, there are rituals and liturgies that we follow religiously—we buy cookies from our friend Elizabeth as soon as we arrive, the younger children get out their coloring books in the middle of the fifth inning, and we take a walk around the ballpark and ride on the carousel in the bottom of the seventh inning.
3. It happened because our family reenacted in tiny ways what she saw happening on a larger scale at professional games. A Wiffle Ball game in our backyard is about one-fourth the size of the infield of a regulation ballpark; there are only six players, there is no cheering crowd, and concessions are limited to whatever we happen to find in the refrigerator. It’s silly and small, and it rarely turns out the way we planned. Home-run balls are sometimes lost because they land on the neighbor’s trampoline, we frequently miss fly balls because our outfield warning track is a tomato patch, and if you aren’t careful when sliding into second base you may collide with the gutter spout—but all of these little plays are tiny echoes what the minor- and major-league teams do in big ways, and these small reenactments in our backyard feed the children’s appetite for the real thing.
How Family Discipleship Happens
So what does this mean for us when it comes to family discipleship?
1. In everything you do, point your child’s attention again and again to a greater glory and a grander story. Look for opportunities to talk about how the little stories of their lives fit into the big story of God.
2. Enjoy the experience of worship with God’s people. No, not every Sunday will turn out to be a bundle of unending ecstasy for your family—that doesn’t happen in my family, and it probably won’t happen in yours. We have four children, and there are Sundays when it’s a victory worth celebrating that our family made it to church with everyone’s underwear on the inside instead of on the outside. And yet, even with these challenges and more, we as parents can make the choice to do our best to prepare well for Sunday worship and to make it a priority in our schedule. We can talk about our church’s worship services with eager expectancy, and we can surround weekly worship with experiences that our family enjoys. And, after it’s over, we can make time to discuss the highlights instead of complaining about all the ways that the worship services failed to meet our expectations.
3. Reenact in little ways at home what happens in a big way at church. No, our family faith-talks won’t always turn out the way we planned. Compared to our church’s worship, family worship times are likely to seem silly and small. But the purpose of our family’s times of worship isn’t to provide a big-league church experience at home; it’s to cultivate our children’s awareness of God’s presence in every part of life and to feed their appetite for the work that God is doing through his church.
The same patterns of life that disciple children in a particular sport can shape their formation as followers of Jesus Christ. When it comes to sports, it’s possible that our children may someday embrace the despicable heresy known as the New York Yankees—or even turn to false sects such as soccer or lacrosse. And, if they do, that’s fine.
But, when it comes to their discipleship in Christ, it’s my prayer that God uses these ordinary efforts to form a faith within them that far outlasts my days on this earth.
To learn more about family discipleship, take a look at my book Family Ministry Field Guide.
Consider carefully each of the three suggestions above. Which one could you begin to practice more faithfully in your family this week?