A couple of months ago I was in the kitchen preparing lunch and caught a familiar tune wafting from the living room. My son was singing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” along with an interactive Christmas book. Particularly delightful was his substituting “morning” for “glory” and mumbling incoherently the “peace on earth” section. He didn’t have any trouble with the following phrase: “God and sinners reconciled,” my 3-year-old bellowed with joy. As I laughed to myself and squeezed mustard onto a slice of wheat bread, my wife—ever ready to seize on teachable moments—turned immediately to the living room. “Do you know what reconciliation means, Colton?” After he indicated he didn’t understand the significance of what he’d yelled across the house, she proceeded to explain, in simple terms, the nature of our relationship with God and our need for a Savior.
But wait: hadn’t Colton heard these things before? Wasn’t he familiar with the idea of sin and holiness and the need to be right with God? Ever since bringing him home from Ethiopia two and a half years ago we’d incorporated family worship into his nightly routine. We’d read The Jesus Storybook Bible several times and talked a good deal about God, Christ, and the cross during our nightly treks through Scripture. Wasn’t that enough?
Despite my wife’s remarkably keen gift to capture moments of educational opportunity, I failed that afternoon to capitalize on Colton’s singing. It’s easy for me to disciple my son the way I organize my office. Each item in, on, and around my desk is guarded from foreign objects with a carefully crafted and regularly updated system. Why such care? Because the essence of organization lies in having a place for everything, and daily productivity largely depends on ready and reliable access to the right item at the right time.
But let this passion for organization dominate my strategy for nurturing our child and I might soon find myself in the dreaded mire of Christian compartmentalization. So long as I’ve completed the formal time of Bible reading, prayer, and singing, all the other aspects of discipleship will shake out, right? Let’s not let fun activities interfere with serious Bible reading, nor spiritual discussion spill over into bath time. Remember: everything in its place.
The potential danger in this kind of thinking is obvious. If we talk to our children about spiritual things only during our nightly routines or on Sundays after church, we’re gradually teaching them to isolate their faith to a few small sections of the day and week. Spiritual realities meant to permeate life like sugar in a cup of tea get relegated to small parts of the day, and we wonder why our kids cannot think or act Christianly—with any authenticity, at least—except for a few formalized moments here and there. As they grow into young adults, it’ll feel increasingly out of place to talk about God’s holiness while enjoying a baseball game or to discuss Scripture while shooting hoops.
The problem here lies not in the regular practice of family devotional time. Rather, it’s found in relying on such formal instruction to fulfill our responsibility to train our children in the fear of the Lord. Is it wise to set aside time each day for family worship, prayer, and Bible reading? Absolutely. But we should apply the same diligence we expend to find the best devotional literature to seeking unexpected opportunities for teaching all day long. The call God places on me to disciple my son is far more comprehensive than what a few minutes of family worship can afford. Scripture portrays an all-inclusive approach to discipleship that resists compartmentalization.
Moses and Proverbs: All-Day Discipleship
Moses, for example, instructed Israelite parents to speak regularly of the Lord to their children, carefully weaving spiritual discussion throughout daily activities: “You shall teach [these commandments] diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). Parents couldn’t seal off biblical instruction from the natural rhythm of the day or quarantine it to a brief devotional time before bed. Moses envisioned a kind of walk-and-teach discipleship amid life’s ordinary events.
The book of Proverbs informs this kind of parent-to-child discipleship in at least two ways.
First, the structure of the Proverbs jolts parents out of a compartmental mindset. One notices, for example, that the Proverbs traverse a wide range of topics without following a discernible outline. One verse may speak about gaining wisdom by listening to instruction (10:8), while the next mentions the value of integrity (10:9), only to return a few verses later to wisdom (10:17). Verses extolling the diligent man and chiding the sluggard (12:11) are flanked by statements on caring for animals (12:10) and the danger of covetousness (12:12). Why such a meandering method of instruction? Because Solomon knew life rarely comes at us in carefully organized chunks. It’s an example of patience right after your son spills a cup of milk onto the newly mopped floor; it’s a reminder to your child how desperately she needs Jesus immediately after throwing her doll at her brother in anger.
Second, the Proverbs portray a father walking and talking with his kids, creatively using examples from everyday life to instruct in the way of wisdom. “Look here,” says the perceptive parent, “see how the ant works hard without anyone motivating her?” (Prov. 6:6-8) Or as they pass a soldier the dad might say, “Here is a strong and courageous man. But someone who guards his tongue is even mightier” (16:32). This parent isn’t waiting until 15 minutes before bedtime to start spiritual conversations; she’s taking opportunity throughout the day to instill in her child a vision of God as Lord of everything, even the ant and the soldier.
I am confident, therefore, that as we steep ourselves in Scripture and allow God to broaden our view of discipleship to encompass the entire day, our capacity to perceive and leverage timely opportunities will become the natural outflow of our lives. As a result, our children may find faith that is utterly pervasive and a Savior who really does change everything, not just bedtime.