This message titled Train a Child in the Way He Should Speak: Forming Future Evangelists from Jen Wilkin was delivered at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Pre-Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The two-day pre-conference was titled Evangelizing the Next Generation: Gospel Guidance for Parents.
The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check audio/video before quoting.
You came back after the break, so I guess you haven’t solved all of your parenting problems yet. No? My name is Jen Wilkin. I love Bible literacy. That’s my favorite thing to talk about, but one of my other favorite things to talk about is parenting.
I am the mother of four children. They are 23, 22, 21, and 19. So the youngest, mutinous, leaving leaver just left us in August. And Jeff and I now just wander around the house mumbling to ourselves, developing weird attachments to our dogs. It’s probably going to be just fine.
Tonight, I have the opportunity to talk to you on the subject of training a child in the way that he should speak—forming future evangelists. Did anyone grow up in the church in here? Did you grow up in the church and were there things that you were taught as a child in terms of evangelizing others? I remember distinctly in the sixth grade being invited to a pizza party at a church where once we were there, they locked the doors until they had shared the gospel with us.
I’m all for free pizza, but that was alarming.
When I was in the fourth grade, I was taught the “Romans Road”—where you memorize all of the Scriptures through Romans there to point people to the gospel. I was taught that with another girl who (the teacher thought) showed some indications that she might be forthright in her behavior. Is it shocking to anyone that when I was in the fourth grade, they had already identified that I was comfortable addressing others in pointed manner?
So I was taught the Romans road and then, to culminate the “Romans Road” teaching, we had to practice it. And so this other girl and I got in the car with our Sunday school teacher, and we went and picked up another little girl and we took her for milkshakes. And as soon as she got her milkshake, we started testing out the Romans road on her. And at the end of the milkshake, we were supposed to close the deal.
Has anyone else had someone from their past find them on Facebook and not felt awesome about it? So a little while back, I had told a story about this little boy I had a crush on in the second grade who I gave Red Hots to and he found me on Facebook (and I did not want him to it was embarrassing). The rejection stung a little bit. And I confess to you that when I was thinking back on the story of this girl in the backseat of the car, holding her milkshake and staring at us with her eyes—just giant— that I was kind of hoping she wouldn’t find me on Facebook now.
If all there were to training children in how to evangelize was: give them the “Romans Road,” teach them John 3:16, or say here’s a tract go and give this to your friends—then we wouldn’t need to spend any time talking about it tonight.
If there were a formula for evangelism, then certainly, we would have figured it out a long time ago and we would all be operating out of it with great ease— probably wouldn’t even need a milkshake to throw into the bargain. But how can we train children to be evangelists? You’re probably wondering: how do I even know if my child is a believer in order to train them to be an evangelist? And that is actually a very fair question.
But, as with most parenting issues, what we do is we start by looking a few years ahead and saying, “How do I want this to play out down the road?” We certainly can’t guarantee that our children will come to faith, but our responsibility as parents is not to do anything that’s guaranteed. It’s to be able to stand before the Lord and say that we did what we knew to do.
And so how, looking toward a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old, should we be raising children who are younger than that with an eye toward them being little evangelists at some point? I want to suggest to you that it starts small, and it starts with giving your children words to practice. And they’re words that get practice most frequently in your home.
Here’s some of the words that are good to practice with an eye toward raising an evangelist.
And the first are kind words. Kindness is at an all-time low. And it’s not just among adults, it’s among children too. One of the ways that we can raise children who might one day carry the good news of the gospel to someone else, is to teach them to be kind in their words to others.
And so, whereas the norm among children pretty quickly becomes sarcasm, or bullying, or teasing, in the Christian home, we decide —that because the most important words of all will be entrusted to the followers of Christ— that we will train children in a different way. That even when all of their friends are speaking in ways that are unloving, or belittling, or using humor that might be heard on a sitcom that even you as an adult might laugh at, that we don’t want those things on our children’s lips.
I think probably the most insidious one, the one that creeps into the home—we might be able to get bullying out pretty easily out of our homes—but I think sarcasm has a pretty firm hold on a lot of us because we hear it everywhere we go. And there’s a real cost associated with it.
I’ve joked about this before. I grew up in a family where sarcasm was our love language. And when I married my husband, he had grown up in a home where they were not allowed to tease one another. And I remember saying to him: “What did you talk about at the dinner table?” We all got the joke in my family, or at least we thought that we did, but even looking back on it now I can see how my words were cutting.
And even when everyone was still smiling after something had been said, when someone had burned someone else, there really was a cumulative effect. And with our own children—when we decided that we were not going to have that be a part of our home— the hardest part was getting mom and dad to keep it out of their vocabulary. But to get your children to practice words of gratitude and affirmation, and encouragement and support with one another felt a little insurmountable, because we felt like there were going to be so many people outside of our home who wouldn’t be using those words. That surely, the impact of what we were doing inside of our home wouldn’t make much of a dent.
But we were wrong. We were wrong. It turns out that people actually prefer being kind to one another to being mean. And it doesn’t mean that you never have a bad day, right? But when the standard is who’s being the kindness instead of who has the sharpest wit, then the home becomes a safe place for honest words with one another because we give encouragement and support to one another.
Your children are going to learn pretty quickly that the rest of the world isn’t like that. And they’ll begin to see home as a safe place for expressing any words, because it’s a place where they hear kind words, and gratitude, and encouragement. And then they begin to use those words outside of your home with others.
And so even before one of their peers recognizes that they are a Christian or from a Christian home—they will immediately see something that is very different than the other children that they’re around. So kind words are words that we can practice in our homes. If we want our children to use those kinds of words outside of our homes, we need to be seeking opportunities to do that within our own homes.
One of the easiest ways that we did this when the kids were little was at birthday dinners. We would all sit around the table and (some of you may do the same thing) we would each go around and tell birthday girl or birthday boy what it was that we loved about them. And it couldn’t just be one thing. It couldn’t be a joke. It needed to be just an honest, genuine statement of how we cared about you.
The kids still refer back to those dinners. They still remember those words that were spoken and now, on any given birthday, it’s still something that they look forward to doing that they think about what they’re going to say before they come. Because kind words require a lot of thought and a lot of crafting.
Another easy way you can teach children kind words and words of gratitude is to train them in—the almost lost art of—writing thank-you notes. Their grandparents will thank you for having them thank them. But it’s a wonderful way to catechize your child in the language of gratitude. I think it can start with a template, but pretty quickly, they start to come up with their own words. But never think that those are small contributions to raising a child who might one day share the gospel.
Here’s some other words that we can practice at home with a child that we hope will one day be an evangelist: words of reconciliation. Training a child to say, “I’m sorry,” or “I forgive you.” Now, a lot of people or parents that I run into frequently will say, “Well, I don’t want my child to ask for forgiveness if he doesn’t really feel it. Like I’m going to wait until my kid is old enough.” And I’m like, “Okay, well, he’s going to be 32 if you wait that long.”
Why is it important? Why is that the one category of words that often parents will say, “I don’t know if I’m ready to get my child to do that yet?” I think it’s because parents think that if a child says “I’m sorry” before the child feels it inside, then they’re training their child to what? To lie, right? But the thing is, we actually do this all the time. We understand what other word patterns that children actually learn by doing.
And that, sometimes, it’s important to have them say the right thing before they can attach the right feelings to it. We don’t wait for them to respect us to have them start calling us ma’am or sir. We don’t wait for them to feel actual gratitude before we start teaching them thank you or please. And so we do them a service when we teach them the language of reconciliation; when we’re giving them the mechanisms for restoring relationship—even before they know how important it is.
So even with very small children, we begin to teach them the words of forgiveness or the words of repentance. And the best way they will learn the words of forgiveness and repentance is by hearing them spoken by parents who genuinely do mean them. “I’m sorry. I got angry at you when I was correcting you. Can you forgive me?”
Far more powerful than any repetition that children might just to maybe avoiding a consequence, our kids have told us how impactful it was for them to know that mom and dad could come to them and apologize when it was their turn. Children do learn the words of forgiveness and repentance when they’re spoken regularly in their home, not just by children, but by the parents as well.
And they’ll be essential as they grow into adulthood in their understanding of what the gospel means, who receives the gospel, what grace is. It is absolutely foundational. We should give children reconciling words to practice at the earliest stage that we can.
So we should give them kind words and we should give them reconciling words. And here are the other kinds of words that are good to train a child in when you want them to share the good news someday. Slow words. James says, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
Slow words are becoming a lost art in our current environment. Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.” That one kind of stings a little bit because I’m a person who has to multiply words for a living. I’m thinking, “What are the odds I’m going to get through all of this without making a fool of myself at some point?”
But apparently, if I just stood up here and was really, really quiet on a panel with other people, you’d all think I was a genius because I didn’t say anything. I’m actually going to be on a panel tomorrow. I might take that out for a spin. Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many sin is not absent. But he who holds his tongue is wise.”
So how do we teach children in the art of speaking slowly or even remaining silent—especially when there’s conflict? Well, it means that when you’re in the moment of conflict, say a child has disobeyed or say a child is upset, you as a parent are going to model for them few words in that moment versus many words.
Often our response, in the moment of conflict, is to begin to lecture. We want to teach a lesson and just work out all the details: “Why are you doing that? Why are you doing that? Did you see what happened when you did that?” What do we do? We start to keep words flowing out of our mouths through the whole thing so we can navigate to the other side of it just by speaking more words at them. But what if we just spoke a few words?
“Hey, why don’t you go calm down and then we’ll talk.” Teach them what it is to be slow to speak. You know how people choose a word for the year. They’ll choose a word any they’re like, that’s my word for the year. I secretly made fun of it a little bit because people are always choosing words like blessing, or adore, and no one chooses words like repent. No one chooses repent for their word for the year.
And a friend of mine said, “You know what my word for this year is? It’s hesitate.” I am in. I’m in on the word for the year. Hesitate. We can teach our children that concept to be slow to speak. Give them time to process in conflicts.
I have one child who—frustrated when she might have not felt heard on a particular idea or thing that she wanted to do—would begin to just have words fall out of her at a rapid rate. The more agitated she would get, the more she would talk. So we developed a process with her where we would say, “You know what you should do? Why don’t you go write down every single thing that you want to say to us. And then we will read every single word that you said. And because you wrote it down, it will be exactly the way that you wanted to say it.” And so she would go upstairs with her pen and paper (and there’s smoke coming off of her pen and paper and she comes back with five pages of written stuff) and we didn’t always change our decision based on what she had said. But she learned something about measuring her words. And she learned ways to communicate in conflict that helped to be slow to speak. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to confront someone on something and wished, after the fact, that I had sat and written my thoughts out first.
Think about what an impact this will have on our children as they enter into social media spheres. When they get into an age where that is something that becomes a part of their lives. Nothing about social media is slow to speak, is it? In fact, if you don’t weigh in within 15 seconds of whatever the latest thing is that happened out there, people say “where were you?”
We don’t even value being slow to speak; we count it as being absent from the conversation. But we could raise children who think before they speak. We could give them patterns for that. We could model that for them. So give children kind words, and reconciling words, and slow words, and also give them eternal words.
Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God.” We must give our children the words of Scripture. We must! We must think hard about how we are going to get them under their skin.
Because as future evangelists, they will need those words so much. And the Scripture tells us that it’s out of the overflow of the heart, that the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34; Prov. 4:23).
When I was a kid, we did scripture memory to go to summer camp. Like if you memorized enough verses, you got to go to camp. I did not love the Bible, I loved camp, guys. But my mom was no dummy. They were all in the King James and they’re still rattling around in my head. King James, you know, the one Jesus carried. I can’t even switch them to a newer translation because they’re so stuck in me from those years.
And I’ve reached the age of 50, and I can’t even keep my kids’ names straight sometimes. The time for me to be good at hiding God’s word in my heart, at least for it to be easy for me passed a couple of decades ago. But when your children are small, they have a huge capacity for hiding God’s Word in their hearts. We should help them to do so.
So when you get in the car and you want to play music and you have a choice between playing just praise music, that’s singing ideas about the Scripture, or playing songs that are actually teaching the Scripture, be sure that you’re making good time for the songs that are actually teaching the Scripture.
What are you going to repeat to them again and again? My kids always heard right, before we would walk out the door to go out, Jeff and I would say, “be kind one to another.” There are all kinds of way to teach children the Scriptures.
Here’s a good reason to. There was a LifeWay study that recently came out looking at why adult children, who grew up in the church, stayed in the church. And there were these five factors that they looked at that seemed to be the determining factors on why these adult children didn’t leave the church. There were things that you would expect, like being a part of the youth group, or going on a mission trip. But you know what the number one determining factor was of whether a child stayed in the church or not? Were they taught the Bible? Number one, guys, number one. Were they taught the Bible? Are we giving our children the Bible?
There’s actually a church down the street from me that’s doing a great job with this. They start teaching their children about doctrine and theology at a pretty young age. And, by the time they graduate from high school, they will have learned Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, and the overarching story of the Bible. Do you know what church that is? It’s the Mormon church.
And yet for many of us at the time that our children start to hit about middle school or high school, we look at them and say, “Hey, we want you to spend 10 hours a week learning physics and calculus, and 10 hours a week learning Spanish and French. But hey, why don’t you have a 10-minute devotional when it comes to the Bible.”
Our children are capable of learning the Scriptures, and when they hide God’s Word in their heart, it will eventually come out. But it might also bind them to the family of God in a way that we can’t foresee. We should give them eternal words. Kind words, reconciling words, slow words, eternal words, prayerful words.
We should give our children the language of prayer as potential future evangelists. We should train them to pray. And many of you have done this with your kids. I remember when My oldest son Matt was just a little guy and he would sit at the dinner table, waiting for me to bring in whatever little chopped up bits he was having for dinner, and he’s in his high chair, banging his fist on saying, “Amen. Amen. Amen.”
What is that kid doing? He had figured out that after we prayed and said, “amen,” that was when the food came. And it wasn’t long after that he started sitting at the table saying, “goddy goo, goddy goo, goddy goo.” Because God is great and God is good.
And we had years where all that praying as a family was, “God bless the neighbor’s dog next door, Heidi’s puppy.” “God bless Heidi puppy” every night for like two years. The most prayed-for dog in the whole neighborhood. If that dog did not come to faith, it is not our fault.
And then as our children got older, we wanted their focus to turn ever outward with regard to prayer. And so when it was the end of the day, and we all sat down, we’d go around the family, and then after everyone had said what they wanted prayer for. Then, rather than just pray for the person next to you (because that’s too easy since you can kind of listen to what they said when they’re saying it), we would say: “Who’s going to pray for dad? And who’s going to pray for Claire.” And everybody said “I will,” so that they’re listening. They’re listening for what other people need prayer for. And it becomes not just asking the Lord for what they want, but it becomes about celebration, and shared burdens, and shared desires and needs of others.
So we thought we were really killing it, man. We were like, this prayer thing is great. We nailed that. Check that off. A lot of other things might be going wrong, but we got the prayer thing down. Let’s go teach on it at conferences.
And then my college roommate’s husband was deployed in the Middle East. Her children spent the night. It came time for bed, and everybody goes to bow their heads and pray and her sons started praying for children in Afghanistan and children in Africa. Children all over the Middle East and families. Families in places that were torn by war, and I thought, “okay, okay, I see it.” We can give our children the language of prayer because, if they become future evangelists, they’re going to need it. We can train them to pray for their friends who don’t know the Lord, we can train them to pray for the story that they saw on the news, the child that they know at school.
Lastly, but certainly not least, we can give our children hospitable words. Perhaps the most powerful evangelistic phrase that you can teach a child is this one. “Do you want to come over to my house?” Invitations to join the family of God often begin with invitations to join your family at the dinner table. Hospitality is so rare these days. If we raise hospitable children by modeling hospitality in our own home, then we develop a culture of invitation among our family.
Imagine how meaningful it is to a child that lives in a lonely home, or a disconnected home, to come over on birthday night at our house and hear the family go around and speak blessing over the birthday person. It’s like water on parched soil. In a loneliness epidemic, a home that is not lonely is a city on a hill.
If you think about it, when Jesus sent out the Twelve to witness in the Gospel of Matthew, he did not send them out one by one. He sent them out two by two. Why? Because when we go to spread the good news it’s always better to have others around you. And for a small child who is just learning the language of invitation and evangelism, it’s so good for them to be surrounded by their family and have a family message that’s communicated instead of saying to them, “why don’t you just go say the Romans road to that ratty kid who sits next to you at the lunch table?”
Sharing the gospel together versus alone is always good, but it’s especially good when it comes to children and the gospel. We have seen our children’s friends come to faith. One of them sent me his testimony that he was going to read at his baptism and half of it was about the time is spent with our family. I hadn’t even been paying attention to what he was picking up. My next door neighbor grew up in a very difficult family situation. And it was because a little girl who sat next to her in school, invited her over to her house, that she was radically saved and delivered into the family of Christ.
Now, you got to think about this though: so many parents are not at home that many children are living very lonely lives. So many families are heading in different directions all the time that many children are leading very lonely lives. And that means we, as parents, should make it a priority to not just be home but also, inviting other children into our homes to enjoy the absence of loneliness that they will find there.
As our kids got older, we made a general rule (that probably many of you have that): they couldn’t be at someone else’s house unless a parent was home. And, because so few parents are home, it incentivized everyone to come to our house. We were just trying to be fearful and we ended up being geniuses.
And then we tried to make our home somewhere that those kids would want to be. We wanted our kids to be excited to have their friends come to our house because we knew that, together, we could share the message of the gospel with them. What are the obstacles that parents come up with when they think about this?
I can tell you some of mine. Because I’m a ‘no’ mom. I say “no” just for fun. I could feel myself thinking if they all come over here, it’s going to be messy. It’s going to be noisy. I’m going to have to feed them snacks, I’m probably going to have to buy snacks the fun moms buy and I’m not a fun mom. I’m going to have to be physically present the whole time, because I made a rule that said my own kid can’t go somewhere where a parent isn’t.
And then there’s also that parenting insecurity of “oh, maybe our home isn’t nice enough or fun enough. The so-and-sos have a pool; we don’t even have a ping pong table.” Don’t kid yourself. It’s not about the pool or the ping pong table. It’s about that ecosystem that you’re building in your home that speaks the gospel even in the smallest things: that here people are loved, that here we are kind to one another, that here we reconcile and we are slow in our speech.
And we love eternal words that the scriptures come out of us in normal conversation because that’s what our family looks like. That we’re prayerful, that we pray for one another. You know, we might even be praying for you a little kid when you’re not here. That we’re hospitable. Families that want to form future evangelists can certainly teach them the “Romans Road.” But by all means, they should build around them the words of life at every stage of development. So that speaking the gospel is just another normal day in a life that’s been lived out experiencing it. Let me pray.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the children that You have entrusted to us. We pray Lord that, one day, they might find the words of life on their lips spoken out of a heart that knows them. And Lord, we pray that in our homes we would shape their thoughts and their speech with words that have eternal significance. Father, as their parents may we model it before we ask to see it in them. Thank you, Father, that You have spoken words of life to us, and we ask these things in Your Son’s name. Amen.