Parenting for Eternity amid 21st-Century Challenges

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Parenting for Eternity amid 21st-Century Challenges

A workshop with Erik and Donna Thoennes


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Erik Thoennes: I’m Erik Thoennes. This is my wife, Donna. We are the parents of four kids. We’ll tell you a little bit about them in a moment. This is the parenting children in the midst of 21st Century Challenges in a gospel-centered way, so that’s what we’re here for. We believe deeply. One of our points we’ll talk about is how important it is that we don’t go it alone, that we have a local church, that we have a truly collaborative approach to raising our children. And so we want you to know that we want to leave plenty of time at the end for your input, for conversations, questions. I’m looking out at some of you and some of you I know are wise, Godly parents and have been at it longer than we have. And there are even people here I look up to and we’ve looked up to in their parenting, so we would love to hear from you as well at the end and even a little in just a few minutes. So, that’s where we’re heading in this time and I’d like to start with prayer.

Heavenly father, we’re grateful for life. For new life in Christ, for the Spirit’s work in our life that takes utterly dead things and makes us into born again, new Creatures, adopted children, forgiven and righteous in your site because of your son. We’re grateful for that Precious Gospel. We’re grateful for the privilege of raising children. The ones you give us, the ones you give us to help parents raise. We are grateful for the privilege of being part of your gospel advancing work as we pour into younger people in our lives. I thank you for each person here. We have unique challenges and opportunities and I pray you’d help us with both of those today. That you’d give us collective wisdom, that you would give us insight as the spirit works. And we commit our time to you grateful and in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Well, as I said, we’re the parents of four kids. 18, 15, and 13 and 12. I got that right as my son just had a birthday.

Donna Thoennes: I should’ve done that part.

Erik: Yeah. That’s right. And, I teach at Biola University as does Donna. Donna in the Torrey Honors Institute there teaching great books. I teach theology on Talbot’s faculty and Chair of the Undergrad Bible Theology Department. And I’m also a pastor at Grace Evangelical Church in La Mirada. That’s really the free church, not this big one. We’re kind of concerned about that, but no, we love this church. We love what’s going on here and we’re thankful for it. And Donna started an Orphan Care Ministry at our church as well as a women’s ministry and an engaged couples class. So Donna is very involved in ministry at our church as well. So, Donna will share a little bit, a little glimpse of our family in a moment, and then we’ll talk about challenges to all of this as we think about stewarding the precious young lives God has given us to have an influence.

And I do want to say that, we weren’t able to have children for many years and for those years, we poured our parental affection into the lives of other people’s kids, especially when they came to college and in our church context. And so, today we don’t want to limit it all what we’re saying to just biological children or even adopted children, but the parental role within the family of God that I think all Christians are called to fulfill in some significant way. It’s amazing to me. I’m still waiting, but I don’t think aside from when I’ve preached, I’ve ever heard the verse, “I have no greater joy than when my children are walking with the Lord,” actually applied the way John intended it to be applied. Which was not for his biological or even adopted children, but for those in the church to whom he was writing, those were his children.

Now, I think it’s perfectly fine to use it for the children in our home, but I think it’s also important to think about the way John intended that to be used and it was for those in the church he was writing to that were like spiritual children to him. And of course, we have all these familial ideas in the Bible that never limits fatherly, motherly, brotherly, sisterly, grandmotherly and fatherly care and influence in the lives of others. We shouldn’t be waiting until God entrusts children to our home to start parenting. I think we should view the family of God as just that, a family, and we should be seeking to have fatherly, motherly influence in the lives of young people and we are deeply grateful for the way that’s been the case in raising our children as well. So, Donna will give you a little snapshot of our family situation. It’s different than many of yours I’m sure.

Donna: Yeah, I would love to tell you about my people. So first, Erik’s my high school sweetheart. So we met when we were 16 and we’ve been married almost 30 years in January. And we love being married and we love serving at our church together and raising these four kids together. So, 10 years ago we adopted our oldest when she was 8 from Taiwan and she’s now a college freshman and she loves to sing. And then Erik told you we have a 15 year old. She loves sports and she loves to serve people at our food bank. Her name’s Paige, and we adopted her when she was seven. And then three years later, we adopted a little boy when he was six. His name is Sam and he’s now is going to be taller than we are, I think, which is quite amazing because he’s Taiwanese also. And he loves to play basketball. And then three years ago we went to China and we, all five of us went to China and picked up Isaac and he’s now 12 and he has some special needs and Isaac is just a little ball of joy. And so we have the amazing privilege of helping them to know the Lord and grow up and deal with their difficult pasts. And it’s an amazing privilege for us.

Erik: So we got married and realized a couple of years in that we were dealing with infertility and that was a real battle for a few years and we finally got to the point where we said, well, Lord, we think this is what you have for us. We thought about adoption at that time and decided that he wanted to do what I said before, just pour our parental affection into other people’s kids. And so we would often have Biola students living with us. We would have people at our home constantly. We would get to go on mission trips. And after 18 years of marriage without our own children, we were on a mission trip in India, and God broke our hearts for orphans, especially older girls, especially in Asian countries. That’s who he just put on our hearts.

So, we realized that the rarity of those kids finding families, older kids are considered special needs after just a couple of years because of the emotional trauma they tend to experience and people are afraid of them very often. And so we were especially burdened for older girls, especially in Asian countries, so we began the process. Feeling a bit too old for it, but then we spent a whole semester in Cambridge with John and Noel Piper and their delightful daughter who at the time was 10 years old and they adopted Talitha when she was a baby, when they were 50 and we were spring chickens compared to that at the time, so that took that excuse away. And then we had Sam just dropped on us. It was really a 48-hour adoption. Our social worker called and just said there’s a boy who same orphanage as your girls was adopted a year ago and the family’s terminating the adoption. So would you take him tomorrow? And so that was a whirlwind but an amazing time.

And then God put kids with disabilities on our hearts, especially older ones, and that’s how we ended up with Isaac through a friend who has six kids with disabilities in addition to four kids that they had biologically. So that’s our family. Obviously, that means we skipped right over diapers and all kinds of things, and so we don’t have a lot of experience with really younger kids. We just launched our first child to college a couple of months ago, so we are rookies compared to many of you. So I feel like a greenhorn sitting here at this only for 10 years when some of you have been at it way longer than we have. But God has really taught us so much about who he is and who we are before him.

I was just talking to my friend Neil and telling him how much I look up to him as a dad and he said, “We get through by grace and that’s it.” And that realization has been so tremendously important for us that there’s enough grace for our kids, for us in all of this. And, you know, you’ve probably heard people say that when a kid turns out well, parents take too much credit for it and when they don’t, they take too much blame for it and that’s probably true.

But we were asked to talk about not just parenting in a gospel-centered way but in light of 21st-century challenges. So we thought it’d be a good idea to throw out some of the challenges that we think are especially prevalent today in raising children in a gospel-centered way, and then we’ll talk about the gospel a little bit. But some of these challenges are ones you have felt keenly and then after, Donna and I go through this, we’d love to hear any others you think we should also consider as well. But why don’t you lead off with the first one, Donna?

Donna: Yeah. So the culture that we live in I think encourages our children to put their friends on a higher plane than their parents even. So their friends can become very central in their lives and their lives can look like they orbit around their friends and this can be very dangerous for children because other teens or other grade school kids are not good stabilizing factors. And so, I think that’s a pull for our kids. To pull them away from our authority, the safety that they have with us, the stability.

Erik: We also have the blame culture where people don’t easily take responsibility and there can be a lack of gratitude. I will sit with students often at Biola and they’ll complain about how hurt they’ve been by the church, and their youth ministry, and their youth pastor, and their parents. And I say, “Tell me what that’s looked like.” And a lot of times I just want to say and sometimes do, “It just sounds like life. It doesn’t sound like you’ve had it especially hard honestly.” But I will sometimes call my students’ generation the disappointment generation  There’s this sense that I haven’t gotten what I deserve. I haven’t got the best of it. And my dad was working all the time. And okay, I suppose that can be excessive but it sounds like you had a hard working dad, which used to be an admirable thing. And it’s amazing how easily disappointed students can be, getting blindsided by the difficulty of life. Getting blindsided by people disappointing you, and hurting you, and offending you, and things not being easy.

And so, raising children who truly take responsibility can be incredibly difficult because we just have a whining, complaining culture that teaches us to feel like we’re never getting what we deserve. And as we know from a Gospel perspective, thank God we’re not getting what we deserve because we deserve hell, right? So if we start there, well, it’s nothing but gratitude from there. And so trying to cultivate a heart of gratitude rather than the sense of entitlement and being so easily disappointed with parents and families and churches, can be a real challenge.

Donna: Yeah. And next, this one’s obvious, but promiscuity. I mean, the culture that we live in and the availability that our kids have to social media and just so many things that are unholy, pornography. And they are being trained to see people according to the flesh instead of as spiritual beings, and so that’s a huge concern for us.

Erik: Technology, social media, a lot of statistics I’ve seen have said that that is probably the number one daily challenge in raising children today. Is what in the world do you do with technology, social media, the pornography that’s so accessible? The distraction, the dopamine hit feedback loop that they’re always brilliantly creating in our lives. And we can be the worst examples of that for our kids often, but it’s not just the immorality that it’s accessible, it’s creating a whole different dynamic.

On my 16th birthday, you know where I was, the Department of Motor Vehicles getting my license. My daughter is 18. She, for the first time yesterday, we went to see her college and she said, “I think I need to get my license.” She’s finally starting to get around to feeling. Unthinkable, but there’s a different dynamic in their relationships now. Now, the good thing is teen pregnancies are down and so are drunk driving accidents among teens because they feel contentment sitting in their room on their phones. And so that has an effect on their socialization, their relational depth and quality, and sophistication, and as well as just the flat out distractions.

I’m on sabbatical this semester and we’re living at Hume Lake and it’s wonderful. And there’s no cell service there. And it’s like we’re Amish. It’s just unbelievable how different it is. By the way, on this topic, great book, Andy Crouch “Becoming a Tech-Wise Family.” I highly recommend it. His daughter writes the introduction. She’s 16 and her depth of thinking and ability to write shows a family that hasn’t been overly distracted. She has lines like, “We’re not anti-technology, we’ve just learned that the best app in the world could never compare with one real bumblebee.” Things like that. I said, “Oh, this kid’s been thinking.”

And then Andy in the first chapter says, “The first thing you need to do is just be willing to be different. And be different even than the majority of families in your church.” And, you know, your kids will be, “All my friends have cell phones. All my friends do this or are able to be on this social media.” We just need to be willing to be different right off the bat in this area especially. So, the technology, the restlessness, the weariness, the lack of subtleness of soul that comes from this, major concerns we have. And I must say, myself included, we parents need to set the pace in not being tethered to a device all the time if we ever expect our kids to be reflective, peaceful, thoughtful, undistracted people. There’s a desperate, desperate need for this now.

I have a friend who’s on the staff at our church and Randy has a flip phone and people get mad at him for having a flip phone. And he just says, “You know what? I don’t need the temptation or the distraction.” Oh, you can handle it. Well, if you want to put it that way, but it’s just amazing how if you make a decision, I just don’t want that, people will be angry at you and we just need to be okay with them.

Donna: Stress, anxiety, depression, these are at all-time high with teenagers and young adults. I think part of it might be related to what I said earlier about teens especially putting their friends in a really central spot in their lives and giving them more authority than they should have, but also being tethered to devices. I mean, that’s what all the research is telling us, that it’s related to depression and stress that our kids feel. Hopefully, we’re not adding to that stress but yeah, it’s a real problem and a real concern for kids today.

Erik: And obviously when we say that there needs to be a God-centeredness but a parental presence throughout the lives of raising your kid, we’re not saying being overly drawing them to yourself or not allowing them to do that. But, man, we’ve noticed at least in our kids, they want to go sit with their friends at church. They want to always have this sense of independence. When we’re at dinner somewhere, they want to go sit by themselves or with some friends and to just maintain that. Your kids need to see you tear up during worship. They need to see you giving the offering, if anybody still does that anymore and doesn’t just have it deducted. But they need to see you praying or listening to the word, and to see that throughout your life when you gather, when you do things as a family is so important. So we’re not saying they shouldn’t have friends and shouldn’t have freedom, but it seems that as soon as they can, they want to be distancing themselves very often from their parents and I don’t think we should give in to that.

I think one of the problems these days is women who feel like they need to do it all or they’re betraying their gender. We have a friend who dropped her kids off at the junior high one day, the public junior high. And there was a school counselor, and she looked at Kathy and she said, “Are you one of those stay at homes?” How quaint and really demeaning. And then a few weeks later, Kathy had a baseball hat on and sweats and she dropped her kids off again, and the same woman said, “Oh, dressed for success I see.” And you can get these very overt or subtle messages all the time that to really be a constant presence at home for a mom is somehow selling out. I’ve heard people say it’s almost immoral for a woman to settle for something like that.

And so, women who feel the weight of the world to be a tremendous mom and wife and CEO all at the same time, although I don’t think there are rules for what you put in your life, to have priorities for this precious window of time where dads are a presence, where moms are a presence. And we don’t feel a responsibility, men and women, but I think women especially feel it in our culture to be truly present in our families.

Donna: Yeah. And another challenge is lack of simplicity. Just filling our calendar so that we are driving everywhere, taking our kids to a thousand different appointments and activities, and it leads to restlessness when we over commit ourselves and our kids.

Erik: Well, those are the ones we jotted down. Are there other challenges you think are especially important for us to consider as we talk about this topic? Anything else come to mind that we haven’t hit on. What do you think?

Female 1: We have a lot of people in our church that have adult children that are still very dependent. You’ve kind of related to that with your 15-year old not having a life. But I’m seeing that not just in our church but in other places as well where the parents, their kids are 25 and they are still taken to their work every day by their parents still or they move out, but the parents are still supporting them financially to the point where the parents retirement is, to say the specific for adopted kids, their retirement is on the line. And they are in their 60s, they still have the rest of their lives that they need to take care of themselves.

Erik: Right. So the family dynamic, changing with children the failure to launch idea that adulthood is now delayed with this myth of adolescence that there’s this 10 year halfway house between being a child and an adult that you live in and it’s often literally your parents’ home. And yeah, and I think especially for young men, there seems to be a freedom to I’ll become a respectable kind of man that would be a good husband when I’m about 30 after I master fantasy football. And yeah, so there can be a real different dynamic now where a kid would be taking on a lot of responsibility by 15.

Now, I say to my freshmen and sophomores at Biola, “I know it can be hard for you to really take responsibility, but please realize 100 years ago as an 18-year-old, you’d probably already have a wife and three kids. You’d be back from a war and missing a leg and running the family farm. So, please get your paper in on time without coffee stains on it. And no, I don’t have a stapler.” And it’s just amazing how there can be this sense of permission to be a child or adolescent for a long time now. And that’s another thing, to call our kids to grow up so that they don’t have to wait till they’re 30 before they’re actually able to be a good husband or wife. Yeah, that’s great.

Male 1: Tell us the difference between idolizing their children and prioritizing their children.

Erik: Especially as Christians, right? We take seriously this awesome calling of being parents and so it’s so easy to turn that into idolatry. And focus on the family can actually be at the exclusion of God, and the church, and in our own souls and things that really matter. And so that’s a great point. There’s a balance, isn’t there? Between taking this stewardship seriously, but not turning the family into an idol in itself.

Donna: That’s like a segment we need…

Erik: Yeah. One more. Yeah.

Female 2: Four children as well. Two older, two in college. And I know that when our kids went to secondary schools and the whole sexual identity gender issues. And even amongst friends, they would call Christians, Christian friends, feeling isolated in their issues with that or just trying to learn what all means and I think [inaudible 00:23:37].

Erik: So issues of sexuality, as kids are trying to forge an identity, it’s hard enough when you’re trying to forge it, but when you think there may be some mysterious orientation you haven’t discovered yet that you may wake up and realize is there, not a temptation or a behavior, but I have now discovered who I am and I didn’t see it, that’s a terrifying prospect. When you are trying to discern what God’s called you to and who you are, but now to have the sexuality component added to it where you may discover something about yourself that God didn’t design, but now is indelibly true. What a terrifying prospect and difficult.

Female 2: [inaudible 00:24:20] too is watching friends go through that. Just feeling so isolated, so alone and wanting to know what to say and how to deal with that. Something that might help to walk through that moment. My best friend wasn’t born male or female. It’s a full set of issues that has forged in trying to help them [inaudible 00:24:42]

Erik: Right. So not only dealing with it ourselves as people growing up, but helping friends go through these very confusing times and wanting to be empathetic with genuine struggles, but to still be able to say, I know that’s how you feel, but is that right? It’s almost like in the name of empathy, you are not allowed to ask questions like that. Yeah. Great.

So, let’s move and we’ll return to some of these in a little bit, but we have the privilege of raising children as disciples in the advancement of the gospel of the glory of God. I was just reading a book that refers to Dallas Willard and it talked about Dallas as a young boy whose mother died when he was very young. And on her deathbed, she said to her husband, “Keep eternity before the children.” I just loved it. What great parting words to say to your husband as you’re dying. Ladies, if you’re ever dying, just keep that one back there and use it. But what a great, keep eternity before the children.

I remember reading Morrison’s excellent biography on Jonathan Edwards. If you haven’t read it, there’s even a shorter version, but read the big one and it’s so good. And I remember reading that because of infant mortality and children dying young, they’d at times actually carve the angel of death on the headboards of children’s beds to remind them of their own mortality. How terrifying and wonderful is that? But to go into life with our children with a sense of eternity before us. Remember Jim Elliot wrote to his 15-year-old sister Jane on her birthday card, “Live as if you’re on the threshold of eternity every day,” to his 15-year-old sister. I love that. No happy birthday. Hope you have a great day. No. And then he prayed, “The saint who advances on his knees, never retreats,” to his 15-year-old sister.

So to be parents who keep eternity before our children, and see the privilege of discipleship in an intense long-term way is just tremendous for us to be a part of. And we get to glorify God and continue to grow as disciples. As pastors, we’re always trying to remind ourselves that as we shepherd the sheep, we are sheep as well and we never can forget that. And we want to make sure our people know that, but we are growing as disciples with our children as well. And so that’s why asking children for forgiveness, recognizing… I remember my daughter came to me one time, she was just so angry with me and she said, “Daddy, you have no idea what it’s like to be an 11-year-old girl.”

And I thought, you know, you’re absolutely right and you have no idea what it’s like to be a 42-year-old father of an 11-year-old girl, so let’s just learn together. And I think that really made a lot of sense to her. And it really was helpful in our dynamic, in our relationship. And so we are in this as disciples, as well as wanting to lead our children to become disciples of Christ.

But as has been mentioned, parenting is not our highest calling. It’s important to keep that in mind as tremendous and weighty and important as this is, it’s not our highest calling. And our sanctification is just as much a part of parenting as theirs is. God’s doing something in us as we’re helpful helping our children to grow. Deuteronomy 6:4, wonderful passage in this. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might. And these words I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall t…” And then look at immediately goes into the family context with the great commandment. “You shall teach them diligently to your children and 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. You shall bind them as a sign in your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

I love that image of the word of God, the ways of God. God himself being woven into all the moments of our days. Not just on Sunday mornings, not just family devotions, but woven into the rides to school, and the conflicts that we have, and in every part of our day, God and his ways are woven into all of it.

And so, to be Gospel-centered parents in light of all of these challenges I don’t think is complicated. I think there’s a simplicity to it, but it’s certainly not easy. And Gospel-centered parenting quite simply means to keep the gospel front and centered in our lives, in our relationships, in the goals we have, in everything we do. It cannot be behavior management or moral efforts to make our kids stop biting each other and being mean to each other. It’s got to be seeing them come to a saving knowledge of Christ and to grow in Him.

Another challenge to Gospel-centered parenting today is a clarity about what the gospel actually is. Which is that God is great and Glorious and created us in his image for himself, and we’re utterly sinful and don’t live up to the glory of God as we’re called to and create it to be. And so we can’t save ourselves or our children and it’s only through the finished work of Christ and repentance and faith in him that this happens. And God at work in us then makes us like Jesus, so we lead kids to Christ and into true conversion, and then we see God’s saving work take root in their lives and we get to be part of that.

And we also have to parent in light of Jesus’ return. When I was a kid, the church in the United States was bingeing on the second coming. It was end times everywhere. And I feel like we sort of got embarrassed, like, we overdid it and we haven’t talked about it since. And we need to. We need to think, teach, preach about Jesus coming back as the judge and making all things new someday. My dear friend Chris Mitchell, before he died, said, “Erik, parent with the long view.” There are days if I define my child and his future on what just happened in the last two hours, my child’s future will be life in prison with me in the cell next to him.

And so I can’t parent in light of what’s in front of me right now or even last week or next week. I need to parent in light of the long view. And Dennis Rainey said, “I have no interest in a happy 10-year-old. I just want a godly 20-year-old.” And so the long view. But the real long view is the return of Christ, the judgment seat of Christ. When everything is finally judged before the face of God and every mouth is stopped and he makes all things new. And living in light of that, something we need to do with all our lives as well as parenting. So everything we do needs to be grounded in these gospel truths.

So we adopted our daughter when she was eight. Everybody says how fast it goes. How about when you start at eight? So we had 10 years with our precious girl and we took her to college a couple of months ago, very emotional time. The way things worked out, we left other kids up at Hume with people who love them, and then we brought Caroline, just the three of us, the way it started to college. And the last night in our home was just the three of us like our parenting started. And we decided a good way to spend that time was how we started our time with her. And we broke out the Big Picture Storybook Bible with our 18-year-old daughter and we read the creation account, we read the incarnation, Jesus, the son becoming a man. We read the crucifixion account, we read the resurrection, and we read the second coming. And then in tears, we prayed for our girl. And we tried to get across to her that now that you’re an adult and you’re 18 and you’re going off to college, it’s the same old story that’s the most important thing in the world as you go off to college as it was when we adopted you at eight. And then we sang some songs we used to sing. It was beautiful and very emotional, and then we brought our girl to college the next day. But that Gospel-centeredness is something we can never be ashamed of. We can never be embarrassed by the simplicity of the gospel and keeping it front and centered in the lives of our kids.

Donna: And now it’s my turn to talk and I’m all emotional remembering that moment. It was beautiful and we saw her last night and she’s thriving, so that’s part of my emotion. But also in order to do Gospel-centered parenting, we’ve got to be Gospel-centered ourselves. We’ve got to tend to our own souls. We will not have the resources that we need if we are not taking care of our own souls. We want to be an example to our kids, so we want them to see us reading the Bible. We want them to see us praying, worshiping, serving, but it’s not just about being an example for them, is it? It’s about feeding our souls. We will not have the capacity to do what God has called us to do if we don’t do that.

I did realize a few years ago that I was getting up before my children and reading my Bible and spending time with the Lord and my kids never saw me doing it, so I realized that I just had to be intentional to talk to them about it. I had to tell them what I had been reading. I had to tell them the things God was teaching me, the ways that I was growing. And that has been really helpful, I think, to just…to remind them that I am doing that while you’re still asleep. So whatever it takes, whatever it takes. But I think, we need to be intentional to be faithful in those ways because we know that’s the only answer for them. Amid all those challenges that we just listed, there is no hope for walking with Jesus for them in this world. They need an example of people who are doing that. They can not walk through faithfully without tending to their soul, and so they need to know that we are setting that example for them. Yeah. Oh, intent…

Erik: Let’s go ahead then.

Donna: I have another part.

Erik: Go ahead.

Donna: were you gonna…

Erik: Go ahead.

Donna: So we need to tend to our souls. We also need to tend to our marriages. Erik and I both come from broken homes and so we are so committed to having a home where our kids feel very confident that we love one another and we’re not walking away from one another, ever. And so we need to be really intentional about that. And after 30 years, you could not really be good friends anymore if you’re not intentional about building the friendship. That’s part of the reason we went away on this sabbatical time was so that we had time together to invest in our friendship and it has been very fruitful. And I would just encourage you, your kids so desperately need for your marriage to be thriving, and so to do whatever it takes to be thriving.

Erik: Where you love one another, you affirm one another in front of your kids. I am constantly saying, “Do you realize how great your mother is? Look at her. She’s beautiful. She’s brilliant. She loves you so well. Please show gratitude.” I know.

Donna: And they roll their eyes.

Erik: Right. But I know find a lot of security in that. Paul says, “Watch your life and teaching carefully.” Our lives need to get serious attention, if we’re ever going to have the resources we need to provide for kids. Only God can change our hearts, only God can change theirs. Paul Miller’s “A Praying Life” was a phenomenal book I read a couple of years ago on prayer and there was one sentence that was like a dagger in my heart. And it was, “You have no right to expect any change in the hearts of your children that you are not consistently and specifically praying for.”

And I was so convicted by that and I thought, I preach to my kids 10 times more than I pray for them. And so to be going, like we do with anyone we want to see change in. To be going to the Lord with these people we love seeking change in specific and consistent ways in prayer is vital for us. And then availing ourselves to all the means of grace God has for us in word, and prayer, and worship, and giving, and serving together, and proclaiming the goodness of God and doing all the things God tells us will help us grow. We avail ourselves to them depending on him to do all we need him to.

And the best place this has to always happen is the local church and we can’t emphasize this enough. I don’t think there’s anything you can do more important for your kids than have a local church family that they are a part of, that they see you loving non-negotiably, with all the challenges that come with it. Do your kids know you love the bride of Christ and you love the church? Not just the church universal, not just the church theoretical or theological, but those annoying people you gather with every single week, maybe more than once a week. So, the local church has to be this context we work this out in.

I don’t think there should be a competition between church, family time and family time. There should be a beautiful melding of the two. If I die today, the saints of Grace Evangelical Free Church of La Mirada will be the ones who take care of my wife and kids. I have no doubt about it, they are family. And Christians throughout the centuries have left their earthly families when they became Christians. And so we need to have that sort of loyalty and commitment to our local churches that our kids see, where they grow up, not just to love Jesus, but they love his bride too.

Donna: Just wanted to add that, I don’t know that we would have adopted all four of our children if our church was not so on board with our adoptions and helping us. I feel like our church adopted our four kids in some ways and they have been so helpful to us. I could just sit here and go on about how wonderful they’ve been.

Erik: I took my son to a men’s retreat while ago and one of the breakout icebreaker questions was if you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be? And he did not say, Lebron James. He said, Richard and Ruth Dix, a retired missionary couple in our church that he wanted to have dinner with. You better believe the next week, Richard and Ruth were at our house and my son wants to have dinner with them out of everybody in the world. It’s just amazing. And I love that he loves our people like that.

Donna: We’ve taught our kids at the dinner table that they have to always ask at least one question of our guests and they’ve gotten some of them better than others, but pretty savvy at asking good questions. And it has been so helpful to watch our kids intentionally connect with people from different generations and to learn from them. And to just become comfortable question askers because there are a lot of people who don’t ask good questions and aren’t good listeners, but that’s been a beautiful thing.

So, and I want to say how important it is for us to focus on God in all of our lives as parents. Whether we’re driving our kids to school, I’ve spent a lot of time driving kids to school in the past year, but to be intentional with just common everyday life. So our dinner conversations, trying to have meaningful conversations one-on-one with our kids, having consistent Bible time or, so simple, we just opened the Bible and read a passage and talk about it and pray together and sing a hymn.

But also setting aside times. We take our kids one-on-one on growing up weekends, we call it, where we talk about all things related to growing up. And they’ve been sweet times and they look different. Sometimes it’s backpacking, sometimes it’s at a fancy hotel. It looks different, but it just provides opportunities for intentional conversation. And what is intentional just means you go into it with intent. And our intent is we get enough one-on-one time, with meaningful conversations that they will grow and that we will have a heart connection with them because we have found in only 10 years of parenting, but we’ve found that it’s connecting to their hearts is the most important consistent thing.

So whether we’re educating them, or disciplining them, or laughing with them, or backpacking with them, are we connecting to their hearts? Can we discipline them in a way that connects with their heart? And so thinking about ways to do that. We take them on one-on-one dates. When I take my kids on one-on-one dates, it’s always simple. Sometimes it’s just going out for boba, but they know when they’re sitting there across the table with me that I’m going to ask them the same four questions.

And what’s great is that sometimes they’ve been thinking about it because they know the questions are gonna come. So, four questions. Is there any way I can be a better mother to you? And they always have an answer and sometimes it’s so great, like, “You’re such a great mom.” And sometimes it’s something like, “It’s so embarrassing when you kiss my friends on the forehead. Can you stop?” And I want to know that. I don’t want to embarrass my teenager. So it’s great. So how can I be a better mother to you? Is there anything you think our family should do differently in light of what you’re learning about God and his Word?

Is there anything you should tell me? They often have answers to that one too. I think number two, they might not have a lot of answers until maybe they’re college freshmen, but if they are learning something about the Christian life that they think we’re lacking as a family, I want to know. Because isn’t it so cool to think that your parents could actually shift or alter something in the way that they lead your family based on what your learning and God’s word? What if they learned that we need to be…I don’t know what. Anyway, I got to move on.

Is there anything you should tell me? They often have something to that. And then do you have any questions about anything about God, about our family, about your body, about anything? And they answer these. But it’s a sweet time and it gives them an opportunity to talk and it gives me an opportunity to listen and connect at the heart level with them.

Erik: Enjoy your children. I’m working on a book right now called “21 Things Christians Should Probably Stop Saying,” and one of them is,”I have to love you, but I don’t have to like you.” Now, on the way to love often that’s sadly the case, but we’re called to brotherly affection and we are called to loving people as our own family. And so we want to move beyond that. We don’t want to think that God loves us but doesn’t like us and we want to love the way he does. And so, I pray that God would not just help my kids know I love them, but that I like them. I enjoy them. And especially for dads, I would say. I would encourage you to seek to be playful, seek to make a mess once in a while with your kids. Even though it seems like half our lives are cleaning things up and making things organized that get a mess, well, be part of making the mess sometimes. Be playful, be creative and work at this. This does not come easily to me. I like to get a lot done in a day and sometimes I need to chuck that goal and just have a fun, playful, grace-filled time with my kids and even weave that into my life more than I do.

Donna: Yeah. And lastly, we would say, rest in God’s grace for you and for your children. God is at work. He has promised that he will never stop being at work. He is a god of transformation. I think that’s what woke Paul up in the morning, knowing that God was going to transform new converts. Well, that should be true for us too. We wake up in the morning knowing that God is at work in our families. He’s transforming us. He’s transforming our children. He will never stop making us more like his son. And his grace is sufficient for us, so we keep at it day after day in the grind of whatever stage you’re at in parenting. But there’s a grind in every stage, I think.


Erik: I think of Paul’s words to Ephesian elders when he says, goodbye in Acts 20 after giving this incredible exhortation and encouragement and warning. He says, “And now I commend you to God and the word of His grace, which alone can build you up.” And that’s how we sleep at night. That’s how we rest in God’s work, in the lives of our kids, by ultimately entrusting them to his care. All right, I’d love to hear what you’re thinking. Questions, comments, input.

Neal has a microphone. Neal, what do you want to say? This is a man, he and his wife, we still look up to them. We had the privilege of having their daughters as our students and part of our family almost when they were at Biola and the  Hackbarsth are incredible people we look up to. What would you want to add to what we’ve said?

Donna: They are grandparents now.

Erik: Say again.

Donna: They are grandparents now.

Neal Hackbarth: So I got the full circuit. Our youngest son, he’s 23. We have two older girls up to 30. Just married them both off two years ago within a couple months of each other. We have our first grandbaby, great Joy. We are up in Bend, Oregon, if you know where that is. It’s kind of rural, God’s country, I don’t know how else to say it. It’s beautiful. And when we came down to Biola to drop off our oldest girl, the Thoenneses and their wonderful church just kind of wrapped their loving arms around them and became their surrogate parents in a way.

So we’ve had discussions from young men dating our girls to all the way up to proposing to our girls. Many tearful conversations I guess on my end as I leaned on their shoulder and cried. But anyways, God saw it all through and I am just struck even as they’re talking, I’ve got two sheets already filled on my notepad. Never stop learning as a parent. Never stop thinking that you’ve got it.

The other thing is, is every one of us here are totally inadequate. You are inadequate to be a parent. You’ve got things that have been handed down to you from your parents or lack of parents and only God’s grace is competent to make us any sort of a semblance of a heavenly type of figure that would lead them towards Christ. So it is good to weep at night. It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s okay to call brothers and sisters around you and say, “Would you pray and fast with me for this in my child’s life?” And then give them the same privilege and blessing by doing that for them.

And I just can’t agree more than it takes a community of other like-minded people that you want around your family. That because when you fail and at times when you’re out of the limelight in their life and you know that you’re being inadequate as a dad or a mom, whatever that might be, they still have eyes on other people around them in their lives that they can say, “That’s a godly man, that’s a godly woman. I want to be like them.” And you want people like that in your life that you can point them towards and say, “You know, your dad’s a broken man. He’s got many issues that he’s dealing with. I’m sorry, I’ve done this. I’m sorry I acted this way. I wasn’t as purposeful. I’m not as intentional as I wanted to be now that I look back, but our God is gracious.”

So it’s wonderful to have people around you that you can say, “You know, I screwed up here, but I’m so thankful that God has not.” He’s given you friends. He’s given you people in your life, follow them also. So anyways, I’m done talking. What do you guys have to say for us? What have you learned that would be helpful for us in your stage of parenting? Anybody?

Female 3: One thing that came to mind as you were sharing about your four adopted children. Our four godchildren are adopted, we were a little ahead of our closest friends and now we’re walking them through. And my husband and I are both teachers. He teaches high school and one thing that he reminded me is we have a girl and three boys. And our boys were growing up and then watching our friends walk through this issue because with their kids being adopted, they now have all of these issues welling up with early adulthood that they are completely unfamiliar with. Have no idea what the origin of that is or is it physical, is it mental, is it spiritual? Where we could look at our biological kids going, “Oh, I know what that is. I know what that…” There’s a family familiarity.

But one thing my husband had shared with them and shared with us was as a high school teacher and he teaches the shop class. He’s the class where kids that don’t make it end up with him ,and he gets them through high school. And he said the kids that I looked at it and he’d say, you want to think, you know, kill it before it multiplies. This child should not move forward because those are the ones in two years, three years, four years, that become something you would have never imagined. They’re the ones that come back and make a difference in people’s lives. So he said that, especially with boys, but that period of puberty through about 18, sometimes 20, can be an absolute mess. And what comes out the other side is something that you will not even recognize. And we’ve watched that with our close friends. One of their sons they thought there’s no way. This is utter darkness. And watching him come out the other side as this man of God, and you’re like, how did that even happen? So those years can be… Just because there’s darkness… I love what you said about the grace and then knowing that God’s got them but those years can be frightening years.

Erik: Actually we need to close I guess, right?

Donna: is it time?

Erik: Yeah, I think so. Donna, would you close us in prayer?

Donna: I will. Oh Lord, we thank you so much that you have seen fit to allow us to disciple younger people, whether they’re in our family, in our homes or not. We thank you so much that you have equipped us with your word and your spirit to be ministers. Father, I pray for the men and women in this room, whether they are parenting children in their home or just loving kids in the neighborhood. Father, would you equip us to help them to taste and see that you are good. For the children that are represented in this room, we pray that they would grow up to know you, to love you and serve you and worship you with their whole hearts. And we thank you for any opportunity that we have to be a part of that process. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Erik: Amen. Thank you so much.

“I can’t parent in light of what’s in front of me right now or even next week. I need to parent in light of the long view. As Dennis Rainey said, ‘I have no interest in a happy 10-year-old. I want a godly 20-year-old.’ . . . But the real long view is the return of Christ, the judgment seat of Christ. And living in light of that is something we need to do with all our lives, not just our parenting.” — Erik Thoennes

Date: October 17, 2018

Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference, Los Angeles

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