The Most Important Thing You'll Ever Do As A Parent
I once had a parent come to me completely frustrated that I expected her to be involved in teaching her children the tenets of the Christian faith. “I’m not a teacher!” she exclaimed, looking for a sympathetic reprieve from her duty. Whether she felt like she was a teacher was irrelevant. She is her children’s teacher. She and her husband had already taught their son how to walk and talk. They taught him how to eat with a spoon and drink from a cup. They taught him how to brush his teeth, take a bath, and use the potty. In fact, by the time they brought their son to me for confirmation class they had been teaching him day in and day out for thirteen years.
A Daunting Task
I believe this mother was trying to say, “I don’t think I can teach my child,” even though she and her husband knew their child better than anyone. Perhaps she wanted to say, “I don’t think I can teach my child the faith.” Many parents feel this way. Confirmation was decades ago for them, if they went at all, and some of the concepts taught in catechesis are difficult to get one’s mind around. This is especially difficult for the parent who has placed no emphasis on devotions at home and has rarely made Bible study at church a priority. If the only time Jesus is invoked in the home is during a blessing or in a bedtime prayer, the parents have missed many opportunities to both teach and learn. In such cases, I suppose that if a Christian parent has waited thirteen years to teach their child anything of substance about God, it would seem like a daunting task. Here’s the thing: this makes catechesis a daunting task for the pastor, too!
Parents have a God-given duty to bring up their children in the faith. God calls pastors to shepherd flocks, point them to the Gospel, proclaim sound doctrine, and teach the people about the will and ways of God. Yet, parents have more access to their children than anyone else and studies unarguably show that parents have the most influence on their children’s behavior, worldview, and beliefs. Yet, when it comes to fulfilling the biblical proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6), many parents look to the church. The pastor or catechist then has two or three years to lead the child to understand the basics of the Christian faith. This sounds like a lot of time, but a little math is revealing. Let’s concede a generous hour of instruction time per class. It’s likely a lot less considering attention during this time is divided between other students and not all of the class time is spent profitably. Take that hour and multiply it by how many classes there are per year. In my program, we have about thirty. Assuming a two-year program, the catechist has the equivalent of just two and a half days to pass down the basics of the Christian faith—a daunting task, indeed!
Most people will agree that learning about and growing in one’s faith is a lifelong endeavor. Few realize that this lifelong process actually begins at birth! There are opportunities to catechize one’s child from the moment they enter the world. Even before their child is born, parents who are earnestly in prayer for God to bless them with the wisdom and patience to raise up their child in the faith are using their time wisely.
If when you think of catechesis “confirmation classes” come to mind, you may be over thinking it a bit. Confirmation classes are about reinforcing what you’ve been teaching at home all along. It offers children the opportunity to have their more difficult questions answered and a safe place to work out the many struggles their faith may bring. Today’s pastor or catechist likely spends a great deal of this precious time helping children memorize the 10 Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer. This is time wasted since these things can be far more easily imparted at home. Instead of reducing catechesis down to “confirmation classes,” think about it more holistically. In fact, I invite you to think about it more biblically. The Scriptures reveal that God has established two primary vocations to accomplish the work of raising up faithful Christians: spiritual leaders who catechize the faith community as a whole and parents who are to be the primary catechists for their children. Kurt Marquart wrote of pastors,
The task of the public ministry of the Gospel is clear: public preaching and teaching, granting and withholding absolution, and administering the holy sacraments. … Ministers are not of course proprietors of the salvific treasures of the church but are rather stewards of them. Nor have they a monopoly of the faithful teaching, confession, and transmission of the evangelic truth.
Quoting Luther’s sermon on the first commandment, Marquart continued, “Every house-father and house-mother is to be bishop and bishopess ‘that you help us exercise the preaching office in [your] houses, as we do in the church.’”
The importance of the pastor for delivering and safeguarding God’s Word cannot be underestimated. However, nowhere in Scripture does God command parents to leave the spiritual training of their child up to the faith community or the spiritual leader. Instead, God commanded parents to raise up their children to treasure the history of his activity on earth and strive to walk according to his will and ways. In the fourth commandment, children are commanded to obey their parents (Exod. 20:12, Eph. 6:1). When one understands the role of parents as representatives of God to their children, the fourth commandment becomes all the more noteworthy.
Moses directed the people of Israel as their ordained spiritual leader to learn and obey the statutes of God. He also reiterated something the Israelites already knew: parents have the duty to teach God’s Word to their children (Deut. 4:1-9). In this passage, there is not only the command for parents to take responsibility for catechizing their children, but also the reasoning behind it. God chose parents to pass down the faith to assure that there would not a gap in the teaching of his revelation. Individual spiritual leaders would come and go, but the family makes up the basic building blocks of life.
Passive, Reactive, and Proactive Catechesis
Parents teach their children both passively and actively. Under the “active” category, I like to break it down further into reactive and proactive catechesis.
Passive catechesis happens whenever your child observes you living out your faith. Children are sponges that soak up everything you have to teach them. Naturally, this is a double-edged sword. They will not only pick up on your good habits, but they’ll cling to your bad one’s too. Be visible when you pray, when you’re studying God’s Word, and be an active part of your congregation. Many parents who skip Bible Study, but send their child on to Sunday School are surprised that their children don’t seem to take it seriously. They shouldn’t be. If something is not important to the parents, it won’t be important to their children.
Reactive catechesis is when your child asks a question about the faith. In this day and age where assaults on God’s Word and will are frequent, you may find yourself reactively teaching the faith if you’ve neglected to prepare your child for what society will offer. It’s awesome if you’ve developed a relationship with your child in such a way that they come to you with their hard faith questions. Resist the urge to send them to the pastor. If you don’t know the answer, wrestle it out with them through the Scriptures. Of course, your church family and pastor are always a willing resource, too.
Proactive catechesis should have the most emphasis. This is about intentionally taking the time to teach your children what we believe about God. This doesn’t have to be about sitting down an hour a week in your living room for an at-home “confirmation class.” It should be organic in that you’re always finding opportunities to pass down God’s wisdom to your children.
One of the clearest examples of God’s will for parents to pass down the faith in a proactive way comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-7:
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 with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 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.
Chapter 11 repeats this. You can see that religious training does not take place only during morning devotions, or just before bedtime, but is a continual process that should permeate every aspect of family life.
In verse seven, the word translated “diligently” comes from a Hebrew word that contains the nuance of repetition as from sharpening a knife on a whetstone. That’s the idea: a constant and frequent effort to proactively teach the faith.
Children are a Heritage
Children hold a special place in the heart of God. God created marriage to bring children into the world and the family to surround the child and nurture him or her into being a faithful servant of God (Gen. 1:28). Psalm 127:3-5 gives a poetic encouragement for parents,
Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.
These verses are only the last half of the psalm. The psalm begins, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” Parent’s it’s a daunting task that we have to catechize our children in the ways of the Lord, but it’s a rewarding one, too. You are not alone in this task, because the Holy Spirit is with you. He equips you with the Word and encourages you within the community of believers. Furthermore, your efforts are not in vain! A child who believes rightly grows to be an adult who will one day pass down the faith to his or her own children. This is the will of God until Jesus returns.
The Rev. Dr. Phil Booe is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church and Early Childhood Center in Hebron, Connecticut. He is also the Life Ministry Coordinator for the New England District, LCMS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Kurt E. Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance, ed. Robert Preus, Vol. IX (St. Louis: The Luther Academy, 1990), 108.