Cultivating Kids Who Follow Christ

 “How do we cultivate kids who love Christ?”

This was the question posed by Rooted Ministry founder Cameron Cole in his plenary at the Nashville conference earlier this month. It should be the burning question of every Christian parent and youth leader. But while we may all agree, “Yes, we want kids who grow up loving Jesus,” it isn’t always what drives our parenting in the way it should.

Though we may have good intentions, training up a child in the way of the Lord (Proverbs 22:6) doesn’t compel us functionally. Instead, the immediacy of shuttling kids to their activities, attending their events, making sure homework gets done and feeding the family takes precedence. We rationalize that we’ll have time “tomorrow” for the family devotional we know we should do or the spiritual conversation we’ve been meaning to have. 

In the same way, the habit of youth group and Sunday worship falls by the wayside. But soon the day-to-day reacting to the busy schedule becomes year-after-year.  Before we know it, we get to graduation wondering where the time went and why our kids aren’t interested in the things of God.

We tend to outsource our kids’ Christianity like we do with academic tutoring, specialized sports training and music lessons. However, research shows parents to be the number one influencer on a kid’s spiritual life, not the church or a youth leader. As the primary shepherds of our kids’ hearts it is not enough to drop them off at church once a week and expect they’ll come out loving Jesus all the days of their lives. What we do, what we talk about, and what we prioritize in our homes is crucial to the spiritual development of our kids. They are watching and likely will follow suit.

It is imperative that the message our kids receive is the true gospel of grace and not a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all (Galatians 1:7). If the emphasis of our teaching is anything but the work and worth of Christ, we will lead them to trust in their own righteousness, not his. A Christianity where behaving better, not believing better, is the goal, will produce kids who know how to “act” like Christians but have hearts far from him. 

Therefore, to cultivate kids who genuinely love Christ—kids who will seek out a church and Christian community when they go off to college and beyond—we must lead them to love the person of Jesus. In this vein, Cameron outlined in his talk three truths to teach our kids to grow their affection for the Lord. He said to tell them:

  1. The full truth of the gospel
  2. How dead we are in our sin
  3. About the mercy and justice of God.

Sin is more than outward behavior. It is, at its core, idolatry—the turning away from God and toward something else to give what only God can. We must not minimize it to anything less. Our kids need their hearts exposed to see sin for what it is. One way we do this is by helping them learn to trace their behavior, motives, and desires back to the root sin (idol) that drives them to do what they do so they see how dead they are and in desperate need of a Savior.

Our sin condemns us to God’s judgment and wrath. We do our children no favors by presenting God only as a God of love without helping them see that in his holy presence no sin can go unpunished. But like a coin that is equally heads and tails, God’s contrasting characteristics cannot be separated. It is because he is a just God, that his love, grace and mercy are all the more amazing. 

The other part of the gospel that often gets left out when talking with teens is that  Jesus not only came to die for our sins, he came to live the perfect life for us. This is the doctrine of justification, a term we don’t use often enough. To be justified is to be made right, which Jesus did by taking our sin from us AND giving to us in exchange his perfect, holy, righteous, sinless record. With his record as ours God sees us as he sees his son – perfect, holy, righteous, sinless! Even in our sin.

When our kids begin to grasp this reality, by God’s grace it will change how they relate to God. Knowing who we are (sinners deserving death), who God is (a merciful, just God, steadfast in his love for sinners) and who we are because of Christ is what cultivates kids to love Jesus. Give him to them.

Kristen Hatton holds a master’s in counseling and works primarily with teen girls, parents and families. She is the author of Parenting AheadThe Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for StudentsFace Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World, and Get Your Story Straight. Kristen and her pastor husband reside in Dallas, Texas and are the parents of three young adults and a son-in-law. Learn more by visiting her website at

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