Parents Are the Primary Disciple-Makers Of Their Children

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“According to Scripture, God intends for parents to be the primary disciple-makers of their children.”

If you’re a regular churchgoer or a reader of Christian parenting books, you might have run across this sentiment, tossed out as shorthand for explaining how parents are supposed to raise kids to have faith in Jesus. When you hear these words, you may nod your head sagely, or be inspired to raise the next Tim Keller, but if you’re like me, you might hear “parents are the primary disciple-makers” and wonder what the heck that even means.

Being the “primary disciple-maker” may burden you with the weight of a calling you want more than anything to fulfill, but you aren’t sure how to do it. Or perhaps you came into this parenting thing with very clear ideas for how things should be, and then God introduced you to your actual kids and your actual spouse (not to mention how parenting can reveal our own actual sin). Perhaps you realized that “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’men/ Gang aft a-gley[1]” – with “gang aft a-gley” sounding as muddled as your discipleship plans.

After twenty-five years of searching the Scripture for what it says about being a mom, I still have not found a step-by-step set of instructions to producing the “results” I want for my family. By golly if that existed, I’d be ON IT, and make my family crazy in the process.

But here’s what I have found in the Word: a Savior who draws me into relationship with himself. He disciples me through our relationship, and that in turn is how I will lead my children to know him. I know I can trust Jesus because the depth of his investment in us – his very life, given for sinners – is proof that he is permanently and wholeheartedly dedicated to redeeming us, sanctifying us, and bringing us home to himself. Parents represent that love imperfectly, to be sure, but when our kids know that our commitment to their thriving is unwavering and our delight in them does not depend how they behave, they are likely to follow where we lead. As we follow him, we lead them to Christ.

Where does “parents are the primary disciple-makers” come from?

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 provides a solid foundation for parents hoping to lead their children to love Jesus. But rather than providing a series of rules, these verses describe a lifestyle rich with loving relationship:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and 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.  You shall bind them as a sign on 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.

The most organic way that children learn about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is through the rhythms of ordinary life, which includes but isn’t limited to devotional time set aside to teach our kids the Word.

You are the first and most effective spiritual influence in your child’s life. This truth has been confirmed by the most recent research. In Keeping the Faith, published in the journal First Things, researcher Christian Smith writes:

The good news is that, among all possible influences, parents exert far and away the greatest influence on their children’s religious outcomes… In almost every case, no other institution or program comes close to shaping youth religiously as their parents do—not religious congregations, youth groups, faith-based schools, missions and service trips, summer camps, Sunday school, youth ministers, or anything else. Those influences can reinforce the influence of parents, but almost never do they surpass or override it. What makes every other influence pale into virtual insignificance is the importance (or not) of the religious beliefs and practices of American parents in their ordinary lives—not only on holy days but every day, throughout weeks and years.

 Don’t let this frighten you; God will equip you for the work. Don’t outsource your child’s spiritual formation. You do not need a seminary degree. If you taught your child to brush their teeth, you are a good enough teacher. You don’t have to have all the answers. Admitting you have questions and yet still believe will be a powerful witness to the dubious child. God doesn’t give you children and then fail to give you what you need to raise them in faith. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet. 1:3, emphasis added). All things means all things. If your whole family somehow became marooned on a desert island (and sometimes, in this secular age, it can feel that way), the Holy Spirit would be present and give you what you need for raising godly kids.

Discipleship opportunities are everywhere in your walking-around daily life. Our verse from Deuteronomy confirms it: this ain’t complicated. Talk about Jesus in carpool, washing dishes, walking the dog; when the bad report card comes home, when the first breakup happens, when your child strikes out looking; on the first warm spring day and on the worst day in your family’s history. It may not feel natural, but the more you do it, the more easily the words will come. Out of the abundance of your heart, your mouth will speak (Luke 6:45). Listen carefully to what you say to your kids, and discern if your words deny or confirm the truth of the gospel. Confess, repent, and ask the Spirit for help when you fail. That’s the gospel too.

Don’t check your faith at the door. Scripture goes on the doorposts to remind us that neither our relationship with God’s Word nor our relationship with our kids will change when we walk out the front door, so neither should our discipleship. The writer of Deuteronomy knows we will be tempted behave differently in public than we do at home. This is hypocrisy, and kids have an eagle eye for it. So we behave like a person who loves Jesus and neighbor whether we are sitting on the bleachers, frying the bacon, driving down the highway, cleaning the garage, or attending the parent-teacher conference. Aim for consistency and repent of your inconsistency.

Keep in mind: Parents are not the only disciple-makers. Raising children to know Jesus does not happen in a vacuum, it happens in community. Primary means just that – you’re the first and most important, but by no means the only person who plays a role in the spiritual formation of your child. Again, discipleship happens in relationship. If you’re blessed with an extended biological family of believers, by all means foster strong bonds with relatives, but life-giving relationships are found in your extended church family of believers. Invite youth ministers, Sunday school teachers, pastors, and good solid Christian men and women to spend time with your family. Teenagers often find other adults easier to talk to than mom or dad. That may feel like rejection but it’s not; it’s a beautiful picture of your child learning to rely on the family of God.

It’s not your job to save your children. Only the Holy Spirit can convict your child of sin and lead him or her to saving faith. Your primary role in your child’s developing faith does not mean you’ll be able to control outcomes. That is the hardest and most freeing truth that a parent can know. God did not give you responsibility for their salvation. He reserves that for himself.

So, teach God’s word diligently to your children. Take them to church. Show them how to have a quiet time, foster relationships with other godly adults, hold a family Bible study. Do all of these things with a little less pressure and a little more joy, because you know your child’s salvation does not depend on following all the right steps. Your child’s heart is in the hands of your wise heavenly Father “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think,” even turning imperfect parents like you and me into primary disciplemakers (Eph. 3:20).

Rooted wants to come alongside parents as they disciple their children; with this in mind, we created Rooted Reservoir Family Curriculum. Among the eight courses offered there, you will find “Discipleship Practices With Young Children” and “Discipleship Practices With Teenagers” to guide parents through Scripture as well as offer some practical application. 

[1]To a Mouse” by Robert Burns.

Anna is a single mom of three young adult sons. She is the Senior Director of Content at Rooted, co-host of the Rooted Parent podcast, a member of Church of the Cross in Birmingham, AL, and the author of the upcoming God's Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well (Zondervan, 2024). She also wrote Fresh Faith: Topical Devotions and Scripture-Based Prayers for College Students. In her free time, Anna enjoys gardening, great books, running, hiking, hammocks, and ice cream. She wants to live by a mountain stream in Idaho someday.

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