Three Overlooked Aspects of Family Discipleship

Parents are the greatest influence on their kids’ spiritual development. This is biblically true, and it continues to be reaffirmed by sociological research. I have served as a youth pastor for nearly 17 years and have two adolescents of my own. Through the course of many conversations with parents, students, and with my own peers I can confidently state that most Christian parents know they are the primary leader in their children’s spiritual development. But most Christians have never been discipled – not by a pastor, or mentor, and especially not by a parent. So they have no frame of reference for what this kind of faith formation can look like.

Thankfully, family discipleship has received more attention recently than in the past. Many conversations about family discipleship, however, focus so much on the formal aspect of reading Scripture and prayer that parents could easily think “family discipleship = Bible reading + prayer.” That are the indisputable foundations of family discipleship, but there’s more to it than those two commitments.

The following priorities for family discipleship are often overlooked because they’re so easily considered mundane. Many books talk about these three areas. But in my experience as a father and as a veteran youth pastor, these are three areas I’d love to see more families address.

Failure is Always an Option

As your kids transition from childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood, it’s important to gradually give them more responsibility for their own decision-making – and that means you’re going to have to let them fail.

When I was a teenager my parents gave me space to make a few important decisions, and there was one in particular where I didn’t make the right call. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way. If they forced my hand, I probably would’ve resented them for it and I doubt I would’ve learned much from the experience at all.

Parenting books usually talk about failure in the way I mentioned above: grit and endurance and learning lessons the hard way. But Scripture consistently points to suffering as a means of sanctification (John 16:33; Rom 8:28; James 1:2-4). One of the best ways for parents to undermine their kids’ faith development is by over-protecting them from suffering. If teenagers never actually need God to deliver them and provide from them, they will grow up with a sense that God is merely a good idea, but he doesn’t work in real life. But when they struggle and fail and suffer, they’ll see the faithfulness of God and the provision of the gospel in new and wonderful ways. They’ll also see their Heavenly Father’s gracious and non-condemning love through their parents, rather than feeling marked by guilt or shame in moments of failure.

Additionally, everyone knows that GenZ is experiencing significant anxiety and depression struggles. Many of these teenagers simply don’t know how to make decisions. I’ve talked with many students who catastrophize minor failures to the point where you think they’ll be kicked out of the family for not making honor roll. Empowering students to fail gives them indisputable proof that failure isn’t the end of the world. Life will continue. God’s lovingkindness remains. Their future hasn’t been ruined.

Reflection question: Am I controlling my teenager’s decisions or am I helping them learn to seek the Lord for wise choices? When they fail, do I focus on helping them “do better” in a way that reinforces a message that “more success means more value?” Or am I helping them lean into their failures to experience God’s grace and to learn the hard lessons that can only be learned through struggle?

Your Calendar Cements Priorities

What you do — and what you don’t do — shapes your kids’ priorities and habits in ways that often continue throughout their lives. Your family calendar blazes a well-worn trail that your kids will likely walk for the rest of their lives. This is why so many youth pastors are concerned about families who have stopped making Sunday morning worship and youth group a priority for the sake of sports. It’s not a concern about attendance numbers, but about the message that students receive about “sports vs church.”

Most youth pastors understand that families will miss the occasional Sunday for a host of reasons. But if children and teenagers miss Sunday morning worship for an entire sports season, then it doesn’t take a genius to draw conclusions about what priorities are being reinforced in that teenager’s life.

My message isn’t anti-sports. Athletics and other extra-curricular activities can be wonderful ways for teenagers to make friends, learn discipline and teamwork and a ton of other valuable life-lessons. But our kids are also learning about how we spend our time and what rhythms we set for our family. While evaluating family time commitments, consider your teenager’s screen time and access to social media. Overbooking their schedule with sports and extracurricular activities often leads them to minimize commitments to share fellowship and be discipled in your church. Regular mealtime as a family can provide healthy conversation to check in with each other and keep relationships strong. Including your children and teenagers when the other generations of your extended family gathers will help reinforce family-identity and values.These are important ways that we reinforce our stated priorities for our kids and teenagers.

Reflection: When I evaluate my teenagers’ time management and commitments, what are the highest priorities in their life? What about for us as a family – objectively speaking, what are our family priorities? How can I help my kids plan their time around gospel-motivated commitments?

Follow the Money

Similar to your family calendar, money talks. Although kids don’t know details about the family budget, they can see where the money is spent. They know what types of requests will be considered worth the expense, and what will get shot down. The way we spend our money says a lot to our teenagers about what matters most. This applies whether our tendency is generosity, materialism, frivolity, or hoarding.

God is rich in mercy and gave his own Son for us. When Christians idolize their money in the name of “biblical stewardship” they are living with a significant disconnect between their spiritual lives and their financial priorities. And when they live in a way that reinforces worldly materialism, we’re undermining our heavenly calling to store up treasure in heaven. It should be fairly obvious how this shapes our kids as they grow up. Generosity towards those in need, and saving (or sacrificing) in order to bless one another with thoughtful gifts are meaningful ways to display your family’s commitment to reflect the heart of Christ. Meanwhile, stinginess can harden our kids’ hearts against those in need (often, because they’re growing up with the assumption their needs are deeper than the needs of those around them).

When we teach our kids about money and stewardship, talk with them about tithing and generosity. Yes, warn them against careless spending and teach them to build a savings account. But remember that materialism is a significant temptation in our culture, and is especially prevalent among GenZ.

Reflection: How does the gospel impact our family’s approach to finances? Am I helping my teenager grow in generosity?

These three areas are probably on parents’ radars, but it can be easy to treat them as life lessons rather than as discipleship opportunities. As you have these conversations with your teenager, first do your own reflection on how you view failure, time, and money as opportunities to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ. When you can humbly confess your own struggles in these areas then you’ll be better equipped to have these conversations with your teenagers, and possibly recalibrate some family priorities for the coming year.


Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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