Children absorb. They learn their way around the world not only from what others explicitly teach them, but also from the kind of culture or atmosphere in which they live — especially in their home. The old adage “more is caught than taught” applies. By God’s design, children soak up values without even knowing it.
For example, children don’t pick up their mother tongue because someone stands in front of them with a pronunciation flip chart. They pick up their mother tongue simply from hearing it day after day. They breathe it in without conscious awareness. And as with language, so with values. Children are constantly absorbing. Therefore, what happens within the walls of your home will have a disproportionate impact on who they become.
So, how can Christian parents create a Christlike culture in which their children can swim?
A family’s culture is not established in five minutes. Family culture is the sum total of the parents’ relationship with God, with each other, with the children, and with the world. No aspect of life is irrelevant to this enterprise, right down to what you say and how you say it, what you do and how you do it, what you love and how you love it, what you hate and how you hate it. Family culture includes the major events in life, and it includes the seemingly little things that go almost unnoticed, like what you mutter at the stoplight.
No family can fake a Christian culture — at least, not for long. If parents aren’t wowed by God’s character, attributes, and wonderful deeds, their indifference won’t kindle awe in the hearts of the children. Indifference is reproducible. If the heavens aren’t declaring God’s glory to me (Psalm 19:1), I’m not likely to help my children see the glory the heavens are declaring to them.
Genuine enthusiasm for God’s glory is not empty hype. Children are wired with keen hypocrisy antennae. Flesh can masquerade as Spirit only for so long before they notice the cosmetics wearing off. So, when it comes to establishing a Christian culture, the first step is to be thoroughly entranced by the superiority of Jesus yourself. Jesus is not a pointer, but the point.
Awe Begets Awe
Beware of trying to argue anyone — including your children — into seeing the surpassing beauty of Christ. Though arguments may be necessary in establishing a culture, they are not sufficient. You can’t argue a blind man into seeing the multicolored clouds of the sunset. Therefore, allow children to witness your unsolicited and uncontrived worship — both in planned moments, like worship services, and in unplanned moments of ordinary life. Give them no doubt that family devotions and church services aren’t the only time you personally ponder the Bible and commune with God.
Has Jesus gripped you? Are you deeply impressed with Jesus? When you read Colossians 1:16–18, does awe arise?
By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.
The Christian culture we want to foster is more a matter of devotion than devotions. There is a great difference between explaining the importance of something and modeling its importance in your own life, interrupting lesser concerns in order to give front-burner attention to the main priorities.
Creating a Christlike Culture
I don’t know of anyone who has discovered a foolproof checklist for producing Christian kids. Checklists don’t change hearts. But transformed hearts can make good use of checklists as a sort of self-diagnostic or reminder. As you seek to foster a Christian culture in your home, the following suggestions can serve like mirrors to help you see how you’re doing. We’ll consider these suggestions in two groupings: ways and words.
The God of means uses habits consistently practiced in a home to elevate and solidify values and identity. “Our family functions this way.” Consider the following.
Model what you expect from your children: Christian courtesy, diligence, punctuality, and scores of Christlike character qualities that blossom in parents who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Avoid giving the impression that you never fail, but own your sins and mistakes. Say out loud, “I was wrong,” and ask forgiveness of each other while keeping short accounts.
In a Christian culture, the parents joyfully sacrifice themselves and do not seek to be put on a pedestal, even while teaching their children obedience. They are able to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Gently touch. Soft and playful touches can convey affection and acceptance, and if the children stiffen or pull away, that bristling may signal a relational wound that needs healing.
Get organized. Orderliness can serve everyone in the household, whereas a cluttered dwelling and cluttered calendar can beget chaos. Start by organizing your decisions, and then branch out from there. A well-placed shelf, or some coat hooks, or a reminder list on the fridge can help strengthen teamwork in the family.
Don’t punish children when nature has already punished them. If your son crashed and skinned his knee when he was clowning around on his bike, you don’t have to add your punishment. The natural universe God established has already applied its own form of correction.
At the same time, do not fear your child. You are the parent. It can be a fearful experience for a child to discover that his parents have left him in charge of the world. Expect that if you use your God-given parental authority, you will sooner or later offend your children’s grasp at self-rule. Understand the difference between offending them (an inevitable result of godly discipline) and wounding them (an excessive or ill-timed use of discipline). Love God more than your family in order to love your family well.
What we say is of course important, and how we say it may be even more important. Tone of voice and facial expression can be life-giving or deadly.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits. (Proverbs 18:21)
When it comes to speaking around children, then, monitor your tone. Do you sound edgy, cranky, whiny — or cheerful, grateful, honoring? Out of the mouths of babes come things parents shouldn’t have said. Tone is so important to household culture. Don’t reward whining, or you will get lots more of it. Beware of practicing sarcasm, for it can toxify a home and the children within it.
Commend the commendable, especially when you observe it in your children’s attitude. Avoid placing more emphasis on physical looks and abilities than on Christlike character.
Say thank you a lot; say thank you to them as well as to others and to God. Keep promises and don’t break them — to your children or to your spouse.
Pray. It is an unspeakable service to your children to pray for them and with them. Talk to Jesus about them before you talk to them about Jesus, and do both regularly.
Sing. Singing has a wonderful effect on the tone of a home, not to mention the long-term benefits of memorizing godly lyrics. You can sing serendipitously, while doing the dishes or driving, and you can gather round and launch together into a song that supports the kind of culture you’re trying to build.
Could we sum it all up — words and ways — in a vision for a Christlike family culture? In all your practices and speech, live so that someday, when your children are asked if they ever knew a true Christian, they would immediately think of you.