One of Ron Hunter’s most trying years as a parent was when his daughter Lauren started dating a non-believer. Worried about the influence that her boyfriend would have on her, Ron kept looking for opportunities to lecture her on why the relationship was wrong.
It did not go down well with Lauren, obviously. Every time they were together, Ron would bring up the issue, and there seemed to be no room for discussion.
One day, frustrated with her dad’s response, the teenager told him straight: “No matter how many times you tell me, I already know you think it is wrong.”
“I could have created such a barrier that the relationship with my daughter might have never been the same, or I could treat her the way the father of the prodigal did the son or the same way our Heavenly Father does us when we disappoint Him.”
Struck by his daughter’s words, Ron spoke to his wife Pamela, who advised him to re-consider his approach. Instead of trying to seize every chance to talk about her boyfriend, Ron began to talk to Lauren about other things, all the while praying and waiting for an opportunity to explore the topic only “when the timing was right”.
“It came,” he says, “and I gently planted the seeds of God’s Word more than my disdain, and she began to come around.”
Today, both Lauren and her brother Michael are married to believers. But Ron will never forget the mistake he made, and the lesson that he learnt from Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
He says: “I could have created such a barrier that the relationship with my daughter might have never been the same, or I could treat her the way the father of the prodigal did the son or the same way our Heavenly Father does us when we disappoint Him. He still loves us unconditionally, still desires a relationship, and yes, a change—but the change does not need to precede the connected relationship.”
The lesson, concludes Ron, was not to judge, preach, and lecture, but to connect with his child first, and to bring the Bible into everyday conversations rather than to turn every “teachable moment” into a pulpit sermon.
Sunday School: Just 1/168 Hours
At the heart of Ron’s approach is the principle that discipleship begins at home, not in the church.
Many churches and parents today, observes the CEO of American Christian publisher Randall House, tend to see discipleship of children as something that happens in the church. Hence the intense focus on Sunday School, teen programmes, and youth services that aim to bring younger congregation members up in the way of the Lord.
While there is nothing wrong with these programmes, Ron points out that on their own, they are far from sufficient. Just look at the number of hours a child typically spends being discipled at church each week and compare it with the total number of hours he has—one out of 168.
“The church is not the only place we learn about Christ. Deuteronomy 6 clearly says that parents and grandparents should remember teachable moments to help their kids and grandkids develop a biblical worldview.”
“Obviously, one hour is not enough, and after school and sleep absorbs the bulk of the time, parents get, on average, 60 to 80 hours with their kids in the mornings, evenings, and weekends,” he says. “That is a lot of time to connect with their hearts.”
This fraction—1/168—is a key figure in the D6, a family ministry movement that Ron co-founded in 2007.
The movement’s name is inspired by Deuteronomy 6:4–7: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
“Church and home should not be separated with each having their own activities,” says Ron. “The church is not the only place we learn about Christ. Deuteronomy 6 clearly says that parents and grandparents should remember teachable moments to help their kids and grandkids develop a biblical worldview.”
Ron and Pamela
How Churches Can Help Parents
But, Ron is quick to acknowledge, not all families may be able or ready to disciple children.
Churches can therefore do more, he says, to equip parents by getting Sunday School teachers and youth leaders to partner mums and dads to disciple their kids at home. For example, teachers and leaders can share with parents what they teach at church and suggest questions that parents can ask to make the teaching come real.
Having a Sunday School curriculum that helps all ages study the same Scripture and theme—such as the D6 curriculum—can help churches and families stress the same lessons consistently, he adds.
And youth leaders can help to ensure that “parents are not the enemy, but ones to learn from and respect”.
Churches can also find ways to help parents connect with their kids on a weekly basis, such as getting the younger ones involved in volunteering in various ways in church.
In Ron’s experience, this has led to more of them staying in church when they grow out of Sunday School and youth ministries.
“Discipleship cannot occur without relationship.”
“Some of the No.1 statistics for retaining our kids is involving them in the church as more than attendees, helping them read their Bibles more frequently during the week, praying, and most of all, feeling the loving warmth of a spiritually involved parent,” he says.
Ultimately, however, some of the most powerful spiritual lessons that children learn are those they pick up at home from watching their parents.
He says: “If simple observation shows that kids pick up the general habits, values, and preferences of one’s parents, even acting like them at times, then why would we not want to leverage that influence?”
Deuteronomy 4:9, he notes, makes it clear that teaching children to live according to God’s way begins with a parent’s own behaviour: “Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
Connecting With Your Child
As Ron himself has discovered, parents who want to teach their children first have to connect with their heart.
And that means removing some of their own distractions—like turning off the TV, putting down the newspaper, coming home from work on time, and spending time talking to their kids.
“Some of the No.1 statistics for retaining our kids is involving them in the church as more than attendees, helping them read their Bibles more frequently during the week, praying, and most of all, feeling the loving warmth of a spiritually involved parent.”
“They will roll their eyes when you begin,” he says, “but ask them, what made them mad, glad, and sad during their day? From the answers will spring so many great ways you can advise your kids, but make sure you ask questions like, ‘Next time, how should you handle that situation?’ Discipleship cannot occur without relationship.”
To connect with their children’s heart on a deeper level than just talking about chores, schoolwork, and the latest news, Ron has come up with a formula to guide parents on having meaningful conversations with their children, which he calls “TALK-ABE”—an easy-to-remember acronym for:
- Topics – Address topics that are of interest to your kids.
- Ask Questions – Seek their opinion rather than continually lecturing them.
- Listen – Learn to listen.
- Kudos – Compliment them.
- Approach – Kids are very discerning about motives, so watch how you approach them.
- Brain – Share the reason for the lesson, but remember that children’s brains are not fully developed yet, so they may not have the wisdom or experience to agree. So . . .
- Emotion – . . . Tell personal stories and illustrate your point with emotions.
Conversations have a greater influence on children than a lecture or sermon, Ron stresses.
“Every person remembers people for their conversations, for how they made them feel about themselves, either positively or negatively,” he says. They also provide opportunities to bring biblical lessons into everyday conversations.
(From left) Michael, Pamela, and Lauren.
Talking About God’s Word
When his kids were younger, Ron often tried to find opportunities to introduce God’s Word into their conversations.
Using devotionals written for families also made these conversations easier, as all four members of the family could talk about the same topic.
“The connections come naturally, and we could quickly relate what was read and learned by all of us to a situation we faced that week,” he recalls.
This was something that Psalm 78:5-6 stresses: “The Lord . . . commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.”
There were times, of course, when the kids weren’t keen to discuss the questions. At those times, Ron would just say: “The reading of Scripture really helps brighten my day, keep me on task, and help me to stay out of those troublesome situations. I think it would help you too.”
Ron believes that parents can influence their kids to turn to God’s Word by showing that they themselves rely heavily on the Word.
“If a child hears a parent say, ‘I was reading Scripture, let me share what God was saying to me about my life and what I should do’, then a child will be more likely to respect and listen to the words of the Bible as well.”
Being authentic is also important.
Instead of criticising them when they admitted that they had not read the Bible for a while, he’d say: “Sometimes I forget too. I will ask you again in a couple of days, and I look forward to your insight.”
Says Ron: “Do not use guilt, shame, or manipulation, just inspire them by your Deuteronomy 6 example.”
He concludes: “When families are having regular heartfelt conversations, the togetherness goes up. Churches grow numerically and spiritually. Future generations are retained as fewer teenagers and college-age members walk away from the church or their faith.”
Ron’s Tips On Discipling Kids at Home
- Look for teachable moments to introduce biblical principles in daily life.
- Discuss the truths of God’s Word in conversations instead of preaching and lecturing.
- Take time to connect with your children to find out how they think and handle situations.
- Work with Sunday School teachers and find out what they are teaching in church so you can follow up with related conversations and discussions at home.
- Consider using a curriculum in Sunday School that helps all ages study the same Scripture and theme.
- Look for opportunities to share your own experience of how God’s Word has helped you.