3 Disciplines for Teaching Grace to Kids

This past Fall, I had the opportunity to lead a breakout session at Lifeway’s children’s ministry conference, KMC 2015. I talked with leaders in the session about how our kids grow up in a performance-driven, consumer world. Just think about it. A young girl will read books and work for good grades so her parents will take her out for ice cream. A boy will spend hours in a batting cage hoping for an ‘attaboy’ from his dad. Kids can grow up thinking: “Intimacy is earned,” or “I am who I am because of what I do or have failed to do.”

But the world’s message of performance is different from the Bible’s message of redemption. The Bible tells us that intimacy with God is a free gift. Jesus came to be with us even when we were his enemies (Romans 5:8; 10:6-8). Because Jesus came, kids can help shape the culture rather than being shaped by it. They can radiate with a new identity, one that’s not based in earning or deserving. Like Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10a, kids can say, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”

Click to Tweet: The world’s message of performance is different from the Bible’s message of redemption. @jaredskennedy

Sometimes we are better at teaching the truth about grace to kids than we are at living it out. So, in that breakout, I talked about three spiritual habits that can help grace stick with kids (and adults!) for a lifetime. Here they are…

1. Remember.

We are all aimless, directionless sinners. We choose to disobey and follow our own plans. Ultimately our plans leave us lost. But God has never gotten lost. Before God created the heavens and earth, he had a plan. God has lovingly mapped out his people’s lives even though we struggle to remember it (Psalm 139).

Click to Tweet: Ultimately our plans leave us lost. But God has never gotten lost. @jaredskennedy

Here is one of the ways we teach the discipline of remembering to elementary kids. We ask each child to map out the most significant events in his life. We ask the child to include his birth, his first time riding a bike, the birth of siblings, his first day at school, meeting best friends, and favorite activities. We encourage each child to include years and locations. Each child shared their timeline with their small group. We encouraged the teachers to point out evidence of where God has been at work in the child’s story—evidence of His grace. A few of our teachers came to me afterwards and said, “I need to do this,” or “This is the kind of thing we do in counseling.” It’s true. God’s plan of grace is a comfort. We need to practice remembering.

2. Be Vulnerable and Practice Repentance.

Kara Powell and Chap Clark put together a team at Fuller Seminary to study church kids and what happens to them after high school. They discovered that young people who run away from the faith have a tendency to equate Christianity with a list of do’s and don’ts, what Dallas Willard calls “the gospel of sin management.”  Powell and Clark also discovered that whether kids stayed with the faith after high school or not, they all struggled equally with the do’s and don’ts. But what those who stayed with the faith discovered is that the vibrancy and life at the heart of Christianity isn’t found in keeping the rules perfectly. The heart of Christianity—what separates it from every other religion—is grace.

Click to Tweet: The heart of Christianity—what separates it from every other religion—is grace. @jaredskennedy

Here’s the truth. Kids practice what they see. We must let grace abound in our homes and ministries. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences or discipline, but we parents need to demonstrate what it looks like to give and receive grace by talking more freely about our mistakes and apologizing to our kids. We should ask our kids to forgive us when we lose our temper or raise our voices with them. If apologizing is a hypothetical in our homes, we may be out of touch with our own sinfulness. But when we come to see that we can do nothing good on our own (Romans 3), we will also come to see that one of the first steps forward is simply acknowledging and admitting when we blow it… repenting before our kids and asking for forgiveness.

3. Lean Into Passions with Gratitude.

We’re all passionate about things. Every home is oriented around something. Maybe it’s gymnastics or academic team or football. I meet parents who have a lot of anxiety about their kids’ passions and interests. They might ask, “How do you not let a typical American pastime become an idol in your home?”

At a family discipleship weekend where I spoke a couple of years back, one parent voiced concern about her child making Minnie Mouse into an idol. She said, “I’m just so worried. My daughter wants to wear mouse ears to church. What do I do?” I said, “Let her.” I believe we should look at our kids’ passions with a slightly different perspective. Let’s ask instead, “How can my child’s passion become something that builds family relationships and faith in God? How can I lean into my kids’ passions, abilities, and interests?”

Show interest in what interests your kids. Then, as Augustine said, “trace the sunbeam up to the sun.” Talk about how it’s God who is the giver of every good gift (James 1:17). Give thanks to God for giving your children those passions. You may discover that He is at work using those interests to teach them about himself.

Click to Tweet: Show interest in what interests your kids. Then as Augustine said, “trace the sunbeam up to the sun.” @jaredskennedy

Grace is opposed to earning, but it’s not opposed to discipline and effort. These are three disciplines that I’m hoping to come back to again and again.

Editor’s Note: For a great resource on teaching grace to kids, check out PROOF Pirates, a VBS or Backyard Bible Club Curriculum written by Jared Kennedy and others at New Growth Press. Click here to learn more and to purchase.