After a particularly rebellious episode during my teen years, one of my youth leaders challenged me to make my faith my own. It was time for me to stop doing Christian activities — church, youth group, worship — simply because I’d grown up doing them. I needed a mature faith, one I had chosen and would practice independent of what my peers were doing.
It was good advice but not exactly easy to follow. How would I simply choose to become internally motivated in my faith? I wasn’t sure what to do except to keep doing the Christian activities that apparently had yet to take root in my heart.
As challenging as that is for all of us who desire to more closely follow Jesus, it is far more challenging to instill that in someone else, especially our own children. Raising children to be competent, responsible adults is hard. Nurturing a love of Jesus adds to the challenge.
One key element for building a child’s faith
Still, parents have been raising children to love Jesus since Eunice brought up her son Timothy to become one of the apostle Paul’s key church leaders (2 Timothy 1:5). Modern research highlights one key element that is especially helpful in developing a child’s budding faith: service.
In an annual survey asking families how they want their churches to help them, professors at Baylor University found that of all the concerns raised by parents, one consistently ranked at the top. Parents asked their churches to “help our family serve beyond ourselves.”
Family service ranked higher than any of the other 52 items listed in the survey, which included things like romance and sexuality, managing time, managing money, family worship and prayer, coping with crises, parenting children, single parenting, and more. Families expressed this desire across the more than 50 denominations surveyed.
Family service to those in need was linked to attending church together, offering hospitality, and seeking justice.
In other words, families that served together prayed together. The researchers followed up with further surveys on the connection between faith and family service. “What we learned changed how we think about church and how we think about being faithful as Christians,” wrote Diana Garland, the former dean of the sociology department at Baylor in her book Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide.
Here’s what she found: “Service is the most significant and powerful contributor to faith for the teenagers we surveyed, as well as for adults.” Families who served together were more likely to give, pray, attend services, and study the Bible.
Surprisingly, engaging children and teens in service along with their families had a stronger effect on their faith than any other spiritual practice, including Bible study or church attendance.
Though churches may be always looking for volunteers, families felt that they were not engaged in enough opportunities. In one Gallup survey, only about 20 percent of respondents said they were participating in some act of service, while an additional 60 percent said that they wanted to be serving in some capacity but weren’t.
Why serving as a family is so crucial
Service develops our compassion muscles. Research shows that people become more caring for others the more they demonstrate compassion. Anyone with young children knows they will rush to be first in line, demand the largest cookie for themselves, and insist that the rules of a game be bent in their favor.
So parents, teach compassion and empathy early and often. It is an essential developmental milestone when children begin thinking of someone else’s needs before their own.
Other researchers find that acts of service provide children and teens a way to be needed in a world that mainly prizes a person’s economic value.
Even while they can’t hold a job and bring home a paycheck, children can show their value to others through acts of service.
A parent’s proudest moments
It can be one of a parent’s proudest moments when they see their own child rush to the aid of another on the playground, stick up for someone else, or sacrifice their own desire for the good of someone else. When my 6-year-old son received his “own” sponsored child, few things could have made him happier, which in turn thrilled us as parents. He immediately sat down to draw his new pen-pal a picture full of footballs, basketball hoops, and baseball bats.
Today, my children serve by drawing pictures, giving a portion of their own money, and helping around the house. But as they grow, their ability to care for others will as well. As studies have shown, demonstrating compassion for others can be a powerful act of faith. Service, more than any other spiritual activity, helps children — and all of us, really — take hold of their faith. When faith is real, it moves from something we believe in to something we believe enough to do. It works the other way too. Service turns our doing into believing.
Rob Moll, former World Vision communications officer to the president, is an editor-at-large for Christianity Today and author of What Your Body Knows about God.