How does a dad lead his family in discipleship?
In this interview, we ask Bill Farley about the need for family discipleship, for dads to take the lead as spiritual example and guide, and the challenges dads can expect to face and what to do about them. Farley is a retired pastor, father, grandfather, and author of Gospel Powered Parenting: How the Gospel Shapes and Transforms Parenting.
Steve Watters: What is the significance of a dad's leadership in family discipleship?
Bill Farley: The big significance of a father is very simple: he is the one who is called by God to do it. The Bible repeatedly commands fathers to raise up children in the way they should go. That command is rarely ever, if at all, given to the wife or the mother. Her role is to be supportive. His role is to take responsibility and to lead the family spiritually. No one can substitute for that. Nothing is as effective as dad taking up his position as the leader of his home.
In Gospel Powered Parenting I cite a Swiss study that looked for any correlation between a father's devotion to Christ and his children's devotion to Christ. After studying hundreds of couples and their children, researchers came to the conclusion that the fathers' involvement in religious activities was crucial.
When a dad attended church regularly along with his wife, 33% of the kids ended up attending church regularly. When the dad was non-practicing, but the mother went to church regularly, only 2% of the kids ended up going to church. When dad went to church irregularly, but his wife was non-practicing (she didn't go to church at all), 25% of the kids still went to church.
The most interesting finding was that the greatest number of kids—fully 44%—who ended up as churchgoers came from homes where the dad went to church regularly and the mom was not practicing. In other words, when the kids saw their dad pushing through the obstacle of having a wife who did not want to go to church, and he went anyway, that had the biggest impact on the children. Dad's involvement is crucial.
SW: Are family devotions the full extent of a dad’s responsibility to raise his children in the fear and instruction of the Lord? Is there more to that expectation than just family devotions?
BF: Family devotions are just part of the package. A father's own spiritual example is crucial. How his kids perceive his relationship with Christ, and whether it's driven by passion or whether it's driven by religious duty, is crucial to the kids as they grow up. Kids are watching all the time. The kids are also picking up from mom and dad that religion is for men, or something only for women and children. When kids pick up that it's also for men, the boys grow up more likely to follow Christ and the young ladies grow up more likely to choose husbands that will be men who will follow Christ. There's a robustness that comes to the family when the dad is the one who is the spiritual leader in the home. And when dads are the spiritual heads of their homes, everything changes.
SW: What are the core elements of family devotions?
BF: Bible reading and prayer.
In our experience, family devotions don't need to be long. 15 minutes is fine. When you're doing family devotions you're teaching your children the Bible, but you're also modeling for them, and the modeling is essential. Every time you meet for family devotions, you're saying to your kids, "This is the most important thing. Our home revolves around Christ—not our children, or our felt needs—and that is a stake that goes in deeply and stays with kids for a lifetime. I've never said to any of my grown children, "you need to do family devotions." But they have all married Christians and they're all doing family devotions without us ever saying a word. They know it's important because we set that example for them. It would be hard for you to overestimate the long-term impact of consistent family devotions with your children.
SW: Many dads know they should lead in family discipleship, but studies show there's a gap between those who know they should lead, and those who are consistently leading in something like the family devotions you describe. What challenges have you seen that are causing that gap?
BF: I think one of the big challenges among men is a feeling of inadequacy. Men look around and think, "You know I'm not perfect, how could I lead my kids?" Or "my wife knows the Bible much better than I do; maybe she should lead the family."
The other problem is he's distracted. Dad just doesn't see the long-term impact of family devotions. Maybe he's thinking, "Oh, this is just a religious duty and it's not going to have any big impact. My kids are just going to grow up and they're going to think, 'I don't want to be involved in that same kind of legalism that my parents were involved in.'" But our experience is just the opposite. If it's a loving home, and you lead by example, and occasionally do things that are fun during family devotions, that will have a long-term impact on your kids and they'll want to do that when they grow up and have their own families.
I often tell the story of a 70-year-old friend, Tim, whose mother died when he was a boy. He was the youngest child of five kids. After all his older brothers and sisters were grown and gone, his mother died choking to death on a piece of food while she was standing in line at a bank. He was left alone with his father.
His father was a janitor. His father could barely read. But every night his dad got out the old, big King James Bible with his son and they sat at the dinner table and Dad and Tim would read the King James Bible together. It was his father’s example that had a huge impact on Tim for the rest of his life. He raised his kids the same way his dad raised him. It's not how much you know. It's that you're willing to learn as you study along with your kids, and communicating to your kids that God is the center of our family.
SW: Did you run into any practical challenges as you worked to have a consistent devotional time with your family?
BF: Of course! For devotions to work, you need to have a time during the day when your whole family is together. It's usually going to be dinner, or if dad works the night shift, it's breakfast. But there needs to be some time when the family's all together. Our biggest obstacle was when the kids got into junior high and high school: sports, tennis lessons, drill team lessons and on and on and on; music lessons, piano, flute, etc., etc. It was hard for us to gather the family for a dinner hour. Somebody was always gone. So, I put my foot down and said, "We're not going to be gone during the dinner hour. We're going to be here. None of this other stuff is nearly as important as our family being together and family devotions."
I'm sure it's much worse today than it was when our kids were younger, in terms of distractions. You have to be really committed or it's never going to happen. If you don’t protect the time, you won’t have a family dinner (or breakfast) hour and if you don't have a regular family hour, you're probably not going to have family devotions.
SW: How would you apply a passage like 1 Thessalonians 5:14, to encourage men who say they're having difficulty leading their family spiritually?
BF: That passage says, "Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient with them all." That's a classic example of what it looks like to parent children! Admonish the idle. Encourage the fainthearted. Help the weak. Be patient will all.
It’s the same thing for dads. You may start out saying, "I'm going to do well at this. I need to do this, I'm going to get on the wagon. I'm going to. I'm going to be faithful." And you do lead for three or four weeks, and then you wake up one day and realize it's been two weeks since you've done family devotions. One thing after another has happened and there have been distractions, and activities, and on and on. You just need to get back on the wagon. Recognize from the start that this is what it's going to be like. It's going to be two steps forward and one step back.
If you do family devotions three or four nights a week, you're doing really well. We're not talking about doing every night of the week because for most families, that's not sustainable. Aim for at least three or four nights of the week. Meet together as a family around God's word.
SW: How do you get the kids talking about the passage you read?
BF: I used the Socratic method, which means I'd ask questions. We'd read a paragraph, maybe one of Paul's epistles, and then I'd say to the kids, "What's this text about? What was that paragraph about?" You know, I’d get all kinds of blank stares. So I would ask them more questions; draw them out and get them involved in the text. It's not a matter of you just lecturing your children.
When your children are really little you can use Bible picture books. You can read Bible story books designed for kids at various age groups. Bruce Ware has a good book to help with this: Big Truths for Young Hearts. There are all kinds of aids you can use to help with family devotions. The important thing is, whatever you do, work consistently at it, and together, with mom and dad on the same page together.
SW: Is there a book in the Bible you encourage dads who are new to this to start with?
BF: I might say the book of Mark. It’s simple in its organization into sections with subheadings. Start at the beginning and read one section and talk about it. You don't need to have all the answers. Your kids may ask you questions you don't have the answers for. That's great. Say, "Hey, next time we meet I'll get the answer to your question and we'll talk about it." You don't have to be a know-it-all. You just need to get the text in front of your children. When you do that, you're saying to them, "Our family revolves around God, not around our kids, or our kids' activities. And the Bible is how we connect with God, and the Bible is really, really important." Your honoring of Scripture, your honoring of God, will have a huge long-term effect.
SW: Any final encouragements?
BF: There are only two texts on parenting in the New Testament and they both say similar things. "Fathers, do not provoke your children, and bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4, and Colossians 3:21.) Both passages are to fathers. If you read through Proverbs in the Old Testament, you’ll find pretty much the same thing with a few exceptions. In the various places where parenting is discussed in the Bible, it's assumed that the dad is the chief parent in terms of leading their children’s spiritual instruction.
To every dad reading this, pick up the mantle and your Bible, gather your family, and by faith, go forward.