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Planting Trees: Sowing Gospel Seeds in the Next Generation

Planting Trees (1)

“She rises up as morning breaks. She moves among these rooms alone before we wake. And her heart is so full, it overflows. She waters us with love, and the children grow. So many years from now, long after we are gone, these trees will spread their branches out and bless the dawn.”

The lyrics from this Andrew Peterson song have evolved over the 10 years since I first heard them. They have always been sweet and vivid, but today I see these lyrics in living flesh and blood. My wife may not be the early riser of our family, but she is daily giving herself to love and serve us. We both find ourselves constantly working to water our three kids with the love of Christ. Even at this young age, we are constantly sowing gospel seeds on the soil of our kids’ hearts. Our prayers are often consumed with begging God to give our kids new hearts, to sink their roots deep in fellowship with him, and to grow their affection for the Lord.

The importance of these little ears hearing the gospel on a consistent basis can hardly be overstated. Over and over again, the Bible instructs parents to teach God’s Word to their children. Think about Deuteronomy 6:4–7 – “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Or think about the church in Ephesus, where Paul assumes that children will be listening as part of the gathered church in Ephesians 6:1 – “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Or look to Paul’s protege Timothy. Evangelicals are often quick to quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17 on the inspiration of Scripture, but look at the two verses immediately before that – “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14-15). The sincere faith of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice was passed on to him from childhood, so that it now dwells in him (2 Tim. 1:5). The gospel is not merely the greatest need for our world or our friends, but for our children as well.

While the Bible should convince us of the importance of preaching the gospel to our kids, the stories of our members should drive those convictions home even further. In a recent poll on the Facebook page for members, I asked people at what age they came to faith. Here’s the breakdown of our responses:

Age of Conversion Total Number Percentage
Younger than 5 (preschool) 2 2.4%
5-10 (elementary) 39 47.0%
11-13 (junior high) 9 10.8%
14-18 (high school) 17 20.5%
19-22 (college) 8 9.6%
22+ (after college) 8 9.6%

So north of 80% of those who responded were converted while they were living at home before college. Similar numbers emerge in other studies. A Barna Group study from 2004 found that 64% of respondents came to faith before their 18th birthday. A 2019 survey of nearly 400 children’s ministry leaders resulted in 84% saying they trusted in Christ before they were 20 years old.

This is obviously not to say that God stops working after people turn 18! Look at the Apostle Paul, or consider some of the testimonies of brothers and sisters in our church who come to faith through a godly coworker, an old high school friend, or simply reading their Bible and being supernaturally convinced by God’s Spirit. Evangelism doesn’t have an age limit.

But we should take seriously the responsibility we have as parents and as a church to train up the coming generation. While evangelism doesn’t have an upper age limit (no one is too old for God to save them), we should equally say that it is never too early to speak the gospel to your children. To that end, let me give a few recommendations that I need to hear and that I hope are edifying for you, church.

First, remember that growing trees takes time, so plan for the long haul. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard (or said), “The days are long, but the years are short.” We can all feel the stress and frustration of a long day. You’ve preached the gospel to your children a hundred times, but today when you talk about it your daughter tells you with confidence that we have to be good boys and girls to get into heaven. You’ve seen your son grow sensitive to sin in his life, only to catch him whacking his sibling with glee. You’ve been patient for days on end, but during the live stream you scream at your children to stay quiet so you can listen for once. It’s so easy in these moments to feel like you’ve lost progress. But don’t lose heart. When you make mistakes, show your children what repentance looks like by apologizing to them, confessing your sin to God in front of them, and asking for their forgiveness. When your child exposes sin in their heart, count it as an opportunity to lean in and shepherd them towards the gospel again. You may feel like an individual conversation or interaction goes poorly, but a lifetime of patient, gentle, instructive godliness leaves an impression that will often stand out above any one particular conversation.

Second, pray with and for your kids. According to John Calvin, prayer is the chief exercise of faith. In other words, it is the way that we most naturally demonstrate faith in the God we proclaim. Family devotions are excellent. Scripture memorization will serve your children for years, Lord willing. But don’t forget that all of our work is planting and watering. It is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Make it a priority in your life to ask God to save your children.

Third, don’t outsource the stewardship that God has given you. Your children were given not to just any parent, but God in his sovereignty gave them to you. Let that be an encouragement to you! Sure, there are other people who are doing a great job discipling their kids, and it’s a good thing to learn from others and strive to improve in this area. But even if your child goes to a great Christian school, has excellent CFC Kids teachers, or a cadre of good friends, you are the person God has called and equipped most directly to influence your children towards Christ.

Fourth, don’t neglect brothers and sisters in influencing your kids towards Christ. If you feel a slight tension between this point and the above, then you’re reading this rightly. It is absolutely true that you are the primary disciple-makers in your home. But that doesn’t mean you should wall yourself off and assume that you should try to get the job done all by yourself. I love that my children hear about God’s good news from CFC Kids teachers on Sundays, Growth Group friends on Tuesdays, grandparents on Wednesdays and Fridays, and other interactions that I’m just barely aware of. Today, my kids think I’m pretty cool. But one day, my guess is that they might want to talk through some spiritual questions and insights with Emily or Elizabeth or Billy before they come to me about it. Which leads to my last point.

Fifth and finally, shape your life around a local church. The local church is intended by God’s grace to be an embassy of heaven, a small picture of what it looks like to live with God as our king. Just being in church every time the door opens does not make you or your kids a Christian, and we should certainly not confuse our kids that this is the case! But I would count it a great blessing if my children grew up to love God’s people more than their favorite sports team or hobby, if being among God’s people frequently seemed like a natural outworking of being part of God’s family.

Gardening is hard work. I’m pretty sure that I have killed more plants than I’ve kept alive (Laura can testify!). But I’m learning to be better. More than that, I’m trusting that I’m just an apprentice gardener, not the Master. And I am praying that in His good grace our kids will one day be oaks of righteousness, spreading out their branches to bless the dawn.