Six Principles for Discipling Children

I am thankful for the ministry of Awana, church based program which is being used to reach 4 million kids every week in over 120 countries. Awana is a discipleship program that gives children and youth from every background the opportunity to know, love and serve Jesus for a lifetime. God is the Awana leaders and volunteers to bless children in a way that will impact them for a lifetime!

Awana volunteers recognize that the most strategic time in a person’s life to impart spiritual truth is during their childhood. How do we pass on spiritual truth to our children? Deuteronomy 6 provides the answer. Here we discover six biblical principles for discipling children.

Deuteronomy 6 is primarily an exposition of the 1st commandment, “You shall have no other Gods before me” (Deut. 5:7). The very first thing God wants His people to know is that there is one true God, and He alone is worthy of our worship and service.

  1. Follow the biblical pattern (1-3). Moses begins my showing us the biblical pattern for discipleship. Pass it on! To make disciples, we pass on what we have learned to others. Moses taught the parents. The parents were responsible for teaching their children and grandchildren. And the good results of passing on this spiritual truth is that the recipients will have long life (v. 2) and lots of blessing (v. 3).
  2. Focus attention on the one true God (4). Verses are known as the “Shema,” based on the Hebrew word, “Hear.” But the word doesn’t just mean “hear with your ears,” but respond to what you hear with your heart, mind and body.” Verse four declares the uniqueness of the one, true God. The words, “Yahweh is one (achad), are better translated, “Yahweh alone!” Daniel Block writes, “This is a cry of allegiance, an affirmation of covenant commitment in response to the question, ‘Who is the God of Israel?’” (JETS 2004).
  3. Be passionate in your love for God (5). If you are not passionate in your love for God, don’t expect your children to be excited and passionate about God. Verse 5 calls for an all-encompassing love for God. We are to love God with all our heart (intention or will), soul (our whole self) and our might (the superlative degree of commitment. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 in answer to the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law” (Matt. 22:37).
  4. Recognize the importance of repetition (6-9). What is teaching? The Hebrew word used in verse six means “repeat.” Teaching is helping others to learn through a process of repetition. People sometimes ask me how I learned the Bible. It was by repeatedly studying and reviewing the truths of God’s Word. I believe that repetition with variety is the key t learning. Moses gives us two examples of the element of variety.

The first is to inscribe God’s Word on your hand and forehead. These verses are the basis for the Jewish tradition of putting a phylactery or teffilin (plural for tefillah, “prayer”) on their forehead and arm. This is a visual and ongoing reminder that all we do should be done in the light of His commandments. Putting God’s Word on your forehead, right between your eyes, places is near your mind and in the forefront of your memory.

The second example of variety in teaching is to put God’s word on the mezuzah (literally “doorpost) of your house and gates. This serves as a constant reminder that as we go out of our homes and into the city, we are to obey God’s commandments.

In Jewish tradition, these instructions are applied literally, as they put on their phylactery (a little black box containing a portion of Scripture) and install the mezuzah (a little tube containing a portion of Scripture) at the entrance of their homes. Another way to apply these verses is to have a box of memory cards which are regularly posted on the refrigerator and bathroom mirror for the purposes of remembering and reviewing Scripture.

  1. Emphasize the holy triad (10-19). Three things rise to the top of Moses’ list for training disciples: First, “remember God” (10-12). Forgetfulness of Yahweh’s goodness is the pathway to disobedience and failure. Here Moses offers a warning that success and prosperity can be dangerous to your spiritual life if you don’t remember that God is the source of these blessings! A famous Jewish rabbi said, “Forgetfulness leads to exile. Remembrance is the key to redemption.”

Second, “Fear God” (13-16). To “fear God” means to know who He is and what He expects of His people. The “fear of God” is a reverence and respect for God that leads us to obey His commandments. Moses warns his people to “fear God” by not becoming entangled with the false gods of Canaan or the secular culture.

Third, “Obey God” (17-19). Be diligent to obey God!  As the grand old hymn reminds us, “Trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

  1. Embrace strategic opportunities (20-25). Discipling children requires embracing teachable moments. A teachable moment is when a child asks a question. Drop everything and respond! Moses instructs parents to teach what God has done in history (21-23). Then what God has revealed in his Word (24-25). Finally, teach what God has promised (24). Moses says that our obedience doesn’t just please God, it is the key to our survival. Obedience is for “our good” and for “our life.”

Since I have not really “taught” until I have repeated, here is a summary of six principles from Deuteronomy 6 for discipling children:

  • Follow the biblical pattern of passing what you have learned on to others.
  • Focus children’s attention on the one true God as revealed in Jesus.
  • Be passionate in your own love for God. You can’t teach what you aren’t doing.
  • Recognize the importance of repetition. If you are not repeating, you are not teaching! “Repetition with variety is the key to learning.”
  • Emphasize the holy triad of remembering, fearing and obeying God.
  • Embrace strategic opportunities, like teachable moments when a child’s mind is open and their hearts are tender.

After visiting my wife’s family in Atlanta, Georgia, we were traveling by metro train to the airport. A few stops after we boarded the train, a group of young boys riding their electric scooters got on and began riding up and down the aisle and verbally abusing the passengers. Alerted by the train security, the police boarded the train a few stops later and escorted the boys off the train. It was sad to see a group of who were headed for a lifetime of trouble and possibly jail since they had not been taught the truths of God’s Word. How different their lives might be if they had been discipled through the ministry of AWANA!

Why I write

Among other things, I write. I have written countless college and seminary papers, a master’s thesis, a doctoral dissertation, dozens of articles and about 20 books. You may wonder why I do this. Why do I sit at a desk and write when I could be outside in playing in the sunshine, hiking in the mountains or driving one of my military jeeps? I have been wondering about this myself! Here are seven reasons that keep me at the keyboard. Perhaps they will encourage you to become a writer too!

  1. I have something to say. I will never forget the two weeks of summer vacation I devoted to writing my first book, The Divorce Myth (Bethany House Publishers). Studying the teachings of Jesus, I had come to a new understanding of God’s plan for marriage. It was different from what I had previously believed and from what most pastors preached. I felt that it needed to be shared. My research and study flowed from my mind to my fingertips as I wrote. I was on a roll! It was hard to stop for lunch or take breaks. For me, the desire to write comes from having something important to say.
  2. I like the challenge. Most of my writing has been related to my profession as a Bible teacher. I like the challenge of studying Scripture in order to understand the truth of a biblical text. Before writing, I dig into the original text, background, culture, history and geography of a biblical passage. Then, I work to identify the essential principles and applications. I especially enjoy working on interpretive problems which requires the examination of different views, weighing the evidence for each, and then coming to my own conclusions. Finally, I am faced with the challenge of presenting my interpretation in a clear and understandable way. This was my goal in writing Answers to Tough Questions from Every Book of the Bible (Wiph & Stock). How do you answer the question, “What is the unpardonable sin” in a couple of pages when you could write a book on the subject? It is an engaging challenge to write an answer to a tough question, clearly and concisely, in just a couple of pages.
  3. I enjoy the process. I have heard people say, “I hate writing.” I understand. Writing is one of the hardest things I do. But once I get started on a theme, an article or a book, I find myself compelled along by the shear enjoyment of the process! The process of writing is like building something that will be of lasting benefit to others. During my college days I worked for a construction company building streets. I enjoyed every step of the process—excavating, preparing the road bed with gravel, paving with asphalt, and then finishing the project for inspection. I was proud of the streets I had helped pave. Similarly, writing is the hard work you go through to gain a rewarding result. And I do the work with the hope that my efforts will bless and benefit my readers.
  4. It expands my teaching ministry. Writing gives me an opportunity to share my ideas with people I have never met. I am always honored when someone I don’t know buys one of my books, appreciates what I have written and tells me about it in person or with an email. This past summer I was visiting my daughter’s family in Idaho and joined them for Sunday church. There on the resource rack was a pamphlet on church discipline. I glanced at the bibliography and there was listed my book, Your Guide to Church Discipline (Bethany House)! It was a joy to meet the pastor who had not only read my book, but he quoted from it in his pamphlet. It is a privilege to contribute to God’s kingdom work through writing and publishing.
  5. I want to leave a legacy. I recently retired after forty wonderful years of teaching at Western Seminary. I don’t know how many more years of ministry are yet ahead, but I know that when I leave this earth for heaven, my books will still be on readers’ bookshelves around the country. It is encouraging to know that my family, friends and students will benefit from my books long after I am gone. An ancient Egyptian sage commented about the authors of books. He said, “Their mortuary service is gone; their tombstones are covered with dirt; and their graves are forgotten. But their names are still pronounced because of their books which they made, since they were good and the memory of him who made them lasts to the limits of eternity (J. Blenkinsopp, Wisdom and Law in the OT (Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 7).
  6. It’s easy to get published. Years ago, getting a book published was a difficult and drawn out process. You began by contacting a publisher and submitting a manuscript proposal. If the publisher expressed interest, you wrote and submitted the manuscript. Then you waited months (sometimes years) for their response. Next came the “rejection letter.” Not willing to give up, you repeated the process until you found an editor who believed your book could make the publisher money. Publishing has changed a great deal through modern technology. Now days, just about anyone can publish a book. There are lots of companies which will help you self-publish your book. My last four books were published through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a company associated with Amazon. To publish with KDP, you write and edit the manuscript, choose the title, create the cover, decide on the price and royalty, and select your channels for promotion and distribution. Kindle Direct Publishing will make your book available on Amazon. When someone buys your book, it is printed, packaged and shipped. And the royalty payment is promptly deposited in your bank account. Self-publishing is not just an easier process. It also benefits your readers. Because you are doing the editorial work yourself, rather than paying the publisher, self-publishing allows your book to be sold at a more reasonable price.
  7. I like sharing my books. It is a privilege to place into someone’s hands a book which you have labored over for years, knowing that what you have written will bless and benefit them. My books are sold on-line through Amazon, but I also make them available at speaking engagements. And I give lots of books away. I give books to friends, family members, students and others who might benefit from my writings. Kindle Direct Publishing allows authors to buy their books at cost. This enables authors to give someone a book for about the price of a Hallmark greeting card! And I think that a book will be on the recipient’s shelf longer than a pretty card.

At the end of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon offered a warning to writers and readers of books. He said, “The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearing to the body” (Ecc. 12:12). So true! There is always another book to write and another book to read. Heeding Solomon’s warning, I’ll try to live my life with reasonable balance, both writing and reading books.