I’ve been a father for nearly 17 years, and the longer I try to parent the less qualified I feel to give advice on raising children. To put it mildly, parenting is humbling. I’m also a pastor who is often in a position to counsel parents. I desperately need friends like Chap Bettis, author of The Disciple-Making Parent: A Comprehensive Guidebook for Raising Your Children to Love and Follow Jesus Christ (Diamond Hill, 2016).
There seems to be an endless number of books on parenting—some excellent, some awful, and many in between. The Disciple-Making Parent falls into the former category and is one of my favorites. Why? It’s loaded with practical wisdom for parenting, and focuses on two critical truths we often overlook when raising kids: (1) only God can make them Christians, and (2) raising children in the fear and nurture of the Lord is most fundamentally about evangelism.
Bettis’s book deals with many thorny parenting issues such as the reality of prodigal sons and daughters, how to teach children about the world, dealing with social media and electronics, explaining hypocrisy, and much more. Bettis served as a pastor for 25 years in New England before founding The Apollo Project in 2012 to equip families for discipleship, apologetics, and worldview and to help churches become more family-friendly.
Why did you write The Disciple-Making Parent?
I had the privilege of growing up in a Christian home and heard the gospel in church. I believe I genuinely trusted Christ around the age of 8. But I also had a bumpy transition to an adult faith. The hypocrisy I saw in the church, combined with my own intellectual questions, almost torpedoed my faith. Thankfully, the Christians at my secular college and various books on apologetics strengthened my faith.
As a pastor, when Sharon and I were having our own children, we resolved to be intentional in passing down the gospel to our children. We had a number of good resources to help us with parenting issues, but none spoke directly and biblically to helping us disciple our children. If the Scriptures are sufficient (and they are), then surely they speak to this issue. In addition, God brought a number of likeminded parents into our new church plant. As we were all raising our children, we were searching the Scriptures for wisdom in this area.
As I started putting some of these ideas down on paper, they seemed to help other parents. The fact that we raised our children in the harsh spiritual climate of New England seems to resonate with parents today, as our country grows increasingly hostile to Christianity.
When I realized I might be able to write, I prayed it might be challenging but not guilt-inducing, saturated in timeless Scripture without being distinctly American, and aware of how sin can affect the home in significant ways. I am thankful for the feedback I’ve received, even from those in different denominations and non-Western countries.
You tie evangelism to raising children. Why?
The noetic effect of sin blinds us to many things, including the right way to view family and children. God doesn’t just give us babies to raise; he entrusts us with eternal souls to influence. This changes all of my parenting.
The foundational Scripture for parents is not Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6, as important as those are, but Matthew 28:18–20. The Great Commission is the mission of the church and undergirds my family’s direction. Once I have that North Star to guide my parenting, I can make wise choices and stand strong in a culture that’s pushing me in many directions.
Too many pastors and parents have separated kingdom life and family life. But God intends each family to be a Trinity-displaying, disciple-making unit. Understanding this truth changes everything.
Once parents have understood this point, what myths do you think Christian parents still believe?
Many good parents are tempted to believe that the perfect environment will guarantee that their children will walk with the Lord. Though we may not say it, our actions often show we are thinking this way. But our children’s salvation is not by works—theirs or ours. Discipling our children is not like making a cake: Put in the right ingredients and the right environment for the right amount of time—and out pops perfect children. Our kids have real choices they have to make.
But having warned of this danger, we must make the other point with equal strength: God can and does use means. Our duty is to faithfully discharge the duties he’s given us, leaving the results in his hands. Our job is not successful parenting per se, but faithful parenting. The Disciple-Making Parent lays out biblical principles that are true in any discipleship relationship, but especially for the children God has entrusted to us.
If you could give parents one piece of advice, what would it be?
Make sure you are living the gospel at home. The number one reason kids give for walking away is hypocrisy on the part of their parents or church leaders. Lo and behold, we see in the New Testament that the first way a spiritual leader teaches is through example. And our home is a stage where our children are studying our lives. When they are young, they are imitating us. When they are older, they are evaluating us. Do they see a genuine relationship with the Lord? Paul could say of Timothy’s upbringing that his mother and grandmother had a living faith (2 Tim. 1:5), and it was because of those examples that he was following the Lord.
What would you say to parents of prodigals?
Your child’s salvation is not by parental works. My own assistant pastor, whom I respect so much, tells the story of his deliberate decision to rebel as a teen. By his own words, his parents were wonderful Christian parents. Too many times, parents of prodigals feel shame and guilt based on a misunderstanding of Proverbs 22:6. We have taken this verse as a promise that if we train them well, they will not depart. Therefore, we think, if they depart, we must have done something wrong.
Perhaps there is real sin to confess on our part, but we must remember our child’s salvation does not depend on our parenting. We cannot parent so well as to give them a new heart. I want every parent to know the incredible privilege and responsibility they have been given to shape an eternal soul.