I am a mom of three babies. Okay, so they are not really babies anymore. I have one daughter in middle school, one preteen son, and one elementary son. I love motherhood—but let’s face it, the actual parenting part is just hard!
I am a trained educator and have worked with kids nearly all my life—especially through the lens of ministry. Even as a teen I was a camp counselor in the summers and taught VBS in Central America on mission trips. All this experience, yet my own precious three can bring me to my knees for two reasons: crying mercy and begging God for help.
This is where I sometimes get caught in the trap of wanting behavior change, even before heart change. Why? Because it is quicker, it’s results-driven, and quite frankly, I just need obedience—now!
But, if I’m honest, I know that quick demand for obedience is only a Band-Aid for true heart transformation, which only God can accomplish. My role as a parent is to live out the gospel so that they can see that I, too, sin, mess up, and fail them because I am a sinner in need of a rescuer just like they are. My role is to model grace for them just like God has so lavishly given us grace upon grace. When my husband and I let go and parent with heart transformation in mind rather than the quick-fix expectation of behavior change, we automatically feel a peace in our home. Something that is centered upon loving and serving one another is a response to how our heavenly Father has loved us and provided a way for us to be with Him forever.
So, that’s on a good day. Another trap that I fall into is the desire that, above all, my kids will be gracious (good manners), accomplished (well-rounded) leaders (great character). My intentions are good, I assure you.
You see, I am raising American kids. There is a high expectation that they will be good at school, sports, music, and charity so that they can get a scholarship into a great college! As parents, we all live with this pressure because we are all playing the game. But sometimes, the Lord so tenderly pulls me back and let’s me see a bigger picture. There is no way, try as I might, to force all of these things to happen. I can teach my kids about morals and values, but that is not the silver bullet for heart transformation. Again, it is about raising kids who love Jesus. I can point the way and the Church can partner with me (which is why your job is so important), but heart change begins with teaching the Bible, not teaching manners and character development.
Heart transformation can lead to behavior modification, but not the other way around. It is key for ministry leaders to understand this. Just like my confessions of bad parenting, there are countless examples of how the Church is also tempted to pile on behavior modification tactics, expecting them to lead to heart transformation. If morals and values are the only thing you are teaching, then you take away the power of the cross.
We need to realize that when we do this, we are adding a burden that children can’t fix on their own—they will never be able to obey enough, perform enough, or not mess up enough. The list of values we want to see championed in their lives will be fleeting if the Holy Spirit is not producing the fruit of the Spirit. They need a Savior.
Jana Magruder serves as the Director of LifeWay Kids. She is a Baylor graduate and offers a wealth of experience and passion for kids ministry, education, and publishing. She is the author of Kids Ministry that Nourishes and Life Verse Creative Journal, which she co-authored with her teenage daughter. She and her husband, Michael, along with their three children reside in Nashville.