I’ll bet you recognize these mind-sets. If you or your kids try to obey God, you’ll at times have some—maybe all—of them. But only one brings true joy.
Most kids I teach will tell me they’re followers of Jesus. Those old enough to understand will usually admit that this means they should serve him. He’s the Lord, after all.
But I know that not all servants are the same. Not all who claim Jesus as Lord serve him with the same kind of heart. To understand how my students are tempted and why they need me to teach them the gospel, I think of them as three types of Christian servants. They may be slaves, hired workers, or sons and daughters.
A slave’s approach to God is one of necessary service. Slaves obey because they fear trouble otherwise. I think of a man I once knew who made a point of going to church at least once every few weeks because, as he put it, he would “begin to sprout horns” if he stayed away too long. He obeyed only to appease God and remain moderately moral. He had no joy or passion.
Kids who approach God as slaves feel this burden. If I encourage them to repent of sin or to do something for God, it tends only to add to the pressure they feel. They don’t like to pray because they feel insecure. When they grow up, they may leave the church just to find some relief. If they stay, they’ll be grouchy, legalistic, and secretly worried about how well they please God and others.
2. Hired workers
A hired worker’s approach to God is about getting a payoff. Hired workers often say they love God, but they really love the experiences, reputation, or satisfying feelings that come with Christian service and church events. They’re in these things for themselves. They’re happy to obey God to the extent that it makes life work for them.
Kids who approach God as hired workers like the idea of faith as long as it’s fun. They’ll come to youth group for a good time, and they’ll practice godly behavior provided they get noticed. If I challenge them to repent or to do something for God, they’ll immediately consider the cost and what they might gain. They don’t like to pray because it’s boring. When they grow up, they may leave the church if they can’t find one they like. If they stay, they’re likely to be part-time attenders who show up when it’s convenient or insufferable joiners who want everything their way.
3. Sons and daughters
A son or daughter has a vastly different approach to God than that of a slave or a hired worker. Sons and daughters serve the Lord because he’s their loving Father, which makes them devoted to him and to the family business—the advance of Christ’s kingdom. John says the hope and love God’s children possess lead to holy living. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3).
So kids who approach God as sons and daughters serve him in love, hope, confidence and gratitude. They yearn to be like Jesus. When I urge them to repent or to do something for God, they have an inner willingness even when they know it’ll be hard and painful. They like to pray because they enjoy and trust their Father. They grow up to be humble yet confident believers, full of faith and kindness, eager to bless the church.
What this means for teachers
This framework explains why I teach the way I do. You see, I have zero interest in helping kids become slaves or hired workers. I want them to be kids who serve as sons and daughters.
How do we get this? We pray for the work of the Spirit, and we cooperate in it by showing those kids Jesus. We show them his wisdom, compassion, strength, and every other detail that makes him the most compelling person ever—until they come to see that absolutely nothing could be better than to join his family. And we show them the forgiveness, righteousness, new life, and eternal future he offers until they see that, indeed, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). The best way to help kids act like God’s children is to get them to see that, by God’s grace and through faith in Jesus, they are God’s children, and there is nothing better.
One more thing: like most helpful frameworks, this one applies to parents and teachers as well as to kids. We too might approach God as slaves, serving and teaching under pressure to impress. Or sometimes we teach and parent as if we were hired workers, driven by the praise or reputation our work might garner for us. We too need to see Jesus daily. We must first dwell on his beauty and his gospel, and then serve as sons and daughters of the King.
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like. Your email address will not be displayed.)