Whether we’re gifted evangelists or not, we’re certainly called to be evangelical and make disciples in our families. Over 80 percent of followers of Jesus became Christians as children or early youths. This means that our primary ministries lay within the four walls of our home.
In looking back at raising my girls, there are a lot of things we did wrong and a few things we did right. But, as I look at three young adult women, all of whom love Jesus, it’s hard to overestimate the power of fun in forming a faithful family.
When the kids are little, fun comes in the form of Dad being willing to clock in for what pastor Matt Chandler calls “the second shift.” After a long day at Grace, often the last thing I wanted to do was play with the kids. Sitting in front of Monday Night Football with a plate of nachos and a cold beverage seemed more to my liking. Yet, something within me (read: Holy Spirit) kept nudging me that it would be good for my kids if Dad would bathe them, play with them, then read to them. And, it didn’t take a certified member of Mensa, which I clearly was not, to know that my wife needed a break.
So, every night after dinner, they’d all jump in the bath together, and we’d talk about their day as I got them semi-clean. Then, I’d dry them off and sing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin as I carried them on their towels, magic-carpet style, to their rooms. We’d roll around on the ground, playing “Ellen Saves the Day”: a highly-complex game whereby Monster Dad would torture the two older girls until baby would swoop in to “rescue” her sisters, banishing the evil Monster to his lair between the beds. Afterwards, we’d read “Madeline” for the 8,345th time (actually more of a recitation than a reading, since I had it memorized), then prayers, thanking Jesus for our day, our family, and our friends.
We had a blast, yet in those sweet moments, my girls learned some very powerful lessons. First, they learned that their Daddy loved them and enjoyed being with them, and that they were precious in his sight. Dads, more than anyone else, serve as archetypes for God our Father. So much of our faith formation, how we understand our God and his love for us, is formed in the way our earthly fathers loved and interacted with us. It doesn’t feel like faith formation when we’re rolling around on the carpet getting rug burns with our kids, but it absolutely is, and the more we do it, the better.
Fun family traditions also formed our kids’ faith, in big and small ways. For us, it was Saturday morning dates at the bagel shop while Mom slept (as you can see, I was actually doing a little marriage building here, too!), which eventually morphed into Dad making waffles and watching College Gameday together as they got older. Late Friday night nachos and ice cream while watching the Red Zone after coming home from the Grace game was also a tradition. Family vacations were treasured traditions: summer trips to 30A in Florida each year, which occasionally turned into Thanksgiving and New Years as they became older. I took each one of them out of school when they were little (don’t tell Mrs. Dozier!) for their own solo daddy-daughter trip to Disneyworld. It’s easy to remember these traditions, because they’re the ones my 20-something daughters still recall and talk about regularly.
Traditions are critical in creating a sense of security and belonging within your family, shared memories strengthening bonds. It’s not difficult from there to help kids realize that they are also a part of God’s family, a family that is thousands of years old and stretches into eternity, one that is steeped in deep tradition and ritual designed to root them in a community even deeper than your own family.
Fun is also essential to building a strong family culture. If you get anything from our family stories, it’s that we are a football family. My girls can not only execute a roundoff back handspring, but can throw a tight spiral, each honed by hours of practice in the front yard and the beach. On any given Saturday, you would find us in a stadium or on the couch, watching hours of college gridiron play.
But, it’s not just football. “We don’t do princess problems” means that, while we all rally around each other’s sadness and true tragedies and challenges in life, high drama and weeping over bad hair days are not our thing. On birthdays and Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day, we “love bomb” the honoree, going around the table and each sharing what we love or admire about that person, and why we’re grateful they’re in our family. And, while we were never really militaristic about church attendance, being in church on Sunday was just our thing. If we were in town, we’d be there. Still are. Because all these things are what it meant to be a Ferguson.
Culture defines “the way things are done around here,” and it’s the cumulative effect of values, behaviors, and beliefs of an organization or, in this case, a family. Culture is super-powerful, and can have an extremely formative effect on the way people live, both now and in the future. In our home, these fun activities subconsciously taught our girls, in ways they never understood at the time, that working together as a team, being other-centered, rather than self-focused, gratefulness, love, worship and community were all values that mattered, ways that they should live. And, they learned it all through laughter and fun.
Finally, while we absolutely had family devotionals, it never felt that way to the girls. No sitting around the fireplace, girls adoringly gazing at dad in his turtleneck, Bible open to Habakkuk. If that’s you, that’s awesome. We just ate dinner together, and played a game: “best thing, worst thing.” Everyone had to go around the table and say the best thing that happened to them that day, as well as the worst. Then, we’d talk about those things. These conversations created amazing opportunities to speak God’s Word into the daily realities of my kids’ lives. Sometimes, if moved to do so, I’d pull out the Bible I kept in the pine hutch by the dinner table and read a passage that was relevant to what we were discussing. Most of the time their mom and I would just talk about a relevant biblical principle from memory.
Some nights were magical, and some nights just mundane, but they were all critical to who my kids became. Those nights required Mom and Dad to be in the Word ourselves, so it would be part of our lives, and it required us to be intentional about having dinner together. These nights taught our girls that God’s Word is living and true, and speaks into every aspect of their lives, good and bad. We laughed a lot, cried a lot, argued a lot, and had a lot of fun.
My girls are adults now, dealing with adult things–pain and challenges, the struggles of life in a Genesis 3 world. Their stories are theirs to tell, yet I’ve often heard it said, and found it to be true, that you’re only as happy as your least happy child. Kids do that to you. As sad as I am for them at times, however, that sadness is met with the joy of watching them meeting life knowing, loving, and trusting their Father who loves them. The ability to meet that pain with overriding joy was partially formed in a crucible of fun.