Give Them Jesus

Raising Our Children on the Core Truths of the Christian Faith


By Dillon T. Thornton, PhD

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A fresh, clear, joyful guide for parents on how to teach their children to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Give Them Jesus aims to help parents not simply add to their children’s stockpile of knowledge, but to cultivate children-disciples who are able to display Christ-likeness in every situation. Parents are the ones primarily responsible for opening up the Scriptures to help their children understand God, the world, and themselves. The family is the divinely appointed discipleship program; the home is first and foremost a place of worship. The introduction of the book discusses the four vital components of family worship: teach, treasure, sing, and pray, and offers practical suggestions for beginning and prioritizing family worship in the rough and tumble of life.

Subsequent chapters guide parents to a deeper understanding of the core truths of the historic Christian faith, as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, arming them with appropriate language, helpful illustrations, and relevant object lessons, so that in the end they will be better prepared to pass these truths on to their children. Each chapter concludes with a family worship guide, which includes: 1) family memory verses, 2) nuggets of truth from the chapter, 3) questions for family discussion, 4) songs that celebrate the truths of the Creed, and 5) prayer prompts.

Give Them Jesus equips parents to prepare their children to leave home and go out into the world as faithful participants in the great gospel story. “Never stop telling the gospel story to your kids,” Thornton says. “Give your children Jesus. Again. And again. And again. And you’ll see them walk in the truth.”


“I have no greater joy than this,

to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”

3 JOHN 4


The primary calling of the parent-theologian is to train children-disciples.


My favorite thing about Walt Disney World is the monster-size smoked turkey legs. Meeting Mickey is cool, but you can’t eat him, so he doesn’t compare to the turkey legs, at least not in my book. I vacationed at Disney World only once when I was a child. My wife, Jamie, on the other hand, went dozens of times with her family. When Jamie and I got married, we adopted her family tradition and started visiting “the Happiest Place on Earth” about once every three years. Unlike some family traditions, this one I really like. In a word: more turkey legs. Over the years, Jamie and I have traveled to Disney World, Disneyland, and the next thing on our list is the Disney Cruise Line.

Not long ago I was doing some research on Disney cruises, trying to determine how many of our children we would need to sell in order to pay for the cruise. As I watched one of their promotional videos, I was surprised to discover that on board each vessel they have “specially trained Disney counselors” who take care of your kids while you have some fun of your own. To me, this sounded like a slightly politer way of saying, “Dump your kids on the Disney professionals so you can enjoy Captain Jack’s rum hoard.”

Overall, I like Disney, and I don’t want to be unduly critical. But how is this a family vacation? One of my privileges as a husband and father of two young boys is planning our family vacations, drawing a blueprint that will ensure that this time away from our crazy busy schedules will be a time of rest, rejuvenation, enjoyment, and togetherness. This is my responsibility, my joy. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything, not even for all the turkey legs in the Magic Kingdom. So thanks, Disney counselors, but no thanks.

Watching the Disney Cruise Line promotional video, it occurred to me that many Christian parents think of their pastor or children’s director as the “specially trained [spiritual] counselor.” Rather than passing on spiritual truths to their children, countless parents merely pass their children to the “professionals” at church. While participation in a Christ-exalting local church is crucial, parents—not pastors, children’s directors, or Sunday school teachers—bear the primary responsibility for their child’s spiritual development. Consider the words of Moses, spoken centuries ago to the families of Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.1

We find no hint here, or anywhere else in the Bible, of the training of children being abdicated by parents in favor of “professionals.” As a well-known advocate of family-driven faith, Voddie Baucham, puts it, “Discipleship and multi-generational faithfulness begins and ends at home.”2 Or to put it another way, “The family is God’s divinely appointed ‘small-group’ discipleship program.”3

The fundamental presupposition of this book is that Christian parents/guardians are responsible for the spiritual development of the children under their care. I am convinced that most parents feel this responsibility, though they have not been adequately equipped to fulfill it. Many years ago when I served as a children’s pastor, an important Barna study was published.4

The study revealed that roughly nine out of ten parents of children under the age of thirteen believe they have the primary responsibility for training their children in the faith, but a majority of these parents don’t spend any time during a typical week discussing spiritual truths with their children. “Parents are not so much unwilling to provide more substantive training,” the Barna study concluded, “as they are ill-equipped to do such work.” The research further indicated that many parents are not able to guide their children spiritually because they themselves do not have a firm grasp of the Christian faith. “When it comes to raising children to be spiritually mature, the old adage, ‘you can’t give what you don’t have,’ is pertinent for millions of families.” This is where I hope this present work will be of some help. My goal is to guide you, parents and guardians, to a deeper understanding of the core truths of the historic Christian faith, and along the way to arm you with appropriate language, helpful illustrations, and relevant object lessons so that in the end you will be better prepared to pass these truths on to your children. In short, I want to help you become a parent-theologian.


Tedd Tripp, president of Shepherding the Heart Ministries, says that every parent’s greatest need is “to understand deep truths from the Bible.”5 In other words, every mom and dad needs to become a parent-theologian. When you hear the word “theologian,” I imagine you picture an old dude with a bodacious beard dwelling in a dusty study surrounded by big books. Granted, theologians need their books, and we’ll come back to this point momentarily. But the thought of the theologian as an intellectual devoted solely to reading the works of dead guys while caring nothing about the world of the living is completely ludicrous. What, then, is a theologian? My favorite definition comes from Kevin Vanhoozer: a theologian is “one who opens up the Scriptures to help people understand God, the world, and themselves.”6 Vanhoozer continues: “Because God is the maker of everything that is, visible and invisible, and because the good news of God’s self-giving love concerns the whole world, there is not a square inch in the cosmos, not a single aspect of human existence, that does not somehow relate to God and the gospel.”7 Theologians “get” this, and they help others “get” it. Theologians care about doctrine.

“Doctrine,” now there’s another word that’s lost its street cred. Doctrine is not dry or stodgy, nor is it the cause of all division in the church, as some would have us believe. No, doctrine refers to the deposit of Christ-centered truth entrusted to the church’s care, yet it’s far more than a body of knowledge. It’s instruction that forms, informs, and transforms us into doers of truth, disciples who think, speak, and act the way Christ did.8 In caring about doctrine, the aim of the parent-theologian is not simply to add to our children’s stockpile of knowledge, but to cultivate children-disciples who are able to display Christlikeness in every situation. The aim is to train our children to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.9

To become parent-theologians, we need proper tools; we need a well-stocked library. I can think of at least three types of resources we would be wise to gather. First, we need to collect books that will excite our children about the church and its history. When my boys were very young, I started reading them The Church History ABCs, by Stephen Nichols and Ned Bustard.10 Before I knew it, my older son, Aidan, had named his stuffed hippopotamus Augustine. Proud dad moment. We’ve also used the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, published by Reformation Heritage. This excellent series introduces children to important people in the Christian tradition, such as Athanasius, Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Second, we need to collect books that will help our children understand the Bible. We have an abundant supply of works written specifically for children, picture books designed to introduce them to the story of the Scriptures or to basic Christian theology. Honestly, some of these books are rubbish. But many of them are very good. All of them, it seems, have a fascination with sheep. What is it with children’s books and sheep? Essential for every household is Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible. Another staple is David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible. Third, we need to collect books that will help us, as parent-theologians, grow in our grasp of the faith and assist us in the task of expressing our beliefs in child-friendly ways. Give Them Jesus falls into this latter category. If you picked up this volume hoping for a children’s book, a work with more pictures than words, I’m sorry to say: You’re going to be disappointed. I’ve written this book for parents, not for children, because, well, I didn’t see a need for another woolly work.


Let’s return to our definition of a theologian. A theologian is “one who opens up the Scriptures to help people understand God, the world, and themselves.” A theologian is one who cares about doctrine, that unique kind of teaching that instructs the head, orients the heart, and guides the hand.11 Formative instruction occurs in the natural rhythm and activity of life. Every day is a string of teachable moments; we chisel our children into Christlike men and women as we walk the aisles of the grocery store with them, gather around the dinner table, ride down the road in the truck, or take a Sunday afternoon hike through the mountains. In a sense, we are always teaching our children. Our responses and even our silence teach. Our charity and our irritability teach. Children are spongelike creatures, soaking up everything around them. We should be mindful of this reality, recognizing that as parent-theologians we are never really “off duty.” But this reality does not negate the need for more focused times of instruction within the context of family worship.12 Perhaps family worship is a new concept for you. Or maybe you’ve tried it before but it didn’t work as you’d hoped. Teaching our children can be difficult, not least because they have the attention span of a gnat on LSD. Take, for example, a recent conversation I had with my boys while driving home from school:

Me: Boys, pretty soon Daddy is going to Indiana for a conference. I’m gonna miss you.

Cullen: Are you going to be preaching to the Indians there?

Me: No, Cullen, Indiana, not Indians.

Aidan: Do they speak English in India?

Me: No, Aidan, Indiana, not India.

Cullen: Are you going to meet Indiana Jones?

Me: Never mind where I’m going. Just be good for Mommy.

Family worship is most effective when it is characterized by brevity and consistency and when it is participatory. Family worship isn’t a full-on church service. There’s no need for a detailed order of worship, no reason for parents to wear robes (unless you’re pretending to be a Jedi), and no obligation to prepare a thirty-minute expository sermon on Leviticus. When your children are young, ten to fifteen minutes will suffice for all the elements that compose the family worship time. The next key is consistency; determine how many days of the week the family will gather for worship, and then pick a time of day that works for everyone. Breakfast, dinner, and bedtime have all worked well for our family over the years. Currently, we’re gathering early in the morning at the breakfast table. But this certainly doesn’t mean that we are “holier” than the family that prefers to worship just before lights-out. The timing doesn’t matter. Just be consistent. Make family worship a priority. Every family I know is omni-occupied: school, sports, music lessons, church activities, birthday parties, and the list goes on. Saying yes to family worship probably will involve saying no to some other activity. But a little less time running track is a small price to pay for helping our children learn how to walk in the truth.

Effective family worship is also participatory. The teaching time should feel less like a parent-to-child lecture and more like a family discussion. To accomplish this, parents need to develop the art of asking questions. At the conclusion of each chapter of this book, you will find a Family Worship Guide, which includes a list of discussion questions to use when teaching your children. Feel free to add to the list. One of the things that will happen as you ask these questions is that your children will develop questions of their own. This is a good thing. We want the home to be a place of inquiry and discovery. We create such an environment by (1) giving our children permission to ask questions about God, the Bible, and living the Christ-honoring life, (2) validating our children’s questions, (3) answering their questions with biblical precision, and (4) teaching them how to find answers to their own questions by searching the Scriptures.13

What are the essential elements of family worship? I suggest four: teach, treasure, sing, and pray. Let’s think about these in the reverse direction. First, every family worship time should include prayer. Prayer, simply stated, is paying attention to God. God is always present in our lives, and when we pause to pray, for three hours or for three minutes, we are acknowledging his presence. Sometimes we thank the Lord for his grace and goodness to us. Sometimes we confess our sins to him. Sometimes we ask God to work in our lives or in someone else’s life. But we are always acknowledging that he is present and powerful, that he is great and we are greatly in need of him. Second, family worship should include singing. Hymns and songs express biblical truths in artistic, poetic, and memorable ways. “They make an appeal to the soul on the basis of the beauty of the gospel. The gospel is already a beautiful reality, but through the use of hymns we learn to hear and feel and thus sense more deeply the beauty of God.”14 If you’re nonmusical (like me), don’t be intimidated by singing. Be courageous, and lead your family in making a joyful noise to the Lord. Do a little shopping on Amazon and pick out a good hymnal to keep at home. We often use The Trinity Hymnal, but there are many good songbooks available. In the Family Worship Guide sections of this book, I’ve given you the titles of several great hymns of the faith to get you started. If you’re unfamiliar with the hymns I’ve chosen, they are readily available online. One of the most exhaustive sites is, but a quick Google search will provide a number of helpful websites. If you’re stranded on an island and don’t have access to the Internet, you’re in luck: I’ve been told that any hymn can be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

Third, part of our family worship time should be devoted to treasuring God’s Word. The Psalmist declares, “How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments. I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.”15 Treasuring the Word means reading it carefully, committing it to memory, and then meditating on it frequently, which will enable us to walk obediently. The Family Worship Guides also include a short list of key Scriptures for you and your children to begin treasuring together. Finally, in addition to reading and memorizing Scripture, parents should commit a portion of the family worship time to teaching doctrine. Here we need to return to the critical line from the Barna study I quoted earlier: “When it comes to raising children to be spiritually mature, the old adage, ‘you can’t give what you don’t have,’ is pertinent for millions of families.” For us to teach the basic Christian doctrines to our children, we must have an understanding of these doctrines ourselves. Not long ago I was speaking at a conference, addressing the subject of teaching our children about God. During the question-and-answer time that followed my talk, an older gentleman raised his hand and inquired, “What is the one main thing you want your children to know about God?” “That’s easy,” I said. “That, in Jesus, we know God’s love for us.” More than anything else, I want my children to understand the gospel, the good news of all that the loving God has accomplished for sinners in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is why I think the ideal starting point for my children and yours is the Apostles’ Creed.16


Some readers, especially those with a more liturgical background, will already be very familiar with the Apostles’ Creed. Others will have no idea what I’m talking about, so a few introductory comments are in order. The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest and simplest creed of the Christian church. The Creed gets its name, not because it was written by one of the apostles, but because it contains the main tenets of the apostles’ teaching; it weaves together the big truths of the Bible. By the fourth century, the Creed as we now know it had assumed a more or less fixed form:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.

He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.17

Historically, the Apostles’ Creed was the affirmation of faith used at baptism. Before a person was baptized, he or she would recite the Creed as a way of saying, “This is what Christianity is all about. As a follower of Jesus Christ, this is what I believe.”

In the Preface to Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis paints a beautiful picture that is worth contemplating in this context. All Christians, Lewis says, live in one giant house. The various denominations are doors or rooms within this house. Baptists have their room: it’s full of water, but there’s hardly any wine. Presbyterians have their room: there are many “elders,” and even some who are “elect.” Anglicans have a room: you never have to worry about the clergy dressing down too much. Pentecostals have their room: it’s loud. Though we have our denominational distinctions, the most important thing to remember is that all those who affirm the Apostles’ Creed live together in this one house; we compose the one family of God. The Creed unites believers throughout the world and across the centuries.18 This is my first justification for claiming that the Creed is the ideal starting point for our children: because it’s not basic Baptist doctrine or basic Pentecostal doctrine, but basic Christian doctrine. It introduces our children to the core truths of the historic Christian faith.

The other reason I insist on beginning with the Apostles’ Creed is that it presents these core truths as a simple yet profound story in which our families participate. Nothing captivates children like a good story, and the Creed is “a portable story, a short summary of the scriptural story line that we can carry with us everywhere we go.”19 By learning the Apostles’ Creed, we not only carry the great gospel story with us, but also we are reminded of our place within this story. Every time we repeat the words “I believe,” we confess that we are characters who have been drawn into the drama of redemption.20 The Apostles’ Creed helps us and our children understand that Christians are not just story-tellers, but also story-dwellers.

In the six chapters that follow, I will unpack the Apostles’ Creed. Additionally, I will assist parents in the task of articulating these core truths in child-friendly ways. That is, I aim to do a share of the work


  • "Teaching children the Christian faith has never been more urgent than it is today. Parents need guidance and support as they seek to communicate with a generation exposed to influences coming from everywhere. Here is a book that speaks to these young people. It is a resource that every parent needs."—Gerald Bray, research professor, Beeson Divinity School
  • "Raising up our children to know and love the Lord is our most important calling as Christian parents. But that important calling does not need to be complicated. Dillon Thornton gives us a wonderfully simple template by using the Apostles' Creed. I can't wait to see how God uses this book to build the faith of the next generation."—Collin Hansen, editorial director of The Gospel Coalition and editor of The New City Catechism Devotional
  • "Solid doctrine. Clear writing. Extremely practical. Dillon Thornton's new book, Give Them Jesus: Raising Our Children on the Core Truths of the Christian Faith, is a must read for parents and grandparents who want to educate their children theologically, thus giving them an essential Christian education with a clear and keen understanding of the Gospel's basic core truths. This volume will help parents and grandparents to teach their children 'to see the person and work of Jesus more clearly.' I highly recommend it!"—Denise George, author of 31 books, including Teach Your Children to Pray
  • "Moms and dads, this is a marvelous book! Not only engaging and practical but also substantive and theological, here is a clarion call for parents to assume the primary responsibility for training their children in the way of Jesus. Gracious in tone yet firm in conviction, Dr. Dillon Thornton practices what he preaches-he is a pastor-theologian as well as a parent-theologian. I highly recommend reading this for your own nourishment and then engaging your family with the truths so winsomely articulated in this book!"—Todd Wilson, senior pastor, Calvary Memorial Church

On Sale
Sep 11, 2018
Page Count
240 pages

Dillon T. Thornton, PhD

About the Author

Dillon T. Thornton (PhD in New Testament, University of Otago) has nearly two decades of diverse ministry experience. He has shepherded churches in Alabama, Colorado, and New Zealand. Presently, he serves as the Senior Pastor of Faith Community Church (EPC) in Seminole, FL. Dillon is a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, a highly regarded organization of local church pastors who also serve as writing theologians for the broader Christian community.

In his writing, preaching, teaching, and other aspects of pastoral work, Dillon seeks to equip people of all ages to love Christ with their whole hearts, think Christianly about the world and everything in it, and live faithfully by displaying the beautiful truth of the gospel in every sphere of life. In his spare time, Dillon does CrossFit, drinks far too much coffee, reads C.S. Lewis, and watches adventure movies. He and his wife, Jamie, have two energetic boys, Aidan and Cullen, and live in Seminole, Florida.

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