Tracy F. Munsil, Ph.D | September 26, 2023
From the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University

GLENDALE, AZ – A parent’s primary responsibility is to disciple their children, which entails serving as a role model and mentor to help them think like Jesus, so that they can act like Jesus throughout their lives.

However, according to new research from veteran researcher Dr. George Barna, most parents today admit to feeling ill-equipped for this task, and children are frequently overlooked when it comes to discipleship efforts. In fact, only 1% of preteen children have a biblical worldview, and very few parents even consider their children’s spiritual development.

And according to Barna, who serves as the Director of Research at the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, less than 10% of born-again Christian parents have any kind of spiritual development plan in place for their children, and fewer than six out of 10 (58%) even claim that their children’s spiritual development is their responsibility.

Barna’s new book, Raising Spiritual Champions: Nurturing Your Child’s Heart, Mind and Soul (Arizona Christian University Press with Fedd Books), an Amazon bestseller in multiple categories, delves deeper into the research.

In the book, Barna claims that the vast majority of children today are not being discipled effectively during their critical childhood years. Thus, they are increasingly lacking in fundamental elements of spiritual understanding and commitment that allow them to know and follow Jesus as adults.

Barna’s decades of research show that children spend the first 12 years of their lives filling a spiritual vacuum, and by the age of 13, most people’s worldviews are so deeply formed that significant change is rare.

Something must change, warns the veteran researcher.

“When it comes to making disciples,” he says, “a close examination of faith in the American context reveals the need to strategically shift our focus away from prioritizing ministry to adults and toward investing in reaching and influencing children.”

Arizona Christian University President Len Munsil, father of eight grown children and grandfather of 18, agrees with Barna’s urgent call to focus discipleship efforts on children.

“There’s nothing more important in raising children than making sure they have a strong biblical foundation for their lives,” Munsil said. “We can’t take it for granted that kids will ‘catch’ their parents’ faith.”

Munsil explained, “We see repeatedly in Dr. Barna’s research the need to focus strategically on kids—as young as toddlers—to give them the spiritual development and biblical worldview they will need to flourish in life.”

In support of his claim that children should be the focus when it comes to discipleship, Barna identifies four “disciple-making practices” that parents and others who work with children can use to teach the next generation to know and follow Jesus Christ.

The new research in Raising Spiritual Champions shows that those who effectively disciple young people typically engage in four practices that lead children to a deeper spiritual life:

  • Helping them to develop a life-defining commitment to be a disciple of Jesus
  • Exploring the biblical principles and commands that lead to thinking like Jesus
  • Facilitating the lifestyle of a disciple—obedience through the application of biblical beliefs
  • Introducing personal accountability and stability—through assessing what matters, reinforcing growth, and celebrating disciplehood.

“If you want a roadmap for how to raise a child to be a spiritual champion,” the long-time researcher explained, “the actions undertaken as part of those four disciple-making practices offer a well-traveled pathway enroute to a successful outcome.”

Furthermore, effective discipleship is a relational endeavor, Barna says.

“Disciples are not born. They are coached into the life of Christ by other disciples. We clearly see this in the example given by Jesus,” he writes.

Barna continues, “My studies have consistently confirmed that people almost always become disciples because one, or a series of followers led them on a deeper journey toward Christ. That relationship between discipler and disciple-in-process is crucial to the outcome.”

These disciple-making practices are explored in more depth in “Four ‘Disciple-Making Practices’ to Shape Children into ‘Spiritual Champions,’” the second of five research releases from Raising Spiritual Champions: Nurturing Your Child’s Heart, Mind and Soul (Arizona Christian University Press in partnership with Fedd Books).