The Serving Circle: A Means of Teaching Responsibility and Grace to your Children

One of the greatest struggles I have as a parent is figuring out when to cover for my kids when they don’t do what they are supposed to do, and when to stand firm on what they’ve been told to do so that they learn to be responsible human beings who serve others well. I don’t want to enable them by being too gracious (licensure), and I don’t want to communicate that they can be right with and God to the extent that they keep the rules (legalism). Daily I’m bombarded by questions like:

  • Do I do the dishes tonight, or do I leave them to do it alone, knowing I’ll be disappointed with the finished product anyway?
  • The bathroom floor is covered in dirty clothes and wet towels … again. Do I simply handle it because it takes 30 seconds, or do I pull them their game or TV show and embarrass them in front of others?
  • The door to the backyard is open … again. Do I call them in from playing with their friends and wait 15 minutes to teach them a lesson in home economics, or do I simply close the door and move on?

In my struggle, I’m come to see more and more the value of teaching my children to see responsibility as opportunities to serve, and doing so by serving them. I’m loosely referring to it as “the serving circle.”

The Serving Circle

The Serving Circle has four parts that usually lead into one another, yet at different places for different children and different tasks at any given moment.

  1. I serve you. At this beginning stage, parents are fully serving their children in any given task because for a variety of reasons the children cannot do it at all. Yet even here, the children are learning to serve and be responsible. My daughter is 17 months and barely talking, but she joyfully takes diapers to the trash, puts napkins in her lap, and blows kisses when told it’s time for nap. She is learning to serve and be responsible even as someone is completely serving her.
  2. I teach you to serve. This is an admittedly trying but necessary stage in which children are repeatedly and patiently given specific instructions on how to do a given task or responsibility. I think the key here is that parents instruct by doing. In other words, the parents are still largely doing the work, but gradually children become more and more capable of doing it well on their own. It’s important here to set your children up for success, especially by choosing responsibilities that you know they can do and that bring visible joy to those they serve. An example in our home would be the boys’ ability to make their own breakfast. Cereal, oatmeal or even pancakes from scratch are now well within their abilities without parental supervision, but only after years of doing so alongside of them, patiently instructing at different levels as we went.
  3. You serve others. The child at this stage has total independence when it comes to serving through the fulfillment of a certain set of chores, and many times he or she is happy to do them because they know the joy it brings them and others. In no uncertain terms, your child is becoming a servant leader: one who inspires others because they are both humble and confident in their given work.
  4. We serve each other. Even the most willing, humble, helpful responsible child will sin … and sin a lot. He or she will still need someone to serve them … to cover for them. Likewise, even if the most admirable, gospel-centered parent will need children to help them in many ways. When both parents and children are serving one another, neither are as likely to feel they have license to do whatever they want to do. Likewise, there are fewer wagers and deals on who will do what—competition regarding who performs better on their given tasks. Rather, there is a teamwork atmosphere where are all willing to do whatever it takes so that others and the entire family unit have joy, not only in finishing the work, but also in doing it.

The serving circle is admittedly difficult at times, especially if you have multiple children learning multiple chores at multiple levels. Parents need quick-witted wisdom to make lightening-fast parenting decisions as they work through the day—decisions based not only on the condition of their own heart at the time, but where each child is with any given responsibility. It’s akin to spinning different sized plates at different speeds on different kinds of sticks and poles … while blindfolded and walking in a circle.

I also don’t mean to imply that by simply incorporating the serving circle into your parenting, your life will instantly get better. The second part of the circle alone makes it clear that the goal is create a culture of service over time. But the goal is worth it, because service neither empowers the legalist nor cuts loose the rebel. Service creates a culture of grace and responsibility in the home that all benefit from.

What a Great Idea!

One of my favorite things to do every now and then … and only every now and then … is to spend time brainstorming about a particular topic or problem with a handful of creative people—people whose minds are wired to generate idea after idea after idea. Few things are as inspiring to me as a lengthy conversation where most sentences begin with “What if we ….” I love the arena of ideas.

Of course, I can’t LIVE in the arena of ideas. At some point, I have to make a decision and choose one of those ideas to execute.

Choosing is often hard. I work and live with many sharp, creative, intelligent people. While we have our share of bad ideas, we have a lot of good ones, and it can be difficult leaving good ideas on the creative cutting floor and walking away with only one to work with. Sometimes we leave with some anxiety or angst about our decision, but more often than not, we walk away with a great deal of confidence we’ve chosen the best idea.

But confidence is no guarantee that a preferred, chosen idea was the right idea.

In a sense, this was the dynamic taking place between God and Abram.

In Genesis 17:5-8, God reiterated His promise to Abraham: “I will make you the father of many nations.”

What a great idea!

But how? How could this promise be fulfilled given their history of childlessness and now their old age?

So Abraham came up with idea: “If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!” (Genesis 17:18).

What a great idea for solving this problem! They’ve already got a son fathered by Abraham! When you consider the other possibilities (an old man and an old woman naturally conceiving, carrying and birthing a child as middle eastern nomads), the Ishmael idea sounds a like winner.

Technically speaking, it’s a good idea.

It just wasn’t God’s idea.

“No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father 12 tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.”

“Good idea, Abraham … just not my idea. Ishmael will, indeed, be the father of many, but he is not my choice for who I want to be the next in line for the people I am making for myself.”

You see, when we have seemingly good ideas that contradict God’s ideas, God wins every time. In the same way that God’s idea determined who would be His covenant people, God’s ideas shape our lives as well. We can have lots of good ideas, but what’s best for us are His ideas. His ideas decisively shape us more than our own.


Of course, no one has ever known God’s ideas perfectly. Even Abraham faltered many times in his journey of faith in God’s ideas. Graciously, God sent One who knew His mind and plan perfectly, and also executed it perfectly, even when seemingly better ideas abounded. How grateful we are for Jesus who never had an idea that wasn’t God’s idea, and who faithfully obeyed God’s ideas when we could not. The only way we could ever believe and act on God’s ideas over others is because He did it for us and gives us the Spirit to do the same.

What a great idea.

Sovereign Grace: Reflections Triggered by a 40th Birthday

I turned 40 last week.

So there’s that.

Turning 40 was a much bigger deal in my head than it was in reality. Years ago, I looked forward to this day with visions of an elaborate party with dozens of friends, excellent food, and hours of laughter at my expense. I suppose a great deal of effort could have gone into making that a reality, but as the time grew closer, it’s not at all what I desired. It was a great day, in part because it was like so many other days I’ve had.

One of the things my wife did do was email friends and ask them to write a letter or email about me: something they remember, are thankful for, will never forget, etc. Thank you to so many who took time to reflect on the positive ways I’ve impacted you, and some of the funny things I’ve done along the way.

Reading those things … those very sweet, true, and kind things … had a strange effect on me. Not one time did I read any of those things and think, “Wow … these people really understand how blessed they are to have known me.” In reading all of the great, true, kind things people said about me or something I’d done, all I could think about was what they didn’t know about me.

The fact is, I deserve far more cards and letters and emails that berate me for my insufficiencies and indulgences than I do my excellencies and sacrifices. Since adulthood, I’ve received a few of those, some warranted, others not. But I deserve many, many  more. An infinite amount more. On that day I am held accountable for my actions, even the good things I’ve done will be shown to have had some impurities in them. I am the only human who knows about a lot of those, and there is only one God who knows about them all.

As I’ve said before in sermons and conversations, if everyone knew everything about me that God knows about me, they wouldn’t give me the time of day, much less read my book or listen to my sermons.

So how is it that, knowing I am not all that my highest admirers crack me up to be, I am still married? Still a father? Still having children?! Still employed? Still publishing? Still loved? Still enjoyed?

Still alive?

The answer clearly is not because I’ve earned it.

The answer clearly is not because others are better than I am. For what is true of my own moral dilemma is true for all.

The answer is this: sovereign grace.

In God’s sovereignty, all of my screw-ups and selfishly motivated good works still work for His good plan, and by His grace I’m not destroyed for trying to screw it up.

So, here’s to 40+ more years of me breaking God’s heart but never His plan.

Here’s to 40+ more years of sovereign grace.

I’m a total loss without it.

Chests and Bumpers: In Search of a Better Christian Apologetic

Many of you are in the same position as my family over the holidays: you drive all over the country to see family and friends you love but who live far away. We drove more than 2000 miles between December 23 and January 3 visiting five different family members. As my 8 year-old son says, “It was an epic trip, Dad.”

When you spend that much time on the road, you read a lot of bumper stickers and vanity license plates. If the rear-end of all the cars I took note of on that trip are to be believed:

  • Lots of people run marathons and half marathons
  • Every breed of dog is superior to all other breeds of dogs
  • All forms of schooling are superior to all other forms of schooling
  • Every state is awesome to live in (we saw 41 different license plates on our drive)
  • Obama is Satan, so we better get ready for Hillary
  • Fish evolved and grew legs, but there are bigger fish called “truth” that eat fish with legs

All of these messages got me thinking:

  • How did we come to see the backs of our automobiles as an effective and proper place to tell the world about something or someone we love?
  • Why is our eye immediately drawn to messages on the backs of cars that we are clearly driving too close to?
  • Are these messages effective in any way? How can you know?

And how does this apply to Christians?

What are the effective ways of explaining and/or sharing our faith?

Are our chests (t-shirts) and bumpers more hurtful than helpful?

What is an effective apologetic for my faith?

I think I’ve found some clarity in John 14:1-7.

Picture the scene. Jesus has just told Peter, the de facto leader of the disciples, that his faith would fail. And Jesus said this in front of the other disciples. Jesus has also pulled back the curtain a little bit on what’s coming His way: death on the cross.

Talk about a blow to the disciples confidence. Their “rock” will be a failure and their future is uncertain with Jesus’ presumed demise.

And it’s to that mindset that Jesus said, “Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me.”

This is a great word for Christians that look out into the world and are confused, scared or uncertain about how to advance the kingdom in what appears to be an increasingly lost, secular, or extremist world hostile specifically to Christianity. No matter we see or face, Jesus is still winning. Indeed, he has already won.

But what do we specifically do to not be troubled? Believe in Him. 

Not merely facts.

Not merely an ideology.

Not merely a worldview.

Though all of these things are important.

What we must do to not be troubled is believe in HIM … the PERSON of Jesus.

The most affective apologetic is a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus would affirm this a few verses later: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

So before you tack on that icthus or pull that cheesy t-shirt out, ask yourself this question: Do I know Jesus?

If so, that relationship is the most affective apologetic you’ve got going for you.