In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg tells the story of how football coach Tony Dungy turned around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Leading the Bucs was Dungy’s first head coaching job, and when he arrived in Tampa in 1996, Tampa Bay was among the worst teams in the league. Previous coaches had trained the Buccaneer defense in several complex formations. Defensive captains would try to read what the offense planned to do and then choose the best defensive strategy. They were trying to make the smartest decision possible in the moment and then get their teammates lined up correctly.
When Dungy arrived, he didn’t bring a more complex playbook. Instead, he simplified Tampa Bay’s approach, building on habits they’d already put in place. His defense had fewer and less complicated formations. And instead of waiting for their captains, he taught every player to read the offense. He wanted them to line up in a split second as a matter of habit. The result was a defensive unit that began to play with greater confidence, began winning, and even made the playoffs the following year.
A simple approach to developing habits
Children’s ministry leaders and family pastors want to equip parents to teach the gospel to their children. But it can be tempting to overthink our approach—to try to build complex ministry programs and strategies for family discipleship. But what if we took Tony Dungy’s simpler and more habit-driven approach? What if we simplified our strategies? Moms and dads, what if we all built little discipleship habits on top of the family rhythms we are already keeping?
Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays. As a matter of tradition and habit, we gather with the family for turkey and the fixings on Thanksgiving and then settle in the family room to watch the football games over the course of the weekend. We set up the tree, hang the stockings and lights, and put on the Martina McBride Christmas album—at least that’s the habit in our house.
For me, the holiday season was also the time when I learned how to lead my family devotionally. A pastor shared a devotional website with our family, and then we set up a tiny one-and-a-half-foot Christmas tree from the discount store in our living room. As the devotional challenged us, we hung a laminated paper ornament for each day of Advent. Each ornament on the tree corresponded to the story of a person from Jesus’ family tree. By reading through the devotionals I printed out and hanging the ornaments, we developed a habit of reading the Bible together as a family that stuck with us beyond that first year.
And here’s the thing. I’m not always consistent with family devotions throughout the year, but the Advent season always seems to draw our family back to time in the Word together. After all, that devotional Christmas tree and other Advent devotionals we’ve collected over the years are kept with our boxes of Christmas decorations. And when the kids see them, they ask, “Which book are we reading this year? Are we going to hang the Bible story ornaments?” Then, as a matter of habit, we’re beckoned back to our habit of discipleship—to the kind of rhythm that the prophet Jeremiah describes as a “well-worn path.”
Much of how we respond to life is rooted in our habits, and there may be no time when habit and tradition shows up more clearly than at the holidays.
Does your local church or family have a devotional path that you walk each Advent season. If not, take advantage of this holiday season to build new discipleship habits on top of the family traditions you’re already keeping. Here is a list of resources that I think you’ll find to be helpful. It includes great picture books to read with preschoolers, devotional adventures—including a few with Bible story ornaments—for grade school kids, and two great books to read with your teens or your spouse.
Four picture books for preschoolers
Lizzie Laferton’s There’s a Lion in my Nativity! (Good Book Company, 2020) tells the story of a school nativity play. The girl playing Mary thinks she is the star of the show, but as the play goes on, she finds that every scene has been stolen by an unlikely character or object—a tent, a phone, a lion! With warm and colorful illustrations, this rhyming book unpacks the true meaning of Christmas.
Dan DeWitt’s The Bright Light and the Super Scary Darkness (B&H Kids, 2020) reminds kids that the light of the gospel will win in the end. This excellent book for the Advent season emphasizes how Jesus came at Christmas as the Light of the World. It reassures preschool age children who struggle with fear and anxiety and offers them courage in the truth that Jesus’ love remains strong no matter how dark life may seem.
My friend Annie Kratzch’s Just Nicholas: A Story Older Than Santa (Matthias Media, 2015) is one of my favorites. It tells the true story of Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man who gave what he had to help others because he was grateful for what God had given him. As a young boy, Nicholas learned the story of Jesus from his parents. When he grew up, he lived out his Christian faith in a unique and selfless way that we still celebrate today.
Also, my newest Christmas book, Jesus Came for Me: The True Story of Christmas (New Growth, 2020) is a durable board book that teaches toddlers and young preschoolers that Jesus Christ, our great God, was born as a little baby, and his birth is good news and great joy for all people! The book begins with the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth to Zechariah and ends with the visit of the wise men. The book’s three stories can be read to young toddlers and ready by first readers. They’ll help your little one know that Jesus is always present, and that he helps us to believe and wait for him.
Four devotional adventures for school-age children
Our friend, Scott James, has written The Littlest Watchman (Good Book Company, 2017), which tells the story of a boy named Benjamin who watches for the fulfillment of the “root from Jesse” prophecy. The book has an accompanying Advent calendar and devotional that includes instructions for making craft ornaments.
Unexpected Gift by Annie Kratzch and Tessa Janes (10Publishing, 2020) tells the story of the incarnation and the story of the people who hear that news. The accompanying activity book includes 25 hands-on crafts and 25 Bible verse ornaments that will help children to prepare for Christmas day.
Ronnie Martin’s The Best Gift Ever Given: A 25-Day Journey Through Advent (Harvest House, 2019) teaches kids that toys and games are great, but the best gifts are from God, because they last a lifetime and beyond. This devotional will help your family understand the Bible points toward Jesus. Each day kids learn a key Scripture passage, interact with modern illustrations that correspond with the passage, answer open-ended questions that help to apply the day’s reading, and read a prayer that reinforces the Bible passage’s key truth.
Marty Machowski’s Prepare Him Room (New Growth, 2014) unpacks one Old Testament prophecy about Christ’s coming during each week of Advent. The accompanying family activities—which include baking cookies and taking them to the neighbor with the best Christmas decorations—are a great way to form family habits, and the accompanying four-week children’s ministry curriculum can help groups of churches use it during Advent season as well.
Two books to warm the hearts of teens and adults
Daniel Darling’s The Characters of Christmas (Moody, 2019) helps us take a fresh look at the Christmas story by introducing some of the minor characters that played a part in Jesus birth. His book can help your teen to slow down and engage their imagination. And the discussion questions and Christmas song suggestions at the end of each chapter make this book perfect for engaging your whole family.
Finally, Russ Ramsey’s The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP Books, 2018) reminds readers of how for centuries God’s people awaited the coming of a Savior. In the midst of a world of trouble, they hoped for one who would deliver them from evil and restore them to true life. The story encompasses the whole of the Old Testament and all of human history, unveiling God’s long-suffering, loving pursuit of his people.