The Canadian Children’s Ministry Report 2021 identified that like it or not, the pandemic exposed a tragic reality; “even good Christian homes struggled to build spiritual formation into the daily rhythms of life.” The apathy or unwillingness of parents to disciple their children shouldn’t be ignored. Parents need to be the driving force in the faith formation of their children. And children’s ministry workers need to be awakening parents to family discipleship.
A paradigm shift.
So how do parents step up to disciple their children and engage them purposely? And how do pastors, teachers and others help awaken parents to this role? Here are some paradigm-shifting considerations:
For more than two centuries (since the founding of Sunday Schools), we’ve reduced disciple-making to what international children’s ministry trainer Terry Williams calls “time bounded spaces – in our gathered church programs and our scheduling of family devotions and bedtime prayers.” While it’s had a modicum of success, this approach has short-changed the faith formation of children.
Faith formation is a 24/7 process of being formed, transformed, and conformed to be like Jesus. Because it’s a lifelong pursuit, it can’t be scheduled or compartmentalized. Reducing it to a church program or a curriculum for a family to work on at home is inadequate. Faith formation should be a pulse in the happenings of everyday life. According to one worker, “It involves equipping parents and caregivers to develop rhythms of work, play, study, service, rest, eating, leisure, worship and everyday activities that are saturated with the presence of Jesus, empowered by God’s Spirit and rooted in Scripture.”
Teachers and pastors are often hunting for family devotions and curriculum to give or recommend to parents. However, providing parents with conventional curriculum-type resources, while helpful, isn’t what’s required. What we need as we move forward is the daily rhythm of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The rhythm happens when parents “get them (the scriptures) inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates” Deuteronomy 6:7-9 (MSG).
How do families embrace the Shema as the centrepiece of their lives? By severing dependency on the institutional church as the chief agent in the faith formation of their children. Local churches shouldn’t usurp what parents should be doing. God’s intent is for parents to be the primary disciple-makers of children and the gathered church to play a supportive role.
Moving the practical authority for the faith formation of children from @church to @home is a considerable shift. Most churches are locked into weekly internal programs and see these activities as the primary ministry for children. It’s time to unlock this slavish commitment to programs and release pastors, teachers and volunteers to move the focus on programs in buildings to helping families build the Shema into the daily rhythms of their lives.
Rethinking and recalibrating the priorities and practices of children’s ministry without feeling inadequate or overwhelmed will not be easy. We’ll have to overcome personal prejudices, institutional lethargy, and the indifference of some parents. Stakeholders should understand that the shift is biblically informed. Pastors should prioritize explaining the Scriptures to clearly show that the home is the locus for family faith formation. Ministry leaders should provide opportunities for dialogue, then led by the Holy Spirit and informed by God’s Word, pioneer the shift to a new methodology. Through it all, there needs to be love, sensitivity and spiritual boldness.
Furthermore, we need to embrace and empower people in the margins. Christian grandparents are essential family members, yet they’re often ignored or under-valued by local churches as crucial partners in family discipleship. Raising the profile of grandparents, harnessing, equipping and releasing them to take a dynamic and deliberate role in the spiritual nurture of their children (the parents) and grandchildren (or quasi grandchildren) could be a game-changer. An early childhood studies lecturer, Sarah Holmes, says that “mobilizing this sector of congregations to share their spiritual insights and model their faith to younger generations could transform the richness of church life. She adds that grandparents if taken seriously, “could bring about considerable growth in the faith interactions of children in the home, local church or wider-church context.”
The decisive factor in the shift to family discipleship is the parents themselves. Parents are dealing with all sorts of personal challenges. To awaken parents to family discipleship, we need to rouse them to attend to themselves. If there’s baggage in their lives, unconfessed sin, lack of discipline, or destructive behaviour, we must help them address this at the foot of the cross. Encouraging parents to examine themselves and develop self-awareness isn’t an option; it’s a necessity. Parents must identify and separate themselves from their failures, unrealized longings, or unbiblical expectations. If parents don’t do this, it will handicap their capacity to disciple their families.
Finally, and most importantly, for parents to successfully help their children be in step with Jesus, they need to be in step with Jesus. Assisting parents to prioritize Jesus in every facet of their lives is essential. The resourcing that parents need from local churches isn’t another family devotional; it’s counselling and guidance to help them love the Lord with undivided hearts (Psalm 86:11). When that’s in place, parents will be more inclined to want the rhythm of the Shema as the basis for family life – and that, in turn, will create an ideal environment for their children to get connected with Jesus.
© Scripture Union, 2021