Families, not churches, must take the lead in the faith formation of children.
Our theology is disjointed and needs to be reoriented. The primary responsibility for children’s spiritual health and growth rests with parents – not teachers, pastors, counsellors, kids min volunteers, or spiritual directors.The primary responsibility for children's spiritual health and growth rests with parents. Click To Tweet
Theological confusion concerning who is responsible for children’s faith development began inadvertently more than 200 years ago with the birth of Sunday Schools. For 1800 years before the rise of the Sunday School movement, children were taught God’s Word and led to Christ in their homes.
Fast forward to today. The faith formation of children is in a state of crisis. Most children in Western nations know nothing about Jesus. Eighty-three percent of Canadian children and youth do not attend a local church. In the United Kingdom, the birthplace of the Sunday School movement, 95% of children and youth do not attend a local church.
So what are churches doing to address the crisis? The principal means employed for connecting children with Jesus and His Story is Sunday School. More than 80% of children who go to church attend a Sunday School or something similar. Barna’s research reveals that 73% of American Protestant pastors say they address children’s spiritual formation by providing Sunday school classes. With the best intentions, churches are pouring their time, money, and energy into Sunday School ministries. And what do we have to show for it? Churches are hemorrhaging. Two out of three children drop out of the church by the time they become young adults.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet). We desperately need a paradigm shift. Our world is not the world of Robert Raikes and Thomas Stock when they first established a Sunday School for the poor and orphaned in Gloucester in 1780. Sunday School changed post-Dickensian England when children worked as chimney sweeps from the age of 12. Praise the Lord for the positive impact of the Sunday School! But that was then, not now. Another day of school on Sunday doesn’t compute with most children today.Another day of school on Sunday doesn’t compute with most children today. Click To Tweet
Children’s ministry is in decline, and wisdom is required. Continuing to do what we’re accustomed to doing (methodologically) just won’t cut it. Let’s face the facts. Sunday Schools have run their course. In biblical parlance, their season has ended. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot” Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
To quote from the movie Shrek, “Change is good, donkey!” Unfortunately, most of us resist change, especially in the church. Inflexibility, ignorance or spiritual blindness will make the demise of the Sunday School movement a lingering affair. Nonetheless, we must brace ourselves, arrange the funeral, mourn, and move on.
That’s not to say that we should shut down every Sunday School ministry immediately. Prudence dictates otherwise. We need to gently phase out Sunday Schools while simultaneously equipping parents to be disciple-makers in their homes.
English playwright John Heywood said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.” To shift from what is to what’s needed, we should do the following:
The first step is asking honestly and without prejudice, “How are churches usurping the responsibility for the faith development of children?” and “How are parents negating their responsibility to develop the faith of their children?” The answers will inform our actions.Faith formation, as a family role, isn’t being effectively taught by the church. Click To Tweet
We also need to recognize that faith formation, as a family role, isn’t being effectively taught by the church. We need to start with a blank page. Most churches don’t know how to teach parents how to be disciple-makers in the home, and most parents are immature in their faith and don’t know how to nurture the faith development of their children adequately.
Picking ourselves up from the bottom of the decline will be challenging. Satan doesn’t want families to be the solid foundation of the church. He will create diversions and roadblocks. There’s also the danger that we become our own worst enemies. Preserving professionalism in the church, justifying expenditures on church buildings, holding onto power and control, as well as selfish ambitions or misdirected passions, could leave us mired in ministry mediocrity or send us in the wrong direction.
How long will it take? The changes may be slow, though I hope I’m wrong for the sake of the lost generations. Gaining momentum when there need to be massive shifts in thinking and values usually takes decades. We will need, to borrow the title from one of Eugene Peterson’s books, “a long obedience in the same direction.” What may help keep us focused is recognizing that children’s ministry doesn’t need a tune-up; it needs a new engine.Is it possible that the decline in children’s ministry partly exists because church culture isn't fully aligned with the Scriptures? Click To Tweet
Finally, we have to read God’s Word with fresh eyes. As we read, we must ask, “What is God saying to parents and what is He saying to the church?” Is it possible that the decline in children’s ministry partly exists because church culture isn’t fully aligned with the Scriptures? Local churches should be playing a supportive role, not the lead role in children’s faith formation. Good theology usually leads to good practice. To help parents take the lead role, we must prayerfully and clearly articulate the biblical basis for this role.
All told, we must get back to parents telling “… the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done … which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they, in turn, would tell their children” Psalm 78:4-6. Family faith formation advanced the Church for centuries. Family faith formation should once again advance the Church until Christ returns.
© Scripture Union, 2021