Parents as the Primary Disciplers of Their Children // CM White Paper Reflections #3

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Parents are the Primary Disciplers of their Children

This is the third post in a series of reflections on a Children’s Ministry White Paper written by Doug Paul from Eikon Community (you can view the original document here).

In the past 30 years of church work we’ve seen the rise of Consumer Christianity where people come to church to consume religious goods and services. Children’s Ministry has played heavily into this mentality. While rarely articulated, it is subtly implied that parents expect their local church’s CM to spiritually form their children. The pervading view is that it is the church’s job to disciple them, provide events for them, spiritually form them, teach them the Bible, etc. By and large, most parents have abdicated the responsibility of discipling their own kids and passed this responsibility on to the church. The church, trapped by the desire to keep these families attending their services and giving financially, has by and large acquiesced and assumed the role. While many churches do provide resources to parents for “at home” use, these have very little impact as the parents consider them supplementary to what is taught at church, rather than the primary source of spiritual formation for their kids. It should also be noted that parents need to be true disciples as well if they are to be the primary disciplers of their kids, so that faith is simply “normal” in the family environment. Given the weak state of discipleship in most American churches, we have found that in the majority of cases neither the parents nor the children are being adequately discipled.

This is a vital concept to adhere to. If you believe that the church is responsible to teach and spiritual form children and youth, then you will behave and act accordingly. If you believe that it is the parents (families) job to spiritual infuse and disciple their children, then you will act and behave accordingly.

The argument here, and it was well said, that parents should NOT abdicate or outsource their children’s spiritual formation. Doesn’t this threaten your job, Jeremy? I wish it would!

Ironically, the pervading consumer culture keeps me employed and in high demand! However, joking aside, other than the obvious biblical mandate for families responsibility first and community responsibility second (Deuteronomy 6), it’s a simple game of numbers:

If a student were to come to church every Sunday, then they would have gotten 52 hours of spiritual instruction (as other studies have proven as well as personal experience, this is unrealistic to assume perfect attendance). If a student were to come to a mid-week children’s ministry program, then let’s be gracious and say 2 hours of spiritual instruction per school calendar year. That’s 39 weeks (during the school year) times 2 equals 78 hours (again, assuming perfect attendance).

So best case scenario is that a child would get 52 hours on a Sunday morning plus 78 hours during a mid-week ministry which equals 130 hours in any given year. And that is perfect attendance. If we take “industry” standard attendance which is around 50%, then the more realistic number would be 65 hours a year.

I wrote a post a while back about 77 hours in a week is the raw material of hours that parents have to work with. That’s minus sleeping and school. Can you imagine what kind of impact a family can have on the spiritual life of a child?

What’s going to have more impact? 130-65 hours a year from church alone? or 77 hours a week (times 52 would equal 4,004 hours!!) at home, possibly in tandem with church ministry? Obvious, right?

I can’t, nor can the research, overstate it enough: parents are vitally necessary to infuse and model a spiritually mature life in Christ. You can’t be at church enough to even come close to how powerful an impact an intentional parent can have in the life of their children.

In our research, we discovered the following facts:

  1. Children were more likely to have vibrant faith if the parents weren’t even Christians than if the parents went to church and didn’t act as primary disciplers.
  2. Children were more likely to have vibrant faith if the parents were Christians and didn’t go to church than if the parents went to church and didn’t act as primary disciplers.

In other words, your kids have a better chance of having a vibrant faith if YOU aren’t a Christian or if you never go to church than if you regularly go to church and pass off the responsibility of discipleship to the church. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that more than 89% of evangelical teenagers leave the church upon graduation from high school.

In Jeremy’s words, it’s better to be something “all the way” rather than something “halfway, or any other ‘way’”. Over the years, I’ve learned that kids are pretty smart. So smart actually that they can spot a “phony” a mile away. Kids have the uncanny ability to know if an adult is feigning interest in them, or is actually interested in them.

I remember back when I was in high school, there was this adult guy that was hanging around our small youth group. He seemed genuine, but the youth girls weren’t fooled. They went to one of the elders in our small church that they trusted and confided in him that they felt “uneasy” and “weirded out” around this guy. Sure enough, after a little bit of investigation, this guy was bad news and was promptly asked to leave. And this isn’t just limited to teenagers. Kids know how to spot things, intuitively, to a much greater degree of accuracy than we adults do.

All to say, how much more can your own children spot a genuine “Christian” lifestyle at home. There is NO fooling your own children! It’s fairly easy to fake it to another adult, but not on a child.

Therefore, passing on such a thing called faith, and an active lifestyle of not only “believing” that faith, but living it out in EVERYDAY life (i.e. at the dinner table, through discipline, on family adventures, after a long day of work, when the car gets a flat tire or someone cuts you off on the highway).

Our kids know (and are watching) whether we REALLY believe in following Jesus, or we just SAY we do. That’s why the research states that it’s better to be a non-believer for your kids to have a shot, than to be a non-practicing Christian (which there really might not be such a thing theologically).

To put it simply: The old way of Children’s Ministry rarely works.

Based on this, there are two important things to note:

  1. If parents want kids to have a vibrant faith, they must accept full responsibility for discipling their kids. Parents won’t “accidentally” disciple their kids. It is a very intentional pursuit.
  2. If churches want to see kids have a vibrant faith, they need to shape Children’s Ministry around equipping parents to be the primary disciplers, fully integrating what they are equipping parents to do with what they are doing in the church context.

In other words, two things need to happen:

  1. Parents need to be intentional and responsible
  2. The church children’s ministry needs to “refocus” its efforts to less programming (although important and will continue) and more equipping and encouraging parents to disciple in the home (instead of taking their place).

10 COMMENTS

  1. Jeremy – this breaks my heart — that parents step out and expect the Church to “save” their children.
    How do we teach parents — even those who follow Christ — to disciple their children? If our only monitor is “drop-out” rate,
    it is too often too late!
    You do a fantastic job at Church – but what do we do with and for parents so that they fulfill their responsibilities?

    • Great comments and questions, Ben! This is the beginning of the conversation, and at the very least, this is raising the awareness if the issue. Further in the series the author proposes some concrete suggestions that are worth considering.

  2. The question is quite simple for us as parents. Do we want our kids to have a vibrant faith or are we content to let the culture and whatever else is being fed our children, dictate their lives? We are ultimately responsible for our children….not their salvation, no!! But we are responsible for their spiritual teaching and training. We should not leave that all up to the church, no matter how fine or how great a job they are doing. Thank you Jeremy for this reminder. I am excited to see how this “new way of discipleship” will be taught and hopefully “caught” by our church body.

    • Someone, or something will “parent” and teach our children. The question is: who is it going to be? And a follow-up: “what values and lessons will be taught?”

      Even in this endeavor, hopefully we can “teach” so it is heard as well as “modeled” do it can be taught.

      Perhaps we need to highlight good stories and resources more often…

  3. I have learned something from your model of working with the youth Jeremy. You can teach a lot by not only spending time with your kids but by playing with them. I have spent countless hours coaching or leading my children’s sports or activities and to be honest with you cannot say that I could claim that this has helped our relationship or them to develop spiritually or socially much. But as I have been transitioning more into playing and participating with them I have been able to model for them team work and leadership without a lot of words which affirms the theory that children catch and perceive more than they are taught with words (do this, don’t do that). It is also my experience that it brings down the barriers and has led to deep and meaningful conversation during and after the experience playing. This never happens on the way home from a practice when I simply was coaching or leading. When I choose to participate in what my kids like to do like sitting in a deer stand for hours, Skiing, playing soccer, listening to music, watching a movie or assembling Legos or an erector set I can usually feel the relationsship growing. This even seem to work when I work with them as opposed to just always handing out chores for them to do on their own.

  4. interesting stuff -enjoyed the read –my mind goes to the fact now these days (in comparison to past generations) many many children grow up in broken homes and or grow up in day-care rather then having a stay home mom or dad –reflecting back on my life growing up and looking at my own children ( which all 3 are in the 11% -thanks be to God) I have to believe that kids with a stay home mom or dad and having their original parents that love each other -have a huge leg up on things. -also in the past extended family members aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins played a much bigger part in the raising and discipleship of children because of living closer—– I think there are lots and lots of things that contribute to this problem —-more then you or I will ever know –to fix the problem I think we need to address the cause if we are truly going to fix it or make it better –doing the discipleship at church is treating the symptoms at best –the source of the problem and therefore the key to fixing the problem is simple to find but is hard to fix —the problem is sin in our lives -our inability to follow God’s commandments and laws in our life (which is sin) is the problem (THE CAUSE) therefore our kids not turning out “right” is the symptom (THE effect)–we can’t be the parents, the spouse, the friend or the person God calls us to and desires us to be and designed us to be until we daily and continuously crucify ourselves and let christ live through us supernaturally -because I know and you know we will fail if WE try and do it in the flesh – I have lots of friends both christian and non-christian some have screwed up kids and some have great kids and some have a good kid and a bad kid??? makes me wonder sometimes if bad or good kids are born or are made?? I have to believe prayer is a big factor also –I pray for my children every day -I am going to be a grandpa in JUne and I am praying for my new grand child also everyday -my mother shared with me that the baby coming in JUne will be the 6th generation Christian believer on my mom’s side of the family and often talks about the legacy of the great prayer warriors in her family history -which is a huge great start for my grandchild -so yeah deal with the sin in your life and praying daily for your kids might be a good start I think –I found being a great dad is a hard hard thing to do—thank God for his GRACE

    • Your right, extended family used to fill in the gap in a child’s formation, and while it still might happen for some, a large majority of our population is displaced from extended family. We are.

      Sin will always continue to thwart these kinds of efforts. That is the dark force here that threatens to stunt seemingly any effort by God’s people to forge any headway into people’s hearts. I guess that’s why you say prayer is really important, right? It is not our efforts, rather it is our dependency on the Holy Spirit and joining Him in His effort to remake His world… through prayer.

      Thanks for the reminder of what a generational legacy of prayer looks like!

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