When Christian parents hear the phrase, ’family discipleship’, you might see them cringe. The pangs of guilt rise. There is often a sense that they are failing as parents if bedtime doesn’t resemble a class at Bible College and their children don’t wake up reciting Bible verses. Many see family discipleship as an obligation they never meet. And that failure leaves them feeling guilty and defeated.
Given that context, is it any wonder that ministers (senior, assistant, children and youth) face frustration when we try and encourage the parents of our church to take an active role in the spiritual development of their children?
Scottish athlete and missionary, Eric Liddell, memorably said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.” The same God who made him fast made every single parent in your church a parent. As we’ll see, the calling to disciple the next generation is just as daunting as the guilt and shame might indicate but it’s an eternally significant task that can be fulfilled with joy—for the parents and the children of your church.
My childhood was shaped by great Sunday School classes at our local Anglican church. I was challenged and equipped to make my faith my own by a vibrant youth group. In my mid-teens I started teaching Sunday School classes and a few years later we launched a Friday night Bible club for children in Years 4-6. I was thankful for how God had used my experience in youth and children’s ministry, and I was excited to be serving.
Fast forward about 10 years and I was leading the family ministries of a growing multiethnic church in Washington, DC. My wife and I were also about to welcome our first child. As I prepared for that transition, I realised how unprepared I was.
Of course, I was not prepared for the experience of childbirth, the sleepless nights, and the many joys and challenges of parenthood. But I also realised that—experienced as I was ministering to children at church—I was not ready to disciple my son at home.
That realisation marked a turning point in my approach to family ministry. I continued to focus on excellent programs on Sunday morning, creative outreach, and effective holiday programs, but I expanded my vision and invested time, energy, and especially prayer in how to equip the families of my church to proclaim the gospel to their children for the 166 hours we weren’t together.
What is ‘family discipleship’?
Discipling children means equipping them to see the world through the lens of the gospel.
The Psalmist describes this task as commending the works of God to the next generation (Ps 145:4). In the words of Jesus it is “teaching them to obey all I have commanded” (Matt 28:18-20) and in Paul’s terminology it is not hesitating to declare to them the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We constantly refer back to the goodness of our God, we teach them to obey the commands of Jesus, and we fearlessly teach them everything the Bible says.
Deuteronomy 6 gives a clear picture of family discipleship. Simply, it is answering the calling to impress God’s words on the next generation. Moses teaches that this starts with who God is (v 4) and who we are (vv 5-6). We treasure God—who He is, what He’s done, and what He requires of His people— and we do that with our words and in the rhythms of our lives (vv 7-8). Answering that calling requires more than we can ever deliver during a church service or youth and children’s program.
How do we get there?
But the burning question remains: how do we get from the guilt and shame many parents associate with family discipleship to experiencing God’s pleasure as they fulfil God’s calling?
It starts by admitting we have a problem! Even when we have great programs on Sunday, many of the parents we serve are not being prepared to sustain gospel rhythms in the home for the next 166 hours until we’re together again. For every hardworking minister working with families in our churches, there are parents with the opportunity—and responsibility—to impact the children of our churches with the gospel 24/7.
There’s no magic bullet to make this change but here are three simple steps to move in the direction of a culture of family discipleship at your church:
Pray for it
Scepticism about the feasibility of family discipleship is completely logical from a human standpoint. But we serve the God of the impossible. We must start any effort to influence the families of our church on our knees.
Provide simple tools
I am convinced that much of the guilt and inaction related to family discipleship is rooted in an uncertainty about where to begin. We need to assure the parents of our church that family discipleship doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to happen. We then equip them with simple tools and support them in achieving basic goals.
Lead by example
When the leaders of the church are open about the challenges and joys of family discipleship, it can help open conversations and inspire your people to get started.
Starting with these steps, your church can begin a journey away from guilt and towards mutual encouragement and growth. Families can be transformed as parents invest in discipling their children. Parents and leaders can encourage each other as they share ideas, resources, learning from successes and failures.
Investing time in equipping parents is a key ingredient in the mix of a spiritually healthy church. I pray that God will equip your church to experience God’s pleasure as you partner with parents to invest in family discipleship.
Peter Morris serves as a ministry leader with ReachGlobal, focused on family discipleship and multicultural church planting. He led family ministries at Ambassador Bible Church in Washington DC before serving as a missionary in Costa Rica.