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Discipling Your Family

Rediscovering our roles as spiritual parents

Discipling Your Family

There are many reasons why Christians rush off after Sunday service nowadays. For parents of school-going children, one reason is tuition classes. Yes, even on Sundays. This phenomenon provides a stark context and humanscape to highlight the great disparity between the attention we, as parents, give to our children’s scholastic education, and our attentiveness to our children’s spiritual nurture and growth.

Have you discipled your children? Are you discipling your family?

I think that is a question in season for Christian parents in Singapore today. For far too long, we have indulged in a culture of sub-contracting. We sub-contract play with our children to enrichment programs and holiday camps. We sub-contract housework to our domestic helpers. We sub-contract helping our children learn to tutors and tuition agencies. We have even sub-contracted the faith development of our children, to the Sunday school, children’s ministry and youth ministry.

Today in churches, when we talk about discipleship, mentoring, and programs for faith formation in the church, in children’s ministry, youth ministry, and church-wide discipling processes or programs, do we address the family as a factor in our plans, as a platform for faith formation, and as the primary providers of soul-care and nurture?

The church today faces the danger of tunnel vision in the way we do ministry. We have neglected the family as the primary battleground for faith formation, of how faith is passed down the generations. The family has been a highly neglected topic in terms of the conversations in our churches that concern ministry with youth and children, the practice and theology of worship, and the role it has in discipleship and faith formation. And this is all the more so in our homes.

When was the last time you discussed the spiritual state and nurture of your children with your wife or your husband? For many of us, we may not actually recall if we ever did. Even if we did have conversations approximating a discussion about our children’s spiritual journey, the numbers of such conversations pale in comparison to our attention to their school work.

The Old Testament

The main place where ministry to children and youth happened in the ancient world of the Old Testament was the family, the home. 

Deuteronomy 11:5 expresses the age-old dilemma of education: 

“It was not your children who saw what He [the Lord] did for you in the desert until you arrived at this place.”

What each generation has experienced, learned, and known through their personal encounter with God must somehow be communicated and transmitted to the next generation that does not have the same experiences. Somehow, this new generation has to be helped to know, love and obey the God of their parents.

How is this to be done? 

God’s instruction for the education and transmission of faith is expressed this way: -

Deuteronomy 6:5-7

“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

Deuteronomy 11:18-19

“Fix these words of Mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

These passages highlight three aspects of the role of the family in Christian nurture and faith formation of our young: -

a)  teaching by example - ministry with younger persons first requires a teacher (the parent) who is firstly himself or herself one who is responsive to God – the one who seeks to educate the younger person in the faith, must be one who lives the faith; 

b)  the place of learning – is the family – the home, the activities of the household, the ordinary moments of everyday are to be the mobile classroom of faith; and

c)  continuing education – the learning of faith happens not in a fixed time, but throughout the day, throughout the weeks, months and years – it is to be woven into daily living as life is shared between parent and child – all moments become “teachable moments” – the ultimate stamp of approval for the concept of “active learning” and “activity based learning” – it is not divorced from the realities of life, and so the principles of faith are not to be ivory tower statements, but gritty and real. 

The impression here is that Godly living is learnt on the go through Godly parents or teachers who invite their young charges into a life of God-infused conversations at all times of the day. 

There was no formal school, as we know it today, in the time of Moses, because the home, the family, was the school.

The New Testament

Whilst the synagogue was emerging as a centre of religious learning in the New Testament period, the home and the family remained the centre of Hebrew nurture.

Philo, the Jewish philosopher, spoke thus of young children:

“They are taught, so to speak, from their swaddling clothes by their parents, by their teachers, and by those who bring them up, even before instruction in the sacred laws and unwritten customs, to believe in God, the One Father and Creator of the world.” (Leg. Ad Caium, 31)

As Christianity began to take root and spread, we see in Church History, that the early church fathers were of the same view as Jesus that it was important to instruct the children.

Clement, the theologian from Alexandria said in A.D. 110:

“Let our children partake of the training that is in Christ. Let them learn how humility avails with God, what pure love can do with Him, how the fear of Him is good and great and saves those who live therein in holiness and a pure mind.” (To the Corinthians, 21:7-8)

Polycarp, the 2nd century bishop of Smyrna (who later died as a martyr for his faith), wrote in A.D. 150:

“Let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord. Next, teach your wives to walk in the faith given to them, and in love and in purity to love their own husbands in all truth, and to love all others equally in all chastity; and to train up their children in the knowledge and fear of God.” (To the Philippians, 4:2)

However, apart from such expressions of desire, the catechism (training in the faith) designed by the early church was for adult converts and there appears to have been no system of training in the faith in the early church for children. 

In the beginning, and in many locations, Christians were persecuted, which resulted in close-knit but separated faith communities in which only informal education would have been possible. So education still largely happened in the homes and small groups of believers gathering together for fellowship and communion. 

This remained more or less the primary form of faith transmission until the Age of Industrialization – with the shift from agriculture to manufacture, and the coming of machines, factories and cities, parents became separated from their young. The faith transmission that happened in the rhythms of agricultural life was snuffed out or diminished as parents – both men and women - found it necessary to leave their homes in the countryside, to work in factories, leaving the spiritual formation of children in a vacuum. 

It was into this vacuum that later movements of the Sunday school and other youth movements arose to address the gap.

The point is this - the original mainstay of faith formation was the family. We find ourselves today in circumstances where parents often do not fully comprehend their primary and ultimate responsibility for the faith formation of their children. The rise of children’s ministry and youth ministry as specializations in the church has inadvertently weakened the family as a primary place of worship and faith formation. 

The church today, and parents today, need to sit up and take notice. 

We spend at most 2-3 hours in church each week, but are in our homes 24/7 for 365 days a year.  The home, the family, remains the most formative of places, and parents the most influential of persons, in the lives of young people. 

The worship, modeling and teaching that goes on, or does not go on in the home, matters. It matters a lot!

The Importance of the Role of the Family

According to Mark DeVries, a youth pastor and highly significant writer in the area of ministry with youth, his studies have helped him discover: -

“…two distinct components that most reliably predict whether kids make it to mature Christian adulthood: the teenager’s own family and the extended family of adults in the church.” 

Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry: Reaching the ‘Been There, Done That’ Generation, 2000.

DeVries relates the response of a young person who had become a mature adult Christian to his question: “How would you compare the influence that our youth ministry had on your faith to the influence your family had on your faith?” The young man answered: 

“You guys were great…but I’ve got to tell you, if you had never been there and the church had no youth ministry, I think I would still be in the same place spiritually that I am today!”

DeVries’ study of the role of the family in spiritual formation has led him to make several observations: 

a)  for better or worse, families have an immense influence on their children’s long-term faith formation

b)  many parents are not particularly interested in well-intentioned but poorly attended parenting equipping events

c)  there is no single faith-nurturing practice that parents use that works across the board – be it requiring youth to attend church, having family devotions, or praying together as a family

d)  the one consistent trend that studies show is that the young people who stuck to their faith had a half-dozen ‘mentors’ present during their growing up years

His key conclusion is that 

“…the crucial factor for kids who make it to maturity (not just Christian maturity) is the presence of at least one supportive adult. And those who make it to Christian maturity almost always have…an extended Christian family of godly adults in their lives.”

If we accept Mark DeVries’ research and conclusions (which I find resonates with my experience and that of many churches in Singapore), the family is a primary and critical place for faith formation. And so the way young people learn to worship and learn about God at home is very important.

What happens at home will ultimately have a huge impact in the spiritual formation of our children. 

We must ask ourselves as parents – whilst we may be disciplining our children, are we discipling our children? 

Are we, who make much of discipline, failing to make disciples of our kids?

Rev. Dr. Bernard Chao is Lecturer in Practical Theology, and Director of EQUIP, a lay training initiative, at Trinity Theological College. He received his PhD in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary (USA) and teaches in the areas of leadership, Christian education, youth ministry, and Wesleyan theology. A former litigation lawyer, he is Bernard is an ordained elder of The Methodist Church in Singapore (Trinity Annual Conference). He is married to Ai Jin,a Master Clinical Member, Registered Clinical Counsellor and Clinical Supervisor with the Singapore Association for Counselling, and they have three teenagers, Elijah, Emma and Ezrela.

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