Cosmic combat occurs most Friday mornings at a coffee shop a few blocks from my home. If you happen to be ordering your mocha latte during this episode of intergalactic warfare, you might not even notice. Neither arms nor armor can be seen at the epicenter of this celestial struggle. No lightsabers are visible, and no voices are raised. At the nexus of the battle, there is only a man of not-quite-average height in one chair, a bubbly brown-haired girl in another, and a Bible and a couple of ceramic mugs on the table between them.
Do not let such mundane appearances misguide you: This is cosmic combat. When I sit at that table with my daughter, building on a week of family devotions and mother-daughter discussions, I am at war. This is not war with my daughter; it is war for my child’s soul.
This is war because—even as I train my child to take up her cross and root her identity in Jesus Christ—the surrounding culture calls her to celebrate immaturity, to smirk at sin, and to center her passions on pleasures that will slip away. This is war because the same serpentine dragon in that celestial conflict that John glimpsed on Patmos who longed to consume the fruit of Mary’s womb also wants to devour my children (Rev. 12:1–9). His weapons in this conflict are neither the priests of Molech nor the soldiers of Herod (Jer. 32:35–36; Matt. 2:16). The Enemy’s weapons in my child’s life are slickly-promoted celebrities and commercials that subtly but surely corrode her soul. What we wrestle against in this battle is not “flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
I am able to remove some of these influences from my child’s life for now, but I cannot and should not shield her from them forever. What I can do is to guide her to love what is good and beautiful and true. I can train her in the fear and reverence of God. I can constantly call her attention to the gospel. And that’s precisely what I work to do—not only week-by-week in the café, but also moment-by-moment in conversations about everything from the latest superhero film to the implications of Daniel’s prophecies. These may look like meetings for hazelnut coffee and whole-grain bagels, but what happens here is nothing less than the preparation and execution of a cosmic battle plan. Every week, every day, this is war.
Over the past few years, I have spent thousands of hours carefully researching how Christian parents are shaping their children’s souls. Throughout this process, I’ve repeatedly bumped up against a painful but unavoidable truth: The overwhelming majority of Christian parents are not actively engaged in any sort of battle for their children’s souls. When it comes to the process of discipling their progeny, most Christian parents—especially fathers—have abandoned the field.
In the simplest possible terms, if you as a parent are personally engaged in a process to transform the contours of your child’s soul, you are a minority.
However, I envision a time when Christian parents consistently engage in planned discipleship processes with their children. I eagerly anticipate an era when children regularly experience family worship times and spontaneous spiritual conversations. These practices are not consistently happening in Christian households right now—I know that. But I believe that they can happen, and I firmly hope that they will.
A few years ago, I coined the phrase “family-equipping ministry model” to describe the foundation and framework for this process of reorienting existing ministries to partner with parents. Since that time, family-equipping has emerged as a distinct and identifiable approach to family ministry in many churches. Family-equipping ministry is a process that’s far bigger than a one-time conference or seminar. This process can’t fit in a box on the shelf of your local Christian bookstore because it isn’t about a curriculum or event. It’s about a lasting partnership between your ministry and the parents of the children and youth in your ministry. You can’t purchase partnerships of this sort, and you can’t cultivate them in precise time-periods that a church calendar dictates. These partnerships require commitments to a long-term process, and they are likely to look different in every ministry context. They will require you to seek prayerfully how to live out God’s calling in your particular ministry.
At the same time, there are clear patterns that these partnerships have tended to follow as they have developed in different churches. The particular process that I am proposing arises from a careful study of several ministries that have effectively called parents to engage actively in their children’s spiritual development. It’s my prayer that this framework will help you lead the parents in your church from abdication to active engagement in cosmic combat for their children’s souls.
At this point, you may be wondering, “How do you know that parents have really abdicated their role in the Christian formation of their children? Who knows? Maybe most Christian parents really are actively discipling their children, and you just don’t know it!”
If that question has crossed your mind—and I hope it has!—you’ve raised a valid point. There are good reasons to be skeptical about claims like these. Far too many Christian organizations have tossed out far too many panicky alarms that have been based on sloppy statistical research.
In 2007 and 2008, an organization known as FamilyLife sent out a survey called the Family Needs Survey. This survey took a careful look at the needs and habits of churched families. The round of study included data from nearly 40,000 parents. Together, these data have provided a statistically reliable snapshot of what’s happening and what’s not happening in Christian homes throughout North America. When it came to parental involvement in the discipleship of children, the results of the FamilyLife study were far from encouraging. According to the Family Needs Survey:
The Gheens Center for Christian Family Ministry at the seminary where I serve sponsored a more in-depth study with a smaller sampling of participants. The primary purpose of this study was to determine the precise dynamics of parents’ disengagement from children’s spiritual development.
On the positive side, both studies suggested that around twenty percent of parents were praying, reading Scripture, and engaging in family devotions with their children at least once each week. Around one-fourth had read or discussed the Bible with their children seven or more times in the past couple of months.
The rest of the news was not so good, however. Our Family Discipleship Perceptions and Practices Survey revealed that:
According to this survey, times of family devotion and Bible study range from rare to nonexistent. From the perspective of one out of every five parents, church activities seemed to have been the family’s sole intentional experiences of Christian formation.
Please don’t mistake my point here: I am not suggesting that family devotions, Scripture studies, or spiritual discussions can somehow guarantee godly households. And yet, in the absence of such practices, it is difficult to see how parents can possibly be training their children to treasure God’s Word or follow Jesus Christ with passion and joy. Cosmic combat for the souls of the rising generation swirls unseen around us even in our calmest moments—but, with few exceptions, the parents in our churches have disengaged from the battle.
For the book that resulted from the research described above, see Family Ministry Field Guide.
For resources on family devotions, click here.