Certain skills may be helpful in a child’s Christian formation—but, when it comes to parents discipling their children, the task is not primarily about the skills; it’s about a divinely-designed relationship. The church may remind me to engage spiritually with my daughters. Ministers, elders, or deacons might even equip my wife and me to disciple these three children more effectively. Yet no one possesses the proper qualifications to undertake this task in our place because no one else can lay claim to the title of our daughters’ father or mother.
Why, then, have so many parents—even Christian parents—abdicated their role in matters of salvation and spiritual growth?
Why do parents fail to see their children as potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ?
And why is it so difficult for parents to begin the practices with their children that will enable them to see their lives in light of redemption and consummation?
:: Sin and Shrunken Story Lines ::
Of course, the primary reason for each of these shortcomings is that the fall of humanity affects every part of life—including family life. Sin perverts our capacity to perceive reality rightly. As a result, parents need guidance from God’s Word and God’s people to see who their children really are. Many parents aren’t discipling their children because they have never been discipled. They’ve never learned how the gospel applies in their everyday lives, including their parenting practices.
But there are also human means by which this distortion has developed over the past couple of centuries. One of these human means can be summarized in a single sentence: Churches have presented moms and dads with the impression that active participation in the discipleship of children is optional for parents.
No one has explicitly told parents that they shouldn’t guide their children in light of redemption and consummation. What many churches have done instead is to develop comprehensively-segmented programs for the evangelism and discipleship of children, all while rarely (if ever) even mentioning the role of parents in discipling their children.
In such congregations, processes related to redemption and consummation—including the function of disciple-making brothers and sisters in Christ—no longer seem to require the involvement of parents. The parental role in discipleship begins and ends when parents drop off their children at the church building. Parents, locked into the story line of creation and fall alone, do not discipline their children in ways that aim them toward the gospel. Instead, discipline disintegrates into mere management of external behaviors. The focus of parenting shifts away from the gospel and toward goals of personal happiness and material success.
The Christian formation of each generation takes place in age-focused groupings that isolate children and youth from other family members and generations. Youth groups serve as the disciple-making communities for middle-school and high-school students, while children’s programs play this role for elementary students.
The unspoken message in such churches has been that the task of discipleship is best left to trained professionals. Schoolteachers are perceived as the persons responsible to grow the children’s minds, coaches are employed to train children’s bodies, and specialized ministers at church ought to develop their souls. When it comes to schooling and coaching, such perspectives may or may not be particularly problematic.When it comes to Christian formation, however, this perspective faces an insurmountable snag: God specifically calls not only the community of faith but also the parents to engage personally in the Christian formation of children.
:: A Task Too Important to Be Passed to Professionals ::
This is one set of responsibilities that, from the perspective of Scripture, parents simply cannot surrender to someone else. When fathers and mothers hand over these tasks to the church, they lose sight of who their children really are. Parents see their sons and daughters as their children—but, in their practices of parenting, they miss the gospel-rich movements of redemption and consummation that are crucial to God’s story; in the process, they lose sight of who their children really are. The story line in Christian households has grown too small. The role of parents has been reduced to dealing with their children only in light of creation and fall. As a result, they fail to train their children as actual or potential brothers and sisters in Christ.
The real problem in all of this is not primarily about results or retention rates. The deeper problem has to do with an incomplete appropriation of the story of God—a story not only of creation and fall but also of gospel redemption and future consummation—in Christian families. When the whole story of God frames a family ministry, the result is not one more set of activities. The result is a gospel-centered, Scripture-grounded, Spirit-compelled partnership that equips fathers and mothers to participate personally in the discipleship of their children. Family ministry is essential—but family ministry must be far more than a colorful program that mingles two influences to increase the odds of getting better results. Such surface-level perspectives may improve a few passing symptoms, but they can never heal the underlying problem of a story line that is far too small.