The animated feature The Incredibles is a favorite movie in our household—and one of our favorite scenes is the family meal early in the film.
Dinner at the Parr household has deteriorated into pandemonium. The infant squeals in delight at the chaos as two siblings engage in super-powered combat. A frazzled mom strains unsuccessfully to restore order.
And what about Bob Parr, father and former “Mr. Incredible”? He stands to the side, physically present, relationally absent, utterly uncertain as to what to do.
Finally, his wife flings a frantic plea in his direction: “Bob! It’s time to engage! Don’t just stand there. Do something!” The problem is, Mr. Incredible has no clue how to engage the situation wisely, and his engagement results in greater chaos.
Then, the doorbell rings.
Suddenly, everyone scrambles for a seat at the table and, by the time the door opens, what the visitor sees is a perfectly placid all-American family.
Many parents in your congregation have been walking in Mr. Incredible’s shoes for a long time.
They have observed their children’s spiritual development from a disengaged distance. They have watched youth and children’s ministers stretch and strain to promote growth.
Now, in a growing movement in churches throughout the world, ministers are suddenly turning to these parents and shouting, “It’s time to engage!” The problem is that many of them don’t know how or why, and part of the reason that they don’t know how is because we as church leaders aren’t quite certain why parents have disengaged in the first place. The result is frustration. The purpose of this article is to take away some of that frustration by helping you to understand three essential facts about families like the ones in your church—facts that a team of researchers worked with me to discover by surveying hundreds of parents in more than a dozen congregations throughout North America.
(1) The overwhelming majority of parents in your church know their responsibility.
At one point, I presumed that parents were living in denial when it came to family discipleship. Even though Scripture calls parents to engage actively in shaping their children’s souls, dads and moms were simply choosing to be disobedient—or so I thought. As it turns out, I was wrong. When asked whether parents were responsible to engage personally in a discipleship process with their children, well over 90% of parents said yes.
(2) Most parents are not persistently or intentionally discipling their children.
At this point, a paradox emerges: Even as parents admit their responsibility to function as primary faith-trainers, most are doing little—if anything—to fulfill this role. Two-thirds of fathers and mothers read Scripture with their children once every two weeks or less. Family devotional or worship times happen once a month or less in six out of ten households. Half of parents never engage in any form of family devotional time. And the dads and moms in this survey were not sporadic church attendees! All of them were actively engaged in Bible studies and worship experiences in their communities of faith. And yet, with rare exceptions, they were disengaged as disciple-makers in their own homes.
(3) Parents aren’t being trained—but most of them are willing to be.
So why aren’t parents discipling their children? One reason is that no one is equipping them.
When asked if any church leader had ever contacted them to help them to engage actively in their children’s spiritual development, more than two-thirds of parents could not recall a single contact. When asked whether their churches had helped them to develop any plans for their children’s spiritual growth, three-fourths of parents disagreed to some degree.
Other studies have shed more light on the reasons for this perceived lack of training among parents. Despite placing family ministry high on their priority lists, youth ministers typically spent only three percent of their time and less than three percent of their budgets on any ministry that related to parents and families. And still, most parents want to be equipped to guide their children’s spiritual development. When asked in a FamilyLife survey about their family’s most pressing needs, more than three-fourths of church-involved moms and dads specifically mentioned their desire to know how to help their children to grow spiritually. The issue is not so much that parents have resigned their role as primary disciple-makers. In most cases, the problem is that churches are neither expecting nor equipping parents to be intentional about shaping their children’s souls.
What Can You Do?: Three Tips for Family Ministry
Now that you know these three facts, what can you do to partner with parents to develop an incredible family ministry? In these final paragraphs, I’ll unpack three simple suggestions that I have seen implemented in a wide variety of churches.
(1) Train more than you tell in family ministry.
It’s easier to settle for telling parents than to invest the time that’s needed to train them. Yet, if church leaders merely tell parents what they ought to do without equipping them, the result will be nothing more than a fleeting sense of guilt. Guilt may drive parents to make a few half-hearted attempts at family devotions, but guilt can never produce gospel-centered transformation.
(2) Train at times when parents are already present.
When you take the time to train parents how to disciple their children, don’t add one more activity to schedules that are already overpacked! Instead, find times when parents are already present and train them then. And remember: you can’t start too simple or small! Most parents have no clue how to lead a family devotion or even to read the Bible with their kids. Rehearse, role-play, show them how!
(3) Remind parents with grace and love who their children really are.
All of this will, however, be pointless unless you help parents to understand who their children really are: Their children are bearers of the gospel to generations yet unborn. Your children and mine are eternal souls whose days will long outlast the rise and fall of all the kingdoms of the earth. They and their children and their children’s children will flit ever so briefly across the face of this earth before being swept away into eternity. How we mold our children’s souls while they reside in our households will shape the lives of children who have yet to draw their first gasp of air (Ps. 78:6–7). That’s why our primary purpose for these children must never be anything so miserable as earthly success. Our purpose should be—as Richard Ross has said for years—to leverage our children’s lives to advance God’s kingdom so that every tribe, every nation, and every nation gains the opportunity to respond in faith to the rightful King of kings. That’s an incredible purpose, and it’s the only foundation for family ministry that will last. Now, what are you waiting for? It’s time to engage!