Discipleship is Too Important to Hand Over to Specialists
There are some tasks so significant that they can’t be surrendered to someone else. Taking your spouse on a date, for example. Think of it this way: Suppose I called my wife this afternoon and announced, “Honey, guess what? Remember how you asked about a date tonight? Well, I hired a professional dater to take you to dinner and a movie. Yes, that’s right, dear: A professional! He’s much better at dating than me—plus, since I’ll be at home watching Star Wars, we won’t even need a babysitter. Have a great time!” Now, if such an evening seemed even remotely interesting to my wife, let’s just say that she and I have more problems than any date—professional or otherwise—can possibly fix! In fact, if I seriously suggested such an evening, I suspect that many cold nights would pass before my wife requested a date with me again. Why? Because some tasks are too significant to be surrendered completely to professionals. Other people may remind you to perform such tasks; others may even equip you to perform them better. But no other person possesses the proper qualifications to carry them out. It’s also that way when it comes to the discipleship of our children.
The church should remind my wife and I to disciple our daughters; pastors and deacons might equip us to disciple them more effectively.
Teachers and small-group leaders can—and should and do!—engage in discipleship with our children, and I deeply value the student ministry leaders and children’s ministry volunteers who invest in them.
Yet the task of training children to follow Jesus Christ is too significant to be surrendered wholly and completely to professionals.
No one else possesses the proper qualifications to take over the full responsibility of discipleship in their lives because no one else can lay claim to the title of their father or mother. And yet, when it comes to the members in our churches, a significant number of churched parents are not actively engaged in any way in the discipleship of their children.
The Place of Parents in the Spiritual Formation of Their Children
In most mission statements from church-based youth or children’s ministries, what you’re likely to find are firm commitments to evangelize, equip, and entertain children or youth—all completely within the context of age-focused and age-segmented ministries. According to one such statement from a youth group’s website, student ministry exists to “reproduce disciples for Christ out of unbelieving youth, rebuild their spiritual life, increase their faith to reverence God through relationships, and care for others through restoration.”Another ministry plans “to evangelize, equip, and engage as many middle school and high school students for Jesus Christ as possible” and “to teach, mature, and train those who are seeking to become committed followers.” On another website a youth pastor declares that his personal mission is “to mobilize an army of youth who intimately love Jesus and want to share him with others.”
What you will rarely find in these mission statements is any mention of equipping or partnering with parents to disciple children. In fact, I read more than a hundred mission statements and strategies on student-ministry websites before I found one that even mentioned the role of parents in their children’s lives; and that was in a single sentence fragment, tacked near the statement’s final paragraph. Such an informal survey certainly doesn’t reveal everything about these youth and children’s ministries, and it is possible that far more is happening with parents than their mission statements reveal. And yet, it seems that the assumption in at least some congregations is that these ministries are capable of discipling youth and children without pursuing any partnerships with parents or with other generations in the church.
In the prologue to his proverbs, one of Israel’s ancient sages reminded youth to learn divine wisdom in the context of their homes: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction, and don’t reject your mother’s teaching” (Prov 1:8). In Paul’s letters to Christians in Asia Minor, he specifically commanded fathers to bring up their offspring “in the training and instruction of the Lord” without frustrating or discouraging them (Eph 6:4; Col 3:21). As I examine Scripture, I find woven throughout its pages an expectation that neither the temple nor the synagogue nor ministers in the church bore the sole responsibility for training children to be followers of God. The home was divinely formed as a context for discipleship, and parents were expected to serve as disciple-makers in their children’s lives.
The Shift to Specialization
Somehow, these expectations have shifted over the centuries, though. Many churches today seek to organize every aspect of their ministries according to age and interest, removing almost every opportunity for the church to function as a multicultural and multigenerational family. In the process, parents are separated from active participation in their children’s spiritual formation. Even as parents admit their responsibility to disciple their children, the majority are not personally engaging in any activities that might guide their children to spiritual maturity, other than taking their children to church. “Most parents proclaim that the spiritual nurturing of their children is their job, but [they] are very happy to let their church shape the child’s faith.” “Every week,” Mike Yaconelli once noted,
local churches [look] for someone—anyone—to work with their youth. . . . These churches are desperate to find someone who will “do something” with their kids. Punch on to the job listings. . . . Hundreds of churches are eager to find someone who will form their children in the Christian faith. What’s happened? Why are we so eager to hand the spiritual development of our young people to the first person we find who can locate the New Testament and needs a little part-time work?
Indeed, what has happened? Why do so many churches seem to expect specialized children’s and student ministries to accomplish what Scripture has commanded parents to do in partnership with their churches? And what can churches do to pursue better partnerships with parents and stronger connections across the generations?
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a couple of assumptions emerged that reshaped the organizational structures in many churches and gave birth to a model of church in which adult and youth ministries are virtually separate. Here’s how I would summarize these two assumptions:
- Evangelism and discipleship are most effective when they gather people according to their age or interests, and,
- The church’s ministry structures are most effective when they are segmented into specialized components and led by trained professionals.
The early twentieth century saw the rise of the “efficiency movement”—a movement that started in American industry but quickly spread beyond industry to social programs and even to churches. Over time, the efficiency movement contributed to the reshaping of staffing structures in churches in the United States and, eventually, throughout Western societies. Churches in the United States readily embraced this model of efficiency. Southern Baptist congregations in particular seem to have been eager to baptize this latest trend in social and industrial planning.
One outgrowth of this movement toward efficiency was a shift toward specialization in ministry leadership that laid the foundations for specialized staffing. According to an article from this era, every church now needed three trained “experts” in addition to the pastor: a Director of Religious Education, a Director of Social Work, and a Church Visitor. The purpose of these staff positions was to do what church members “have not the technical training to do as it ought to be done.”
Put another way, ordinary church members lacked the skills to understand the science of what they ought to be doing. As a result, trained experts should take over and do the church’s ministry “as it ought to be done.” Not every early twentieth-century church embraced every aspect of the efficiency movement, and much of the impact of the efficiency movement in churches seems to have been limited to large, middle- and upper-class white congregations. Nevertheless, the assumption that ministries are most effective when they are segmented and overseen by specialists had long-lasting repercussions on the discipleship and development of young people.
Sometimes, it may feel as if professionalized programs would be an easier solution, but no church program can develop in a child what parents are able to engrave in their children’s souls day-by-day. And so, despite the apparent inefficiency of constantly acknowledging parents as primary faith-trainers, family-equipping ministries persist in their passion for telling and training fathers and mothers to disciple their children.
If your sole goal is organizational efficiency, constantly acknowledging the role of parents is probably an inefficient use of your time, and turning over children’s spiritual lives to professionals at church would make perfect sense. But efficiency is not the goal of gospel-motivated ministry. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus determines the shape and establishes the goal for his church. And it has been his Father’s good pleasure to form the church as a conglomeration of amateurs, not as a corporation run by professionals (1 Cor. 12:4–31). The Spirit does not give gifts for the purpose of making the church efficient; he arranges the gifts in the body according to his will to make us holy (1 Cor. 12:11).
Written by Timothy Paul Jones, edited by Isabella Wu