Recently someone showed me a video of a bear and her three cubs on the back deck of a home helping themselves to the seed in a bird feeder. The video showed mama helping herself first with the cubs watching, and then the cubs taking their turn under the watchful eye of their mom. It reminded me of a similar scene I witnessed many years ago while on a backpacking trip in the Great Smoky National Park.
My friends and I had just set up camp and secured our backpacks to cables on a bridge to keep bears from looting them for food. We were back at our campsite when a bear came walking across the bridge. Her two cubs sat down at the edge. The bear went to each side of the bridge grabbing the cables to see if any backpacks were attached. Her attempts were unsuccessful, so she headed across the bridge and her cubs came running after her. Even though her attempts failed, she likely succeeded in teaching her cubs how to scavenge for human food by demonstrating how it is done. Another word for this that might be familiar is discipleship.
Jesus practiced this kind of teaching throughout his earthly ministry. “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:14 ESV) And then he spent three years showing them how to do it. He did it through his teaching and he did it through doing what he taught.
There is a crisis in the Church where young people are leaving in droves the faith in which they were raised. Numerous studies have consistently shown 60-75% of young people growing up in Christian homes cease to maintain living that faith out after high school. And most of the ones who do carry on and get involved in a local church and/or a campus ministry in college have little understanding of what it truly means to follow Jesus. Most are unfamiliar with the Scriptures, uncomfortable with praying, and consider their lives their own to live as they choose.
This trend has been known for decades, but the solutions offered by most local churches inevitably involve attempting to make the faith more relevant and exciting to teens. From one who has worked with college students his whole adult life, I can testify this approach has very limited success. Engaging speakers, talented worship bands, energy-filled conferences, and fun-driven activities often draw large crowds and create excitement, but rarely do they translate into vibrant and lasting faith among those participating. I have no doubt the purveyors of such approaches have good intentions, but they have lost sight of what the Scriptures teach about raising children in the faith and the example of Jesus.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says this:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Nowhere in the Scriptures are parents told to turn over spiritual training of their children to others besides older family members. Yet, that is the practice of the vast majority of parents involved in local churches, and, often, they are encouraged to do this by the church staff through the offering of programs promoted as the means to help kids grow spiritually. And parents, most of whom do not feel comfortable in discipling their kids, readily embrace this opportunity to have “more qualified” people handle the responsibility. In fact, almost all churches promote on their websites and to their visitors the programming they have for children and teens, because they know that is what will most likely draw parents to attend their services and bring their kids.
The enormous blind spot in this approach is the understanding that faith is embedded in children’s lives by the two central figures in their lives—mom and dad. Particularly in their formative years, these two people spend more time with their kids and have more influence on them than anyone else. And children naturally (by God’s design I believe) imitate their parents. He created parents to teach their kids about God and how to love him. But in a fallen world, it can work the other way. My parents took me to church and told me they were Christians, but I was really instructed by how they lived. And until late in their lives, they didn’t live for Jesus or act even remotely like Jesus. So, as many teens today, I thought Christianity as a personal faith was irrelevant because it was for my parents. The vast majority of teens either abandon their faith or are spiritually immature because of what their parents taught them by how they lived and what priorities they displayed in their daily lives. Kids are keen observers.
Churches can create the most incredible programs for children and teens, but if mom and dad are not truly seeking to follow Jesus daily, it is unlikely those programs will have much lasting spiritual impact. Rather, the focus should be like that of the adult bears and Jesus—showing them how it’s done and then turning them loose to do it. And that doesn’t begin when kids grow to be teenagers, but right from the start. Yet, the reality is that most Christian parents of young children don’t really know what it means to follow Jesus because churches spend little time training them. Instead, their focus is on the weekly preaching, the worship music, and the church programs.
What is so desperately needed in our local churches today, if the disturbing trend of college-age abandonment of the faith and spiritual immaturity is to change, is for young parents to be trained to be true followers of Christ, not merely attenders of a church and participants in various programs. They need to be taught how to read the Scriptures and understand them on their own. They need to learn how to pray and to feel comfortable praying for others. They need to be taught the essence of the Gospel and how to explain it to others. They need to be instructed in how to live out their faith in their workplaces and their neighborhoods. And they need to know how to align their day-to-day and life priorities according to the Lord’s teachings. To do this effectively, they must not only be taught in words, but shown by the actions of more mature mentors.
So, parents who are raising young children, I implore you not to relinquish your responsibility of spiritually training your kids to your local church. That is your God-given responsibility. And if you feel incapable of doing it, then go to your pastor or to an older, more mature Christian to ask for help. And, church leaders, I implore you to begin transforming your churches into disciple-making communities who train adults to truly follow Jesus rather than merely being participants in weekly services and church programs. This is the only way, and the biblical way, to raise up followers of Jesus who will remain faithful and fruitful all the days of their lives.
© Jim Musser 2019