A few weeks ago I wrote a few thoughts on discipleship, and Kim VB (who happens to be my sister) posed the following question in a comment:
Another thing I’d love for you to blog about (or see other blogs post about): Kids and discipleship. I’m really struggling with the implications of kids’ programs in general (you know, the Wednesday night ones) and whether there’s value or harm there… and whether my perspective as an adult doesn’t apply to kids, and vice versa. Mainly: How young is too young for discipleship? What does discipleship look like for kids? And, does the performance-and-reward system of most kids’ programs have lasting implications for their faith and how they see God, or is it just a bit of fun with the real benefit being positive, non-parent adult influences?
Those are lots of questions! I’ll try to give my thoughts on those questions, then I’ll share how we are starting to disciple our four kids (which, incidentally, will form the seeds of our philosophy for discipling children at Christ Church).
How young is too young for discipleship?
I don’t think there is such a thing as “too young” for discipleship, because our goal for them is the same as it is for us: to be disciples of Jesus. If we really believe this is the best way to live, the best deal going, then we’ll want to involve our children in this life from the very start.
We have to understand, though, that discipleship isn’t a special body of knowledge that you acquire or some kind of special-ops training for gifted-and-talented Christians. It’s for everyone, and it’s simply being with Jesus to learn how to be like him. We do the things Jesus did, for the reasons he did them, and we’re consistently, intentionally learning to do all the things Jesus commanded.
So we want our kids to know who they are (a beloved child of God the Father) and what to do (represent their Father, the King, by acting “in his name,” joining with him in the renewal of all things). That can start at a very young age, because kids are learning those things from a very young age.
What are the implications of kids’ programs in general?
One thing to keep in mind is that the way most evangelical churches do kids’ programs (i.e. adults and children separated for the entire length of their time at a church gathering), is extremely new in terms of human history. Most humans have always trained their children by having them with them in daily life. For Christians, this included having children with them in worship gatherings, participating as they were able.
Some people have started to do some research on the long-term effects of going from kids’ ministry to youth group and beyond, and they’re mostly disturbing: most young adults whose main experience of “church” was energetic kids’ programs and and kickin’ youth group abandon church once they’re out of these environments. Kara Powell has done some research on this and has a great article at Leadership Journal on it called “Is the Era of Age Segregation Over?”
How we are discipling our kids
A few months ago Doug Paul, a friend of mine sent me a white paper on the children’s ministry philosophy they were implementing at their church plant (you can download it here). After reading it and praying, Deb and I have started the following practices to disciple our kids:
- Scripture reading and prayer as a family (around bedtime)
- Prayer time (everyone shares something they’re thankful for, pray for anyone who is sick or worried, pray for “people of peace” and our Missional Community, and others who come to mind)
- Goodnight word (remind them of who they are)
- Goodnight prayer (have them pray and pray for them)
- Sabbath (Saturdays for us – no email/chores/yard work/cell phones, sometimes no TV/computers, we eat our favorite foods, we play, we go out on adventures, etc.)
- Missional Community (on mission together as a family, bringing our friends along)
- Discipleship Huddle (for kids 3rd grade and up). This is an intentional time of asking “What is God saying to you right now?” and “What are you going to do about it?” – a matrix of invitation and challenge, support and accountability in discipleship.
- Make sure we regularly, openly talk about what God is doing in our lives in front of our kids.
Hope that’s all helpful. What practices have you cultivated with your children that seem to have borne good fruit? What would would add to these thoughts?
Helen Lee says
Great thoughts, Ben. I feel as though the "organic" may actually be the most impacting category you have listed there. I feel as though the opportunities I have to talk about God and how my Christian faith affects what we do happen all the time with my kids. I have the advantage of having my kids around me all day as a homeschooling mom, but even if you are not a homeschooler, those chance occur regularly–as you are helping your kids wrestle with conflict, as you are encouraging them to have positive attitudes, as you are helping them display altruism with their siblings, as you talk with them about the needs in the world around you. I recently calculated that children have about 60 hours a week that they are in the presence of one or more of their parents, which far outweighs the time they spend in a church setting. If we are expecting the church to be main source of discipleship and spiritual training for our children, then we are missing the point of Deuteronomy 6, which presents parents with the biblical mandate to teach their children all day long. Lastly: I read a study by the Search Institute that discovered the strongest factor correlated with children and youth displaying a mature faith was to have a mother with a mature Christian faith (dads were second); the third strongest factor was to have a mother dialoguing regularly about faith issues (dads doing so was sixth place). The more we can be teaching and encouraging parents, and moms especially to be disciplers of their children, more likely our kids will one day reflect Christian commitment in their own life. Thanks for this post!
Ben Sternke says
Great thoughts, Helen. And I completely agree: the "organic" stuff is the most important, but we wanted to flesh out a little of what that looked like in practice, too. Just to be intentional about it.
And you're spot-on with your comments about parents needing to be the primary disciplers of their children. "Out-sourcing" this to the church just doesn't work. But if parents are the primary disciplers (and are disciples themselves – an important pre-requisite!), then the church can come alongside to simply help equip parents for this role.
Helen Lee says
I forgot to give a few examples to answer the question of "when is too young?" I agree there is never a too young! But once your children are able to comprehend what you are saying (even if they can't converse back at the same level), then you can start talking about God in terms they can understand. When my youngest was about 18 mos-2 yrs. old, we started regularly talking about God in simple terms–"God loves you", "God made you", etc. My 5 year old is learning about the octopus, for example, and we not only talk about it from a scientific perspective, but from a theological perspective too, as an expression of God's creation and creativity. When my 8 year old son is struggling with not wanting to practice piano, (I realize this is bordering on Tiger Mom territory here…), then we express that we spend time developing our abilities and talents as a way to honor God for the gifts he's given us. Anyway, those are some more specific examples….the teachable moments happen all the time, if we take advantage of them. =)
Ben Sternke says
Great examples, Helen. Thanks!
I think this is flipping brilliant! I also read Doug Paul's white paper a while ago and was really encouraged to see people thinking this through in depth. It seems to me that when Jesus interacts with children in the gospels he has an expectation of them being discipled – after all how can the 'Kingdom belong to them' if they aren't disciples?
I've had experience of both approaches to kids ministry within the same church, and without a doubt, the kids who were discipled by their parents and (crucially), also by their whole missional community were the ones who showed the most signs of spiritual maturity. The kids who were disinterested and apathetic towards discipleship tended to be in the programme-based groups where they were separated from their parents all the time.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for the comment, Andy.
This is a great post. There is so much to overcome for me personally, in terms of how I was raised. I'm a 4th generation pastor. I heard nothing but the name of Jesus. We had nightly Bible studies, prayer time, family outings, etc. For some reason, around high school it really dried up for me though. There was something missing. I guess somehow I need to learn now how to balance all of what you are saying with whether or not I am actually living it. To me, this is a greater challenge to actually live like Christ, than it is to teach it to my kids. Don't get me wrong, I agree with you 100%. I just hear a big challenge for myself to be a better father, husband and follower of Christ. In that, I think my kids will talk the "Jesus talks" better and will have a lasting impact on them, not just up to high school. =) Thanks for the challenge.
Ben Sternke says
I feel that same challenge! All of the above only works if we as parents are actually living as disciples of Jesus, learning to live in dependence on him and his kingdom moment-by-moment. The foundation of making disciples of Jesus is always first BEING a disciple of Jesus.
The discipleship of children is my passion. I have worked with children and their families for over 40 years. Deuteronomy 6 is a challenge to the whole church (O Israel, note it doesn't say O Parents. I don't think it is a matter of "if" or "should we" but HOW.
Today we are losing 70% of our church raised children. Not only what you do in your home is important – how your children are connected to the local church is vital. http://whymissionaries.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/c…
Terry Emmons says
This blog is very helpful. I work with kids who are living with lots of siblings and parents who show no spiritual need. They will not disciple their children.
Ben Sternke says
Good to hear it was helpful, Terry, but I’m sorry to hear about the kids you work with whose parents won’t disciple them 🙁