Although I am not a youth minister, I am blessed to work in large church setting with people who have committed their life to serving our students navigating their middle school and high school years. I never cease to be amazed by some of the challenges they face when they try to help parents partner with them in the process. In the past five years working in my current setting, one of the attitudes that surprises me most is one that suggests children and teens should make their own choices when it comes to involvement in the local church and even in faith as a whole.
My colleagues and friends in student ministry are sometimes hesitant to share their response to these attitudes for a number of reasons, but I don’t think these things should be left unsaid.
While we cannot guarantee our children’s choices for life, it is a responsible and loving thing to promote the choices we believe in while they are under our care.
When we say, “I want to let my child choose their own path spiritually,” what they are really saying is, “I don’t place a high priority on my child’s faith.” These are often the same parents who are incredibly involved in their child’s participation in school and sports. These are parents who would never say, “my kids hate healthy foods, so I just let them eat cake while drinking Red Bull at every meal,” or “my kids don’t enjoy homework, so I don’t really pressure them to work on it.”
In Proverbs 22:6, we read these words, “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” While we must understand that this ancient Hebrew wisdom is not a 100% money-back guarantee, it is a solid and wise way to live. When a person says, “I want to let my child choose their own path,” spiritually speaking, what they are really saying is, “I don’t place a high priority on my child’s spiritual journey.” Have you ever heard a parent say, “I want my child to choose their own path, and they really don’t like learning math and science, so I don’t make them do their homework”? When something really matters, we parents emphasize it in our children’s lives.
As a parent, you should be the primary provider of spiritual care and nurture.
As a former youth minister myself, I often got the sense that people were outsourcing the spiritual development of their children. Although no one ever said this, the expectation communicated was sometimes, “We pay you to make sure these kids turn out as fine upstanding Christians, so go do it!” One of the simplest problems with this way of thinking is the fact that students and children are only under the supervision of the leaders of their church staff for about two or three hours a week. This leads me to my next point.
Don’t abdicate your responsibility to the children and youth ministries of your local church.
This is the place where those of us in Church leadership need to admit our own responsibility. Far too often we’ve bought into the idea of being the “sole spiritual provider” for the students and children in our care. We need to think of more creative ways to partner with parents to make sure that discipleship extends into daily life. One of the tools that I’ve experimented with is the Seedbed’s Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Christian Tradition. What if a large portion of student ministries was devoted to training parents to use these and other resources to intentionally lead their children into greater spiritual maturity? After all, we should expend at least as much energy in our children’s spiritual education development as we do in their participation in sports and school. Whether we realize it or not, we emphasize what we value, and our values are expressed in the things we emphasize.
Imagine what the Church would look like if we took this seriously. Imagine a group of parents partnering with their church leaders to develop resources that could be used during the six days between Sundays to cultivate Christian practices in daily life. Picture a parent and student prayerfully deciding together that their participation in confirmation was so important that they chose to skip a soccer or cheer camp. Can we attain these dreams?
In the wise words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son…There is trust in God, but no following of Christ.” May we avoid the temptation to preach Christianity without discipleship and learn to trust in God by following Christ both for ourselves and for our children.