Maybe children aren’t the future

Last week, Andy Prime put out a Twitter thread of snippets from Roy Joslin’s book Urban Harvest. I have recently been reading that book too, but Andy collated several quotes that I thought were helpful regarding another matter I have been thinking about for several years now. Here is Andy’s thread in full, each of which is a quote from Urban Harvest:

In a discussion I had about evangelism a long time ago – in the context of differing approaches to evangelism – one minister said that many who favoured programmatic stuff preferred it to friendship evangelism because, for them, it is easier. Building genuine relationships in which the awkward, even offensive, things of the gospel are discussed, but in which you hope to maintain an ongoing friendship nevertheless, is hard. Pointedly, that minister said he knew plenty of people who would rather run children’s works because children generally do as they’re told and don’t answer back. Although there are plenty of people who favour friendship evangelism because they can masquerade as ‘doing evangelism’ when, in reality, they’re just in the pub with their mates saying very little about the gospel at all, I think my minister friend had a valid point.

Many people press on with Sunday Schools, evangelistic children’s works and other child-centred forms of evangelism because that is what they’ve been taught to do. Christians try to reach children through such programmes. It is what the church has done certainly since everyone who is currently alive in it could remember anyone ever doing. There is almost a mental block that we might, maybe even should, do anything else. People may even remember back to times when the Sunday School or Youth Ministry was absolutely thriving and long for those days again.

But even in places where numbers remain, and crowds are still drawn, we have to ask what has been the fruit of those endeavours? I know more than a couple of churches that have pressed on for years with evangelistic Sunday Schools and Youth Programmes – decades worth of time poured in, hundreds upon hundreds of man hours, they may even become the flagship mode of evangelism from the church – and yet for all the time, energy and resource, the number of children who have converted and continued on with the Lord as a direct result of that work may be counted on the fingers of one hand. Yet we press on – maybe soothing ourselves with right and proper thoughts of ‘the value of a soul’, pointing to the numbers who still come to hear the gospel or – if not that – simply carrying on because we deem doing so to be faithful.

Even if we deem these things once successful – and whilst we may claim that based on the numbers who used to attend, I think we struggle to maintain that if we actually base that assessment on the fruit of our labour – we lose sight of the fact that society has changed too. As society changes, whilst we never want to change the gospel message, we do have to consider carefully whether we are communicating it in a way that resonates with our culture and commends the gospel to them in the way that we share it. I think this applies in a particularly clear way when it comes to children’s work.

Even just a couple of decades ago – not to mention 50, 70 or 100 years ago – the church was generally seen as a social good. But over the last century social attitudes have shifted. We have moved from the church being somewhere most people go, through a view that the church is socially good but not for me, along to a position that church is irrelevant but if my kids want to go that’s fine, to a position today where most are either somewhat suspicious if not down right antagonistic toward the church. This is then coupled to the broadly positive moves towards better child safeguarding and then extremely negative stories of churches either engaged in such things themselves or badly failing to properly handle such issues within their ranks. Within such a context, imagine strangers coming and offering to take your children away for an hour or two to teach them about an ideology which you neither buy into and of which you are suspicious. This is the background against which much evangelistic children’s work now takes place.

Even against this background, there are some parents who are happy enough to allow their children to go to such things. And, without doubt, there are some who profess faith. But as children without autonomy, in homes that are already somewhat suspicious of the gospel, how on earth are those children going to be nurtured? They can’t get to church themselves, their parents have no interest in church themselves (maybe even remain suspicious of it) and the child has professed faith. It doesn’t take a genius to see that in such a scenarios, it is going to be extremely rare to see those children persevering in the faith.

And it is for these reasons I echo Roy Joslin’s call for us to focus less on children and more on reaching parents. As I commented here, the principal responsibility for the spiritual nurture of our children lies not with the church, but with parents. It is, therefore, important for us to make sure that there are godly parents who will actually work to spiritually nurture their children in the Christian faith.

If we expect children to remain believers having heard the gospel in a youth group and receiving a 15 minute gospel epilogue at it once a week thereafter and going to church once per week on a Sunday, when faced with either an entirely spiritually apathetic home life or a particularly antagonistic one, is a tall order indeed. I am not saying nobody could persevere under such circumstances – nothing is impossible for the Lord who is ultimately the one who keeps us by the Spirit – but let’s not forget he mainly works through ordinary means and such a setup is not going to be conducive to a thriving spiritual walk.

Instead, I believe, we need to shift our focus to adults. We need to learn how to evangelise outside the church building and how to disciple people properly within the church. We then have to equip them to evangelise their own family and teach them how to disciple their families should they become believers too. If we reach the children, it is unlikely they will reach their own family effectively and probable that they will struggle to stay the course. But if we reach the parents, then we have a good chance not only of seeing them come to faith, but they in turn reaching their families and encouraging one another to continue with Christ.