The Lord has given our children to us as a gift. We are to rightly enjoy them and scripture is clear that we ought to take their needs and concerns into account. Many are the stories of people who hate the church because their childhood was sacrificed on the altar of ministry.
With that in mind, we rightly want to ask what is right for our children. Not exasperating our children surely includes not ignoring their needs and constantly forcing them to take a backseat for the sake of the gospel. Indeed, it ill behoves the gospel if we suggest it demands we treat our children that way. Any decision we take about our gospel ministry and service will necessarily involve balancing that with the needs of our children. The gospel calls us to care rightly for our families alongside whatever ministry the Lord may have given us to do.
For some, this leads to a few apparently obvious calculations. Where we go to church must necessarily involve kids work. Wherever we serve, there must be young people our children’s age. The church must have a style and format that is likely to keep them. These things aren’t wrong, but I am not convinced they really address the primary questions.
It seems to me there are several questions to be asked. First, what are our priorities for our children? Second, what are the best way to achieve these things? Third, how much apparent sacrifice on their behalf is too much (or, what is a legitimate sacrifice for them to make for the sake of our gospel ministry)? Fourth, what actually amounts to a genuine sacrifice at any rate? Fifth, are these sacrifices (such as that is what they are) actually required of us or necessary in our context? There are no doubt some other questions to ask too, but these seem to be pertinent.
It seems to me, as Christian people who believe the gospel, our ultimate priority for our children ought to be their salvation, that they come to know and love the Lord Jesus. Whilst that actual outcome is above our paygrade and is entirely in the hands of the Lord, we want to put our children in as good a position as possible to respond to Jesus. The big issue is, what does that mean in practice?
Well, it can’t mean having excellent youth ministry and loads of children their own age. Those things may well be nice to have, but until fairly recently, these were just not considerations for most believers. And without restating the entire case, I would echo Roy Joslin’s argument in Urban Harvest back in the 80s. Assessing the time, money and resources expended on children’s ministry, the figures are not encouraging. A far better model is simply having faithful, godly Christian parents committed to raising their children in the fear and instruction of the Lord. If youth ministry and others your own age are vital, what are we to say to the various adults without special-interest groups or people in churches in their age-bracket either? I am far from convinced these things are necessary.
I’m not saying those things are wrong. They might well be good and helpful. But I strongly suspect the child with godly, committed Christian parents raising their children in a church without such things are more likely to have an impact than the child with disinterested parents able to access a church with good youth ministry and lots of peers. I don’t doubt both of those situations can go well and both can go wrong. But it strikes me that godly, consistent parents have more impact than an hour in Sunday School and a youth meeting once in the week.
What is more, I am convinced that parents making consistent Christ-honouring decisions for the sake of the gospel is part of what it means to be consistent, godly parents. Children will see what their parents preach on a Sunday, what they teach in their evangelism and discipleship and will see how that marries up at home. They will see most clearly when their parents are calling for us to reach the lost but then not actually doing that. They will see if they insist the poor and deprived need the gospel but they won’t go because the schools aren’t as good as one’s down the road. They will see the song ‘I surrender all’ sung and the various ways in which we aren’t surrendering all sorts of things in practice. Children will see these things.
Significantly, I think, we have to take seriously the old adage: what we win them with we win them to. If our choice of church has centred around youth work, other young people our children’s ages and not asking our children to make any sacrifice, or carry their cross from a young age, what are we winning them to? Might it be that we are winning them to a faith that places their own needs as central? Might we be winning them to churches built around serving the needs of people just like them? Might we be winning them to a belief that if the church is no longer meeting my particular needs (whatever I perceive them to be) I will go somewhere else, or not go there at all?
By contrast, what might we win our children to when they see us labouring for the gospel in places that don’t appear to serve our needs, but where we can serve others? What might they learn when their parents acknowledge the difficulties and what isn’t there – and what exists elsewhere – but it is fully understood that there are other, better reasons to go to a church like this and serve where they are? Might we be more likely to win loyal, faithful followers of Christ who are keen to serve based on where there is need rather than having personal needs met if they see their parent faithfully and consistently doing that whilst being honest about those challenges?
If our children drift away from church because there aren’t any people their age, or there isn’t any youth ministry, what are we to say? Would they have remained in the church if those things existed? Maybe. But what would we be keeping them there with? Apparently, not Christ, but a gaggle of mates and some felt-needs ministry. This does not feel like a sound basis on which to keep them. If they drifted off because we didn’t have those things, and they would stay if we did, it’s not Christ that has won them but those particular things.
In the end, our children drift away because they’re not believers and they stay (or go somewhere) when they are. Which surely means our calculation has to be about winning them to Christ, not the particular ministries of the church. If that is true, we have to ask whether the lack of friends their age or youth ministry is really the cause of their disinterest. I would suggest an honest look at that question cannot say that is the cause. If it isn’t the cause – even if it might have helped – we have to target our attention on the deeper reasons behind it.