Want to help the youth? Equip the parents

I am amazed by the number of people who seem to think that youth work and children’s programmes are the key to raising up a new, godly generation of believers. Now, don’t get me wrong, these things can be a wonderful benefit to the church. But I am utterly convinced that if we want a generation of new believers being raised up, we will best achieve it by building up godly parents.

There is often a reflex that assumes teenagers drift away from church because there wasn’t anything on for them. This line of thinking typically ignores the fact that if teenagers are only coming to church because there is a youth work, we haven’t actually won them to Christ. If we haven’t actually won them to Christ, all the time and effort poured into keeping them with youth work seems entirely pointless. Indeed, if they haven’t been won to Christ, we can’t be that surprised that they do not want to stay in the church.

As I noted here, the number one reason youth drift away from the church is because they never actually became believers. The responsibility for teaching and raising our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord lies with families. Youth do not drift off from church because there weren’t enough programmes on for them, they drift off because they never came to trust in Jesus. The responsibility for teaching and training our children lies with the family unit, particularly with fathers.

What this means is that, if we want to see a godly generation of new believers raised up in the church, the answer may not lie in putting on more activities for the youth. The answer lies in building up the parents so that they can better teach their children at home and equip them as those God holds responsible for the spiritual state of the family. As I noted here, ‘It is not good enough to outsource all of our children’s spiritual teaching and then wonder why they never came to faith given we sent them out of the service for half an hour every week. This is neither talking of the scriptures in your house nor the incorporation of them into your everyday life that Deuteronomy expects. It is likewise not fulfilling the imperative of Ephesians 6:4 that fathers are responsible for the spiritual teaching and training of their children.’

Indeed, as I argued here (and I would encourage you to read the full post), the fruit of such thinking was noted back in the 80s by Roy Joslin in Urban Harvest, but his comments continue to go unheeded. He wrote:

For all the dedication of godly Sunday School teachers over many years, it appears that much of that effort was like pouring water into a badly holed bucket or, to be more biblical, like trying to catch fish with some badly torn gospel nets. Why was it that so many children who swam into the gospel nets in their earlier years had on the whole swum out again before adult years had been reached?

Elaborate doctrinal teaching may be inculcated in childhood, but its influence is not likely to last unless maintained by the atmosphere of the home or unless supported by social usage. Thus, with regard to the working classes we seem to arrive at a deadlock. There is no hope of social usage and to create religious homes a new generation of religious minded parents must arise; while until we have the social usage or the religious homes all advance is stopped there will be no widespread and lasting influence of the gospel among children until there is a God-sent revival of true religion among adults, particularly the parents of families.

Should some of the present Sunday School teachers switch their service to evangelism among adults, so that the church might look to that method as a more realistic approach to evangelism and as a better way of securing the future work of the Sunday School? Apparent success in the Sunday School work of one decade is no guarantee of a thriving local church in the next. As a general rule, I believe that evangelism among adults ought to have the priority. We shall need to be a tougher breed of Christians, biblically equipped to face up to the challenge of witness and evangelising away from the security and familiarity of the local church sanctuary. Better to catch and keep fewer fish, than to enclose a much greater number who swim into our nets and out again.

If we are to raise up godly children and young people, the answer does not lie in new, better or more elaborate programmes. Rather, the answer lies in spending more time building up the parents and equipping them to raise up believing children. In answer to the question, ‘what about the youth?’ My answer is simply this, ‘let’s focus on the parents’.

As I noted in this post:

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 will for those days again.

But even in places where numbers remain, and crowds are still drawn, e 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.

We must recover the fact that the principle task of teaching and raising children has been given to parents. The role of spiritual guardian has been given to parents. The spiritual health of families lies with parents. In terms of reaching a new generation, we must equip parents to fulfil their God-given task. Responsibility for the spiritual state of their family lies with them.

I have seen young people stay and thrive in churches where there is no youth work. I have seen churches lose a whole generation of young people when there has been youth work. What this tells me is that youth work is not the answer. Farming out the spiritual formation of our children to the church for an hour or two a week is not good enough. The churches in which children have remained have something in common – whether they have youth work or not – and the churches where children drift off en masse have something in common too. Those who see their young people becoming believers and staying in the church are those who are clear on the need for young people to convert and who equip parents to take their responsibilities for teaching the gospel to their children seriously. The answer is not raising up godly young people through better youth work, but raising up godly parents who will teach and train their own children.

There is often a felt-need to do something for the youth. But history suggests the way to reach the children is to equip the parents and to build them up in the faith. Parents’ primary mission field is to their own family. It is not their only mission field, but it is a God-given one. If we focus on the parents and equip them to teach their children well, we are much more likely to see a godly generation of new believers raised up. So, what will we do for the youth? Primarily, we ought to be equipping their parents.