One of the issues I have raised a number of times is how to best reach and retain youth. I have argued a number of times that scriptures gives the unique role of discipling children to parents – specifically laying ultimate responsibility concerning the spiritual state of our children on fathers – and that we should not, therefore, outsource this responsibility to the church. I have variously argued the following:
- The number one reason children leave the church is because they aren’t believers, not because there isn’t a youth group, and such responsibility lies with the parents, not the church
- Trying to reach families through the children has been a long-tried method in evangelical circles and the results of all our time and energy doing it is not encouraging. We have matters backwards and ought to be equipping parents to reach and disciple their children, not seeking to do this the other way round.
- The best evidence we have continually shows that parents are the most important factor in children becoming believers. We therefore best serve and disciple our children not through adding many extra youthworks and children’s programmes, but by equipping their parents to disciple their own children.
- This necessarily ought to have an impact on whom we employ, why we seek to hire particular people and how we best utilise our resources.
- Churches do best when they equip parents to disciple their own children and when the work of the church supplements, rather than overtakes, what ought to be happening every day in the home.
It is my view – so take this for the unvarnished opinion that it is – the main reasons most children’s activities in church remain are a mawkish view of both church and children, a fear of departing from conventional wisdom (churches run camps and youth work and Sunday school, it is what we do, why would we not do it?) and a sense that we have to make things “fun” and “engaging” for the kids. The truth is, most children’s talks and kids slots seem to really be aimed at satisfying the cloying belief of a certain section of adults that this is what the kids both want and need and that they simply won’t remain in the church if we don’t do them. I have never once – in the best part of 40 years of being in and around churches – heard a single child express any level of disappointment at the lack of a children’s talk.
I am reminded of the insistence I often got about ‘doing something for the children’. ‘What will we do for the youth?’ was the constant refrain. ‘They won’t keep coming if we don’t put stuff on for them’ was the line. But we have a reasonable number of children and young people amongst us now and the sole driver of their being with us is the active discipleship of their parents. Indeed, several of those young people are baptised and in church membership. Of those who are eligible, many – of their own volition, not because anybody makes them – prefer to stay in the main church service rather than access the Sunday School, the sole children’s activity we offer, and are actively pressing into the church. For many churches, youth works failed to keep one generation, yet they see others remain despite not having things for the youth and see it is down to (apart from the Lord himself saving them) the parents actively discipling their own children.
Which brings me on to my key point, the Sunday School isn’t even for the children anyway. Which, I know, sounds perverse given that only children can go into it. But it isn’t. We have had discussions, at various points, about whether we even run the Sunday School at all. I am glad we do and have no desire to stop it. It is a good and helpful thing. But it isn’t for the children. Not really. The truth is, our Sunday School is for the parents. It is to serve parents and to help them disciple their own children. It is designed around two fairly simple premises.
First, parents will be better equipped to disciple their own children if they can most effectively engage with what is supposed to disciple them. They will better be able to teach their own children from scripture when they have sat in church and been able to listen to teaching that is for them. Rather than battling with constant distraction and having to work to help their children to listen and engage, they are free to engage with the word as fully as they are able themselves. This is even more valuable when there is only one parent available to do any of that work. We serve the parents best, and help them engage most fully with scripture, by running a Sunday School.
Second, parents will be better equipped to talk about scripture with their children when they have studied the same passage without distracting one another. So, we run whole church curriculum. The children look at the same passage the adults are looking at. Parents can listen to the sermon distraction free. Children can have lessons more specifically tailored to their level of understanding. Both can engage with the rest of the service as it reflects on the key themes we have seen in the scriptures. Both can go home and ask one another what they learnt. Both can show how these scriptures apply at home in our particular family. It helps parents to disciple their own children when they can engage with the word fully and when the children have been taught the same passage.
If the best, most effective, God-given discipleship tool we have for children is their parents, then we need to focus our ministry on parents if we are to reach families. If we want parents to be equipped to disciple their children, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to engage with the Word so that they can teach it to their children and put it into practice in their homes. We want to input into the children in such a way that it serves their parents’ discipleship. We are not there to disciple the children for the parents. Rather, we are there to make family discipleship, by the parents, as effective as we can. We want to teach and input into the parents so that they can most effectively disciple their own children, and we know they will do a better job of it than half an hour a week in a Sunday School lesson. The Sunday School is not for the children, it is really for the benefit of the parents who will more effectively disciple their children.
This is the mindset, I think, that we need to shift. Children will not stay in church because there was a children’s talk, or we did the occasional family service, or we had some super-cool all singing all dancing youth work. Truth be told, if they are only staying because of those things, we haven’t really achieved anything for the kingdom at all. Our children are just as lost as those who walk away from the church altogether, knowing that they aren’t coming because they love Jesus but because they love the stuff we do and, if it weren’t there, they’d be off. It misses the point. Young people drift off from the church, ultimately, because they aren’t believers. Young people stay in the church when they love Jesus. They stay when the Spirit has changed them. If they love Jesus, and love his people, they stay whether those things are there or not.
The question is, what is the key thing that will impact them the most? What is the thing the Bible says we ought to focus on if we are to see young people trust in Christ? What is the primary discipleship tool for young people? Scripture doesn’t put that on the church, nor even on youth ministries, but on parents. Evidence appears to bear out this is the most effective way. Which means we need to ask how we then utilise our resources. Our financial and human resources. How will we best utilise the gifts God has given us? It seems to me, the answer is to focus on equipping the parents. We do what serves them and builds them up to maturity so they can best teach, train and disciple their children more effectively than the church, or a youth pastor, or a Sunday school might be able. That is why even the Sunday school isn’t for the kids. Not really.