The Primacy of Parents in Youth Discipleship

Note: The following article was written in 2007, long before personal details about South Carolina’s governor were made known.

Moving from Michigan to South Carolina demanded adjustments on many levels for me. Kroger and Farmer Jack were replaced with Bi-Lo and Publix. City names like Troy and Sterling Heights gave way to towns like Pickens and Pumpkintown. When people asked, “How are you?” they actually expected and desired an answer. And it took me quite some time to figure out why these South Carolinians kept talking about USC and the Tigers. Why would sportswriters be so concerned about Southern Cal and my beloved baseball team?

One of the more unexpected adjustments was the political process on the state level. In Michigan, the governor’s relationship with the state house and senate more or less corresponds to the Federal system. Not so in South Carolina. While both states have a governor, a house, and a senate, the power is much more centralized in the governor’s chair in Michigan. As one might expect from the first state to secede from the Union, South Carolina has traditionally decentralized the power so that, in many ways, the state house and senate have more power distributed among their members than the governor himself has. Our current governor, Mark Sanford, ran on a platform to continue the work of a previous governor, Carroll Campbell, who made great strides in wresting certain powers from the state house and senate and centralizing them in his office. Now in his second term, Sanford is realizing just how difficult this task is.

Sanford’s stated purpose for centralizing power is simple: accountability. As South Carolina’s government currently operates, Sanford believes the responsibility falls to so many different people (all the representatives, all the senators, the governor, the cabinet, etc.) that no single person is held accountable whenever problems arise. If everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Without a clear articulation of responsibilities, everyone can assume that someone else is taking care of things. Regardless of what one thinks of his politics, Sanford makes an important point. If someone does not have a clear understanding of his responsibilities, then he or she will refuse to be held accountable for failing to meet them.

When the topic shifts to discipling the coming generations, the need clearly to articulate responsibilities becomes far more significant than how a state operates. No longer are we merely dealing with the (admittedly necessary) administration of a state’s economic and political resources. Now we are dealing with the weighty matter of teaching our children in such a way that they “set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Ps. 78:7, ESV). Who is ultimately responsible for the discipleship of the church’s young people? How one answers that question will determine in many ways the direction that a church takes in discipling the next generation—and who is held accountable when that responsibility is not discharged well.

Scripture affirms two key truths that must drive the way families and churches disciple the next generation. Errors emerge when one truth is distorted and emphasized to the neglect of the other. But seeking to maintain both emphases is imperative if we are to carry out God’s ministry God’s way.

Parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of their children. From Deuteronomy 6 to Ephesians 6, the Bible makes it clear: fathers and mothers must own up to the responsibility of rearing God-saturated children. Moses commanded Israel to “teach [God’s words] diligently to [their] children.” And lest the community should think that all of the adults were primarily responsible for teaching all of the children, Moses added, “Talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). While there was a general community obligation to the next generation, Moses indisputably laid the primary responsibility on the adults in the home, namely, the parents. Paul expresses it similarly in Ephesians 6. The apostle admonishes parents to “bring [their children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (v. 4). He directs the command specifically to the fathers, not because mothers are relieved of the duty, but because the fathers are the “heads of households on whom the ultimate responsibility for supervision rests” (D. Edmund Hiebert, Ephesians, 108). If there were a time that Paul could have placed the primary responsibility on local churches for the discipleship of the next generation, it would have been in this great letter on the church. But the apostle affirms the teaching of Moses: parents—and especially fathers—are primarily responsible.

God did not give these commands in academic vacuums. Significantly, the commands of Moses and Paul both grow out of key statements of theology. Moses begins with that great affirmation known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). There is none like Yahweh. His holiness means that he transcends the created order. And yet he is the covenant-making, covenant-keeping God of his people—truly “our God.” His uniqueness (who he is) and his covenant (what he has done) demand a response, one that Christ would call the first and greatest command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:5-6). From that kind of love for God, itself springing from God’s love for them, parents are exhorted to disciple their children.

The apostle likewise writes his letter in such a way that the reader would have to close his eyes to miss Paul’s structure. Of the forty-one imperatives in this short six-chapter work, all but one occur in chapters four through six. The apostle’s point is to emphasize the indicatives of the gospel (who God is and what he has done for us in Christ) before ticking off the imperatives of the gospel (how we must then live). J. Gresham Machen made the point this way in distinguishing between Christianity and liberalism: “Liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God” (Christianity and Liberalism, 47). The imperative to “bring [our children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4) rests on three chapters of God’s work in our behalf. And if we are properly to understand the command, we must trace it back to the individual statements of the first three chapters. While that particular study is beyond the scope of this article, the point is this: we are powerless to carry out the imperatives of the gospel so long as we do not intentionally connect them back to the indicatives on which they rest.

The character of God and the promises of God in Christ demand that parents take their responsibility for the next generation seriously. The call of the Great Commission—“disciple the nations” (Mt. 28:19)—must not be limited to the regions beyond. It begins at home. I have no greater opportunity—nor any greater responsibility—to cultivate a follower of Christ than in my own home with my own children. As a parent, I must meditate on the greatness and goodness of God, give great attention to my responsibility in light of his character and works, and then structure my family’s existence around him. As a pastor, I must proclaim the greatness and goodness of God, confront parents with their responsibility to their children early and often, and then structure our youth discipleship in a way that communicates the primacy of their responsibility.

The implications of this line of thinking are far-reaching. (1) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation, then having a youth pastor is unnecessary. Many churches assume that the second pastoral staff member to be added to the payroll of a growing church ought to be the “youth and music guy.” There is in this assumption the tacit belief that, if the next generation is to turn out right, the church must have an individual who is devoted full-time to students. Certainly this can be helpful in accomplishing the church’s vision. (After all, do I not serve as a youth pastor?) Whenever someone is paid to give himself full-time to a particular segment of the congregation, that group should grow under his care. But that is just as true for senior citizens as it is for seniors in high school. The position of youth pastor may be helpful, but it is not necessary for the discipleship of the coming generation. Having parents who are committed to glory of God is.

(2) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation and a church chooses to have a youth pastor, than that man ought to view his primary ministry as complementing what the parents are (or ought to be) doing in the home. I appreciate the way that the elders at my church altered the definition of my job. Originally, they sought a youth pastor who would be “responsible for maintaining an effective youth ministry for the parents of Heritage Bible Church and their teens that reflects the character of God.” There are some strong points to that definition. But over time—and long before I started in this position—they reconsidered the scriptural emphases, changed the title of the job to Pastor of Youth and Young Adults, and reworded the definition of the job to say that he is “responsible to assist families in the discipling of youth and young adults to the end that they might grow up into Christ, worship God, and enjoy him forever.” This means that we must work to know the parents, help them own their responsibility to their children, cast a vision for them as to how to disciple the next generation, and walk through life with them—and their teenagers—to show them how the Word translates into everyday life.

(3) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation, then those who direct church-wide youth discipleship should factor the role of parents into their calendar. When churches schedule teen activities every Saturday night, we remove them from the ones who are primarily responsible for their discipleship—and often on the only free night on a family’s calendar. I am not advocating the wholesale removal of youth group activities; I am arguing that leaders must evaluate the busyness of school schedules and extracurricular activities in the light of the parents’ responsibility when they set their monthly calendar of youth activities.

(4) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation, then parents must be the first ones to staff all children’s discipleship initiatives. Our church has the blessing of being in the same community as a large Christian university. Besides the students who grow up in our church and attend college there, there are two or three hundred students who regular worship with us. It would be very easy for us to staff all of our children’s ministries with these willing volunteers alone. But that would be philosophically aberrant. While we are glad for them to serve—and a number of them do serve as assistants—we want to apply the primacy of the parental role in every way possible. Consequently, if we do not have enough parental volunteers to lead and staff a ministry initiative, we must make the difficult choice to cut that ministry.

So does this all mean that the church now operates at the whim of parents? Are church gatherings mere fixin’s on the smorgasbord of life, from which families may take a little of this and a little of that? This is the conclusion of some. (See the recent article in Leadership and this piece from Al Mohler’s blog.) But that is to deny the second Scriptural emphasis, one that the next article in this series will address.

One last question that is sure to arise: what about those children and teenagers who do not have believing parents? There is much to say about our stewardship of them. For now, let it suffice to say what is most readily apparent. Clearly in these scenarios, the church will and must take on a more critical role in their discipleship. We cannot exhort the parents to disciple their children when they themselves are not followers of Christ. So it is wise intentionally to surround these children with other stable families, encourage believing families to incorporate them into their lives, and help build strong peer-to-peer and mentor-to-child relationships. This should not fall on one person (a bus captain, for example), but should be the shared responsibility of many families. But this also demands that we not segregate unbelieving children from believing children. The church’s responsibility to these children is great.

For a large number of our children—the majority in most congregations—this is not the most important issue. What is far more important is that we stress to the parents in our churches that the primary weight of responsibility to disciple their children falls on them. Those of us who serve in leadership capacities must communicate their obligation to every kind of family in our church: from the empty-nesters with grandchildren on the way to the overjoyed parents of a newborn first child. With the responsibilities clearly delineated, the people of the church can begin discipling the next generation for the glory of God.

Related:

Note: The related sermon at HPBC‘s 2009 “Don’t Waste Your Summer” Conference is available here.

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