In our consumerist individualized culture, everything is cared for by specialists. We are habituated into thinking that we need specialists to fix what ails us, from fitness to food, to finances. I was listening to the radio a few days ago and heard a talk about dealing with the emotions of receiving an inheritance. They interviewed one expert that was a financial therapist who specializes in helping people deal with those emotions. Talk about specialization.
Specialization is the water we live in, and it is the air we breathe. So we shouldn’t give ourselves too hard of a time for thinking that my kids will magically have the Christian faith if I take them to Church on Sunday, youth group on Wednesday, and VBS during the summer. In light of how we live the rest of our lives, this, one could surmise, should work.
But it doesn’t. It seems that these activities instill in our kids, not the historic Christian faith, but an insipid moralism. A view of God as either a boyfriend or emotional crutch, while also being an inexplicably distant Father figure.
Why is this happening? Because faith isn’t supposed to be learned as a supplement to the rest of life. We are supposed to learn our faith in the context of a family who worships, learns, and prays together.
There is an almost palpable fear about the possible demise of faith in Christian youth and children. While some of these fears might be exaggerated, it is an understandable felt fear, in light of the continued steady exit of youth from the Church. I believe that there is a counter-cultural antidote – not a silver bullet. A holistic way of approaching family and faith that can help pass on the faith to our children in meaningful and fruitful ways: Family discipleship.
Anglican Pastor and teacher Winfield Bevins defines Family Discipleship: “Family discipleship is when parents help their children become disciples of Jesus in the home through reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, an doing mission together” (Growing at Home, xvi). Family discipleship is not a new idea. It is grounded in the Scripture and traditions of the Church. In Scripture, we can turn to the paradigm of Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall 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. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Verses four and five function as the Creed of the Old Testament, summarizing right belief, right practice, and worship. God commands Israel to have the laws on their hearts – at the core of their being and existence. Where does this occur? In the family, and how? By teaching, them, living them, and having habits of life, mind, and heart that continually directs one’s family to the truth of God and his way of life.
According to Scripture, we should intentionally orient our family to who God is and what God has done for us. For Israel, this was lived out in light of the Exodus and the promise of the promised land. For Christians, it is lived out in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and the promise of the New Heavens and Earth.
I firmly believe that family discipleship is key to the Church thriving in the next generation. But, the theological location of family discipleship is critical: we must understand it within Christ and under his gracious reign over the world and in the Church. This location simultaneously critiques false views of families and establishes the proper path for living our faith out as little churches in the body of Christ.
Family is an aspect of God’s created order for the good of human flourishing. However, the Fall marred and damaged familial relationships. After the Fall, we can trace out not the goodness of family, but it’s very inverse, the fallenness of family and God’s ‘no’ to sin’s infection and rule in families. Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit paints with precise brush strokes the detailed contours of the utter brokenness of family. So if we are to practice family discipleship, we must first begin by admitting that family is not sacred in and of itself. It is only sacred in so far as it is being redeemed and restored in Christ in the Church.
Under this claim lays a robust doctrine of Union with Christ and the Church. A full expression of both of these doctrines is beyond my purposes here. For now, I want to highlight that 1) Union with Christ is the anchor and engine of family discipleship. And that 2) the Church is the boat in which family discipleship occurs.
The heart of family discipleship is each person’s union with Christ in the context of the Church. When someone puts their faith in Christ by his grace and is baptized into Christ, they die and are raised with him. Their life is now hidden with Christ in God (Galatians 2:20-21; Romans 6:4-6; Col 3:1-4). Their identity and purpose are now rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ’s eternal relationship with the Heavenly Father. We have the law written on our hearts, and we have new hearts. Because of our union with Christ, the vision of Deuteronomy 6 is now possible. We are saved by grace through faith for good works prepared for us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-10), which includes family discipleship.
Baptism unites us to Christ, and it joins us to the body of Christ the Church. The Church becomes our family. The place where we are cleansed and made holy is the Church of Christ. As we nurture and grow our nuclear family, we do so as a part of the family of the Chuch in Christ. The Church, not the family, is the primary social unit of Christians. And this is good news. Because the sin and brokenness of family are brought under the kingdom and reign of Christ for forgiveness and healing. By its participation in the Church, the family can be redeemed.
Family is not an institution separate from the Church. Just like we cannot do our faith on our own, we cannot do marriage on our own. It exists as a graced space for Christ to work out his redemption and reconciliation of his body. Neither is it the ultimate goal of human existence. Our union with Christ and the glory that is promised in eternal communion with God is the proper end goal.
All that said, God, in his providence created families and commanded humanity to raise children and serve God in the faith of Christ in the Church. Family discipleship is an intentional way for parents in Church to lead their family in the rhythms of redemption and union with Christ as they learn together how to love, repent, have faith and grow in Christ.
Practically speaking, what does this all look like?
Let me offer an analogy. How does one become a life long and an avid fan of a sports team? Usually, it is passed down through desire, ritual, and priority in the context of a family. If we can disciple our kids into the fandom of a particular team, how much more should we disciple them into Christ?
First parents must desire it. If we do not desire to love Christ and grow in him, our kids will pick up on it and see that our loyalties are mixed. Of course, we are not perfect. So the first habit we must begin to practice in front of our children is humility and repentance. We practice this through visible prayer and confession.
Second, we need ritual. Many people have the ritual of watching sport on the weekend. We need a daily ritual of prayer, Scripture reading, learning, Church participation, service, spiritual conversation, and practical service. I use the word ritual not to evoke an empty or rote practice, but to say that it must become a part of the warp and woof of our days.
Third, it must become a priority. These desires and rituals must become engrained in our lives. They are what we do, and we must be willing to sacrifice other things for them. What is more important, our children’s success in a sport or their eternal and life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ? Here the Gospel of Christ confronts us and our idols. Here we must again, repent and believe.
For more practical ideas for Family discipleship, let me recommend three resources:
Growing at Home by Winfield Bevins
This book offers a practical vision for how to raise and disciple children in the faith. It looks at everything from reading Scripture to doing service projects together as a family. Parents are the primary people who will disciple their children. This book casts a vision and gives the tools for this work.
Parenting Towards the Kingdom by Philip Mamalakis
I ‘haven’t found a better book on parenting. The main of the book is that Christian parents are called to raise their kids to be citizens of the kingdom with the virtues of Jesus Christ and everything we do in parenting should be oriented towards this goal. This book shows us practically how to raise our kids, deal with conflict, set boundaries, and help our children learn and grow through struggle. I cannot recommend this book enough.
The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
As our kids get older, we will need to make wise decisions about the place of technology in our home. Andy Crouch is a knowledgeable and helpful guide to these decisions. He ‘doesn’t say get rid of technology, but put technology in its proper place.