January 23, 2012
It’s time to make a significance difference in our homes; specifically with regard to the spiritual formation of our children. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I are becoming expert empty-nesters. I believe we have a way to go before hitting the “veteran” level. But right now, we have adjusted to the quiet and the freedom. Our daughters have been on their own for a number of years. One is married with four children; our other daughter is a single woman pursuing a career.
In the last few years I’ve been able to look back and reassess my role as a Christian father responsible to our children and wife for the spiritual tone of the home. I haven’t given myself a grade yet, but I can assure you I will give a below average score. As a result, I’m on a mission to encourage much better performance in other men.
This new mission has been prompted by two things other than my own weak performance. First, motivation came from a comment by my son-in-law who warned me of a new trend in church youth groups. He put it succinctly: “When teens graduate from high school, they graduate from God.” Second, as that generation of teens moves into their twenties, marries and has children of their own they are not returning to church life. This trend is new and completely the reverse of my Baby-boomer generation’s trend. This insight comes from Christian Smith’s Souls In Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Every pastor and parent should read this book for its insights into the spiritual lives of church kids.
Too many parents of teens in my generation thought graduation from high school, going off to college, military, or tech school, briefly forgetting about God, and returning to church later was the normal pattern. It became an acceptable pattern because as many parents said, “At least they prayed the prayer.” That was all the assurance parents had or apparently needed.
I will admit that transitioning from high school and home to college or career will become a spiritual crucible full of questions. Growing up in the normal American Christian home will include regular church attendance, children’s Sunday school, AWANA, and youth groups, but experience shows that those activities are not enough to cause our children to grasp the faith for themselves. The crucible of college can become that place.
For two years, I taught in a college setting. It was a significant time for my wife and me. Our daughters were still in elementary and middle school at the time. When I looked at my college students, I saw our daughters’ future. Our college students (I say “ours” because many of them became like extended family), were wrestling with their own questions of the faith. Since it was a denominational school, the students were required to attend chapel and church. The students chaffed under the requirements. Too much like home, they complained. They also wanted to know why. What difference did it all make to their relationship with God? Did they want a relationship with a rules-driven God? Why was it alright for their parents to take Sunday’s off now that they were away at school, but not alright for them? Why did their experience at home differ from what they were learning in their Bible classes?
I came to understand that these students were being wrestled to the mat by the Lord. He had them in a “desert” and tested them, showing them that riding their parents’ faith coat-tails was no longer adequate. As one old-time minister said, “God has no grandchildren.” Many of students passed the test and went on to faithful Christian lives. So did our own daughters.
But today the obstacles are much stronger and the stakes just as high. The so-called helicopter parents of today are repeating the weaknesses of their parents by giving up the battle on the home front of spiritual formation. Too many still foolishly think that it’s the job of the “spiritual professionals” to train their children; this in spite of the commands of Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6.
Every study, survey and book that has looked at this subject comes to a common conclusion: “Parents are the most important influence on a teens’ life” in every area of a teen’s life, including spiritual formation. For example, from the Center for Youth and Family Ministry: “According to the data collected for the College Transition Project, one of the most significant differences parents can make in the faith of their students is through the discussions they have with their own students. Kids who report talking to parents about both their own faith, and the faith of their parents’, felt more supported by God.”
My conclusion is this: if the church assumes the role of the Christian parent, God will not bless the church. If parents abdicate their role to the church, God will not bless the family. This is a classic no-win, no-win situation. Churches must take their rightful place as the support system for the primary system of formation, namely the home.
The question is, “how?” I’ll address that as we journey one!
Be of good cheer,
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
“Support Statistics” [on-line]; accessed 28 April 2009; available from http://familybasedyouthministry.org; Internet.