We had an interesting, if perhaps emotionally loaded, discussion at our home group this evening. We have spent the last few months looking at our church membership covenant. We have six pledges that – whilst not quite a word-for-word rendering (I think) – owe their form and existence primarily to Thom Rainer’s book, I am a church member.
The pledge was about bringing up our children to love the church. Much of the discussion centred on how we lead our children and families well. We cycled round the standard things such as not allowing clubs and games to take priority over the church, praying for the church with our family and doing more than just bringing our children to church but explaining to them precisely what we are doing and why at each point in the service.
Then things moved onto the question of how we encourage our children to keep coming to church. It was noted how hard it is to keep them interested when they get to certain ages. Some wistfully wondered about their own children. So, how do we encourage our children to love the church?
First, our children won’t see the church as valuable unless we see the church as valuable. If our children see that we’re happy to drop church whenever it suits us, there isn’t going to be much hope that they will view it as important. Likewise, if we’re happy to permit them to go to anything that clashes with church, it will be clear to our children that church is something that simply fits around our other priorities as it suits us.
The number one way we can get our children to see the church as important is to model to them its importance. If we make it a priority, and we encourage our children to be with us at the usual meetings of the church, it tells our children that we value it and so should they. When our life is ordered around the things of the Lord, when he is the first priroity, our children will see the consistency with which we put those things first. We will model the value of the church to them.
Second, it bears saying that a lot of children – even those who are believers – will go through phases of kicking against the goads. If we really want them to see the church as important, how we respond to such episodes is key. If we are happy to give way at the first request to stay home from church because it’s ‘boring’ or whatever, we have essentially ceded the ground without a fight. But just replace the word ‘church’ here with the word ‘school’. Your child doesn’t want to go, how do you respond now? Most parents, leaving aside the issue of the legality of the decision, would not simply give in. We see school as so important that we aren’t just going to let our children stay home because they find it boring. Why, then, should our position be weaker when it comes to eminently more important spiritual matters?
If we really value the church, and we want our children to see it as important too, I think this means not simply giving in to initial demands to stay away. When I went through a period like this as a believing teenager, my parents made it incredibly difficult for me not to go. They made the choice to stay away as hard to wear as they could. If I did not go, there were chores in the home that I would have been made to do, my allowance would be withheld, the lifts in the car to my friends’ houses would have dried up for a time. Alternatively, I could go to church and retain such privileges.
I may have resented that sort of thing at the time but I look back and am so grateful. For one, it showed me that my parents thought this an important enough issue to fight me on it. They saw church as important and it was obvious in the way they treated my suggestion to stay home. Also, I am well aware that had they ceded to my desire to stay home, it would have been almost impossible to get me to come back. Pressing on through that period meant that when I got to university – knowing nobody could force me to go to church and wouldn’t be checking – it was just natural for me to find a church and go.
Third, we must acknowledge there is no set formula. We can all point to parents who did ‘all the right things’ and yet their children left the church and rejected the Lord. We can also point to parents who did none of these things yet their children came to know and love the Lord and his people. But that doesn’t stop us looking at certain churches and seeing whole generations of people who have fallen away and thinking something has gone wrong here. Likewise, we can look at churches where the vast majority of children come to faith and remain in a church somewhere and think they must be doing something right.
The proverbs are general truisms that do not apply in any and every circumstance. So, Proverbs 22:6 tells us that, generally, when we bring our children up to love the things of the Lord and we model it well to them, they will not depart from it when they are older. That isn’t undercut by the fact that some do depart because it is a general truism. It is the sort of truth that applies to the church whose children have all drifted away or the church where most have stayed. It is not a truth that applies to any and every believing family.
The fact is that the Lord sovereignly decrees those who are his. We must, therefore, trust his sovereign good will in these things. Whilst we are to be faithful in teaching our children the things of Christ, and to pray for the salvation of our children, it is the Lord’s work to save. It is our job to put our children in as good a position as possible to respond positively to the gospel but it is the Lord’s work alone to ultimately grant his salvation. If we want our children to love the church, we must teach them the gospel and the importance of loving Christ. If they love the Lord, their love for the church will likely follow.