Professor Timothy Paul Jones laments at what he calls the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” in the church. This one-eared Mickey Mouse refers to the phenomenon that the youth of the church end up becoming disconnected from the rest of the body. The youth group had might as well be its own church because those who attend on Wednesday night are generally not the same group that attend on Sunday morning. I believe that to be faithful to Scripture, we must integrate the teenagers and children of the church back into the life of the church.
Paul assumed that the children of the church would be present when his letter was read to the church at Ephesus: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph 6:1). The Bible teaches that the older women should not be separated from the younger women of the church (Titus 2:3-4). The integration of the ages is necessary for mentoring relationships to flourish in the church. What young people need is to be around older, more mature Christians who can help train them in the faith. If we want our teenagers to become mature men and women of God, we need to place them with those who are mature so they can imitate their example. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Putting the least mature Christians all together in one room while separating them from those who are mature Christians is a recipe for breeding immaturity.
Jeremy Walker summarizes the biblical data on children in the church:
“The constant presumption of Scripture is that children were present in the worship of the people of God. In Nehemiah’s time, men and women and all those who could hear with understanding gathered to hear Ezra the scribe read the Law (Neh 8.1-3; Ezr 10.1). Moses certainly anticipated the literal “children” of Israel to be present when the Law was read (Dt 31.12-13). Paul’s letters, intended to be read to the churches, assume the intelligent presence of children (Eph 6.1-4; Col 3.20), and children were present when the Lord Jesus taught (Mt 18.1-5; 19.13-15)” (Banner of Truth, November 7, 2002).
If Jesus was the one preaching the sermon that morning, wouldn’t you want your children to hear him?
The modern Sunday school movement was started with good intentions by Robert Raikes as an evangelistic outreach to street children whose parents did not attend church. The assumption was that the children of those who were members of the church would be taught the Bible by their parents. Scott Brown explains how this outreach eventually evolved into a system which allowed parents to neglect being involved in the discipling of their children:
“At that time, it was largely unheard of and considered inappropriate for Christians to hand their children over to others to disciple them in gospel truth. However, the Sunday school movement, which was born as an outreach to the children of neglectful parents and not as a tool of discipling the children of believers, soon evolved into a vehicle of parental abdication by Christians. Busy or slothful parents realized that it was convenient to let other people teach their children than to take the time necessary to do it themselves. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution in America and England, more and more fathers were leaving the work environment at home for that in the city, which offered more opportunities and higher wages. This means fathers had less time with their children. It also meant a fracturing of the father-directed discipleship. The Sunday schools were in place and could provide a seemingly excellent substitute. Thus began a two-century long movement of decreasing involvement of parents in the instruction of their children and increasing shepherding by third parties, programs, and ecclesiastical innovations” (A Weed in the Church, 40-41).
The end result was that the biblical model of raising children to become disciples of Christ through daily family worship (Deut 6:6-9; Eph 6:4) became overshadowed by the programmatic method of the church. Parents who did not want to take the time to disciple their children could just hand them over to the church who were more than happy to do it for them. Besides, the pastoral staff have degrees from seminary. How could I ever compete with them? The professionalization of children’s discipleship created an attitude of “no amateurs allowed!” Because of this, churches that do not have amazing youth and children’s ministries cannot compete with the other churches in their area. Teenagers are drawn to the youth group through music, games, food, fellowship, and outings. But as it has been said, what you win them with is what you win them to. Once you stop entertaining them, they leave and go to a church that does a better job of appealing to their appetites. If their parents attend the church, they will leave as well since if their children are not happy, they are not happy.
It is no wonder then that so many of the youth in the church fall away from their profession of faith when they go to college. They were drawn to the church because of what it offered them and were never discipled by their parents. Since the Christian faith was not modeled in the home and was something they only did once a week, they did not see it as important enough to keep. When they did go to church, the hard doctrines of the Bible such as sin, repentance, self-denial, hell, God’s wrath, and the holiness of God were barely mentioned or neglected altogether.
The church’s mission is to win the lost and make disciples. When it strays from its God-ordained mission, it ceases to be a church and becomes a social club. Churches have become so incredibly busy with all their programs and activities while neglecting what is most important. As Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson noted in their study of Willow Creek Church:
“We discovered that high levels of church activity did not predict increasing love for God or increasing love for other people. Now don’t misread this! This does not mean that people highly involved in church activities don’t love God. It simply means that they did not express a greater love for God than people who are less involved in church activities. In other words, an increasing level of activities did not predict an increase in love for God. Church activity alone made no direct impact on growing the heart . . . it was a flat line – and a stunning discovery for us” (Reveal: Where Are You?, 35–36).
The church’s main obligation when it comes to family discipleship is to equip parents to train their children so that they can fulfill the responsibility they have been given by God. As Voddie Baucham argues:
“While I believe the vast majority of those who shepherd segregated portions of congregations are well meaning and would never presume to replace parents in their biblical role, I believe the modern American practice of systematic age segregation goes beyond the biblical mandate. I believe it is a product of the American educational system, and in some instances it actually works against families as opposed to helping them pursue multigenerational faithfulness. The church’s emphasis ought to be on equipping parents to disciple their children instead of doing it on their behalf . . . there is no biblical mandate for the current approach” (Family Driven Faith, 180-81).
So, what should churches do to recover the biblical model for discipling children? Scott Brown lists ten ways churches can move toward family integration: 1. Lead your fathers to conduct family worship; 2. Encourage your families to study what the pastor is preaching on; 3. Embrace the sufficiency of Scripture; 4. Provide biblically qualified elders; 5. Build strong families through biblical methods; 6. Teach the church how to be a true family; 7. Work for biblical headship in the home; 8. Encourage biblical womanhood; 9. Minister to youth without creating a youth culture; 10. Begin the process of leading the church to unify and bring the ages together (A Weed in the Church, 182-86). The Bible is sufficient not just for matters of faith and practice, but also for how we are to do church.