Ask almost any Church in Britain today what they feel are the greatest challenges they face, and ‘children and young people’ is bound to figure fairly close to the top of the list. We are haunted by survey after survey that confirms what we know anecdotally to be true: that we are losing our children and young people at an alarming rate. As a pastor, it is not uncommon for me to hear parents and the wider congregations express concern about young people ‘walking away’ from their involvement in Church.
Well, whatever conclusions we draw from surveys and statistics, or from our own observations and experiences; and whatever the reasons we might think there are for the situation as we find it today, one thing we have to admit is that St. John’s is positively teeming with children. At a rough guess I’d say that 20-25% of the congregation on a given Sunday morning is under 16. Our work with children and young people draws in a significant number of people as leaders and helpers. That is a profoundly humbling observation – especially if there is truth in those surveys. It puts us in a place of incredible privilege, and with it an incredible responsibility: one that St. John’s is already grappling with. It is significant that we have employed both a youth worker and a families & children’s worker; and that we have an active branch of the Mother’s Union whose stated aims include encouraging parents in their role to develop the faith of their children. I’d like to use this first series of articles to speak into this aspect of our life together, and help us as we continue to think through the place of children in our families and our Church.
My basic convictions as a pastor (and as a parent!) are born out of the observation that the Scriptures are clear about the intentionality with which parents and Churches should engage with and teach the children in their midst about what it means to worship the Lord and walk with Him. We are maybe familiar with the approach of standing back, and allowing children to grow up and make up their own minds. I confess I am increasingly concerned when I hear this. Especially when it is used as a noble sounding justification for not engaging with our responsibility to teach, train and model the life of faith to those coming after us. Apart from the fact that I think it falls short of what the Bible teaches, three immediate responses include firstly the observation that if we are not teaching them our faith, then we are implicitly teaching them something else. Secondly, we don’t take that attitude to anything else we consider to be of importance in their life (e.g. eating or education). And thirdly, it is an obvious enough point that children and young people will make their own decisions when they grow up – but the Bible says that it is our job is to do all we can to help them make informed decisions based on a lifetime of being exposed to godly teaching and example from those they have grown up around.
If as adults they choose to walk away from all they have seen and experienced that speaks to them of the truth and reality of the Gospel, then that is between them and God, even if they do break our hearts in doing so. But it is our responsibility to make sure that they know what they are walking away from! One of the most devastating things to hear is about how someone grew up in a Church, but now isn’t a Christian because they never really understood what it was all about; or because they concluded from their own observation that it wasn’t real or valued by those they grew up in the midst of. May this never be said by someone who has grown up in St. John’s. Let them rather declare as a child, as a young person and as an adult that here they had the opportunity to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’! (Psalm 34:8).
You will hear me on a number of occasions drawing your attention to passages such as Deuteronomy 6:4-8 & 20-23. It’s a very powerful moment in the life of the Church. Standing on the brink of Israel, Moses is addressing them for the last time. He knows there will be many difficulties and testings ahead of them. In the heat of battle and in the trials of life together they will be tempted to ignore or forget what it means to be the people of God. But, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Moses has devised a strategy, which if followed, will ensure that from generation to generation the people of God will remain faithful. It is a strategy designed to overcome all the obstacles that life in a fallen world can throw at us, and that will ensure the growth and strength of the Church for years to come:
These commands that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them upon your children. Talk about them when
you sit at home and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down and when you get up…
The great tragedy of course is that the Church didn’t follow Moses (and thus the Holy Spirit’s) command. The Holy Spirit had committed Himself to work through these means to ensure the raising up of godly men and women throughout the generations. The Church’s failure sent them instead into the catastrophic spiral we read about in the book of Judges (see e.g. 2:10). We are to provide a context of godly teaching and example, in ways that are both structured and spontaneous. The commands of the Gospel are to be impressed upon our own hearts first. They are to shape our lives first. And then we are to impress [to affect strongly the mind or emotions; to arouse interest and approval; fix in the memory; to stamp, imprint] them on our children. We are not to wait till they go wrong, and then try to teach them how to do it right next time! We are to work pre-emptively to give them a way of thinking in which they understand themselves to be made in God’s image and for His glory, so that this is how they interpret themselves and life in this world. We are to shape their thought patterns through planned and unplanned opportunities throughout their experience of life.
What we do in Sunday Groups week by week is a part of that. We take our responsibility as families, and as a Church family, with utmost seriousness, and we do it confident that the Lord is working through us to raise up men and women of God in the next generation of St. John’s and the wider Church. What a calling… a calling that affects us all.
And it is this calling that we will be exploring in these articles in coming weeks...