How do we disciple children and young people?

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There’s been a bit of a discussion on social media about faith in kids and reaching younger generations with the Gospel.  First, there is this article by Ian Paul interviewing the CofE’s Youth Evangelism officer. 

Can the church ever reach young people again?

Then there were these tweets by Anthony B Bradley.

I must admit that I was a little surprised as well as heartened to see Bradley’s comments. Heartened because this is something that so many pastors have been trying to say for so long, surprised because we have been saying it for so long, surely this is old news?

I want to share a few reflections here. The first is to say that I’m not against pizza and games.  Most churches I’ve been involved in have run midweek youth and children’s clubs and I see no problem with that.  In fact, personally I’d be up for those clubs serving pizza and letting youngsters have a safe space to socialise, enjoy one another’s company and have fun.  I used to debate regularly with our children’s and youth workers whether we should insist on providing healthy snacks.  Generally our church was pro this and so we served fruit. Personally I would happily have dished out the pizza, chips, crisps, chocolate and cola.  You see, my take was that it was the responsibility of the kids’ parents to ensure their children were eating healthily through the rest of the week.  Why couldn’t we offer them a treat? So, basically, I’m happy for the church to serve pizza and games assuming that parents are serving their kids with fruit and discipleship in God’s Word! 

What we are doing at such clubs is first of all providing that place where young people can meet up safely.  We are also giving them a taste of being part of a community. It’s only one aspect of being part of the community and because we are specifically talking about God’s people, it is not what is going to bring them into that community. However, if they get a taste of being somewhere that is safe and enjoyable and people who are safe and loving then that’s a good thing.  At this point, it is worth saying that a significant focus of our midweek work was about reaching families who were not already part of the church. You can’t expect parents to pass on a faith they have not got.  Too often the discussion seems to assume that the future of the church is constrained to disciplining the families of those who are already part of the church family. 

So, youth and children’s work is often outreach focused. This does mean that we have to remember that families are reached together. A significant part of the work should be about reaching the parents.  We often found that the biggest part of this work was the conversations we had with parents and grand parents when they were dropping their kids off or picking them up. Indeed, so often a number wanted to stay and wait so for every helper doing hammer beads with the 5 year olds in the hall, we needed someone to serve tea and coffee and chat to the 30 year olds in the foyer.

The second thing we want to think about is the role of the church and parents in discipleship.  What role does the church play in discipling children? Well, if they are believers then we have the same responsibility that we do to adult believers.  Our responsibility is to encourage them to gather with God’s people, to praise God and pray together as well as to hear God’s Word proclaimed.

Our other responsibility is to equip parents to do what Scripture asks of them, to teach God’s Word and ways to their children.  In Deuteronomy 6 we see how this happens. It wasn’t just instruction but rather God’s Word and ways were impressed on the youngsters because the whole of their lives was shaped and saturated in it.  This was symbolically represented by having the law written out on the door posts and bound to their hands and foreheads. God’s Word was always on their mind, it determined what they did and it surrounded them so they could not escape that.

We need to equip parents to do this. So how do elders and pastors do this?  Well partly I thinkt here are things we can do outside of gatherings. It means using our visiting time to go and see families and when with them to observe how they go about discipling and also to model it for them. This is what Richard Baxter would do in Kidderminster as described in The Reformed Pastor. 

But actually, given that discipleship is not just about teaching kids the content of God’s Word but living out an example, the best thing that church leaders can do for children is disciple their parents. So, we teach them in sermons, small groups and one to one opportunities, God’s Word and God’s ways.

Then basically, we get out of their way, we make sure that we are not imposing on their time so much that they have no time to be with their family. We equip them and then free them up to do what God requires of them.