Family Milestones and Parent/Child Discipleship

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There comes a point as a student pastor when you realize that no matter how loudly and clearly you preach the gospel, the message your students hear at home is always heard more loudly and more clearly. 

As I brought this concern to the rest of our staff, we decided to analyze how the gospel we preached was being received in our students’ homes. Here were some of our observations:

Most parents viewed the gospel as the ABCs of the Christian faith – the first steps of being a Christian – rather than the A through Z, the alpha and omega of their faith that we communicated to them from the pulpit. Parents knew the gospel saved their kids, but couldn’t articulate how it affected day-to-day struggles like their self esteem, sexuality, or competitiveness. We also noticed that the staff were considered “experts” who parents would outsource their kid’s spiritual care to (for example: one parent was frustrated that their kids hadn’t memorized more Bible stories in our ministry). In addition, many of our parents lacked tools to critically consume culture, to process with their kids the worldview they were seeing and hearing. We noticed a lack of intentionality as students transitioned away from, and into major life milestones (more on this below). 

We ultimately intuited that all of these “issues” weren’t from an abdication of parental duties but rather fear, intimidation, and shame. 

Parents (especially fathers) seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for their child’s soul. We tried a few things to give them direction and help abate fears – but to little effect. The parents who took advantage of those efforts were already spiritually engaged with their children. We realized that isolated events, occasional “Parent’s Nights,” and devotionals sent home were not accomplishing their intended goal. 

We needed a more strategic plan if we wanted to equip parents to disciple their kids. 

THE SOLUTION WE’RE WORKING ON

These initial observations began a rather thorough research project – our staff began voraciously reading family ministry material. After much reading (and observing similar churches to us,) we decided Brian Haynes’ method in Shift: What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today had the most upside for our particular context. 

Haynes advocates for something he calls a “Milestones Ministry.” 

If you go down this rabbit-hole far enough you’ll find that Haynes’ approach offers a middle ground between competing philosophies of family ministry. On one side, you have program-driven “one ministry for each demographic” type churches and on the other, “kill all age-specific-ministries” type churches (known as “programmatic,” and “family-integrated” respectfully.) Haynes says that while both philosophies want parents to be primary in their family’s spiritual formation, the best way of tackling this issue is through a strategic and systematic rethinking of all the church’s existing ministries. Every ministry should be geared towards equipping parents as their kid’s primary spiritual leaders. 

He suggests identifying major “Milestones” in a parent and child’s life, tuning your church’s energies into equipping parents during those times of transition. Haynes then suggests pairing each Milestone with a church-wide celebration, and semi-regular opportunities to equip parents at a “Parent’s Conference.” Without regurgitating the entire book in this article, let me tell you what we’ve taken from it in practice. [It’s important to note that we are in the process of integrating these applications as we speak. What you are reading are our thoughts in utero.]

We chose six (out of seven) Milestones, then renamed and reworked them for our context:

  1. First Steps: A new parents/soon-to-be parents class introduces parents to gospel-centered parenting. This Milestone is celebrated with a baby dedication the next Sunday.
  2. Faith Commitment: We equip and partner with parents to discern sincere faith in their child. We celebrate with baptism on a Sunday morning.
  3. Preparation for Adulthood (4th-6th grade): We partner with parents as they navigate the twin issues of sex and our all-consuming culture. We celebrate with a special retreat as the child transitions from the Children’s Ministry into the Student Ministry. 
  4. Passage to Adulthood (8th-10th grade): Parents are prepared to launch their child into adulthood through a “Rite of Passage” at home. This event is then celebrated and ratified by the church through membership. 1
  5. High School Graduation: Marked by a “Sending Ceremony” and special classes helping parents “present their child mature in Christ.”
  6. Life in Community on Mission: Ultimately, all prior milestones are geared to prepare students and parents alike to become contributing members of our church. The hope is they would all be active in communities that disciple one another, and send each other out on mission.

In addition to recognizing these Milestones, we have also adopted the categories of “Time, Moments, and Milestones” to better aid parents in discipling their children. These are three broad yet easily identifiable “spaces” where gospel-centered parenting happens.

Time: consistent and regular times of family worship.

Moments: spontaneous events throughout the day when a parent might have an opportunity to share the gospel, or encourage their kids with the truth of Scripture.

Milestones: the ministry just described. 

For parents, these are useful hooks on which to hang the significant amount of pressure they experience. For pastors, they offer direction as we answer the oft-asked question: “How can we disciple parents to disciple their kids?” 

WHERE WE ARE NOW

What you see above is probably the result of six months and one hundred hours of studying and conversation – and as previously noted, we haven’t even really begun this ministry yet! We are cautious about how to articulate and talk about this big shift for our church. So we are slowly rolling out the ministry, one Milestone at a time. The First Steps Milestone, and the “Time, Moments, Milestones” framework will be launched in May.

Some of the problems we are already noticing come from concerned parents who wonder whether we are calling their kids to too much too soon. Here’s a small snapshot of our conversations:

As we encourage parents of 4th graders to talk to their kids about biblical sex: “4th grade is too young!”

As we encourage High School students to be discipled in co-ed community just like the adults: “They aren’t mature enough to handle those types of relationships.”

As we tell parents their primary job is to disciple their children to be sent, not to stay: “But the world is scary, and I want to keep my kids safe.” 

We are still learning how to navigate these new relationships and new issues. This ministry marks a significant shift in emphasis for our church, and teasing out all the implications will only get more pastorally intricate – but that’s exciting!

There’s a lot of information here and there’s much I haven’t mentioned. If you are interested in more information, or just need a sounding board as you process this. Get in touch via email or Twitter. I am no expert and there are others more qualified. But I would love to be of service.

If it’s helpful, here is a list of resources we have pulled from: 

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith

Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith

Shift: What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today by Brian Haynes 

Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones

Family Worship by Don Whitney

Perspectives on Family Ministry and Family-Ministry Field Guide both by Timothy Paul Jones.

1. Culturally this is a big deal for us. Until recently we have not allowed under 18s to become members – we will now allow 16 year olds. How will we handle church discipline that involves a minor? Carefully, is the only answer I can give right now.

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever. 

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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