Enhancing a Heritage: The Church’s Proper Role in Raising Youth

By D.A. Bass
Published June 2008

Does your week look anything like this? You rouse your kids from sleep, hurriedly feed and clothe them, usher them into the car, drive them to school at ever younger ages – even pre-pre-school at ages 3 & 4 – and then pick them up to shuttle them to soccer or violin practice or youth ministry. From the business of the day, you collect them back into the car and return home exhausted, where everyone crashes into bed to try and sleep, only to awake and repeat the same thing the next day. Then comes the blessed day of rest – Sunday! On this day, you rouse your kids from sleep, hurriedly feed and clothe them, usher them into the car, drive them to church and drop them off at nursery or children’s church, and then pick them up to shuttle them to Sunday School or youth ministry or worship team practice. From the business of the day, you collect them back into the car and return home exhausted, where everyone crashes into bed, to rest and return to the six-day work week. Wait, never mind – come to think of it, Sunday is no different than the rest of the six day work week in most contemporary churches!

This is precisely the point behind the reformed critique of contemporary evangelical youth ministry. It is no different than that of the world! In fact, I recently spoke with a family that had relocated here in southeast Idaho partially to get away from the big city rat race that further complicates the scenario described above. Their kids had been involved in public schools and a large church with big youth programs that operated just like the systems they found in the world and yet their teenage son was withdrawn, surly, and alienated from them. So what did they do when they got out here? They put their kids in public schools and joined a large church with a big youth program that operated just like the systems they found in the world. They tried to reduplicate, as much as possible, the circumstances they had back east! Does it take a prophet to predict what will happen to that boy?

In a previous article, we have given a limited critique of present day youth ministry (see Seven Myths of Youth Ministry). However, we have yet to answer in fuller detail what exactly the church is supposed to do when it comes to youth. Contrary to what you might expect from our criticisms of youth programs per se, we do not advocate doing nothing. We might actually do less harm than contemporary youth ministry by doing nothing, and therefore create less havoc and destruction, but that is not the church’s mandate here. We are expected to be a positive force for good in the life of the family, enhancing the role of the parent, better equipping them to be the transmitters of the heritage of biblical faith and character. Thus we have our title for this article, “Enhancing a Heritage: The Church’s Proper Role in Raising Youth.” We are here to enhance the heritage transmitted to your children. The Church was not, is not, nor will it ever be the primary covenant institution for transmitting faith and character to your children. O father, O mother, this is your prime directive in raising them!

The Church is “the pillar and ground of truth;” (1 Timothy 3:15) husbands are to love their wives even as Christ loves the Church; (Ephesians 5:29) presbyters are to rule, members are to obey; (Hebrews 13:7,17) but the uniform witness of the Scriptures and practice of the Church is that children are under the authority of their parents until the age of the child’s majority. This is one of the reasons for the bar-mitzvah (males) and bet-mitzvah (females) amongst the Jews (see Luke 2:41-52 for our Lord’s bar-mitzvah, “according to custom.”) and confirmation amongst Christians when the young person reached puberty, generally at age 12 or 13. In part, the role of this ancient custom was as a rite of passage indicating that the young boy or girl was now ready to enter into the realm of the adult, in accord with his/her capacity. It was the first step for the young person to now begin the transition from the complete authority of parents to that of the community – one of those institutions in the community being the church. Previous to bar-mitzvah/confirmation, the church exercised authority over the child in a mediate fashion, through the covenant head, the father. But, as I have noted elsewhere, parents - and primarily the father - is “to teach the commandments and statutes to your children in a family context (Deuteronomy 6); you are to teach them the wisdom of God for daily living (Proverbs 1:8-10); you are to teach and model temperament to them (Ephesians 6:4). Time and again, the scriptures confront us with a father’s responsibility for training and teaching a child, with no tolerance for ‘delegating’ the lion’s share of it to society or even a well-meaning program at the church. The very form of a covenant relationship requires a federal representative to teach and administer the covenant to the other covenant members. In a familial covenant, that federal head is the father.”

What was it, then, that the Church did to minister unto youth? What is its mandate?

1. The Church is to equip parents to teach children – Part of the mediate rule of the Church over children was the instruction of parents. Older women of the church are to teach younger women of the church to be wives to their husbands and mothers of their children (Titus 2:3-5); fathers are to teach their children in the ways of the faith, instructed by the Church (Psalm 78:5-7; Nehemiah 8:13; Proverbs 1:8-10; Exodus 12:26-28; etc).

The church has always been the place where men learn the deep things of faith that they in turn teach to their wives and children (1 Corinthians 14:33-35). This is a frankly patriarchal structure. But it is a covenant structure, which, as we know from our study of the Bible, is the very economy of God’s choosing. The church teaches the covenant mediator, the federal head of the covenant institution of the family, the father, who in turn mediates this instruction to his covenant charges, his wife and children. If his children are disobedient covenant breakers, guess who is equally responsible, in addition to the child? Yes, the father! “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother,” (Proverbs 10:1) not only because it’s a slight embarrassment to the family name, but also because they are covenantally responsible for their behavior until the child’s age of majority. Failure to get it right in Israel meant literally what many of us moderns treat as a kind of light hearted joke: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it!” (e.g.,, Deuteronomy 21:18-21) Broadly, the cumulative witness of the Bible is that the covenant institution of the church is responsible for teaching parents within the covenant institution of the family to care for and nurture their children. The parents, in turn (primarily guided by the father), are the covenant delegates charged with training the children until they are ready to enter upon the larger society. Any other structure, any other chain of command, has no stamp of approval from God. Kids may turn out more, (and probably) less Christian in a Peer Culture such as we have in the contemporary church, but God is under no covenant obligation to do so. In fact, the contemporary model is more often than not a mark of ignorance and neglect at best and rank disobedience at worst. Is it any wonder that so many of the modern church’s offspring are virtually unrecognizable from their worldly counterparts?

This is why it is of such crucial importance for the church to teach men. Pastors and elders are under obligation to teach men the scriptures and the theology that flows from them. They are to model fatherhood, “managing his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,” (1 Timothy 3:4) not only because it shows he manages well, but also because he is modeling husbandry and fatherhood for the younger men.

Disciplined, thorough, and rigorous knowledge of the scriptures is the foundational requisite for raising godly children. However, bare acquaintance is not sufficient for the task. Fathers must be taught by the church to teach these things contextually, in a graded fashion, appropriate to the age of the child. This is borne out in Deuteronomy 6, where fathers are to teach their children diligently, where you “shall talk of them when you sit in your house” (“Sit up when you eat; don’t wolf your food like a glutton; repair the fence before you paint your room”) “and when you walk by the way” (“See that dead sparrow? God knows of even his death and place in creation; how much more you?”) “and when you lie down” (“You know, St. Chrysostom saw wrapping yourself in your sheets like you do a picture of your grave clothes and your eventual death”) “and when you rise” (“He also saw your getting up from your bed, coming out of your sheets as a picture of your resurrection”). Not only was the father to teach the scriptures in times of daily devotions and systematic lessons, but also at serendipitous moments, whenever the occasion presented itself. Such responsibility calls for wisdom! Since creation and all of life presents teachable moments at almost every moment, the father needs to be prepared to seize every moment himself. Thus, rather than reducing a child’s training in the knowledge and way of the Lord to a “program” (always easier to conceive and execute), the Bible presents it as an entire way of life (far less reducible to a program). Who is equal to these things? O father, you need the partnership of the Church! O Church, you are obligated to the father!

2. The Church must be a mentor to the child –In the biblical world of patriarchal families, children had not only their parents, but also an extensive network of support in the community both older and younger than the child. Among these elements of support, we find:

a. The child’s extended family - Uncles, grandfathers, and older men mentored boys while aunts, grandmothers, and older women of the church mentored women. Oftentimes, related families attended the same church. In our fragmented, Peer Culture age, where extended families live scattered to the four geographical winds, things like this seem from another planet during another time, do they not?

b. The role of the godfather as mentor – The traditional godfather is not a product of Mario Puzzo fiction and Hollywood drama. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary has a definition worth quoting at length: “Godfather - The man who is sponsor for a child at baptism, who promises to answer for his future conduct and that the child shall follow a life of piety, by this means laying himself under an indispensable obligation to instruct the child and watch over his conduct.” This was in addition to the parents; he could be a relative or close friend of the family, but he promised to follow through on these things especially in the event the parents died, but also even if the parents lived to a ripe old age, he was bound to follow through on these things. Webster also notes that this practice “is of high antiquity in the Christian church,” although it has disappeared in our own day and frightfully distorted by our culture.

c. The pastor takes on an increasing role as spiritual guide - As a mark of the child’s approach to “the age of consent,” the pastor of the church took an increasing role in the teaching of the child, especially in teaching the catechism to 12 and 13 year olds in preparation for their confirmation. Thus, the child was introduced to a “significant elder” in the community who, in many cases, became the first adult outside the family from whom he or she learned a systematic body of knowledge.

d. Elders and/or deacons become mentors to children – In reformed and Presbyterian churches, every family had an oversight elder assigned to pray for and shepherd them. This included a mentoring hand upon the children. The elder or deacon formally or informally mentored and taught the boys while the elder’s wives mentored the girls. Oftentimes, this included studies of the Bible or the church’s doctrinal standards, as well as more informal things like taking the boy hunting or teaching the girl to knit or quilt.

As you can see, the average child was not isolated in the narrow confines of his own family, as so many advocates of contemporary youth ministry are fond of painting it. He had many significant relationships with adults that often endured for a lifetime. He was not isolated in a horizontal peer group culture, falling silent in the presence of adults as if he were in a foreign country, unable to relate to them, as so many of our peer culture kids find themselves trapped. Additionally, the child did not spend his childhood craning his neck upward towards an adult world. Note:

3. The child also mentored other children younger than himself – Children genuinely lived in a vertical world, relating to elders and youngers. In the church, they mingled in the worship service and education classes with not only their siblings, but also kids younger than themselves.

There always has been and always will be competition and put-downs of the younger by the older kids, but not with the systematic segregation that occurs in our own day, owing to our peer culture. There was a much easier mixing and playing; siblings cared for siblings and an older child was not afraid to help a younger child look up a Bible verse or tie his shoe, for that matter. With an informality and ease, children helped adults in everything from the Christmas pageant to the ice cream social, working with kids older and younger than themselves. Especially as young men and women entered their majority, they would serve as tutors for younger children, for example, assisting other kids in preparation for exams and entrance into college.

4. The church ministers to youth in the worship service – Perhaps the least appreciated element of the church’s ministry to youth is the worship service. Of course, in today’s contemporary worship model, to leave children in the worship service is a faux pas of the worst order. How dare you disturb our wave during the choruses or the pastor’s inspiring 15-minute sermonette? Besides, how can my child be expected to get anything - “to be fed” - in the peer group of adults? They will be better off in age appropriate children’s church. There they will be segregated with their peers and can watch videos or maybe sing rock choruses or rap with Jesus.

This is how they did it at Jesus’ “Sermonette on the Mount,” didn’t they? When Jesus said, “Let the children come unto me,” I am sure the disciples had to quickly run to children’s church to get one. Of course, the young boy with the loaves and fishes had wandered off from his youth group’s snack break at the moment Jesus intercepted him and his lunch. Am I being facetious in this? Or perhaps the families of Jesus’ day did not have the privilege of our superior “peer culture,” a mark of true cultural progress. Poor parents! They had to drag their kids to temple, synagogue, and open air preaching. But they knew what the contemporary model seems to have forgotten: God expects the whole family to appear before Him in worship: “”Assemble the people, the men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that that may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 31:12) Never is age segregation the rule in worship. The children were expected to be there to hear and come within the understanding of the reading of the law. In fact, in the worship it was the “Children, who have not known it (the law of the Lord), may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 31:13)

It is observed by our own families at New Geneva that although our children may not learn and absorb everything at an adult level, they nevertheless sit through an almost two hour service and absorb that which is appropriate to their age and understanding. Some have perhaps learned and understood the Lord’s Prayer or the Gloria Patria or the Doxology (which we recite every Sunday). All of them have memorized a number of prayers we recite as a congregation. Others have picked up and understood the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Still others of our children interact with the sermon at various levels and can articulate a number of points or observations. In fact, one eleven year-old young lady even pointed out to me the other Sunday, “Pastor, you have used that one illustration you used this morning in a previous sermon.” She then proceeded to cite the title and text from the very sermon! I was tempted to hire her as my secretary right then and there!

A parent might say, “That may be fine for your kids, but mine has ADD and cannot sit through a 30 minute service, much less a 2 hour one!” This may well be true by this time. Much has been written about our short attention span culture, addicted to 3 minute “music,” video games, and indoctrination packaged as education in our public schools. Yet, we underestimate a child’s capacity for discipline and order. Kids raised in a two-hour service, never having known anything else, literally learn composure, focus, and sustained attention on their mother’s knee! Crying babies are temporarily taken out of the service by a parent, but soon return. It may take an initial time intensive focus on discipline in the early years to get a child to sit still and listen, but it will pay off with great rewards very early with composed, attentive, obedient children in the service with mom and dad, where they belong.

My point is that most contemporary worship advocates seriously underestimate the intelligence and learning capabilities of their children. They can memorize much more than we give them credit and grasp abstract biblical principles long before we think they can. Yet, we condescendingly pooh-pooh their intelligence by sticking them away in what we have euphemistically called, “Children’s Church,” which is really little more than “Parent’s Church,” i.e., that place where we segregate our kids from us so that we can have a few minutes of peace and quiet without being disturbed by them, as we are during the week! This is really shear and utter rebellion. In the context of temple worship, the entire family was expected to turn out together, as a family: “Young men and maidens together, old men and children. Let them praise the Name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted.” (Psalm 148:12,13) How selfish, O true children of the “Me Generation,” who disobey God by shunting your offspring on the one day of the week when you should be gathered together as a covenant family before the Lord. Are you in reality the covenant head of your family, O father? Why, then, do you fragment it by taking your infant from your wife’s arms, sending it to the nursery and your toddler to children’s church and your teenager to his youth group to sing rock choruses, entertained by “Bono” Bob? If, indeed, worship is that Sabbath moment when, by faith, you are ushered into the very throne-room of heaven to joyously participate in the worship of the Great King, why do you do so after the pagan model of the world’s six-day work-week? Nowhere in the Bible were families so fragmented! Rather the opposite was true: synagogue, temple, and church were filled with the laughter, cries, and fidgeting of babies and children. O to hear that blessed sound in the congregation of the faithful again!

Fathers and mothers, the currently despised “traditional model” of youth ministry offers you more than you ever expected, without having to resort to a model that mimics what we find in the world. It is my hope for New Geneva OPC and all true churches of Christ that we re-trace the ancient paths and come back to the blessed intent of the scriptures and the covenant institutions of family and church, where within these covenant structures we might learn the Word “which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” (Psalm 78:5-7)

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