Loving God, discipling youth
‘…You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’
I often say to others that the adults are outnumbered by the children and youth at our church. This is quite a blessing, but it is also a challenge. Specifically, we are pushed to ask the question, ‘How can we best disciple the youths in our church?’
Every Christian is especially responsible for those in our own church body. In other words, we cannot neglect to see those whom God has placed right in front of us. This is a temptation for all of us because high-speed travel and mass media has made the world so small, and we can be tempted to have a burden for the whole world. But we have to prioritize, and one specifically biblical priority is to invest in people God has placed you in relationship with in the local church and at an even more intimate level in the family. This means we are responsible to provide support physically and spiritually for our parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren. Paul says in 1 Timothy 5 that showing filial care is showing godliness! We cannot neglect those in our most intimate circles. Beyond that, we are members of a specific local church (hopefully). This doesn’t mean you’re a card carrying member of an organization, but that you are acknowledging that you have skin in the game. These are the people with whom you have committed to gather regularly and to live out the ‘one anothers’ of scripture. If we do not take care of those in this second circle of the church, the fruit will be bitter in those who are on the fringes of society. The church is God’s means of constituting a new family for those who lack it, and we must lift our eyes beyond that of our immediate family, even while remaining faithful to our callings there.
All this is to say: even if you do not have children of your own, God has invested in you, through the local church, a responsibility to make disciples of the children and youth. I’d like to lay out some thoughts about what this ought to look like.
The first line of discipleship of youths rests clearly on the shoulders of parents. If you are a parent of a child, you are God’s means of making himself known to your children. This means a few things: how you live your life will rub off on your children. This means if your Sunday life doesn’t match your weekday life, your children will come to know this and learn to live in the same way. In other words, they will not see how the gospel that we proclaim has implications to how we live. If you emphasize watching sports, playing fantasy sports, or participating in theater, choir, or sports (my co-curriculars in high school) or academic excellence more than participating in the local body, your children will notice and place a greater value (by nature) to those co-curriculars, academics, etc., than to the faith that we confess is whole-life-encompassing. The point is we ought to live with the proper priorities. Most things are good and may be enjoyed to the glory of God, but they must not become our god.
How ought we to live? The scriptures are clear on some things: do not neglect to participate in the regular gathering (as is the habit of some). We can draw out Deuteronomy 6 like this: in whatever you do, observe the gospel and its implications. This is both a formal and an informal thing. So encouraging participation in biblical and theological classes (like Sunday school) is helpful to instruct your children. Encouraging them to read excellent, devotional reading is wonderful (e.g., anything by J.I. Packer (or with a forward by Packer) or A.W. Tozer or any puritan paperback, etc.). Informally, this means we as parents talk about the world as ‘God’s creation’ rather than ‘mother nature,’ or we base our instruction on biblical principles like faith, hope, and love and encourage the fruits of the spirit. It is that our entire life can transparently be seen as repentant. This isn’t to say that our children are saved and will understand it all, but it is to say that we are training our children in the way God created us to live in the hopes that God will also do his miraculous work in their hearts. Another avenue of training that has been common throughout church history is to invest time in family devotions. Practically, this means singing Christian hymns with them, reading and memorizing scripture with them, and praying with them. Even if this is just 3 times a week, it is worth it. With all spiritual instruction it is essential that we balance the warmth of Christian love and devotion to God with specific content. We cannot love whom we do not know and we cannot truly know without love. The more we balance this in our own lives, the more our children will see.
But what of the whole church? The whole church is called to invest in one another across the generations and across family lines. This means we ought to seek out discipleship opportunities especially as youths transition to adulthood (ages 14-20). These are the ages when the church can undergird the investment of the parents. My wife, Ami, has either met with or encouraged other ladies in the church to meet with every high school senior girl and read The Knowledge of the Holy or Knowing God. If you are in a position to pray with and read a good Christian book with a small group of youths over a semester or year, make time and do it! On a practical level, treat baptized youth as members of the body of Christ and engage them and seek to encourage them to use their gifts for the edification of the body. The biggest threshold to maturity isn’t necessarily when someone turns 18 and graduates, it is when God saves them and they enter the waters of baptism. Some who haven’t been baptized would benefit from a basic study through the Apostle’s Creed, our doctrinal statement, a gospel, or New Testament epistle. Often in making disciples of adults, we will study through Mark or Romans, but we can neglect this with young people and I think it would be beneficial for the church to disciple those interested in baptism to do the same.
It is my desire over the next year that we improve on being intentional in discipling our children and youth. God has entrusted them to us, and we cannot neglect such a weighty and important responsibility. May we be faithful and grow in this area.