Amidst a pandemic, God is doing a new – but old – thing. There is a positive shift happening in the current season we find ourselves in as a church family. We are seeing many parents get back to the basics of disciple-making. Church begins first at home. (And, I’m not talking a livestreamed service.) Faith needs to start at home and this is why.
First, here’s a little peek backwards: I remember the shock of parents and pastors when I began to ask the tough questions about parents discipling their children. It was around 2007 and I was an institutional church pastor. Parents in my area of the world, known as ‘the Bible Belt’, were used to dropping off their kids at Kids Church and Christian school to be discipled by others. In fact, many parents expressed their frustration at the thought of having their kids with them in a church service. They were busy, burned out and happy to have a program to drop their kids off at.
I remember sitting with elders in a meeting and asking one of them how he engaged his kids at home in the Scriptures and prayer. He didn’t. He dropped them off at Kids Church and at Christian School.
How did this happen?
The Sunday School movement in North America originally began as a temporary evangelistic movement for ‘non-churched’ kids in the community. However, in many churches all over, it slowly became a drop off-discipleship method for many Christian parents. Kids were often dropped off at church, or at Christian school, and with little to no faith conversation at home.
In 2011, I was invited to speak to the annual denominational conference, of which I was a pastor, asking the following questions:
What is the church’s role in nurturing children’s faith?
Where do parents fit into the equation?
I began to teach fellow pastors that the church is not to replace parents but to equip them and partner with them in discipling their children. Research from ‘The Search Institute’ in Minnesota years before, already showed the evidence. A child’s faith is impacted first and foremost by mom, dad, then grandparents, siblings, friends, Bible camp, music and movie stars, and then only after that is the Church or Sunday School listed. The research back then began to show that the most important social influence in sharing young people’s faith is what is modelled and taught to them by their parents.
Where does this sound familiar?
This makes sense because of what we read in Deuteronomy 6. God calls parents to love Him first and foremost, being careful to obey His commands, so that life will be long and enjoyed, and then teach their children to do the same:
“These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life… Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on 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.” (Deut 6:1-2, 5-7)
The modern-day version could be: “Teach your kids to obey God’s truths. Talk about them when you sit at home, when you drive in the mini-van, when you go to bed, and when you wake up.”
George Barna in his book called, ‘Revolution’ wrote this about the early church: “Christian families taught the ways of God in their homes every day. Parents were expected to model a Spirit-led lifestyle for their children, and families were to make their home a sanctuary for God. In a very real sense, the home was the early church – supplemented by larger gatherings in the Temple and elsewhere, but never replaced by what took place in the homes of believers.” – (George Barna, ‘Revolution’, 2005)
For 10 years up until 2016, while an institutional church pastor, I was outspoken on how church leadership needed to carefully and intentionally train the parents to understand their role from God and then equip them in their own disciplemaking to see their homes as a sanctuary filled with the Holy Spirit. My heart was to set up the parents as the main guides and we pastors, as their coaches, rather than taking this responsibility away from them. It was like turning a semi-truck around but it slowly began to shift.
These days, due to the lockdowns of institutional church buildings from 2020-2021, we are seeing a couple of things. People are noticing how watching a livestream church service takes no input. It’s completely 1 way. There’s no need for personal heart engagement. It is simply watching a talking-head on a stage. If your institutional church is merely that, what reason is there to return to a building? My heart is to see church become relational once again, equipping the family and igniting homes to be beacons of light.
Institutional churches who do not champion faith at home, and who instead assume that ‘real’ discipleship happens with adults sitting in chairs side by side listening to 1 person on a stage, only do more harm in damaging the passing on of faith to the younger generation. Soon, that young generation grows up to become adults who view faith as compartmentalized and inauthentic. They will view faith as being a once a week program and not living it out during the week.
Dangerously, after compartmentalization, comes disintegration and eventually a faith uprooted. And when a faith is uprooted, there is no fruit. Just as a tree with no root cannot bear fruit, a child’s faith not deeply rooted in the home, will be more prone to wither and die like the rootless seed in the parable in Mark 4:3-8. Notice carefully the different soils:
“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
How can we provide good soil for our kids?
We want our children to have a living faith that produces a fruitful crop. Thankfully, we see another shift happening in this current season. Parents are being intentional in learning how to disciple their children first starting from home and tilling the soil of their hearts to be truly rooted in Christ. The greatest gift we can offer children is to begin forming and molding their identity in Jesus alone. Their identity, how they view themselves and what they find their worth in, will directly determine how they view God, how they treat others, and how they impact this world.
When one lives with Jesus daily, walking with Him, and listening to His voice, everything changes.
(This is why I love teaching people – young and old to hear His voice. Resources are listed below.)
However, if our children find their identify in something other than Jesus, then they will pursue that thing above Jesus. If they find their worth on social media, in school, their relationships, video games, or sports, there’s no doubt that a once a week Sunday morning church service will be secondary to the pursuits of their lives. They will learn to use everything at their disposal to worship that “thing” above the Creator who made it. Notice the idolatry there which only leads to brokenness and heartbreak. And if idolatry is sadly modeled daily at home, the child will be deeply impacted in this model no matter what is taught at a weekly church service. What is lived out daily at home is what takes root. Parents have more impact on their children through the day to day than they realize. Parents are still the primary disciplemakers of their children in the modern day.
For greater discipleship, churches need to equip parents at home to know how to teach their children the story of the Bible, and not simply telling them random stories out of it. Parents need to lead them through the redemption of Jesus’ story throughout Scripture and then show them how their lives intersect with that story. Parents need first to know how to hear God’s life giving voice and teach their children in order to navigate amidst so many voices today. The tragedy is when a child grows up in a Christian home but walks away from Christ because of what was poorly modelled in their home. This is often because parents have not been discipled themselves and so do not know how to disciple their children. This is why I enjoy passing on to parents some basic transformational disciplemaking skills. I long to see generation after generation passionately following Jesus.
What happened for me?
I grew up each morning digging in the Scriptures and prayer time with my parents at the breakfast table. (I remember, to my parents’ dismay, making faces in the shiny 1969 toaster.) We then prayed for missionaries and various countries. My parents were often hosting people over for meals and helping our neighbours. My dad is famously known for fixing people’s cars and shoveling their driveways. We often gave our vehicle to missionaries who were home on leave and helped people stranded on the side of the road.
In a small prairie church family of only 30 people spanning across generations and cultures, I had the regular benefit of experiencing life together. As a young person, I was often welcome in the adult Bible studies, prayer meetings, and church gatherings. We often sat in a circle, looking into each other’s eyes, serving each other, in each other’s homes. I never felt unwelcomed with the adults.
Their love helped me to know God’s love, and as a result, I know who I am in Him.
I personally love the example of the church in Acts where Lydia, the business owner and seller of purple cloth, the formerly demon possessed girl, and the jailor all made up a church. They became a church family from different generations and levels of status. They also met in Lydia’s home. Can you imagine the impact on a child and their surrounding community from that circle?
Disciplemaking also goes both ways.
As an adult and parent now myself, I have learned lots from my children, their questions and exploring who God is. Max Lucado once said that parenting is better than any theology degree. We are not to underestimate the value of children. Matt 18:1-10 shows us Jesus’ perspective on children and how he loved to welcome them. He even called us to humble ourselves like children to be the greatest in His kingdom. Generations learn from each other while authentically doing life together.
One of my favourite things, as a pastor, was partnering seniors with young families and classrooms of children. I gave seniors a list of 5 or so kids and their birthdays, and parents names and info (getting everyone’s permission.) What began as seniors praying for young families, turned into spiritual adoption arrangements. Some seniors invited the young kids to learn how to cook, sew, or simply to eat together and visit! Relationships that started in 2006 are still going today in 2022 at the time of this writing!
In 2016, the Lord called me, my husband, and 2 boys away from pastoring in an institutional church. We began meeting in our home and serving in our surrounding community including at times helping our neighbours feed the homeless. Being the church in our neighbourhood has since continued and frankly has been a deeply healing and growing experience – going back to simplicity, following Holy Spirit. As a result of this, we have perhaps found ourselves navigating the changes of society more easily than some, in our current season. (I coach pastors and missionaries all over the world and I hear their stories and help them move forward.) From other blog posts, you’ll see an account of beautiful divine appointments and physical healings in our neighbourhood simply from going for a walk and running into our neighbours and praying for them.
I have been deeply impacted with my family as a result of digging in the Scriptures together, praying, and enjoying 2-way dialogue. We are doing life together BEING the church, first launching from our home. From there, we go as He leads us. I hope and pray that my kids grow up seeing the goodness and power of God, in relationship and in community, rather than simply hearing about Him and knowing the Sunday school answers while sitting in rows. I want them to know God’s love and abundant life at home first, in order to live an authentic faith that transforms their world.
Stay tuned! Resources for you to help learn to hear God’s voice and disciple others are listed below…
For disciplemaking resources, visit: www.merriellen.com/discovery
Stay tuned for our public events equipping you to hear God: www.merriellen.com/events
For private and group coaching: www.merriellen.com
About the Author:
After serving 10 years as an institutional church pastor, Merri Ellen Giesbrecht now serves as a Life Coach and Spiritual Director to those who find themselves stuck and desire to move forward in freedom.
She coaches people to connect better to God through hearing His voice according to His Word, taking them through unique sessions in order to move forward and receive clarity. God knows each client so beautifully and He tenderly leads by His Spirit in each session.
Merri Ellen’s deep compassion and 20 plus years of people helping have seen her work effectively with professionals such as counselors, psychologists, doctors, pastors and ministry leaders; walking them through heart healing, healthy release of burdens, burnout recovery, ministry transitions, and healthy sabbaticals, as well as hard working homeschooling moms.
She loves guiding people as they explore their dreams, assess their gifts and abilities and pursue their goals.
A major life contribution are her landmark contributions in the area of recovery from depression and anxiety where her writing and coaching have impacted over 2 million people in 120 countries since 2003.
Learn more: www.merriellen.com