Why is whole family outreach and discipleship important? Out of many possible reasons, let me suggest five.
1. For too long we have seen children in isolation.
We have recognised the fact that children are the most unreached people group in the world , but they are incredibly easy to spot because they are found everywhere. Most of our Evangelical churches usually engage in strategies to reach children with sincere and pure motives to tell them the good news of Jesus. Christians are involved in outreaches to children on the streets, in schools, using a huge variety of methods. Yet what about the parents and grandparents….? What about reaching the whole family, the extended household? The wonderful news is that great strides are being made in this area. Something is changing. For many years Bill Wilson’s Sidewalk Sunday School pioneered in this area by visiting each child and their familiy at home every week, providing practical support wherever possible to the whole family. In the UK, the Kidz Klubs around the country follow the same groundbreaking model.
Opportunities to engage with parents outside or church doors are increasing. There is a fresh awakening of a desire in parents to understand more about how their children are wired. And to be the best parent they can. I have also observed (and this has to be a purely anecdotal comment) a rising desire in churches to reach out to and support families. More and more children’s pastors or children and family workers are being appointed to work alongside the army of youth workers and youth pastors. This can be a double-edged sword. Having a paid worker can allow for fresh initiatives to happen in abundance, but I would caution that we need less of a “programme” approach and more of an Old and New Testament approach to families. The church leadership team, and particularly those who teach and preach, still need to direct and guide the congregation on how to include, nurture and disciple the young.
2. In the UK/Europe/USA we face a desperate state of affairs.
God is stirring something up – are we standing at the cusp of another great reformation?
We cannot remain complacent by simply assuming that the children we have already will remain in the church. In both the USA and the UK all the evidence is that this isn’t happening. In the year 2000 the church-going population of Great Britain was 4.4 million and 19% of this figure were children aged 15 or under, i.e. 836,000 children. By 2025 the churchgoing population is estimated to be 2.3 million with 5% aged 15 or under i.e. 115,000 . That’s a huge decrease in 15 years or so, if current projections continue. We will have lost 721,000 children in a 25 year period that we are almost halfway through.
If we were to go back to 1990’s figures and compare this with the 2025 estimate, we will have lost contact with 1.1 million children.
“we (the UK) are one generation away from extinction” - has been said by many voices. We need to let these words sink in without frightening each other into a picture of gloom. There IS hope – and to quote the UK researcher Peter Brierley :
“Strategic action needs to be taken in the next ten years if this position is not to occur. It is no good waking up in 2030 and not liking what one sees; the opportunity to change that future picture has to be taken by 2015”.
I said there was hope. Something is stirring and a reformation is happening that you as readers have the opportunity to be part of. Professor Rebecca Nye has said :-
“Since the reformation, many emergent movements come from lone, marginal voices. Are we in the middle of a new movement or voice?”
There has been a child theology movement for a number of decades now but I believe I have seen a rise in its influence over more recent years. I have watched the advent of movements like “Will You Make a Difference?” producing thought-provoking resources for people to use in their local congregations. The 4-14 window organisation is another movement started in 2009. The Barna Organisation has been researching the religious influences upon children, youth and families for many years now.
Negativity and decline is NOT the picture across the whole world. There are lessons to learn from churches in nations who are experiencing tremendous growth due to what I would summarise as this: children contribute to and partake in kingdom practices – they are being discipled as naturally as drawing breath through the input of the whole church which means they learn to pray with expectant faith, worship chasing the presence of God and engage naturally in mission which is marked by signs and wonders.
3. Discipling children and families is biblical. I finished a few months of research on this in September. Get the book when its finished ;-)
4. Discipling children and their families is one of the areas we need to pour our time and attention into because it’s been ignored.
When I studied for my theology degree, I had to audit the theological content of a range of resources in a category of my choosing. I chose to focus on published material that discipled children. Here’s what I found:
Most devotional/educational resources in the UK/USA concentrated on:
- telling children about the gospel (VBS, holiday clubs, midweek clubs, Scripture Union group material)
- getting them into the Bible (Bible reading notes, Bibles in age-specific formats, Bible quiz books)
- telling children narrative stories about past of present-day heroes of the faith in paperback form or fictional stories about children and their families
- there are some specific Christian resources written for children dealing with specific pastoral situations such as divorce, bereavement and loss.
You will quickly see that this list focuses on the impartation of information – head knowledge. Thankfully this is beginning to change but I would argue not fast enough and, actually, a curriculum or book of itself is not going to bring about a sea-change.
There are relatively few resources possibly because Christians aren’t always in agreement with the status of children before God. And because it’s not seen as an important area to write about. (Consider how many books on church leadership there are!)
5. Discipling children and their families results in natural mission - you'll need to ask me about my experiences in this in person or buy the book in 6 months time!
It looks pretty certain that we are going to move city to step into the next phase of this in our own lives and I just can't wait. The time of preparation has felt quite long but it feels like its been a car revving up and I am so grateful to those leaders around me who have cheered me on and held my arms up when I've got tired.
You've let me - and wanted me - to be around you, but most of all you really have loved me and guided me these past 8 months and you have believed in what I'm doing. You don't think I was crazy to leave my last post as you recognised a "God At Work" roadsign. At the start of this "sabbatical time" I needed folks to get where I was coming from and what the motivation of my heart was. I'm a broken vessel, I am so aware of that, and I won't ever forget what it has felt like to be a recipient of such honour, love and acceptance.
The ditches are being dug and all, ALL, glory to God for whatever fruit comes out of this time.