The Family Plan

Hollywood movies often carry this disclaimer as the credits roll by: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” The same disclaimer applies to the three families I have profiled below. In this fictional world, all the parents are Christians, all the marriages are intact, and all are members of the same congregation. And yet, how could they be so different?

1. The Snack Diet

Mike and Mindy are there are almost every Sunday morning. Mindy grew up in the church and was baptized as a teenager. Mike became a Christian a few years after they were married. He went on a fishing trip with some of the men of the congregation awhile back, and even helped out on a “working bee” one Saturday morning. Beyond that, he cannot see the point of Sunday evening services, or preferring to spend time with church members over his family and friends. Mindy has never been to a Ladies’ Inspiration Day. When the church schedules a special ladies’ class, she stays in the auditorium. She was asked one time to teach a 1st-grade Bible class, but politely turned it down.

Mike and Mindy have two girls, Sherry and Sharon. They have never been baptized. In the elementary grades they came to Bible class on Sundays and Wednesdays. They loved church camp and VBS, too, but when the teen years hit, Sherry and then Sharon lost interest. That was fine by their parents: they never wanted to “force” their kids to go to church.

Sherry dated a lot of boys from school, none of whom were members of the church or the least bit interested in spiritual matters. She got pregnant, married, and divorced – in that order. Sherry comes to worship once a year, usually at Easter. Sharon is still in high school and is determined not to make the same mistakes as her sister. Her boyfriend comes to worship every now and then. They sit on the pew with her parents. They have never been to a teen devotional, and have no plans on attending the youth rally this year.

As soon as the last “Amen” is over, the family heads for the door. They smile and shake the preacher’s hand, until next Sunday morning.

2. The Fast-Food Diet

Adam and Amy have been Christians since they were preteens. They are well-informed on church issues and controversies, and seem very concerned about the state of the church. Both teach in the education program, although they are often away on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings and have to lean heavily on substitute teachers.

Their son, Brandon, is part of an elite soccer travel league. His parents have sacrificed to encourage and build his natural talents. They keep busy most of the year with camps and tryouts in the Summer, games in the Fall, and tournaments in the Spring. Membership dues are well over a thousand dollars per year, not to mention travel and equipment. If there are events on a Sunday afternoon the family will visit the early service of another congregation in the area. The treasurer has never seen them make up their contribution when they are gone. All this hard work must be paying off, though, because Brandon has had several scholarship offers.

Brandon was baptized at church camp a few years ago. He remembers those days fondly, and still goes to teen devotionals when he can, but the “good old days” of hanging out with his church buddies is a thing of the past. Next year he leaves for a private secular college about nine hours away. There is a small congregation close by, but college games are often played on Sunday. His mother has discretely asked the coach to excuse Brandon on Sunday mornings. The coach has made it pretty clear that the team comes first. This is nothing new for Brandon. He has heard, and heeded, that message since he was old enough to wear cleats.

3. The All-You-Can-Eat Diet

Jeff and Jo have three children. The two oldest ones, Sally and Sue, met and married faithful Christian men and are now making homes of their own. Sam, their son, is a year away from graduation and is looking at a number of different Christian colleges. He is interested in business management, but wants to minor in Bible with a view to mission work or part-time preaching.

Unlike her sister and brother, Sue skipped the Christian college option and went away to a state college. She visited the campus on two separate occasions and took the time to check out the local congregations. On her first Sunday away, Sue placed membership with her new church family and was helping out in the classroom a few weeks later.

Both Jeff and Jo went to a large state college and earned very marketable degrees. Their combined salaries could have made them very wealthy, but Jo wanted to be a homemaker, and so they live comfortably but modestly on one income. Jeff is a deacon, and Jo is very active in the education program. When it came time to put up a new bulletin board, Jo dragged all her kids down to the building to help. She praised them for their work, but never thought to ask them whether they wanted to help or not.

The whole family participated in Lads to Leaders. Jeff helped with the boys’ public speaking and Jo helped with the girls’ singing. They all pitched in with VBS at the beginning of Summer and a mission trip at the end of Summer. During the high school years, band kept the girls busy and baseball kept Sam busy. It was tough to balance family, work, school and church. They passed on the occasional youth activity or church program when the family calendar got too crowded, but the children never took this for an excuse or a copout.

Intentional Parenting

You have probably met people just like this in your own congregation. Their profiles line up with numerous studies on the church and family.

In 1985, Flavil Yeakley found an 80 percent retention rate of young people in the Churches of Christ where “both parents were active and involved.”[1] The National Study of Youth and Religion confirmed that parents and other adults have the strongest influence – for good or ill – on the faith of adolescents.[2]

Research by the Fuller Youth Institute shows that college-bound teens thrive in a “web of relationships with committed and caring adults, some of whom may serve as intentional mentors.”[3] Within the Church of Christ, programs like Lads to Leaders/Leaderettes emphasize this kind of intergenerational participation. An internal survey revealed an average 85 percent retention rate for Christian young people who were actively involved in Lads to Leaders.[4]

Arguably, the keyword is intentionality. This is not the same as duty. We often emphasize the Bible’s teaching on parental obligations, and rightly so. Ephesians 6:4 instructs fathers to raise their children in “the training and admonition of the Lord.” This is a command with apostolic authority. It should be taken seriously. Problems arise when we think this obligation is met on Sunday morning, and only on Sunday morning. Or perhaps we think our duty ends where their interest wanes.

Changing the family diet, and sticking to it, is not an easy task. We must begin with passages like Proverbs 22:6 and Ephesians 6:4, but these will only answer the “what” question, not the “how” question. Jesus shows us the way in His Sermon on the Mount: it is not just a matter of what we do, but how we live (Matthew 5-7; also Matthew 23:23).

Intentionality involves asking deep, forward-looking questions about our mates, marriages and families. Will the person I am dating help me get to heaven? Will this person care for the spiritual life of our children? What difficult but deliberate choices will promote and safeguard the faith of our children? Intentional parents recognize both the duty to run the spiritual race, and the need to run it well (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

[A version of this article first appeared in Gospel Advocate, November 2011 under the title, “Your Family’s Spiritual Diet.”]

[1] Flavil Yeakley, Good News and Bad News (Searcy, AR: Author, 2008), 17.

[2] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 28.

[3] Kara Powell and others, “What makes faith stick during college?,” Press release, September 6, 2011. [accessed September 9, 2011].

[4]  Roy Johnson, personal communication, September 14, 2011.

© 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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