What parent treasures Christ and does not earnestly seek the same for their child? What church makes much of Christ and does not sincerely long to see every child come to Him and grow in His knowledge and grace? Any discussion about ministry to children and youth should begin here. Our highest aim should be to honor and glorify God by promoting Christ in the lives of everyone and especially those that God providentially entrusts to our stewardship. Our ambition should be set with passion for the gospel to penetrate and for Christ to be formed in each and every person. These are the longings shared by every Christ-centered parent and church. The right question about ministry to young people is how does the church and the Christian family work together to this end?
A biblically informed answer requires a healthy understanding of the respective roles and responsibilities of the family and the church institutions.
In the sermon entitled, “Stewards of Grace to Families,” I first called for understanding God’s plan for families. This was a big picture perspective that sets the stage for better discerning the respective roles and relationship of church and family. The family is an institution of creation and the church is an institution of redemption. The family is natural and the church supernatural. Blessing families through grace, which is now stewarded by the church, is part of the redemptive plan of God (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:16, 29; Ephesians 3:14-15). Grace restores nature. The church renews families; families do not renew the church.
Then, unapologetically I emphasized the place of the parents in their stewardship of their children. This is the clearest, most direct, and repeated command of Scripture regarding children. The family is the seminal sphere where life is experienced, learned, and modeled. It is the first and most important realm of influence on a child. More than this, parents, not the church, are accountable to God for the physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual well-being of children. The church is never commanded to train children in the Lord, parents are repeatedly.
What I did not outline more fully is exactly how the church may practically steward grace to families. First, let us review the place of the church. The family is not a spiritually independent institution, the church is. The church is the “household of God” and the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), not the family. The church is lead by spiritually qualified and accountable leaders who can be removed from office (1 Timothy 3:1-8; Titus 1:5; Hebrews 13:17). This is not true for the family. The church is given the necessary gifts to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), not the family. The church is appointed to steward the ordinances (1 Corinthians 11:18–22), not the family. The church is the body of Christ, not the family. The church is the bride of Christ, not the family. Christ died for the church, as His family. Jesus illustrates a profound distinction between the natural family and God’s family (Matthew 12:46–50). He also warns that the gospel which unites the church family may indeed divide the natural family (Luke 14:26).
This is a powerful reminder that the church constitutes the family of God. The implications of this are vastly important for the love, identity, and inclusion in the church of singles, widows, orphans, and those who know not the grace of a healthy family (James 1:27).
God’s family does not deconstruct the natural family, it restores it. The church is a steward of grace to families, and grace restores nature. The working out of these implications are significant. Several principles are offered to help guide our thinking and practice so that the church may indeed excel in being a steward of grace to families.
(1) Let us guard from shifting our focus in the church. The church exists to make much of Christ, not the church or the family. We are set on promoting Christ to the glory of God and the joy of all people.
(2) Let us guard from supplanting the role and responsibility of parents. Ephesians 6:1-4 was given in the context of the proper order and practice of those in the church. The church should be a spiritual aid and support to families, encouraging them in their responsibilities. One practical way that the church can help families is to provide parents with guidance, resources, encouragement, and training in leading their children spiritually.
(3) Let us promote corporate worship that includes children. Children were included in the assembly of God’s people of old, for the worship of God through the proclamation of His Word (Deuteronomy 31:12; 2 Chronicles 31:18; Ezra 10:1; Nehemiah 12:43). We should encourage the regular gathering of the whole congregation, without segregation, for worship.
(4) Let us minimize age segregation and maximize age integration. This is the default order prescribed in Scripture: “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1–2). In the church, older women are called to train the young women (Titus 2:3-4) and younger men are called to be subject to older men (1 Peter 5:5). These instructions describe the normal interaction and relationship of those in the church outside of gatherings for corporate worship. This does not, however, preclude ministering to groups within the church. It simply sets a healthy priority of integration over segregation. But implicit even within these instructions is the segregation of gender. So outside of corporate worship, segregation may be appropriate for certain and limited purposes.
(5) Let us remember that the parents’ role in the spiritual development of their children is primary, not exclusive. The absence of command does not mean the command of absence. The church is never prohibited from ministering gospel truths to children. On the contrary, she is commanded to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). When the disciples tried to deny children access to Christ, He plainly said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). We also recognize that the Scripture does not speak against but rather supports the care and guidance of guardians and tutors that serve children in harmony with their parents (Galatians 4:1–2). Knowing also that it was commonly practiced among God’s people for young men to receiving instruction from teachers other than their parents (Acts 22:3).
(6) Let us have an eye toward and be concerned for the whole family. The early church did. In one example, some were “upsetting whole families” (Titus 1:11). The shepherds of the church were called to silence them, protecting the whole family (see also Acts 11:14; 16:15, 31, 34; 2 Timothy 3:6; 1 Corinthians 16:15; Hebrews 11:7).
(7) Let us invest with caring interest into the next generation. The glory of God is to be “in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations” (Ephesians 3:21). The church’s call to perseverance is not merely individual in scope. The perseverance of the church as a steward of the gospel aims at passing the baton to the next generation. Just as Israel of old aided parents, so that “the next generation might know” the testimonies of God in Jacob (Psalm 78:5-6), so the church should aid parents with the next generation in mind. This includes speaking directly into the hearts of every member in the family (Psalm 96:7).
(8) Let us as a church bear witness of Christ to everyone who comes among us. We recognize the value of other adults bearing witness to our children concerning the truth of the gospel. The church is a company of witnesses which can be used of God to speak into the lives of our young people to call forth and stir faith. It is healthy for the children and youth in our families to receive spiritual encouragement from other godly adults within the church.
(9) Let us have an evangelistic zeal as a church to reach children and youth. We recognize that not all children who come among us will be children who are receiving the gospel at home. Some may even come from families who do not know Christ. Not all young people who our youth know and interact with outside the church have the gospel proclaimed to them. We would be inconsistent and foolish if we invested in proclaiming the gospel to people far off while neglecting to proclaim the gospel to young people within our midst and reach. One area the church can excel is in reaching youth for Christ.
(10) Let us all commit to pray for the families, children, and youth among us. Just as Paul prayed for the family of Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16), let us pray for the families among us. Let us pray particularly for the salvation of every member of the family, every child and youth. Let us cultivate a love and earnest interest to see the next generation come to know Christ and to grow in His knowledge and grace.