On the Journey of Discipling our Children: Living in the Story
by Mike Elmer
Discipleship on the Daily
I recently had the opportunity to attend the ECO National Gathering in Dallas, TX. The Gathering featured a few breakout sessions on topics related to Family and Children’s Ministry, which I made a point to attend. I had been praying for God to give us vision and direction for the ministry at Trinity Wellsprings Church, and he did through these sessions.
Dr. Michelle Anthony spoke in the first pre-conference session on the role of the church in discipling children. Her view is that parents are the primary disciplers for their kids and the church serves to support, encourage, and reinforce their efforts. For many of us, this is a paradigm shift from the notion that the church employs ministry experts who have the responsibility to inculcate faith in the children who attend. But discipleship occurs in the mundane moments of life as well as in the intentional ones – it is caught through observation and the experience of shared lives – often most powerfully through the shared life of the home between parents and children (studies show that teenagers still consider their parents the primary influence in their lives even in our digital world, according to AXIS, a ministry for parents of teens). Anthony’s main emphasis then is for children’s ministry leaders to find ways to inspire and encourage parents in the discipleship taking place all the time in their homes.
Recently, Trinity Wellsprings Church has made strategic adjustments in recognition of this dynamic. We have decided to encourage families to worship together in the sanctuary during the service, and then gather together for fellowship. During this fellowship time, children attend a small group discussion about the lesson for the day and parents gather together for mutual encouragement and prayer. We intend to eschew the “ministry expert” notion and lean into the reality that the Holy Spirit resides in all of us and gives spiritual gifts to each of us for the building up of the body of Christ. Eddy Leo and Francis Chan have both written about this dynamic in different ways and their voices ring true: we all have much to contribute and much to learn, and that from each other. Leo, in his book “Community: Where God Dwells,” speaks to the many instances of the Scripture exhorting us to do for “one another,” such as “love one another,” “forgive one another,” and “care for one another.” Francis Chan left a large church in favor of smaller house churches because of his commitment to exhorting all Christians to exercise their gifts for God’s glory and the spread of the kingdom.
So our vision for children’s ministry at Trinity Wellsprings is to support and encourage parents as the primary disciplers of their children and to walk this journey of faith together.
Storytime at Home
Michelle Anthony’s book Spiritual Parenting looks at various environments in which discipleship occurs in the home in both structured and unstructured moments. The first that she identifies is that of storytelling. To be immersed in stories is to be human; we listen eagerly to stories, we watch them unfold in a state of suspense, we delight in a story well-told, we try our hand at telling our own, and we try to figure out where we fit into the story of life taking place all around us. And whether we are reading to a toddler or telling about our day at the dinner table, storytelling can have a powerful influence on our kids and their understanding of the world.
One of the key perspectives that Anthony describes in her book is helping our kids see whose story they inhabit. This is indeed one of the most fundamental questions of life, and one strongly influenced by our sinful nature. At root, sin in us basically says, “this is my story, my life, and I’ll live it however I choose.” In contrast, the Scripture testifies that the “earth is the LORD’s and all therein” – that God made all things and that everyone on earth “lives and moves and has their being” in God’s story. We either recognize his central role in history and in our lives or live by the pretense that we play the central role. In the latter case, the delusion has catastrophic consequences; in the former, the story never ends.
I remember as a kid visiting my grandparents and sitting down to dinner at their antique family heirloom table on the porch in their house. Sometimes my uncle and aunt would be there too, and the bigger kids would sit (mostly) quietly and listen to the table talk between the adults. When I would ask to be excused early in the meal, most of the time the answer was “no.” And good thing: I was learning who I am in those conversations – where I come from, the people that came before me, the family that I am a part of. I was catching what the values of this family are, how we see the world; I was gathering what things are most important to us; I was even learning about political views and affiliations; I was picking up family stories and history; I was hearing about how all of those things were derivative to the real story, the story of God directing history and our family’s fate in this life. I understood that final point by the comments that followed a tragic tale of someone’s difficulty of late – “God will work all things for good,” my mother would say. Or when the good times were being remembered or acknowledged – “we can thank the Good Lord for that,” or “praise God!” coming from one of my grandparents. Most everything was seen and understood through the lens of God’s sovereignty, goodness, love and mercy for us and our world.
This is the environment and influence of storytelling in our homes. It’s at one and the same time a verbalized influence and an orientation to the way things work and are understood. I remember watching my wife as she developed a feeding plan for our newborn first child. At the early stages of life, feeding encompasses the child’s entire world. Everything revolves around it for him or her. And a fundamental reality is being communicated through the way a mother approaches this life-sustaining task – the child is learning even from the earliest days where and how they fit into the family. Of course, early on the mother has to feed a newborn constantly to increase its weight and strength. In time, that attention will shift and in progressing stages the child moves to an orbit around the parents in the home, with mealtimes planned and prepared for the family as a whole. And though the center of gravity in the home is found in the married couple or single parent, the weight of it is the Lord Jesus, whose glory fills the godly home and who orders it according to his purposes.
Showing the Story
How then do we convey this story that we inhabit and we want our kids to live out? Michelle Anthony quotes John H. Westerhoff, who reminds us that at the heart of the Christian faith is a story, and “unless the story is known, understood, owned, and lived, we and our children will not have Christian faith.”
Think about your own life. When did you realize that you were living as a part of a larger story, even God’s story? I heard a preacher in NYC once talk about reading the Bible and having the epiphany that in the pages of God’s Word is the story of humanity – but more than that, the story of God creating man and interacting with him through the ages. The light bulb came on that he was part of a greater story than he had previously realized. How did it happen for you that life became about something other than your own interests or desires?
Isn’t there incredible freedom and joy in living as a part of a greater story? When I am not the main character, and don’t have to live up to heroic proportions, I am free to be who I am and admit my weaknesses. This has tremendous implications for our kids who learn very quickly their own weaknesses and limitations and need to be shown how to face their fears.
Recently our family went to a water park in Central Florida. It was our first time going there, and a couple of my kids were intimidated by the more thrilling rides. One of them was exhibiting the same trepidation that I exhibited as a kid, a kind of fear of the unknown, or of being out of control. If I were in the position of needing to be the hero, I might not have readily shared my own story of my mother dragging me to the ride I was scared of and forcing me to go down it. But because I don’t need to be anyone other than who I am, failures, weaknesses, fears and all, my encouragement to my child could be personal – true to form – real and authentic. Dad, who seems so fearless and capable, also struggled as a kid with the same thing! As Brennan Manning wrote, “to live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark…”
Our opportunity then is to show our kids the bigger story even as we tell them about it, and to help them to own and live it out themselves. As Westerhoff said, the story has to be known, understood, owned and lived in order to have Christian faith. We should certainly share the stories of Scripture with our kids and one another, especially in a way that directs their attention to God’s actions throughout – of God’s redemptive purposes and promises in the OT and their fulfillment in Jesus in the NT. As our kids learn about the work of the Holy Spirit and the way the Trinity is at work in all the pages of Scripture, the door is opened for them to see how they fit into the narrative as a part of the story. And as our children see how we are being transformed by the same Word and the Holy Spirit, they begin to understand and follow by God’s grace, owning and living the story themselves.
That is the opportunity we have in the intentional moments of sharing stories with one another and the chance conversations about what happened at school – to direct our attention to the God of Creation, the God of the Bible, the God of redemption, and the God of our lives and our times. In doing so, we help our kids recognize the story they are a part of and inspire them to enter into it fully by faith in Jesus Christ.