Youth appear to be abandoning churches in droves. According to some estimates, 88 percent of teens attending evangelical churches will forsake their church, if not their faith, by the time they reach age 18.1 But worse, according to those same estimates the departure rate among pastors' children appears to be no different. It seems if any group should buck the national trend, it would be these children. Instead, their exit from church and departure from the faith illustrate the crisis facing so many pastors' families today.
Years ago, when my wife and I attended a conference for church planters, she participated in a session designed to encourage pastors' wives. However, after the first meeting she was troubled at what she had encountered. She explained how some of the "veterans" in the group — those who should have been a primary source of encouragement for the younger women after years of fruitful and fulfilling ministry — were instead weary, discouraged, and defeated.
Some shared about their years of loneliness because their husbands had spent most of their time away from home fulfilling pastoral duties. Others told of their children's resentment over never seeing their father outside of church, and how those children eventually rebelled against the Lord.
Certainly this cannot be what God intended for pastors' families. Of course these dear brothers were likely sincere in their commitment to faithfully and sacrificially serving God. But what if those pastors had applied the same energy and intentionality to growing their families spiritually, as they had to growing their churches? In recent years we've seen increased emphases on discipleship and mentoring in our churches, and rightly so. But suppose pastors were to apply those same strategies to their own children, individually discipling and mentoring their children rather than relegating the bulk of that responsibility to Sunday school teachers and youth workers.
In our age of high-impact educational programs in the church such a notion may sound unnecessary and perhaps radical, but God's Word reveals that He indeed expects this of Christian fathers, and particularly of pastors who have children.
The Father as Teacher
The apostle Paul gave specific instructions for addressing a child's spiritual development. After presenting God's plan for marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, and His standard for children in 6:1-3, in 6:4, Paul zeroed in on fathers and declared God's expectation for their role in raising children.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; but raise them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (NIV).
After warning fathers not to embitter their children, the Lord placed the responsibility for discipling children squarely on the fathers. In the minds of first century readers the word "training" encompassed the broad concept of education. It went beyond mere verbal instruction to include loving correction and punishment, with the long-term goal of shaping the child.2 The word "instruction" included verbal instruction, admonishment, warning, and correction.3 When connected to the final phrase "... of the Lord," we see the father is expected to provide the broad-based, long-term biblical and spiritual training essential for molding a child in the ways of the Lord. His command does not exclude the mother from the process, but rather holds the father ultimately accountable for the responsibility.
Such a concept would not have been new to Jewish converts who heard Paul's instruction. Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses reminded them of the centrality of knowing and obeying God's Word if they were to remain faithful to Him. In Deuteronomy 6:6, after issuing what Jesus recognized as the greatest commandment, Moses instructed the people to keep God's command in their hearts. But in verse 7 he added:
Impress them on your children (NIV).
The original Hebrew word translated impress was used of a person carving a message into stone with a hammer and chisel. God used graphic imagery to communicate the need for fathers to imbed these truths in the minds of their children.4
Moses repeated the command in 11:19. This time he used the word teach which indicated the broadest sense of learning and education.5 Clearly, God expected the father to instruct his children in the ways of God. In the paternal culture of the day, a father understood that he could not delegate this responsibility to his wife. The mother would have been expected to participate in the process, but again we find that God assigned the responsibility primarily to the father.6
While the education program of a local church may supplement and complement a child's spiritual growth, God's plan for a child's primary biblical and spiritual instruction is that it take place in the home.
Moses did not stop with this command, but qualified it further in 6:7:
Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (NIV).
God's command took biblical instruction far beyond the traditional classroom setting into day-to-day life. He expected fathers to saturate their children with the truth of His Word throughout the day, whether while active or at rest.7
This passage covers three elements of learning, all of which are essential if our children are to realize the truth and application of God's Word.
God's design for a child's biblical education called for daily exposure to God's commands. Children will not adequately learn Gods' Word from merely participating in weekly church education/discipleship programs. They may gain some knowledge from these, but they are not sufficient to shape children's lives. God's intention was for these truths to be taught and reinforced through repetition in the course of the child's day. Sunday school teachers don't have such access to their students — parents do.
God's design for a child's biblical education also called for the daily integration of Scripture into every aspect of life. The Israelites were about to enter a land in which the people had a different god for every need. They looked to various idols for their physical, material, reproductive, agricultural, and national security needs.8 Before Moses commanded the people to love God and saturate themselves with His commands, in verse 4 he reminded them they had only one God. As parents applied God's Word to daily activities, the children could see how God was central to their work, play, relationships, difficulties, illnesses, families, provisions — in fact such integration demonstrated the truth of "One God."
Such an understanding contradicts and challenges the "compartmentalized" faith so prevalent in churches today. It is no small wonder that many children grow up confining the application of their faith to Sundays and Wednesday nights, if they remain in church at all. If we are to break this trend, our children must see the relevancy of God's Word as it applies to each area of our daily lives. They must see that there is indeed only one God, and that He alone is worthy of our total devotion and sufficient for every need. This is accomplished as parents review the truths of God's Word daily with their children and apply them to the various situations their children encounter each day.
Finally, God's design for a child's biblical education called for the parents to model it on a daily basis. Information may be garnered in a classroom, but lifestyle is shaped by example. God expected children to learn the truth of verse 6 — These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts — as they observed its reality fleshed out daily in the lives of their parents.
The emphasis on learning lifestyle lessons through example is not restricted to Moses' instruction. God was not satisfied to merely shout His message from a distance. Rather, The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth (John 1:14 NIV).
Jesus washed His disciples' feet, then told them to follow His example.9 Paul told the Corinthians to follow his example as he followed Jesus' example.10 The author of Hebrews instructed his readers to remember and imitate the faith of their leaders.11 God has provided examples for children — parents. As we exemplify the truth of God's Word on a daily basis, our children learn how to live godly lives.
But a father's daily demonstration of God's Word provides more than a tangible model for his children. As they observe his behavior, the demonstration validates God's commands in the hearts and minds of his children. Suppose a father claims to believe God's Word and he preaches it weekly to church members, but tells "white lies," cheats on his income taxes, is impatient with his wife and children, loses his temper frequently, or has no time for his family. Over the course of time his children are likely to draw one of two conclusions. Either the Bible is totally irrelevant, or we each pick and choose which portions we wish to obey. On the other hand, when children see their father's consistent application of God's Word throughout the day, day after day, week after week, month after month, they are much more likely to accept its validity.
The Time Barrier
The obvious challenge for fathers, and particularly for pastors, in applying this today is the time factor. How can we fulfill this daily responsibility and still be effective and faithful in our pastoral call? The culture of Moses' day allowed a father much more exposure to his children than we have today. With the demands of ministry it sometimes seems impossible to be effective on both fronts.
There are two points to remember in this regard. First, while we may not have as much time with our children as we would like, if we plan and prioritize our schedules we can have enough time. Most of us can start our mornings with our children, having breakfast together and beginning every day with Scripture reading and prayer. We can have dinner together most evenings and discuss our children's day, looking for opportunities to refer back to the truth of the morning's passage. We can ask our children what they wish for us to pray about, and we can actually pray for their request, being careful to follow up to see how the Lord answers that prayer.
How about saving two or three nights a week for our families, spending time reading to our children and remembering to integrate spiritual application into that time, or just having fun, remembering to thank God for blessing us with fun? Even with busy schedules it is still possible to be effective in teaching our children daily.
Secondly, God expects us to make time for His priorities. It is easy to restrict our concept of "ministry" to church-related responsibilities and to schedule our priorities accordingly, often neglecting our families in the process. However, it is clear from these passages that God also views our responsibility to train our own children as essential ministry. Therefore, we are obligated to balance our responsibilities to our churches and to our families, prioritizing our schedules to include making disciples of our own children.
And as we do, we will have the joy of watching our children embrace a biblical worldview, and absorb the principles of God's Word into their lives.
Not only does God's Word command fathers to train children in the ways of the Lord, it also reveals that pastors who don't fulfill this duty do not meet the scriptural qualifications for serving as pastor of a local church.
God identifies His requirements for those who serve as pastors in I Timothy 3: 1-7. In verse 4 He says, He must manage his own family well ... . From what we have seen, it's clear that management responsibility includes providing spiritual training for his children. He continued, ... and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If a father has fulfilled his responsibility in his children's spiritual training, obedience and respect will naturally follow. On the other hand, if a father does not invest the necessary time in discipling his children, he should not be surprised if his children neither obey nor respect him. God made the comparison in verse 5, If anyone does not know how to manage his own family well, how can he take care of God's church?
If I am not making disciples in my own home, how can I presume to make disciples outside the home? Our first discipleship priority is our own family. If we are not obeying God in our responsibilities with our own families, according to these verses we are in no position to serve as pastor in God's larger family.
However, when we do, we equip and prepare our children to walk with God, and position them to help reap a harvest of righteousness in generations to come.
Changing Lives, Changing the World
In a recent interview, SBC LIFE asked Josh McDowell, "If you could say, 'Preachers, do this and you will change your people's lives,' what would you say?"
He responded, "I would say, 'Do everything you can to work on your relationship with your wife, and to spend time with your children.' If a pastor does not do that, he's going to bomb out in the ministry."
Later in the interview, SBC LIFE asked McDowell what he thought were the main challenges or issues for our society and for Christianity in America.
He responded, "First, I would say parenting. Research shows that kids learn spirituality not in church, not in the youth group, not from the youth pastor or the pastor, but from mom and dad. I am convinced the number one responsibility of the youth worker is to help parents to relate to their own kids in their home."12
The Lord can still change the world, but His time-honored method includes authentic, godly instruction and training in the home. If it is not taking place in the homes of our church families, renewal is not likely in our nation. And it won't likely take place in our church families if it is not taking place in the homes of pastors.
When we make disciples in our homes, we provide an example for the fathers of our churches to do the same in their own homes. These fathers may not have had adequate models of godly living and biblical integration. You can provide that. And as the men in your church begin to teach their children lessons of faith and begin to apply God's Word to every facet of their day, they themselves begin to learn priceless, life-changing lessons. As a result, their children are more likely to embrace the faith and take it into their world to transform it.
1. Jerry Pipes, Family to Family (North American Mission Board, 1999), 50.
2. See Bertram's discussion, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol.V, 621-625.
3. See Bauer, Ardnt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 546. Also see TDNT, Vol. IV, 1019-1022.
4. See Eugene H. Merrill, The New American Commentary, Vol. 4, Deuteronomy, 167. See also Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1042. For an in-depth discussion on the Piel, see Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, 141.
5. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, 480. See also Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. II, 137, 138.
6. See Trutza's discussion in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, 504,505.
7. Merrill, ibid.
8. F.B. Huey, Jr., "Idolatry," Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 3, 242-248.
9. John 13:1-15.
10. I Corinthians 11:1.
11. Hebrews 13:7.
12. SBC LIFE, May 2000.
This article originally appeared in Minister's Family, Winter 2000.