Shaping a child’s soul, a task too important to be turned over to the professionals
I saw something beautiful one day while walking down Breckenridge Lane. In a front yard not far from my home, a young mother was removing a layer of leftover leaves from the fall in preparation for planting spring flowers — an ordinary activity in the middle of an ordinary day.
What was extraordinary about this scene was what I saw beside this young woman.
A tow-haired boy, perhaps three or four years old, was attempting to assist her. His rake was man-sized, his movements were far from efficient, and he was leaving more leaves than he moved. Yet, as I passed this mother and child, I heard no criticisms. Instead, I heard a constant stream of encouragement: “Daddy will be so proud of your hard work! Can you try to get those leaves over there? You know, honey, it might work better if you turned the rake over.”
If this woman’s sole goal for the afternoon was leaf removal, her best bet would have been to plop her preschooler in front of a television to watch professionally produced children’s programs that pretend to equip children with skills for life while leaching away their capacity for meaningful relationships. If this mother had chosen this option, she could have pursued the goal of planting spring flowers far more efficiently.
But this woman had a goal that was far bigger than any flower-bed.
This woman understood that her deeper purpose on this day was not to improve a yard but to shape a soul. She was teaching her child the value of work and partnership and family structures, in addition to the quite crucial skill of knowing which side of a rake is supposed to face the ground. She was an amateur, in the best and oldest sense of the word “amateur”: a person who engages in a particular activity because of love. She most likely possessed no transcripted credential in the fields of motherhood or leaf removal. But that was all for the best anyway because no credential could develop in a child what this mother was engraving in her son’s soul that afternoon.
In praise of inefficiency
So what does all of this have to do with family ministry?
Simply this: if you’re a church leader trying to train parents to embrace their role as disciple-makers in their children’s lives, you are likely to wonder at some point, “Wouldn’t it be more efficient for hired professionals to disciple children through church programs instead of expecting parents to participate in this process? No matter how many times I encourage and equip the moms and dads, some of them don’t even seem to be trying! Even the ones that try don’t always do a good job. Why constantly acknowledge the parents as primary disciple-makers when so many of them do it so poorly? This is so inefficient!”
If that’s the way you feel, you’re partly correct. If your goal is organizational efficiency, equipping parents to disciple their children may be an inefficient use of your time, and turning over children’s spiritual lives to professionals at church might make perfect sense.
But efficiency is not the goal of gospel-motivated ministry. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus determines the shape and establishes the goal for his church, and it has been his Father’s good pleasure to constitute his church as a conglomeration of amateurs, not as a corporation managed by professionals (1 Cor 12:4–31). His Spirit does not give gifts for the purpose of making the church efficient. The Holy Spirit arranges gifts in the body according to his will in order to make his people holy (1 Cor 12:11). The role of God-called leaders is to encourage and to equip their brothers and sisters in their communities of faith to serve as ministers and missionaries first within their own households, and then far beyond their households (Acts 2:39; Eph 4:11–13). These processes are not likely to be quick or efficient. Sometimes, it will feel as if professionalized programs would be an easier solution, but no church program can develop in a child what parents are able to engrave in their children’s souls day-by-day. And so, despite the apparent inefficiency of expecting parents to disciple their own children, family-equipping ministers persist in their passion for training fathers and mothers as the primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives.
Parents as divinely designated amateur disciple makers
In the early 20th century, a journalist named G.K. Chesterton offered these comments about the British and American jury system:
“The trend of our epoch up to this time has been consistently towards specialism and professionalism. We tend to have trained soldiers because they fight better, trained singers because they sing better, trained dancers because they dance better, specially instructed laughers because they laugh better, and so on and so on. … [Yet] our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. When it wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.”
A similar statement might be made regarding the training of children to respond to the gospel day-by-day. Though professionals may certainly partner with parents in this task, such a serious undertaking is too significant to be relinquished to professionals, too profound to be befuddled by a focus on efficiency. The formation of a child’s faith is not a skill for specialists. It is a habit to be developed in the lives of divinely designated amateurs, and these amateurs are known as “Dad” and “Mom.”
In my childhood, one of the most significant habits that shaped my soul was a single, simple pattern that required no special skills. Each night, my mother came into my room, sat on the side of my bed, and listened to me pray. What was significant about this wasn’t so much the praying, which was pretty much the same every night. It was the conversations about life that arose in the context of prayer — coupled with the fact that I had to face my mother every evening, regardless of what I might have done during the day.
At some point in early adolescence, I informed my mother that I could handle praying on my own from that point forward. I regretted my request even then, and I regret it even more now. In some inexplicable way, knowing that I would have to pray with my mother each night placed a limit on what I was willing to say and to do during the day.
Today, this pattern from my childhood marks the end of each day in the lives of each of my own children. A few months ago, when my teenager suggested that she might not need me to pray with her each night, my response ran something like this: “You know, I think you are totally able to pray on your own, and I want you to pray on your own as well. But, even though you don’t need my help to pray, I need the reminder every night that God gave you to me and that I’m responsible to guide you toward him. So, every night, I’ll still be here to pray with you, no matter what.” Since that moment, my daughter and I have had dozens of important night-time conversations that I might otherwise have missed. Is it always efficient or easy? No — but it is a right and good response to God’s work in our family.
Timothy Paul Jones is professor of leadership and church ministry at Southern Seminary. He is also the associate vice president for online learning and editor of The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry at the seminary. Jones has authored or contributed to more than a dozen books, including, most recently Family Ministry Field Guide along with Conspiracies and the Cross, Perspectives on Family Ministry and Christian History Made Easy. You can connect with Dr. Jones through his website TimothyPaulJones.com as well as on Twitter and Facebook.