Parents as Partners

Parents as Partners

I have been a part of the children’s ministry conversation for over 20 years. Several years ago, I was in a conversation with a few friends where we coined the term “Kidmin.” Initially, I saw the issues of parent involvement in the discipleship of their kids as an issue that was founded in children’s ministry leaders setting themselves as experts. Saying, in essence, “drop off your kids; we know what to do.” Like most things, we swung from one extreme to the other. We have gone from a kid pastor as discipleship expert to a kids pastor as cheerleader model. How we engage with parents needs to change.

We have all championed parents as primary in the discipleship process for the past several years. However, we need to move from that model. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, but it’s incomplete. It’s one thing to champion the message “Parents are the primary disciplers of their kids.” It’s a whole other thing to carry this out in a biblical, faithful way that leads to a lasting faith in kids. 

Much good has come from this message and focus! However, there have also been some unintended consequences. I think parents as primary in the discipleship of their children has produced a disengagement by church leaders in the discipleship process. It has also produced a lack of trust by those who lead in the church in the power and place of the church in the life of those we lead. 

Before he left, the charge from Christ was to make disciples; the vehicle he chose for that to take place was the church. This in no way is a diminishment of the family. Still, I believe it is an understanding that our families are not a substitute for the church. Our families are to be a reflection of the church and agents of the church. In Ephesians 5, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself for her. We in the church are to love each other as dear brothers and sisters. Our families should be like a little church, and our churches are to be like a little family. 

The church has never been more necessary than it is today. Many things have changed during the covid pandemic; one of those things that have changed is there has been more conversation around ecclesiology, what the church is, and what her role is. Going forward, we need to change our language and structures in how we talk and how we lead. 

Ever since George Barna wrote his book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, this idea and message of “parents are the primary disciple-makers of their kids” has been the prevailing narrative in children’s ministry. So as I type this following sentence, I do so in full awareness of just how much I’m going against the grain…but here it goes. 

We need to move away from language and actions that say parents are primary and move to parents as partners. Now let’s unpack this a bit. 

What do Parents as Partners Look Like? 

  1. Parents as partners is not us supplying resources and parents doing the work. It is us as a church discipling the parents and us as a church discipling kids and parents. Then, parents take what they have seen and experienced and, in turn, disciplining kids at home. 
  2. Parents as partners know the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit as primary and our work in home and church as equally necessary. 
  3. Parents as partners see the goal as helping kids live lives of obedience and imitation of Christ, not simply the outward manifestation of good or moral behavior. What does that look like? Eugene Peterson would call it “A long obedience in the same direction.” Bill Hull would say that “Discipleship occurs when someone answers the call to learn from Jesus and others how to live his or her life as though Jesus were living it. As a result, the disciple becomes the kind of person who naturally does what Jesus did.” 
  4. Parents as partners mean we have a shared goal and a shared vision of whom their kids are becoming. Parents as primary leaves parents to decide what is the summum bonum or greatest good for their child. It has led in many ways to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle idolatry of the family. 

What needs to change? 

We need to change our church culture. We must help parents see that the church is our family, that God is our father and that we living in community through intentional relationships will become the kinds of people who naturally do what Jesus did. 

Our language needs to change. Christ is primary, and we are secondary. Church (the Bride of Christ…which families are a part of) is our primary family. Our families should be a living example of parents and kids walking long obedience in the same direction. The goal of our families is not happiness in this life but to point to a greater reality. Our families are a good gift that we are to enjoy and that form us into the image of Christ, but they are not the substance.  

The chief good and the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. As a church, we must model this for our parents and kids so that we together may become the kind of people who naturally do what Jesus did. 

3 thoughts on “Parents as Partners”

  1. Hey Sam,
    Great post.
    I have never ascribed to the ‘parents are the primary disciplers of their kids philosophy. Common sense tells that parents are only the primary disciplers if they are actually discipling their kids. They may be the primary disciplers, they may not be. There is no way to that a statement like that applies to every kid and every family. What about single parent homes, homes where only one parent is a christian or both parents are unbelievers? I’ve been in Kids Ministry since 1980 and I got admit – parents were more involved in their kids discipleship 20 years ago than they are today after hearing that they are the ‘primary disciplers’ for the past two decades. It’s time to admit the slogan isn’t working. I have found the most effective way to train parents to disciple their kids is to get them involved in the kids ministry and teach them how to minister to kids. It’s a win/win. Parents help me build a string kids program and I mentor them to disciple their own kids.

    1. 100% Agree Mark thanks for the comment. Proximity does not determine primacy if there is not intentionality. The difference between now and 20 years ago is more parents were being discipled then. Parents don’t disciple their kids because the church has settled for telling them to do it with showing them how.

  2. I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately. It’s probably due to a combination of:

    1. Being in ministry for so long (I’ve been the Children’s Minister at the church I serve for 17 years now)
    2. Seeing my own kids growing up and becoming disciples (9yrs & 14yrs)
    3. Seeing the ridiculous amount of pressure the church puts on parents to be the “primary disciplers of their children.”
    4. Being the recipient of that pressure (self-inflicted as it may be)

    Anyway, I have began looking again with fresh eyes at some of those “classic KidMin passages” like Deut 6, Ephesians 4, etc. and simply asking, “Is it saying what we have been saying what it’s saying?” And I have to answer, yes…and no. My biggest concern from the beginning with the Deut 6. passage are connected to some of the things you outline in your post. First, this command to teach “your children” wasn’t Moses sitting with one family telling dad, “This is your job and your job only.” No. This was the entire community assembled together with the collective “your children.” It was the whole family gathered being told to teach their children. It would be like Moses preaching this sermon on a Sunday to all the families who lived in the same apartment complex who have come together. But even that falls short because this was a people who were “group” oriented in a way we will never be.

    And the Ephesians passage, that’s a great verse. But wow, when you look at the command and how those two words “discipline” and “instruction” are used elsewhere in the Bible and other literature, you find that they don’t give a whole lot of specific help/direction. It’s very open ended. But I ask myself, does “Bring your children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” mean we have to push dads (not moms cuz they aren’t mentioned :\ ) to do Family Worship 5-7 nights a week, have a date night once a week, be in a Small Group, come to church every Sunday and every church event too, and of course make sure you are putting together milestone birthday events every year, and be sure you are doing a catachism, and working on memorizing Scripture, and on and on.

    I recently downloaded from a bunch of churches their versions of a Family Discipleship Guide and was just blown away by the sheer number of pages in so many of these. It wasn’t that it wasn’t helpful. It was just overwhelming. I mean, for me, imagine this conversation and the resulting list.

    A family come up to your average KidMin and says, “We want to do EVERYTHING we are supposed to do as the spiritual leaders of our children. Just tell us all the things you tell parents to do so we can be the primarily spiritual leaders to our children. We will write it down and start doing them all” Oh the list that would be created from all the books, discipleship guides, emails, blog posts, take-home papers, conferences, etc. It’s so much that at least for me, I’ve seen it backfire and lead to the things I say, encourage, model, etc. becoming just more noise for parents/families that are already so overwhelmed.

    I’ve been spending time lately looking at the commands God gives to children and specific commands that God gives to parents, mothers, and fathers. And I’ll be honest, the list is short. Anyway, this is a rambling sort of “get stuff off my chest” kind of comment. I’ll close with saying I’ve really appreciated the things you’ve had to say Sam. I’ve been in a number of your breakout sessions at various conferences over the years. Thanks for what you do.

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