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Doing Less So Parents Can Do More

September 17, 2012

Timothy Jones:

Parents in your ministry don’t have time to disciple their children—or, at least, that’s the way many of them feel when they look at their weekly to-do lists. In the research that formed the foundations for my Family Ministry Field Guide, half of parents had resigned themselves to the notion that, to some degree, their families were simply too busy to engage in practices of family discipleship.

So what were the factors that prevented these parents from having the time for intentional spiritual formation in their households?

For a significant minority of parents, it was children’s sports and school activities that trumped time together as a family when it came to scheduling priorities. Nearly one-third of parents agreed that they were willing “to do whatever it takes” for their children to succeed in certain sports or school activities.

And what if the resulting schedule was so hectic that it prevented the family even from eating a single meal together during the week?

As long as the payoff at the end included academic or athletic successes for their child, these parents states that they were willing to pay the price.

This pattern suggests that a significant number of parents in our ministries have allowed their priorities to be shaped by the dominant culture—a culture wherein the primary goal of parenting is to produce children who become happy, well-paid adults. Parents perceive accomplishments in sports and schooling as their children’s pathway to present popularity and future financial success. As a result, athletics and academics define these parents’ designs for their children’s lives.

These fathers and mothers see their children as gifts to be treasured—and this is good. In God’s design, children are a blessing and a gift (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 127:3–5). And yet, seen in light of the whole story of God, children are far more than a gift for this life.

If children were nothing more than a gift for this life, a single-minded focus on children’s happiness and success might make sense. As long as the family’s frenetic schedule secures a spot for the child in a top-tier university, forfeiting intentional spiritual formation for the sake of competitive sports leagues and advanced-placement classes would be understandable—if children were a gift for this life only. Perhaps working round-the-clock would be plausible provided that your children’s friends are visibly impressed with the house you can barely afford. If children were a gift for this life only, maybe it would make sense to raise children with calendars that are full but souls that are empty, captives of the deadly delusion that their value depends on what they accomplish here and now.

But children are far more than a gift for this life.

Children are bearers of the gospel to generations yet unborn. In God’s good design, your children and mine will raise children who will in turn beget more children. How we mold our children’s souls while they reside in our households will shape the lives of children who have yet to draw their first gasp of air (Ps. 78:6–7).

Your children and mine are also eternal beings whose days will long outlast the rise and fall of all the kingdoms of the earth. They and their children and their children’s children will flit ever so briefly across the face of this earth before being swept away into eternity (James 4:14). If our children become our brothers and sisters in Christ, their days upon this earth are preparatory for glory that will never end (Dan. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:17—5:4; 2 Pet. 1:10–11). That’s why our primary purpose for these children must not be anything as mean and miserable as success. Our purpose should be—as Richard Ross has been saying for years—to leverage our children’s lives to advance God’s kingdom so that every tribe, every nation, and every people-group gains the opportunity to respond in faith to the rightful King of kings.

“For what does it profit a man to gain the world world and to lose his soul?” Jesus asked his first followers (Mark 8:36).

When it comes to our children, we might ask a similar question: What does it profit your child to gain a baseball scholarship and yet never experience consistent prayer and devotional times with his parents? What will it profit my child to succeed as a ballet dancer and yet never know the rhythms of a home where we are willing to release any dream at any moment if we become too busy to disciple one another? What will it profit the children all around us in our churches to be accepted into the finest colleges and yet never leverage their lives for the sake of proclaiming the gospel to the nations? What will it profit pastors to lead the largest churches with the greatest discipleship programs if they don’t disciple their own households?

There is no profit in such endeavors—no real or lasting profit, anyway—but the costs are painful, infinite, and eternal.

How Success Becomes an Idol

In the beginning, God infused humanity with a yearning for eternity (Ecc. 3:11). If the scope of our vision for our lives or for the lives of our children shrinks any smaller than eternity, our thirst for the infinite will drive us to attempt to fill the emptiness with a multitude of lesser goals and lower gods—including the fleeting happiness and success of our children. When the happiness and success of children becomes the controlling framework for life, parents expect their children to have, to do, and to be more than anyone else, and they are willing to sacrifice family relationships and discipleship to achieve this objective. The result is—in the words of Walt Mueller—”a culture of childhood royalty” that treats children like princes and princesses instead of potential or actual brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am not suggesting that successes in academics or athletics or vocation somehow stand outside God’s good plan. Learning and play are joys that God himself wove into the very fabric of creation. Although cursed in the fall, work was also part of God’s good design before the fall (Gen. 2:15; 3:17–23).

And yet, whenever any activity—however good it may be—becomes amplified to the point that no time remains for family members to disciple one another, a divinely-designed joy has been distorted into a hell-spawned idol. God calls us—just as he called our father Abraham—to be willing to release every longing for our child’s pleasure and success for the sake of obedience to God’s Word (Gen. 22:2–18). In this, what God asks of us is no less than what he himself has already done in Jesus Christ: “He . . . did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32).

Of course, most parents in churches typically do believe, at least on the surface, that their children’s existence will persist past this life. The problem is that this tenet of faith doesn’t always make its way into their daily practices of prioritizing household commitments. Parents mentally accept the fact that their children will exist forever, but they do not live in light of this truth. When this truth works its way into daily life, parents begin to weigh their family’s priorities and schedules in light of the gospel. Until that happens and until the gospel drives even our scheduling priorities, families will continue to default to the values of the culture around them, and parents will remain too busy to engage in intentional discipleship with their children.

So how can your ministry help parents rethink their family’s priorities in light of the gospel?

A critical look at your own ministry calendar is probably the best place to start.

The cluttered family calendars that hang from refrigerator doors in members’ homes mimic patterns that are modeled each week in the church bulletin. Both tend to be excessively busy—and sometimes because of a similar fixation on visible success. Parents seek success for their children in the form of higher S.A.T. scores or athletic victories; church leaders add more activities to make members happier and to improve the numbers on their annual church profiles. The idolatry is the same; only the paperwork is different.

When ministry calendars become too crowded, weekly Bible studies and committee meetings and youth groups compete with seasonal activities and monthly events. Eventually, families become so busy doing church that no time remains for them to be the church in their homes and communities. If your church is planning for parents to disciple children, your ministry may need to do less so that parents have time to do more. After all, if active church members invest half their evenings each week (or more) enabling their church’s fixation on programs, where will they find the time to form the spiritual lives of their children? And when will they mentor children whose parents aren’t yet believers?

Not only parents but also church ministries must be challenged to reevaluate every time commitment in light of God’s plan for the homes of his people. Once a vision for equipping families works its way through every part of your congregation, family ministry is likely to require a shift that may be a bit uncomfortable if your congregation is convinced that growth occurs only through programs on the church campus. This shift entails doing less so that parents can do more—streamlining, combining, and even cutting activities so that families become free to join God’s mission in their households and communities.

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