Friday, February 12, 2010

Perspectives on Family Ministry (Part 8)

The final perspective presented in Perspectives on Family Ministry is called family-equipping ministry, championed by Jay Strother. He opens his chapter by recognizing the "cracks in the iceberg" of current youth ministry, citing the research of Christian Smith in Soul Searching (whose work I highly recommend, as well). His church's recognition of this problem led them to rethink and revamp how they work with their young people. It is evident from this chapter that Strother and his church have indeed put a lot of good work into how they disciple the young. He lays out in concise and clear terms how they seek to turn churches and families into co-champions.

Family-equipping churches are defined in this chapter as churches which retain some age-organized ministries but restructure the congregation to partner with parents at every level of ministry so that parents are acknowledged, equipped, and held accountable for the discipleship of their children (144).

At this point something interesting emerges. Here at HCBC, we tend to identify ourselves as family-integrated. Yet according to this definition, we could be considered "family-equipping" because we provide things like the children's Bible classes on Sundays and the Mighty Men training for young men in the making. Yet I have already indicated that I tend to agree more with the ideals of the family-integrated view. Are we being inconsistent, or is there something else going on?

I found it intriguing, as I read this book, that Paul Renfro's response from the family-integrated perspective was basically to critique family-equipping ministry in practice, not in theory. In other words, Renfro simply thinks that family-equipping ministry is not practically as good as family-integrated ministry for accomplishing discipleship. These kinds of practical considerations are always worth pondering. As far as which practices are superior, I guess time will tell. But I wonder if there are not theological views which would tend to throw the weight one direction or another, even though in themselves these theological views under-determine the specific practices which flow from them.

What are some of these theological views which will affect how one works out the practical issues of family ministry? Obviously that's a huge question, but let me just tick off a few.
  • Theology of conversion
  • Theology of sanctification
  • Theology of the family (including things like the role of women in the church and society)
  • Theology of human society
  • Theology of the relationship of Christianity to culture and of the place and function of the church in the world in this age
  • Theology of the created order in relation to God's redemptive order
  • At a very deep level, the theology of the Trinity ought to shape one's practice in the church.
I say all this to point out that the specific practices any church engages in are never going to be entirely determined merely by whether that church is "family-integrated" or "family-equipping." There will always be the larger vision of the good life that is working in the background, making certain practices look more or less attractive.

And in this regard, let me mention that this debate will never be ultimately resolved at the merely theoretical level, as important as that is. It is going to be worked out and tested and rejected and refined in real churches with real people living real lives before the face of God. I say this so that real, constant love for God and for our neighbor remains the driving force in this debate.

I wish I had time to say more. I'm thankful for the contributors to this book who have invested a great amount of time and energy into presenting and practicing their views. I am in their debt. In these blog posts I've undertaken the comparatively easy task of critiquing their views. It is always much more of a challenge to develop a positive statement of one's views, and they have risen to the challenge. I trust this will provoke earnest and fruitful ministry for Christ's sake.


Melanie said...

Maybe it's because I haven't read the book, but in reading your posts on family ministry, I'm still a little unsure exactly what a family segregated and family oriented ministry looks like. As you pointed out, our church has some "segregation": nursery, S.S. classes, Mighty Men. Are there churches that are completely segregated for every service? Is it "un-family" to have a youth group?

Jason Parker said...

Hi Melanie,
Thanks so much for your comment. I think the reason you feel the way you do after reading my posts is that I really didn't deal much with the specifics of what any given ministry model looks like. (The authors in the book did go into some detail about what their ministry looks like.) In these posts, I have been much more concerned with the *way of thinking,* the *biblical foundations,* or the *ideals* of those who practice these different ministry models. To me, this is much more significant than the actual practices alone. In other words, I want to know not just does ABC church have a Sunday school or not? but *why* does ABC church have a Sunday school or not. Generally speaking, the answer ABC church gives to that question will say a good deal about how thoroughly the Bible's truth shapes their thinking and ideals.

If you want to know what a family segregated or age segregated church looks like, just attend 90% of the churches in America. That is the only way of doing church that most people know. It is the way I grew up in church. But it is not really the segregation itself that is the fundamental issue, in my opinion. I would argue that churches operate in this manner because they have a fundamentally sub-Christian view of reality: creation and grace.

A family-integrated church, on the other hand, ought to have a much more holistic view of things. Unfortunately, many so-called family-integrated churches do not, and so their lack of a Jr. church, for instance, is not going to produce much better fruit than the alternative.

In a real sense, Melanie, I do not believe that most churches are even equipped to begin handling the question of "family-integrated" vs. "family-segregated." It's little bit like asking 5 year old children to debate whether it is better to have a public education system or a home education system. They don't even have the basic categories or tools of thought to be able to begin talking about this in a coherent way. Those tools have to be developed through obtaining the necessary knowledge of biblical truth and developing the ability to think clearly and consistently. It is only when this knowledge and skill have begun to be developed that we can get to the place where we can have a good discussion.

There is a reason behind the fact that at our church we have not had a lot of discussions about this topic. I believe we have a ways to go before we will be equipped to do so profitably. We are learning fundamental biblical doctrine, and this begins to train our thinking in certain ways - ways that we definitely did not get from the culture we live in. Once we have this training, then we can profitably pursue growth in this area.

Jason Parker said...

Too often we want to attack these kinds of problems the other way around. We want to prove that family-integration is right (or wrong), and so we yank a couple "principles" from the Bible and say, "There you go! It's just like I think it is." We don't even realize that we are shaping the Bible to fit our experience, rather than patiently being transformed by the renewing of our minds. If we think that applying the Bible to life simply means getting a list of principles, then we are not ready for the big leagues yet.

Here at HCBC, we love family-integration, in contradiction to what much of our society around us thinks. However, it is only one piece in a much larger puzzle. There is an entire way of thinking about life, God, man, sin, salvation, the church, society, education, discipleship, etc. which makes family-integration not only plausible but attractive. It is this larger vision which we are exploring step by step in our seminars.

In short, it might be called a conservative vision, a vision which seeks to recover the best of what has gone before us with an eye to improving on it and handing it down to the next generation. It is a vision which scans the entire Bible and the entire scope of God's work in this world. It is a vast vision which offers a home for the heart of real people like you and me. At its best, it is living by faith in what God says is true. It is striving to enter God's rest. It is seeking a heavenly country where God has prepared for us a city.

If our church is growing in this, then I am happy whether we have a children's Bible class or not.

Jason Parker said...

Now that I have a couple minutes (I think), I'd like to answer your questions more specifically. In my previous response I wanted to set the stage, so to speak, or to put the questions in the larger context in order to weight them appropriately.

You asked, "Are there churches which are completely segregated for every service?" Yes, there are. But more importantly, most churches follow a certain kind of thinking which effectively operates this way even when they do have integrated services or events. Often they have a view of education (which is really discipleship) which reduces it to information transfer; hence, they think it is best to segregate extensively in order to communicate targeted information to each sub-group in the church. Often they have a view of conversion and sanctification which reduces it to a series of decisions; hence, they think it is best to segregate extensively in order to create the optimal conditions for a decision from each sub-group. Often they have a view of mankind which is very individualistic; hence they have little clue what covenant bonds of love have to do with the disciplemaking process.

Jason Parker said...

Next is the question, "Is it un-family to have a youth group?" Of course, our ultimate standard for anything is not whether we perceive it to be family friendly or not. There are definitely aspects to following Christ which cut across the grain of purely natural family relationships.

But we have to ask, Do the average youth group ideals fit well with biblical discipleship or not? My answer is that they do not. In the twentieth century an entirely distinct concept of "youth" emerged (i.e. the idea of the "teenager") with all kinds of unbiblical components. Rather than challenging these sentiments, American churches followed the marketers and tried to capitalize on them. (This points to the deeper problem, in my opinion, which is the problem of the church. American Christians are generally woefully undiscipled about the church. But that's another discussion.)

So, generally speaking, the ideals in play in a youth group kind of approach tend to work against biblical family life. This would be similar to the way welfare works against healthy family life or the way the "progressive" education works against family life. For example, it is not just a freak accident that the divorce rate in America skyrocketed in the latter part of the twentieth century. Certain ideals were put into place which undermined marriage. People may not have intended that, but that is precisely the logical outcome of the laws and policies and institutions and even attitudes which were put into place. God has given directions for roles and responsibilities in the home, and these need to be honored in every sphere of life. When they are not, things tend to fall apart.

American Christianity has operated this way for so long now that we think it is normal and even good. Our idea of success with discipling youth tends to fall into getting a big crowd together for a youth rally. But we need to learn to think in centuries. Our short-term "success" in the twentieth century in reaching youth actually undermined rich, robust, deeply-rooted, world and life transforming Christianity.

Well, there is so much more to talk about. I'm just getting warmed up! But as I hope you can see, I'm aiming for (and falling short, to be sure) a big, big vision transformation. Having a nursery or not is fairly minor in comparison to what I'm after. I want to press on to know Christ, and I'm so far from it that it makes my heart hurt. I hope our church can catch that vision - the vision of loving God with all of our hearts. Then these others issues will start to become clearer.

Todd Vander Vorst said...

It is true that family integration can become an end in itself, but that is not a weakness of the method, but a weakness of the hearts of the people applying the method. You are happy "If our church is growing in this (loving & seeking God) then I am happy whether we have a children's bible class or not". I would say that God is not only concerned about our motives, but also about our methods, especially if He has prescribed a method of discipling our young people. And if He hasn't prescribed the method we are using, maybe we better not go there anyway, especially in areas of worship and instruction. Presumption is disobedience, it is just a more subtle (and deceptive) form of disobedience. It seems Saul's 'motive' was right for keeping back only the best of the spoil to sacrifice to God, but Samuel rebuked him for not following God's way (method) in the first place. It is interesting how some get the motive right (loving & seeking God) and some get the method right (family integrated) but I pray that we would not only do the right thing but also do it for the right reason. May God give us the grace we need to be complete in our reformation and obedience.

Jason Parker said...

Hi Todd,
Thanks for commenting! I completely agree with you that God cares about our methods and not just our motives. However, it is right at this point that family-integrated proponents need to do a lot more work biblically. The idea that the practice of family-integrated churches *is* what God has specifically prescribed is faulty. In fact, I get rather concerned when I hear family-integrated proponents describe their method as the only biblical method. This is simply not the case, and some FI folks handle the Scriptures very poorly when they try to prove that it is the case. I'm much more worried about the errors of handling the Scriptures inaccurately than I am about, say, having a Sunday School. A Sunday School may or may not be best in any given situation, but mishandling the Word of God is always bad.

Todd Vander Vorst said...

I appreciate your blog and committment to Scripture. So I am very interested in knowing, from Scripture, how the idea of the age-integrated model of church is biblically faulty while the age-segregated model is bibilically okay. From earlier posts (and from reading my Bible) I thought the age-integrated approach was obvious from Scripture. Thanks!

Jason Parker said...

Hi Todd,
I apologize for not replying sooner. I haven't been ignoring your comment. I simply have not had the time to reply. I only have a few minutes right now, but I at least wanted to continue the conversation.

I want you to understand clearly what I am arguing, so I am going to drop the language of "age-integration" and "age-segregation" here. I have found from recent experience that different people mean different things with this language. I have used this language as indicating more of a philosophy or a way of thinking, not as dictating specific practices. Most people, however, tend to associate this language with specific practices. For example, "age-segregated" = "having a Sunday School" while "age-integrated" = "not having a Sunday School."

So, to try to avoid semantic confusion and to make clear what I am arguing, let's simply use the specific practice of a Bible class for children in our discussion.

When you say, "I thought the age-integrated approach was obvious from Scripture," what do you mean? Do you mean, "I thought that not having a children's Bible class was obvious from Scripture?"

Todd Vander Vorst said...

What I mean by "age-integrated" is not only a way of thinking or philosophy, as you define it, but also what is practiced. If it is "a way of thinking" it must impact "what we practice". So yes, my definition of "age-integrated" certainly involves practice. But it is both interesting and instructive that often we define "age-integrated" by what it is "not", and that in terms of practice, rather than by what it "is" philosophically and practically. "Age-integrated" or "Family-integrated" simply describes the results of an effort, premised upon the sufficiency of Scripture, to not add to or subtract from the patterns and instructions of the Scriptures regarding the functioning of the family and the church and their relationship to one another. So my definition is much more than not having a children's Bible class but this could be a starting point. My desire is to deal with biblical texts, and examples of such, that FIC proponents are mishandling, and the biblical support you have found, if any, for age-segregated ministry practices. If I am missing something I certainly want to be corrected. Thanks again for the conversation.

Jason Parker said...

You are welcome, Todd, and thanks to you, too. Good conversations among brothers are always spiritually challenging.

I think the best way to proceed would be to give you a specific example of what I was talking about two comments earlier. My point in using a specific example is *not* to pick on any particular person or ministry. Rather, my point is to give us some specific passages/issues to deal with so that we can clearly see what the Scripture does and does not teach.

Since the time that I blogged through "Perspectives" I have listened to a sermon by Doug Phillips entitled "The Role of Children in the Meeting of the Church." Perhaps you are familiar with it. This sermon is a textbook example of how not to handle the Scriptures. Mishandling the Word of God, and then telling people that they must live by your erroneous conclusions, is just as dangerous as the unbiblical thinking that Doug attributes to many churches and pastors.

I took extensive notes on this sermon which include more detail than I can post here. If you are interested in reading them, you can email me at jparker [at] highcountrybaptist [dot] org, and I will send them to you. But let me at least give you a nutshell response to this message here.

Doug basically argues that “The OT pattern is without exception telling us that children, infants, suckling babes…were to be present in the worship of God. That is what the Bible says.” He asserts that the same pattern is found in the NT. But the assertion quoted above is unquestionably false. First, Doug uses selective texts to try to build this pattern, some of which do not teach any such thing as he tries to take from them, such as Lev 23:3 and Exod 10:9-11. Second, he omits texts which clearly show that women and children were not required by God to be at all of the corporate worship in the OT (Exod 23:17; Deut 16:16). Third, he apparently misconstrues the nature of OT worship, so he misses clear examples of when families did not worship the Lord together (e.g. 1 Sam 1:21-23). Fourth, he fails to discuss a central text in this debate, Neh 8:2-3, but perhaps that is because it is difficult to square this text with his thesis. The "pattern" that Doug says is in the OT simply does not exist. It is not biblical. This leads to a fifth error - his application assumes a one-to-one correspondence between old covenant assemblies and new covenant assemblies, which is not accurate historically or theologically.

Yet despite all of these failures, Doug has the temerity to say that pastors who, say, have a nursery are being like Pharaoh. This is not only absurd, it is reprehensible. If family-integrated proponents cannot come up with something better than this to support their practice, then they need to realize that they are not being as "biblical" as they claim to be.

Now, I actually agree with many of the things that Doug is trying to support. However, it is spiritually dangerous to support the right things in the wrong way. This is building on a weak foundation - man's ideas and not on God's Word. I would much rather support children being in the church service with their parents through this wise counsel:

I realize that this only addresses one half of your stated desire. I will attempt to give more of an answer later on this week. Thanks again for the opportunity to learn and grow in grace!