Church and Leadership:
The Primacy of Parents in Youth Discipleship
by Matthew Hoskinson
Scripture affirms two key truths that must drive the way families and churches disciple the next generation. Errors emerge when one truth is distorted and emphasized to the neglect of the other. But seeking to maintain both emphases is imperative if we are to carry out God's ministry God's way.
Today we will examine the first key truth: parents are primarily responsible for discipling their children. From Deuteronomy 6 to Ephesians 6, the Bible makes it clear: fathers and mothers must own up to the responsibility of rearing God-saturated children. Moses commanded Israel to "teach them [God's words] diligently to...[their] children" (Deuteronomy 6:7). And lest the community should think that all of the adults were primarily responsible for teaching all of the children, Moses added, "Talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (6:7). While there was a general community obligation to the next generation, Moses indisputably laid the primary responsibility on parents. Paul expressed it similarly in Ephesians 6. The apostle admonished parents to "bring [their children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord" (v. 4). He directed the command specifically to the fathers, not because mothers are relieved of the duty but because fathers are the "heads of households on whom the ultimate responsibility for supervision rests" (D. Edmund Hiebert, Ephesians, p. 108). The apostle affirms the teaching of Moses: parents--and especially fathers--are primarily responsible.
God did not give these commands in academic vacuums. Significantly, the commands of Moses and Paul both grow out of key statements of theology. Moses began with that great affirmation known as the Sh'ma: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4). There is none like Yahweh. His holiness means that He transcends the created order.
The character of God and the promises of God in Christ demand that parents take their responsibility for the next generation seriously. The call of the Great Commission--"disciple the nations" (Matthew 28:19, my translation)--must not be limited to the regions beyond. It begins at home. I have no greater opportunity--nor any greater responsibility--than to cultivate a follower of Christ in my own home with my own children. As a parent, I must meditate on the greatness and goodness of God, give great attention to my responsibility in light of His character and works, and then structure my family's existence around Him. As a pastor, I must proclaim the greatness and goodness of God, confront parents with their responsibility to their children early and often, and then structure our youth discipleship in a way that communicates the primacy of parents' responsibility.
The implications of this line of thinking are far-reaching. (1) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation, then having a youth pastor is unnecessary. Many churches assume that the second pastoral staff member to be added to the payroll of a growing church ought to be the "youth and music guy." There is in this assumption the tacit belief: "if the next generation is to turn out right, the church must have an individual who is devoted full-time to students." The position of youth pastor may be helpful but isn't necessary for the discipleship of the coming generation. Having parents who are committed to the glory of God is.
(2) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation and if a church chooses to have a youth pastor, then that man ought to view his primary ministry as complementing what the parents are (or ought to be) doing in the home. I appreciate the way that elders at my church altered the definition of my job. Originally, they sought a youth pastor who would be "responsible for maintaining an effective youth ministry for the parents of Heritage Bible Church and their teens that reflects the character of God." There are some strong points to that definition. But over time--and long before I started in this position--they reconsidered the scriptural emphases, changed the title of the job to "Pastor of Youth and Young Adults," and reworded the definition of the job to say that he is "responsible to assist families in the discipling of youth and young adults to the end that they might grow up into Christ, worship God, and enjoy him forever." This means that we must work to know the parents and help them own their responsibility to their sons and daughters.
(3) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation, then those who direct church-wide youth discipleship should factor the role of parents into their calendar. When churches schedule teen activities every Saturday night, we remove them from the ones who are primarily responsible for their discipleship--and often on the only free night on a family's calendar. I am not advocating the wholesale removal of youth group activities; I am arguing that leaders must evaluate the busyness of school schedules and extracurricular activities in light of the parents' responsibility when they set their monthly calendar of youth activities.
(4) If parents are primarily responsible for the discipleship of the next generation, then parents must be the first ones to staff all children's discipleship initiatives. Consequently, if we do not have enough parental volunteers to lead and staff a ministry initiative, we must make the difficult choice to cut that ministry.
So does this all mean that the church now operates at the whim of parents? Are church gatherings mere fixin's on the smorgasbord of life from which families may take a little of this and a little of that? This is the conclusion of some. But that is to deny the second scriptural emphasis, one that the next article in this series will address.
One last question is sure to arise: what about those children and teenagers who do not have believing parents? For now, let it suffice to say what is most readily apparent: the church must take on a critical role in their discipleship. We cannot exhort parents to disciple their children when they themselves are not followers of Christ. So it is wise to surround these children with other stable families, to encourage believing families to incorporate them into their lives, and to help build strong peer-to-peer and mentor-to-child relationships. This task should not fall on one person but should be the shared responsibility of many families.
For a large number of our youth--the majority in most congregations--reaching teens whose parents are unbelievers is not the emphasis. Our priority must be to stress that the weight of responsibility to disciple our youth falls upon their parents. Those of us who serve in leadership capacities must communicate their obligation to every kind of family in our church: from the empty-nesters with grandchildren on the way to the overjoyed parents of a newborn. With responsibilities clearly delineated, the people of the church can begin discipling the next generation for the glory of God.
Matthew Hoskinson is the pastor of youth and young adults at Heritage Bible Church (Greer, SC). He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). He and his wife, Kimberly, have three beautiful daughters and a Sportscenter-watching cat named Espn.
Article reprinted (and edited) with permission from Matthew Hoskinson.
Reprinted from the June 2007 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA