by Michael Lawrence
These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall 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.
Editor: this post originally appeared at 9Marks. It has been reposted here with their permission. While Baucham’s book has been out for over five years its proposed philosophy of ministry is still being discussed. As such, this excellent and thorough review is helpful for those exploring the questions raised within the work.
I’m a product of Sunday school. Growing up in three different Southern Baptist churches in South Carolina, the pastors changed, but the “Sunday School Board” quarterly lessons remained the same. At the time, I was bored. It wasn’t until I had a profound and personal reformation freshman year of college that I discovered I knew the Bible, inside and out.
That reformation resulted from encountering Christian peers through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Duke University. These guys not only knew their Bibles, they demonstrated for me the radical call of truly Christian discipleship.
The experience left me feeling ticked off at the church. All it had taught me, I thought, was facts and Bible trivia. So began a decade long journey in the parachurch. I was discipled in the Reformed faith by guys a few years older than me, and I discipled men a couple years behind me, first as a student and then as a parachurch staff worker.
Somewhere along the way, I came back to the local church. My wife and I led a small group of other young professionals and graduate students. I taught and encouraged local church membership. And I eventually helped lead our Grad & Career Class.
There’s a lot of change and development in the autobiography above. But did you catch what remained constant? If you guessed age-segregation, you’re right! From birth to age 27, the majority of my religious experience was spent with and defined by my peers.
The Moral of The Story
From a pedagogical perspective, age-segregation was very effective. Lessons were always age appropriate, and I was usually happy to be with people my age, even if the lesson was boring. It’s no wonder I knew the Bible by the time I went off to college. But it’s also no wonder that I knew little of what it meant to be a disciple of the Bible’s Lord. Things improved in college, but I was still in an age-graded setting, which left huge gaps in my discipleship of which I was utterly unaware.
It never occurred to me that there was anything amiss until my wife and I moved to Boston to attend seminary at Gordon-Conwell. Two things happened that challenged my thinking. First, there weren’t any churches in our area large enough to have age-graded adult Sunday school. We were all lumped in together, and the experience was enriching.
What really challenged me was a paper I wrote for a Christian Education class. I’d heard of catechisms and wanted to find out what happened to them. I was surprised to learn that they were killed off by Sunday school. That wasn’t Sunday School’s intent; it was developed as an evangelistic outreach to unchurched children in urban settings. But that was its effect. Even more surprising, however, I discovered that Sunday school wasn’t invented to teach church kids like me the Bible. That was the parents’ job at home. In fact, before Sunday schools, youth pastors, and the discovery of the “homogenous unit principle,” parents were understood to be the primary evangelists and disciplers of their children.
At that time, I hadn’t yet worked out all the details, but I knew I would never go back to an age and life-stage approach to ministry. I realized that my earlier anger at the church had been misplaced. It wasn’t that Sunday school and youth group had failed to teach me biblical truths. It was that these age segregated programs had largely separated me from the community of people who were responsible not only for teaching me those truths, but discipling me in them.
What Earlier Generations Understood
Simply put, it seems earlier generations of God’s people understood that parents, not children’s and youth ministry professionals, are primarily responsible before God for evangelizing and discipling their children. And these earlier generations learned this responsibility from the Bible.
On the edge of the Promised Land, Moses instructed a new generation that they were to “impress [these commandments] upon your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut. 6:7). In other words, parents, teach your children about the Lord everywhere and all the time. Eli, the priest, was judged by God for failing to discipline his sons in the Lord (1 Samuel 2:27-36). The book of Proverbs begins with an extended lesson from father to son on the nature and value of wisdom (Prov. 1-9).
The New Testament is no less straightforward. Paul commands fathers to “bring [your children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). One of the qualifications for serving as an elder in a local church is that a man has managed his family well, including raising children who are “faithful” and “not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient (1 Tim. 3:4-5; Titus 1:6). In contrast to Eli, Timothy’s mother and grandmother, Lois and Eunice, are commended as models of a sincere faith “that now lives in [Timothy] also” (2 Tim. 1:5).
It’s this biblical burden, responsibility, and privilege that is at the heart of Voddie Baucham Jr.’s recent book, Family Driven Faith: Doing What it Takes to Raise Sons and Daughters Who Walk with God. Baucham’s concern, and the motivation for his book, is numerous statistical reports indicating that the overwhelming majority of children raised within the church abandon the faith within a year of leaving home. While many have blamed irrelevant programming or under-sourced church staff, Baucham places the responsibility where it belongs: on mom and dad, and especially dad.
In chapter 1, “The Lay of the Land,” he places the modern American church-going family in the context of a culture obsessed with material success, the academic and sporting achievement of our youth, and the convenience of our fast-paced lifestyles. At the same time, he notes that the culture inside and outside of churches is increasingly anti-marriage and anti-child in its fundamental orientation toward self-fulfillment and success (p. 24). In contrast to these priorities, Baucham notes that most Christian parents seem content “for just getting by” when in it comes to training their children in godliness and faithfulness (p. 22).
Having set the context and documented the problem, Baucham doesn’t spend the rest the book scolding parents for what a poor job they’ve done. Instead, like the faithful pastor he is, he sets about teaching us. Using Deuteronomy 6:4-15 as his guide, but drawing from the breadth of Scripture, his own experience, and the lessons of church history (especially the Puritans), Baucham identifies seven key areas that parents must address if they are to fulfill their biblical calling:
- The priority of our own transparent discipleship and personal repentance from the idols of our age (Chapter 2, “A God With No Rivals”).
- The priority of cultivating a marriage that models a biblical (rather than ‘romantic’) definition of love, which in turn demonstrates what it means to love and be loved by God (Chapter 3, “Learn to Love”).
- The priority of teaching our children a biblical worldview (Chapter 4, “Give Him Your Heart”).
- The priority of reading and teaching the Scriptures at home (Chapter 5, “Teach the Word at Home”).
- The priority of biblical discipline that leads to discipleship (Chapter 6, “Live the Word at Home”).
- The priority of regular family worship (Chapter 7, “Mark the Home as God’s Territory”).
- The priority of time together as a family (including mom being at home) even if it means having less stuff (Chapter 8, “Enjoy the Gifts without Forgetting the Giver”).
In each of these chapters, Baucham displays both an intimate knowledge of American church-going families and a firm grasp of the biblical vision for faithful parenting. He also has the heart of a coach, who knows how to alternate between setting challenging goals and giving the necessary pep talks when discouragement sets in. The book is peppered with memorable lines and compelling stories from his own family and others. These will simply give you a taste:
- “God is not against your having things. He is, however, against things having you” (p. 150).
- “My mother could have been anything she wanted to be. And she was. She was my mother” (p. 165).
- “If I teach my son to keep his eye on the ball, but fail to teach him to keep his eyes on Christ, I have failed as a father” (p. 20).
He’s also not shy with his opinions of modern evangelical culture:
- “When did we begin to hate children?” (p. 24).
- “The size of our families has become a matter of income and convenience” (p. 26).
- “In our age of professionalism we tend to hire out every parental responsibility” (p. 93).
But whether challenging or encouraging, Baucham never loses sight of his goal: convincing parents that it’s worth getting into the game and fighting for the souls of their children. And he’s convinced, I think rightly, that this is no fools’ errand, but rather God’s design:
This is the linchpin in every argument I have made or will make in this book. God has designed your family—not the youth group, not the children’s ministry, not the Christian school, but your family—as the principal discipling agent in your children’s lives. The most important job you have as a parent is to train and disciple your children. (p. 118)
I couldn’t agree more. Parents are responsible to evangelize and disciple their children and God has uniquely designed the family to this end. I also think he’s right that too many of us have sought to outsource this responsibility to the “professionals” at church, and our churches have been only too happy to meet that demand.
In fact, it comes naturally to most churches these days, since the church growth movement has taught us to view the congregation as consumers of spiritual products and the church as a market-driven delivery system designed to meet their needs. But I digress.
From the Family to the Church
Or do I? The heart of Baucham’s book, aimed at parents and their responsibility, is about family discipleship, what it looks like and how to do it. I have nothing but praise for it. But in the final two chapters, Baucham turns from the family to the church. Much of this is on target as well, especially as he summarizes his thorough and excellent critique of a consumer church culture that has produced passive parents and pagan kids.
However, I couldn’t help but feel that his ultimate prescription for the church—as opposed to the family—operates on the same market-driven assumption that he critiques. He’s simply called for the church to respond to a different customer: the family rather than the individual.
The remainder of this review is going to explore this criticism, which, it must be stressed, responds to a matter of secondary significance in Baucham’s book.
The Proposed Problem
Baucham has formulated the problem of the modern church as one of membership retention. “American Christianity,” we’re told, “has a failure rate somewhere around eight (almost nine) out of ten when it comes to raising children who continue in the faith” (pp. 10-11). As a result, he concludes, “if things do not change, the church in America will continue to decline precipitously over the next few generations” (p. 175).
The Proposed Solution
The programmatic solution which Baucham prescribes is a radical abandonment of age-segregation. Baucham champions the “family-integrated church” which “is easily distinguishable in its insistence on [age] integration as an ecclesiological principle” (p. 194). Stated negatively, “there is no systematic age segregation in the family-integrated church!” (p. 195). This doesn’t just mean no youth group. This means no nursery, no children’s Sunday school, and Sunday services in which families sit together.
But Creating Another Problem
As I said at the outset, I’m no fan of age-segregated ministry and largely agree with Baucham’s critique of its ill-effects on the church. And certainly I’m no fan of parental failure in evangelizing and discipling their children. What I don’t agree with is how Baucham links these two matters and tries to fix both, namely, by redefining the church as “a family of families.”
In other words, Baucham moves from examining parents’ responsibility to prescribing a new role, and even culture, of the church. This new ministry paradigm is “family driven” in which “the family is the evangelism and discipleship arm of the family-integrated church” (p. 195). Baucham insists that if we are to be faithful to what the Scriptures teach, “churches must facilitate this commitment” (p. 190). At precisely this point it seems to me that he has ironically placed the church at the service of a newly defined set of consumers.
What the Church is and is Not
The church is not a family of families. The church is the family of God (1 Pet. 4:17; 1 Tim. 3:15). This means it’s a family of believers who have been grafted into Christ and so adopted into God’s family (see John 15; Eph. 1:4-6; 2:19; Gal. 4:1-7). It may seem like a small point, but the shift in emphasis makes a difference.
For one thing, it means that the focus of the church is on God, not on the biological families of church members, as such. Fundamentally, the church is not called to aid families; the church is called to be a display of God’s glory and wisdom (Eph 3:7-13). We do this as we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ and live both individually and corporately in such a way that sets us apart from the world (Col. 3). Our marriages and families are one way we will demonstrate that we belong to God. But surely they are not the only way. To systematically and holistically define and organize the church around biological families is to put the church at the service of yet another customer and to insist that it provide what that customer needs. We’ve simply traded the individual religious consumer for a collective.
It is also reductionist, at the least, to say that “the family is the evangelism and discipleship arm of the family-integrated church” (p. 195). Parents should evangelize and disciple their children, and perhaps that’s all Baucham meant. But in the context, it doesn’t come across that way. The family isn’t God’s evangelism plan for the world. The local church is (John 13:34-35; 2 Cor. 5:16-21). The family isn’t God’s discipleship program. The local church is (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11-13). Families have a role to play, and it’s an incredibly important one. But the Scriptures will not allow us to reduce the church and its mission to a family driven program.
Too Much Continuity?
Perhaps most importantly, Baucham’s definition of the church flies in the face of one of the most significant discontinuities between the old and new covenants. Baucham builds his ecclesiological principle from Deuteronomy 6. On the edge of the Promised Land, Moses made it clear that Israel’s continued enjoyment of God’s blessing depended upon parents owning and faithfully executing their responsibility to teach the next generation. The promises to Israel were given, not merely to individuals, but to a family of families. Membership in the visible people of God in the Old Testament was a matter of physical birth into one of those families.
As Southern Baptist pastors, Baucham and I agree that with the coming of Christ and the new covenant in his blood, all of that has changed. The promises given to ethnic Israel are now fulfilled in the True Israel, Christ. Those promises are now shared, not with those who claim physical descent from Abraham, but with those who demonstrate spiritual descent from Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. Christians are not born into Christian families. They are born again. It is through union with Christ that we participate in the promises of the gospel.
Jesus shocked his hearers when he answered his own question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” by saying “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35). John the Baptist outraged the Pharisees when he said, “Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Mat. 3:9); and Jesus made a similar point in John 8:39. Jeremiah prophesied the shift from a covenant defined by biological generations to a covenant defined by spiritual generations when he said of the new covenant, “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:34).
In fact, it turns out that the biological family of Abraham, the family of families that was ethnic Israel, was a type of the spiritual family of Abraham—a family composed of those elect from every tongue, tribe and nation redeemed by the blood of Christ and adopted into his Father’s household, the Israel of God (Rev. 7:1-9). One implication of this: Deuteronomy 6 is rightly understood in the New Covenant to be an evangelism and discipleship plan, not just for the nuclear family, but also for the spiritual family—the local church. In fact, we might consider the Great Commission of Matthew to be the New Testament fulfillment of that Old Testament mandate.
Family Matter, Church Matters
This is not to say that biological families no longer matter. They do. Our marriages are to picture the gospel (Eph. 5:22-33). Our families are to display the gospel and be a training ground in the truth (Eph 6:1-4). And if Old Covenant fathers were responsible to teach and train their children in spiritual truth, then New Covenant fathers are all the more responsible.
But no matter how faithful we are in our marriages and parenting, Jesus assures us that the church will cut across our families; the gospel will divide father and child (Mark 13:12-13). The reason for this painful discontinuity is not a failure of programming or purpose or definition. The reason is that the church, the children of God, are “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13).
Any formulation of the church, however well-meaning, that obscures this truth will bear ill-fruit in the generations to come. Ironically, a true insight on the importance of families and parents may very well lead to the unintentional spiritual harm of those it was intended to protect. It will do this by producing in our children a sense of belonging to God’s family, and a duty of behaving like his children, without the prior necessity of believing in Christ. This isn’t the goal or intention of the family-integrated church movement. In fact, just the opposite. But I fear it may be the result nonetheless.
Read This Book!
Bottom line: you should read this book. Baucham has done a real service to the church by calling us back from a wrong-headed trust in programs and professionals to a biblical responsibility to raise our children in the fear and nurture of the Lord.
He reminds us that, as elders, we should both be evaluated and evaluate ourselves in view of the spiritual management we’ve demonstrated in our families.
He reminds us that our culture is constantly teaching our children that worldliness is normal and faith is unreasonable; so we better get in the game and teach and live otherwise.
He also challenges us to think about the local church, what her purpose is, how she organizes herself, evaluates herself, and perpetuates herself. I may disagree with Baucham on some of these matters. And, though I have spent a disproportionate amount of time in this review on a couple of those things that we disagree about, I understand that we are on the same team, that we agree on more than we disagree, and that the questions he’s raised get at the heart of what it means to be the faithful pastor of a healthy, faithful local church.
Michael Lawrence is senior pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR. He earned a PhD in church history from Cambridge University and an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Married, with five children, he loves jazz, indie rock, and exploring the Pacific Northwest.