How church and family can unite to fulfill the Great Commission
Jesus gave a Great Commission to His followers: "Make disciples" (Matt. 28:19). I have little doubt that you desire to be a Great Commission Christian and that your dream is to lead a Great Commission church. We desperately want to see people repent, believe in Christ, grow in Him and engage in kingdom ministry. But how are we doing? Are we seeing the gospel of Jesus Christ advance in our communities and in our nation?
Thom Rainer's research in recent years reveals a disturbing answer. The president of LifeWay Christian Resources, Rainer surveyed Americans to determine what percentage of the population considered themselves to be Christians based on having put their faith in Christ. He found that among those born before 1946, 65 percent of the U.S. population identified themselves as Christians because of their decision to trust Christ as Lord and Savior. For those born between 1946 and 1964, the number dropped to 35 percent; for those born from 1965 to 1976, it fell still further to 15 percent. In shocking conclusion, only 4 percent of those born between 1977 and 1994 identified themselves as having put their faith and trust in Christ.
Additional studies from Christian researcher George Barna and others are equally bleak regarding the next generation's spiritual lives. But statistics don't tell the whole story.
Imagine gathering together the teenagers who have grown up in your church. If you were to look into their hearts and souls, what do you think you would find? What percentage of those young people, who have been a part of your faith community for many years, would be passionate about their love for the Lord, committed to His Word and eager to live for Him?
As I've asked youth pastors around the country to wrestle with that question, the best answer I've ever received is "50 percent." The vast majority of leaders see spiritual health only in a minority of students who have grown up in their churches. Remember, we aren't talking about the non-Christian teens visiting their youth groups on a particular night, but those who have received the benefit of years of our best Christian education.
Clearly, evangelism and discipleship are in crisis in the United States—and it's a generational crisis. Although we're doing more than ever to equip adults to share Christ with their friends at work and in their neighborhoods, we're losing the souls of millions of our own children.
How to Kill Christianity
Christians are crying out against the decline of faith and morality in our culture, yet the diagnosis for this isn't complicated: For the last 100 years, we have been losing more of our own children to the world than we have been winning adult converts to faith in Christ. We need only to look across the ocean at Europe to see the end result of this trend. These were the greatest Christian lands on earth a few hundred years ago! Now, out of 728 million people in Europe, only 2 to 4 percent know Jesus. How could this have happened? Simple. Generation after generation failed to win the souls of their children. Christianity literally died off.
Our natural instinct at this point is to look at the church and try and figure out a new program to solve the problem. But this crisis is not first and foremost a crisis of the Christian church, but rather the Christian family.
In the late 1800s, there was a clear understanding that the call to disciple children and teenagers was the responsibility of parents and grandparents, and it was a role that could not be delegated to anyone else. During the 20th century, however, Christians began to more closely reflect the secular culture and adopted the model of delegation parenting. Do you want your kids to learn to play the piano? Get them a tutor. Want them to learn basketball? Find them a coach. Want them to learn about Jesus? Put them under a youth pastor. As a result, your job as a parent became more about driving the minivan and dropping them off at all the institutions that now train your children.
In the summer of 2003 this crisis became personal for me. I'd been a full-time youth pastor for 11 years. My heart and soul was with the ministry and the students that I was trying to reach. I was writing curriculum, leading small groups, teaching and developing long-range "missional" plans. Thankfully, God broke through and broke my heart. While I was giving everything to families at church, I had absolutely no plan to evangelize and disciple my own children. Sure, I spent time with my kids and tried to be a nice guy, but in my heart and mind Jesus' command to "make disciples" didn't apply to them. When God showed me this, my heart was broken in a deeper way than ever before, and I asked Him to help me embrace my primary Great Commission in the world: the discipleship of my own children.
Personal repentance quickly spread to pastoral repentance. I had been ignorantly leading an unbiblical youth ministry. One of my favorite sayings was, "I have an unchanging message in a constantly changing package." The gospel's message was (and is) unchanging, but the methods I used to reach teenagers would be constantly adapting to meet the changing youth culture.
Big problem! The Bible isn't silent on the methods we are to use. God doesn't say, "Here's the message of the gospel, get it to the next generation however you want." Through the Scriptures God gives His ordained method for "making disciples" of the next generation, and we've ignored it to the peril of our children's souls.
What is that method? How has God ordained that the Great Commission be advanced to the next generation? First, parents are to take the primary responsibility for the evangelism and spiritual formation of their children. Second, children and teens are to be welcomed and included into the full faith community.
For a decade I did a great job winning the hearts of teens to the youth group. I didn't understand that my biblical calling as a youth pastor was to turn the hearts of students to their parents and help students connect in fellowship with the entire church family. Imagine what could happen in our children's and youth ministries if Christian parents took the lead in the discipleship of their own children, enabling the church to put its resources toward reaching kids from non-Christian homes!
Family discipleship is taught throughout the Bible, yet Jesus said there is one commandment that's more important than any other. We call it the Great Commandment and it's found in Deuteronomy 6:5-6: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts" (NIV).
We know that this command is at the very heart of life itself, but what should we do about it? The very next verse gives us the place to start. "Impress them on your children" (NIV). Where does the Great Commission start? Passing our faith to our children. But how? How can a sinful father like me possibly impress the hearts of my five children with a love for God? God gives us the starting point in the next verse: "Talk about [these things] when you sit at home" (NIV).
So what is the magical mysterious formula for parents to begin passing faith to their children? Talk to them! Talk to them about the things of God and the Word of God when you are together in your home. For centuries this Christian practice was called "family worship," and it was understood that worship began at home and flowed into the church. God instructs fathers to take the lead in family discipleship: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4, NIV).
A Church and Family Function
When it came to fulfilling the Great Commission, I used to think only of the institution of the church, and as a result I had an anemic view of God's redemptive strategy. Yet the Scriptures teach that God created the family to be a discipleship center.
There has been much talk in the modern church about the importance of discipleship small groups. God believes in discipleship small groups too—He calls them families!
The family is the most powerful discipleship small group ever devised, where spiritual growth happens in the context of relationships, where we "do life together," and where true authenticity can be found (for better, for worse) every minute of every day.
If we are passionate about advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, we must not only concern ourselves with what happens in our churches, but also in our homes. Our churches are filled with an entire network of God-ordained discipleship small groups (families), and it's the responsibility of church leaders to inspire and equip these discipleship centers to fulfill their mission.
The apostle Peter pleaded with the people to this end in Acts 2 as he concluded his magnificent sermon: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call" (vv. 28-29, NIV).
Let it never be said of our generation that we received the blessed gift of salvation by grace through faith, and in our hurry to reach "all who are far off" we failed to do all in our power to "make disciples" of our own children.
ROB RIENOW is the family pastor at Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Ill., and the co-founder of Visionary Parenting, which equips churches to build biblical family ministries. His most important ministry is loving his wife, Amy, and leading his children to know God and love Him.