Growing Up Christian
by C. Ellis Nelson
The strategy most congregations use to encourage children and teenagers to become disciples of Jesus Christ is inadequate. This is so because this strategy was formed in the 1800s in response to an American culture that no longer exists. In the 1800s Christianity in various forms was communicated to the rising generation through the McGuffey Readers used in the public schools; through church congregations, which were the major community institutions; and through parents who took responsibility for family prayers and conversations about how to live as a Christian. Sunday school was developed as a way to support what the public schools and families were doing and to teach the special theological beliefs of the congregation about such matters as the proper form of baptism.
Our culture is more secular, individualistic, commercial, competitive, and more oriented to the power of science to make life interesting and enjoyable. These cultural values influence our children through television, computers, cell phones, public schools, athletic events, magazines, radio, and newspapers. This general description of our cultural situation is assumed throughout the book. At the end of chapter 1, I cite recent studies to show how some of these cultural values have influenced the religious beliefs of teenagers.
Given the cultural values of the twenty-first century, how can congregations more effectively nurture disciples of Jesus Christ? The answer to this question is not to propose a new theory of Christian education, to criticize the Sunday school or other church-sponsored educational programs, to offer a new curriculum, or to promote a different method of classroom teaching. These elements of Christian education are important and necessary but are not sufficient for our cultural environment.
A clue to what is sufficient comes from the Bible; almost all of the biblical accounts of people who believed in God lived in a society that did not support such a belief. This clue is recorded in the Shema, which Hebrews were to repeat when they got up in the morning and when they went to bed at night (Deut 6:4-9). The first priority is that members of the community (Israel) are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul [self], and with all your might.” The second priority is for parents to nurture their children in the home by reciting the beliefs of Israel and by applying them to events that happen during the day.
The Apostle Paul used the same strategy. When Paul shared the gospel with adults, he baptized the entire family and brought them into a congregation. Paul expected the congregation to nurture the adults, as all his letters to congregations include Christian beliefs and the style of life expected of believers. Parents were responsible for the Christian nurture of their baptized children (Acts 16:25-35).
The biblical clue about nurturing disciples is more than a strategy. The Shema required that followers love God with their whole being. When Jesus was asked to give the greatest commandment, he quoted the Shema and then added, “you should love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). The word “love,” used for our relation to God and neighbor, describes a relationship and therefore involves our emotions, attitudes, desires, and affections. These aspects of our selves are formed out of relationships with other people and our mental images of God. Thus, the word “nurture” seems to be a better word for our efforts to relate children and teenagers to God than the word “educate,” which often is connected to knowledge about God. Knowledge about God is important but must not be substituted for a concern to do God’s will. At the end of chapter 3, I record the story of nationally known men who, although active church members, were mature adults before they learned about the will of God.
The question, “What can a congregation do to make its efforts to nurture disciples more effective?” is answered in two parts. Part 1 describes the pattern of influences that form our images of God. Chapter 1 explains why the strategy of the 1800s was so successful and why it is not sufficient for the 2000s. Until this history is understood, congregations will not be interested in changing their nurturing strategy.
Chapter 2 describes the critical importance of parents in forming their children’s images of God. This information is significant in that the researchers do not attempt to prove anything about God: they simply show how parents’ interaction with their children causes children to form ideas of what God is like.
Chapter 3 illustrates how older children begin to think about the ideas of God they received from their parents and other sources of influence such as Sunday school. This chapter ends with examples of how some people move into adulthood with knowledge of God and enrollment in a congregation but have little understanding about how the love of God relates to their vocation.
Given the way culture and family influence the rising generation, Part 2 outlines a strategy for nurturing disciples that utilizes a pattern of influence in harmony with Christian faith. Chapter 4 provides examples of how a congregation can be a powerful subculture that defines and supports a Christian way of life. The parts of Sunday worship servicehymns, Scripture, prayers, and sermonsare distinctly different from the values of our secular society. The issue, therefore, is for congregations to accentuate and celebrate the beliefs that make them a unique community.
Chapter 5 continues this line of analysis by noting how congregations have an ethos or characteristics that both define and support the meaning of Christianity for adults. This ethos is formed and communicated by the interaction of adults as they talk and work together in the life and work of the congregation. Such interaction is a dynamic form of interpreting Christianity between adults and from parents to their children. This natural ongoing process produces this question: “Are adults involved in a systematic study of the Bible and theology so their interaction will help them ‘grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet 3-18)?”
Chapter 6 turns attention to how the worship and sermon influence the lives of all who attend. Hymns, prayers, and announcements all have a positive effect, but the sermon is the most direct effort to nurture disciples. Some of the value of the sermon slips away because there is seldom any way for adults to process the meaning of the sermon with other adults. There are some ways, however, that a pastor can bridge the gap between what is proclaimed and the life situation of church members.
Chapter 7 is devoted to the critical importance of instruction for all age groups in the traditional Sunday school or in any other church-sponsored agency of instruction. This strategy of nurture puts highest priority on adult instruction. Why? Because adults are the officers of the congregation who help set its mission; adults are the Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders; and parents are the teachers and models of Christianity in the family.
At the end of this book is a discussion guide. It is my hope that officers and other congregational leaders will form a group to spend eight weeks studying this book in order to assay the strategy they are using to nurture disciples and to decide ways they can make their nurturing process more effective.