The old saying goes: “The church is always one generation away from extinction.”
Typically, we use that sort of “fear leverage” to double-down on attractional ministries for children and youth. I’ve heard ministry leaders use the “one generation” mantra to argue for the importance of church/parachurch-based ministries. But I’ve never heard it used to undergird our essential mission—encouraging, equipping, and resourcing the most important faith-forming agents we have: Parents.
The Real Unsung Heroes
Over the last 50 years or so the Christian church has been in profound decline in the United States. That’s not new news. And yet, in this same period of time, we have watched the church—both congregations and parachurch organizations—focus on children and youth LIKE NEVER BEFORE IN CHRISTIAN HISTORY.
So here we are. Why hasn’t all of this focused attention moved the needle?
We love to sing the praises of unsung heroes and saints in the church. More often than not, we’re spotlighting the wonderful (and I mean wonderful!) people who quietly show up week after week to make the coffee, quilt the quilts, and visit shut-ins. But my experience with our Fourth-Soil Parenting project has re-emphasized the importance of unsung-hero parents in our congregations—often maligned for their misplaced priorities and biblical illiteracy.
Three Types of Parents Worth Cheering
Our overlooked unsung heroes are juggling work with home responsibilities, personal Uber-driving, medical triage, financial management, crisis intervention, and, well, influencing their children toward an everyday relationship with God. Their plate is heaping… That’s why these three types of parents deserve our praise and honor…
- Moms and dads who publicly share their stories. Since we began our Fourth-Soil Parenting work, I’ve been doing research in the most important fishing-ponds—Facebook and Instagram. And I’ve discovered an amazing pool of parents (not churches!) actively resourcing each other through conversation and ideas as they try to raise their children with a vibrant faith in Jesus. While many of them are regularly attending churches, they do not expect the church to raise their children in the faith for them. They also know that they need others and can’t do this job alone. And they are finding community in the places that are accessible to them. Thank God.
- Moms and dads who don’t give up the keys. My husband and I stumbled upon a church in Nashville that’s pretty unusual. The number of kids and adults in the congregation is about equal, but it intentionally has no youth group and minimal children’s programming on a typical Sunday. I was talking to a former youth minister who attends with me on Sunday about why they’d choose a church like this when there are so MANY flashier options literally right down the street. He said: “I don’t mind if my kids want to attend a youth group somewhere for the friendships. But I don’t ever want to give up the keys of their formation to that.”
- Moms and dads who bring the messiness of our world home. Just one year into our Fourth-Soil work we’re learning about parents’ willingness to engage in the hard realities of raising kids in our world. Our 20 Fourth-Soil churches have been amazed by what they’ve learned by listening to their parents about their lives and concerns. Under the surface of what looks like families whose priorities don’t include church we’ve found families who serve together, find quality time together, talk with their children about their faith, and bring foster children into their lives. Our churches are also discovering a pervasive loneliness among parents and a longing for a depth of faith to ground them and their family life. It all looks different than it did a generation ago.
So look around you for the unsung heroes in your community. People who drive minivans littered with Cheerios. People who often don’t sit at tables for dinners. Let them know you see them, and love how they’re helping their children love Jesus. They are the ones who can the keep church from extinction.
Dr. Nancy Going serves as the Director of Research & Resource Development for Vibrant Faith. Nancy lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband Art, an Anglican priest, and they have launched two new families from their children.