Brian Haynes’ new book “Shift: What it takes to finally reach families today” was a book I really wanted to love. After reading it, I found that I loved the premise and the purpose but not so much the practice. Haynes believes that God’s plan for spiritual formation of generations is found in “the shema” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9):
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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. Impress them on 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. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
I agree! And there’s a chorus of voices agreeing as well…George Barna (“Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions”), Ivy Beckwith (“Postmodern Children’s Ministry”), Walt Mueller (Center for Parent/Youth Understanding), Mark DeVries (“Family-Based Youth Ministry”), Ben Freudenburg (“The Family Friendly Church”), Mark Holman (Faith@Home Movement), Kara Powell (Fuller Youth Institute), and Gene Roehlkepartain (Search Institute) to name just some. The voices seem to be getting louder and louder saying not just that parents need to teach their children how to love God but that the church must be charged with equipping parents to do so. Haynes puts it this way, “To equip the generations effectively, we [the church] must reach and equip parents.” So simple…yet so hard!
The practice that he lays out in “Shift” involves equipping families through seven age-appropriate milestones “that every person growing in his or her relationship with Christ experiences and celebrates.” The child or youth (or adult) must learn key truths to progress from one milestone to the next. The church teaches each milestone to the parents and the parents reinforce them through “faith talks” at home and resources that the church provides. There are church events that teach and celebrate each of the milestones and that connect parents with one another.
I see one gaping hole in the plan…the connection to community for the kids. As it should, “Shift” describes a structure of stability for the family and sets up an environment for the parents to learn and grow together. But without a strong system of relationships for the young people—in addition to those with their family—there is a lack of connectedness to the wider body of Christ. Children and youth in the church need plenty of opportunities to build and deepen relationships with one another and with mature Christian adults…in addition to their parents. Inter-generational relationships within the church community are critical for building disciples of Christ.
Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a former youth pastor says in an interview in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal that the standard ratio in youth ministry is one adult for every five kids. “My colleague here at Fuller, Chap Clark, says we need to reverse the ratio and strive for having five adults build into one kid…I’m talking about five adults who care enough about a kid that they learn her name, ask her on Sunday how they can be praying for her and then the following Sunday ask her, ‘How did it go with that science test?’ Our study shows that even these baby step connections can make a real difference.”
I agree with Haynes that each milestone is critical, each should be taught, each should be celebrated and that the parents should be at the helm. But despite the church-based events proscribed for each milestone, we create individual “silos” around each family when we don’t intentionally bring families together to live out experiences of community. He lays out a great plan where the church and family are supported in traveling one common path (and rightly so) but not connecting with one another. Maybe I missed that or it was implied? Where are the children while the parents are in each preparation seminar?
And okay…there’s something else that concerns me. As I read about each family’s faith talks and the celebrations (simple or grandiose) around the passing of every milestone, I imagine the “perfect” or “good” church families participating. I’m sure there might be stories to prove me wrong but I struggle to see the plan drawing in the adults and/or the children who are troubled or confused about their faith or life in general. I’m all for setting the bar high and creating high expectations to grow the faith but again think the relational context needs to be there in order to help many of our families step into the process. Does this work on those “marginal” families or those “marginal” children within our church families? Does it draw in those from the community–a non-churched population that is growing larger and larger?
Brian Haynes is wise in counseling his reader (the church leader) to rethink how to engage families and change the culture within each church’s own context and culture. And I love the question that he encourages each church leader to ask, “How would our ministry paradigm need to shift to integrate church and family for the spiritual formation of the next generation?” It’s a critical question that too many avoid. Kudos to him for bringing it to our attention. But let’s complete the picture with intergenerational connectedness within the body of Christ.