In a social media age outrage comes and goes by the day and no story even in religious circles remains a hot topic for more than a few weeks. That reality probably makes this article I just finally got around to penning almost eight weeks after the related controversy began largely irrelevant at this point, though I do hope it at least provokes some thoughts. The controversy I am referring to is Andy Stanley’s rant against small churches and his subsequent apology and I would probably frame this as an open letter to Andy Stanley, though realistically there is essentially zero chance Mr. Stanley will ever hear my name much less come across this article. Nonetheless, Andy Stanley’s sermon and subsequent apology stirred in me some very real theological concerns as it pertains to family ministry
For those who are unaware of the controversy I am alluding to I will provide a brief summary. In late February during a sermon at North Point Church in Alpharetta, Ga Andy Stanley went on a rant in which he suggested that parents who choose a small church (or maybe non-megachurch) for their family are selfish and do not care for their children’s spiritual lives. As outrageous as that sounds I’m probably understating how offensive the short sound byte was to hear. Stanley received pretty massive negative reaction to his sermon and as a humble and Godly man he issued a sincere and mostly unqualified apology. Stanley’s public apology demonstrated both awareness and concern for how he had hurt many. Though Stanley clearly showed admirable spiritual maturity in his apology, he also articulated a philosophy of children’s ministry that neither seems healthy nor is particularly Biblical. He never directly makes statements like the ones in his sermon, though he does in multiple instances suggest children are significantly better off spiritually in churches that segregate children not only from their parents in worship but from even children with slight age differences than themselves.
The heart of this issue is approach to children’s ministry, and perhaps the issue is Stanley assumes an approach to children’s ministry without even questioning it. David Michaels would call the attitude in children’s ministry that the grunt of ministry to Christian’s children (or at least the most effective means of ministry to them) is church based children’s ministry. Churches that embrace this approach to children’s ministry may assert that parents are the primary disciplers of their children, but in reality they are merely paying lip service to that idea as their philosophy of ministry undermines that Biblical truth. Church based children’s ministry emphasizes professionalism in disciplining kids and thus of course it concludes that their children’s ministry professionals are more suited for discipling children than a small congregation of volunteers or much less the child’s parents.
The goal of church based children’s ministries is to ensure children have a fun time during the church service both to keep the child out of mom and dad’s hair and to produce a positive view of church from a young age. While church based children’s ministries do typically attempt to communicate Biblical truth, it is an incidental purpose and faithfulness to the Word is often regulated to secondary importance. Family equipping and family integrated models of children’s ministry instead have the goal that children be taught the totality of scripture and that their parents will take seriously their God ordained role of being their child’s primary disciplers. Church based children’s ministries create a new and exciting alternative to the worship for each progressive stage of development. Even family based approaches that have programs for children into elementary school tend to see these programs as existing to provide intentional transition into the inter-generational worship service. Though I will go more into the results later, many have observed that church based approaches have caused “Christian” children to become consumers (which is exactly why they often join the bigger church in college like Stanley suggests), whereas family based approaches seek to create worshipers that value the intergenerational worship service.
Though some parents at churches with church based children’s ministries do take seriously their responsibilities of daily and personally discipling their own children, one can hardly question churches with the church based model rarely see such families. Church based children’s ministries implicitly encouraged the drop off approach to Christian parenting, wherein parents think their spiritual responsibilities are primarily to drop off their children at the different programs their church has to offer. Family based approaches see worship in the home as the bread and butter of their ministries. Though most parents at any church will never take seriously their responsibility to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, at churches that embrace a family based approach parents are constantly pointed to and equipped for this God honoring role.
In a very real sense Stanley is correct; chances are most kids raised in a small to medium sized church will wind up attending (most will attend infrequently) larger churches with large ministries for their age segmentation when they go to college assuming we discount the huge number of kids that will dismiss church altogether. Stanley’s correct observation is more of a symptom of the problem of church based children’s ministry though than a true solution to anything. The reality is even most small churches attempt to replicate the ministry models of bigger attractional churches. Small to medium sized churches that attempt church based children’s likewise cause their children to become consumers who are bored by the worship service, unfortunately for them when those consumers become old enough they realize that the product being sold to them is inferior to what a big church budget can afford. Their consumer kids eventually leave to find the better product and many also realize sleeping in on Sunday is the best product. Maybe small to medium sized churches will stop losing their kids to the big churches if they stop merely attempting to do poorly what the big church does well.
Stanley suggests being part of the bigger churches is the key to keeping kids in the faith long term. Here’s the problem, the numbers don’t back him up. As even the Huffington Post reports, parents discipling their own children in the home is by far and away the most significant indicator of faith retention in children. While being bored with programs may be a factor (albeit a small one) in whether children continue to go to church into adulthood, church dropouts say it is hardly more influential than feeling separated from the inter generational church body. Let’s also face reality; a lot of kids will be bored no matter what. Recent studies have shown Stanley’s suggestion to be the exact opposite of the truth. As far as we can tell the earlier a child participates in the inter generational church body, the more likely it is that said child retains the faith they were raised in.
I want to suggest a different approach, one more in keeping with the way ministry to children was recorded in scripture in places like Deuteronomy 6 and Colossians 3. Instead of just trying to make church more entertaining to the age groups, maybe we ought to make our children the type of people who would go to church without incentivizing or making it cool. They might feel our churches are less entertaining and they may have less time with kids their own age, but they will be disciple be people ten times their age and worship with God’s people who come in all ages, shapes, and sizes. This is a beautiful vision and I think if we as parents cast the vision that way, every piece of evidence shows our children will probably catch the vision.The ministries of Andy Stanley and his father Charles Stanley have had a profoundly positive impact. Many have been won for the kingdom because of their ministries both in Georgia and even around the world. Andy Stanley has been a leader within the Evangelical community for decades and he has led his congregation with noble character and skilled leadership. Even those most philosophically at odds with Stanley’s approach to ministry towards children and youth should give him the benefit of the doubt and accept his sincere apology. This being said, Stanley passionately espouses an approach to discipling children that is neither biblical nor wise and we ought to stand for a better and more biblically sound way forward.