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The Present & Future State of Family Discipleship

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.

In my role as the point leader of Discipleship.org and RENEW.org, I convened a meeting of national leaders in the area of family discipleship on Monday, August 15. The focus of the meeting was on the present and future state of family discipleship. The meeting was explicitly under the umbrella of Discipleship.org, whose mission is to champion Jesus-style disciple making. There is no area of disciple making that is more important than family discipleship. Tim Hawks (Sr. Pastor of Hill Country Bible Church in Austin, Texas), and Kurt Bruner (from DriveFaithHome.com, Open Door, and Hill Country Bible Church) joined with me in organizing and leading the meeting.

This post is my summary and my perspective of our discussions. The following are my personal thoughts (I have not reviewed these notes with the other participants and am not trying to speak on their behalf).

The first part of our meeting focused upon introducing the participants, prioritizing God’s plan for family discipleship (based upon Deuteronomy 6:6-9), and describing the challenges we are all seeing in the contemporary culture. The following leaders participated in the meeting:

  • Tim and Cindy Hawks, Hill Country Bible Church, Austin, TX
  • Kurt and Olivia Bruner, DriveFaithHome.com, Open Door, Austin, TX
  • Dan Burrell, Life Fellowship Church and Assoc. Professor at Liberty University, Huntersville, NC
  • Larry Coulter, Lead Pastor of The Lakeway Church, Austin, TX
  • Brett Andrews and Pat Ferguson, New Life Christian Church, Washington DC
  • Ryan Rush, Senior Pastor, Kingsland Baptist Church, Katy, TX
  • Chris Sherrod, Family Pastor of Watermark Church, Dallas, TX
  • Tim Goodyear, COO of DriveFaithHome.com and Executive Pastor in Phoenix, AZ area
  • Amy Sain, Children’s Minister, North Boulevard Church, Murfreesboro, TN
  • Matt Markins, CEO of Awana (sick at the last minute—could not be present)
  • Ron Hunter, CEO of D6 (Randal Books)
  • Jay Austin, Family Discipleship Minister, Harpeth Christian Church, Franklin, TN
  • Shannon Carpino, Director, Renew Christian Academy, Franklin, TN
  • Kris Dolberry, Discipleship.org and The Bridge Church, Spring Hill, TN
  • Jason Smith, Next Gen. Pastor, Eastview Christian Church, Normal, IL

Again, the following narrative is my personal summary only (I am not intending to speak on behalf of Tim Hawks, Kurt Bruner, or others who attended the Family Discipleship meeting).

For the last 20 years, Christian Smith (Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame) has been collecting huge amounts of statistics about Christian children. Those statistics indicate we are losing about 70% of our children from the faith once they leave high school. Even with strategic church-planting efforts, we are still losing ground nationally in significant ways.

But losing our own children may be the most significant loss of all.


“Losing our own children may be the most significant loss of all.”


If we do the math, losing our kids in such high numbers means that planting churches and creating city-wide church planting efforts are not going to keep up.

We must double down on family discipleship.

Family Discipleship Model 1.0 (Tools for Family Discipleship)

Kurt Bruner and Steve Stroop (and others mentioned below) have spent significant time developing tools for family discipleship in the last fifteen years. These tools are particularly helpful for churches and families who are seeking to address the two biggest problems in North American family discipleship.

The first problem is that parents are looking to the church to disciple their children—and they are not focused on doing it themselves as Deuteronomy 6:6-9 teaches. They have bought into the consumer church mindset, and the consumer church is not working. For too many years, families were sold a bill of goods, even if it was unconsciously done, that if you bring your kids to church and the church’s children’s ministry and youth programs, the church will disciple your kids for you, taking the responsibility off of parents to disciple and teach their children at home.

Parents fall into this consumer church mindset easily. They feel like if they pay their tithes, the church should be spiritually training their kids (i.e., like paying taxes for education, etc.). Although they never explicitly stated or taught this, churches have unwittingly helped and facilitated this model. And it is a mindset that causes us to lose our kids.


“They feel like if they pay their tithes, the church should be spiritually training their kids.”


The second problem is the unconscious goals of parents. If you ask the average family what they really want for their children, and they are being transparent, what do they really want? At the heart of it is that they want them to 1) be happy, and 2) fit in. But if those goals frame what counts as good parenting, the Christian life won’t fit.

The desire to always be happy and to “fit in” are actually antithetical to the call of discipleship. (Mark 8:34-36)

The question to ask is, “What is the definition of being happy and fitting in when you are a freshman in college?” If a child has been trained that the two most important things in life are to be happy and to fit in, then, when kids go to college, what will stop them from rejecting their parents’ way of life, their theology, etc.? Being happy and fitting into a college environment means you will have to reject a lot of what the Bible teaches.

In light of these problems, family discipleship experts have been pointing us to the importance of parents taking the initiative to disciple their kids and have provided helpful tools for parents who want to take this on. With added cultural shifts, however, comes a need for further focus on what family discipleship looks like in the coming years.

An Added Problem

A third problem is the new antagonistic, hostile environment in our culture for committed disciples of Jesus. For example, traditional biblical teachings on sexuality and gender are now being directly attacked in the earliest school experiences.

How do we raise children to be faithful to Jesus amid cultural hostility?

Responding to the third problem requires a more focused family discipleship model—which we will call “family discipleship model 2.0.” I will come back to a discussion of this new model after reviewing the significant family discipleship tools that have been developed in the last fifteen years. These tools help parents to take back their own responsibility to disciple their children and they show families how to make Jesus Lord and King, instead of making the pursuit of happiness and fitting in with the culture their main goals.


Family Discipleship: “These tools help parents to take back their own responsibility to disciple their children and they show families how to make Jesus Lord and King.”


Although these are not the only resources out there, here are five key resources for family discipleship. I will only take time to point to these websites and encourage those who are interested to explore at a deeper level what they offer. These organizations were either present at the meeting or could not attend but plan to participate with us in the future:

Drive Faith Home

This site and the tools they provide are designed for the busy family. They provide a proven model, customizable templates for family discipleship, and they will coach church leaders on how to use their resources.

D6 Family

D6 is based on Deuteronomy 6 and its teaching for parents on how to disciple their children. To that end, they provide weekly emails for parents, books, magazines, blogs, conferences, and marriage mentoring for families.

Empowered Homes

Empowered Homes exists to provide practical resources and strategies to help empower your home to be all that it was designed to be.

Seeds Family Worship

Seeds Family Worship provides word-for-word Scripture set to fun, energetic music for family devotions, trips in cars, etc. as well as for children’s ministries.

Awana

Awana is focused on providing Bible-based evangelism and discipleship solutions for ages 2-18, for families, ministries, and churches. They provide families with doable discipleship, digitally delivered, through conversation guides and weekly activities.

Again, there are other ministries that are focused on family discipleship, but these are the five ministries that were represented at Monday’s meeting.

Discipleship in an Age of Antagonism

It’s important to see the unique challenges in this cultural moment that our children are facing from an early age. The onslaught against the teachings of Jesus has now shifted to where their beliefs are being attacked from ages 8 to 12, the most crucial period of their moral development.

We can picture four phases of a child’s moral development and discipleship.

Ages 0–7 – Children take in everything from Mom and Dad, assimilating massive amounts of information. They learn so much during this phase.

Ages 8–11 – Children begin to develop their own moral values and key belief systems. It is a peak period for a parent’s moral and spiritual influence. But three new cultural challenges have arisen that challenge the parent’s role.

  1. Many parents and families are so busy that parents have little time to disciple their children’s minds.
  2. Many children are immersed in technologies like smartphones at this age that have more influence on their beliefs than parental influence.
  3. Many elementary schools have adopted philosophies and practices, such as embracing transgenderism, that provide influence contrary to Scripture.

The result is that during this phase of childhood development, the world is now out-discipling Christian parents. Yet this should be the time when parents have the most influence to help their children develop their faith and morals and put things together that make sense.


“This should be the time when parents have the most influence to help their children develop their faith and morals and put things together that make sense.”


What happens when you unleash unfiltered smartphone technology at age 11? At what should be the height of parental influence and moral and spiritual development, you have just opened the door to some of the most dangerous people on the planet to have direct access to your children (i.e., people pushing anti-Christian ideologies, pornographers, etc.). Furthermore, the technology developers’ goal is to sell advertising and encourage people to be connected (and addicted) to technology for hours on end.

Christian families with children in this age range are typically not prepared for these new challenges.

Ages 12–15 – Children start to make choices to be in step with their peer group and many start to be influenced more by the lifestyle choices of their friends over the choices of their families.

Ages 15–25 – Parents still have influence on the choices that their children make, but more and more their children are being influenced by others and they will be making independent choices.

How do we help families to disciple their children through these phases in the new cultural realities we face?

How Affected Are They by These Shifts?

Maybe like me, you question how different the new realities really are for children. I shared my questions with a church-leader friend who lives in North Carolina. We both acknowledge the changes when it comes to sexual identity issues, as reflected in a recent Gallup poll of Americans.

Almost 21% of those in their early twenties now identify as LGBT as compared to 2.6% of the baby boomer generation. But how much do these statistical shifts reflect everyday challenges this generation uniquely faces?


“How much do these statistical shifts reflect everyday challenges this generation uniquely faces?”


My friend then sent me the following email.

I was told something interesting recently. My wife informed me that my 15-year-old daughter and her male cousin of the same age were quizzing their 14 and 13-year-old younger brothers about what girls they were interested in at school. The two older kids were teasing the two younger ones because they said there really weren’t any girls in the 7th and 8th grades that they were interested in. Upon further teasing, my son (the 14-year-old in 8th grade) said, “You don’t understand, all but two of the girls in my homeroom class either call themselves gay, bisexual, or pansexual.” His 13-year-cousin agreed that there was a similar problem in the 7th grade. 

The middle school itself has approximately 700+ students (210+ per grade). The principal is a good, conservative, Christian man. Most of the teachers there are conservative Christians. I have close family members and friends who teach at the school. My wife is a substitute teacher both there and at the high school which is just down the road from it. My wife stated that she would estimate that probably more than half of all the girls in the middle school (in all grades) identify as gay, bisexual, or pansexual. 


“Progressive school systems do not have to work all that hard in order to indoctrinate these kids; the internet is doing most of the heavy lifting.”


My point is that these girls were not indoctrinated by the middle school into these sexual identities. Neither were they indoctrinated in the elementary schools; I know the teachers and principals at those schools as well. But neither am I denying that indoctrination happens in schools. I have read enough accounts of what is going on in urban progressive areas to know that there has to be at least some truth to the stories. But what I am saying is that those progressive school systems do not have to work all that hard in order to indoctrinate these kids; the internet is doing most of the heavy lifting.

When I say the internet, I mean more than just websites. I mean the whole bundle of websites, social media apps, and streaming services. Kids are bombarded with the message of divergent sexual identities from every direction. And if they never hear anything else, why wouldn’t they accept it as true? 

My question then is how were these girls, who are surrounded by conservative evangelical churches and conservative evangelical teachers, so easily swayed and misled by the internet?

I believe the answer is the relationship between the parents of these girls and the local churches. I believe that the parents are to blame for allowing their children to be discipled by the internet and not protecting them and discipling them in their homes. But I also believe the churches are to blame for not being able/willing to teach the parents to be disciples of Jesus and then how to disciple their children.


Family Discipleship: “I also believe the churches are to blame for not being able/willing to teach the parents to be disciples of Jesus and then how to disciple their children.”


Wow, what could I say?

In light of these realities, what will a family discipleship model 2.0 look like?

Family Discipleship Model 2.0

Here are some preliminary thoughts on what this model can be.

We begin with an awareness that the gospel has always been a radical call to a distinct identity. We have been living in a unique country and in a unique time in history. Those who came before us provided a Judeo-Christian foundation that provided previous generations of Americans with blessings and we have not faced the kind of persecution that most Christians around the world and in history have faced. We now live in a time where we will have to make courageous choices.

And yet…

A new generation of young adults are eager for that call of true discipleship. They are experiencing some disillusionment with established church norms and they long for more authenticity and substance.

There are parents who long to disciple their children in step with the teachings of Deuteronomy 6 in spite of the new realities of antagonism to the teachings of Jesus. They are ready to form counter-cultural communities around courageous commitments.


Family Discipleship: They are ready to form counter-cultural communities around courageous commitments.


So, here is what we are envisioning in this 2.0 model of family discipleship:

Envision a church where the parents of young children—including married parents, single parents, and mixed-family parents—come together under wise guidance from the leaders of their church to create and function as a new kind of church community. In that community, everyone freely and voluntarily makes the following four commitments so that they will disciple their children to reach adulthood as faithful disciples of Jesus.

Each parent commits to the following …

  1. We will take responsibility for our children’s spiritual formation. It’s our responsibility to disciple our children.
  2. We will steer our children’s education. Their education is so formative that we must not be caught unaware. We will be highly intentional in an ongoing way about our children’s education.
  3. We will guide our children’s media habits. We will keep our children from harmful technology until they are trained/equipped to handle technology decisions maturely.
  4. We will nurture our children’s sexual wholeness. This is so that:
    1. They understand what the image of God means.
    2. They know what it means to be a boy or girl.
    3. They will desire and seek a strong marriage.

Family Discipleship: “We will disciple them in the gospel and the pursuit of a Jesus-centered life, and we will disciple them to combat Satan’s lies.”


We will disciple them, of course, first and foremost in the gospel and the pursuit of a Jesus-centered life, but we will also disciple them to combat Satan’s lies. We will disciple them to understand and embrace identity, gender, and marriage as the Word of God defines them. By God’s grace, we will disciple them to disciple their own children, passing on the faith to the generation after them.

Some Resources to Be Aware of

For Renew.org readers, we want you to be aware of a couple of crucial resources Renew.org is developing to intentionally help disciple the next generation:

  1. Available at the Renew Gathering October 4, 2022 – Real Life Theology Handbook: A Step-by Step Guide to Building Your Life on What’s True, by Daniel McCoy and Andrew Jit. This is an interactive version of the Real Life Theology series, especially for teens. The Handbook gives the reader (or small group) space to get honest with where they’re at, wrestle with what Scripture teaches, learn apologetics and theology, and see pictures of what it looks like to live out biblical truth.
  2. Available in 2023 – Real Life Theology Conversations: A Guide to Essential Questions and Answers for Family Discipleship, by Jason Houser, Nicole Stine, and Daniel McCoy. This is an illustrated question-and-answer guide for parents to help their children build a biblical worldview through conversations.

There’s also a helpful video we want to make you aware of. Kurt Bruner interviewed and discussed the current challenges for family discipleship with the cultural expert Rod Dreher, and he shared the video with us. If you care about family discipleship and you can find 55 minutes to listen to the discussion (click here), it will be very helpful to you.

The meeting ended with a question.

Are there churches and church leaders who are willing to explore these ways and other ways of formation and discipleship as we face the future?


Family Discipleship: “Are there churches and church leaders who are willing to explore these ways and other ways of formation and discipleship as we face the future?”


I can only answer for myself and Cindy (my wife).

Yes.

We must.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to face these challenges courageously.


Come and hear Jay Austin, Family Discipleship Minister at Harpeth Christian Church and one of the participants of this meeting, speak about Family Discipleship at the 2022 Gathering