“Oh, you have never met our daughter.”
These words from parents in our youth ministry caught me off-guard. I had spent the last three months in Bible study with their daughter on Sunday mornings, at youth group with her on Sunday nights, and personally engaging with her, along with my wife’s efforts, from the first time she walked in the door. In every setting, she appeared unhappy, unmoved, and largely disinterested.
I assumed she was shy and uncomfortable at her new church since her family had recently moved. Certainly we did not have the deepest relationship, but to say I had never even met their daughter felt extreme, even offensive. How could that be?
Then they described someone who contradicted my experience with her in every way. The real her was extremely mature and personable, never shy. She was intellectually curious and loved meeting new people. But the move had been hard on her, as well her parents. It was hard enough to leave the city they had come from, but then they moved, found a church, and right as she developed deep relationships, they moved again. Moreover, she went from one of the best schools in the country to an underperforming district with double the population. No wonder I hadn’t gotten to know the real her.
This experience marked an awakening in my ministry as I began to learn the power of partnering with parents in bringing the gospel to students. It led me on a path of rediscovering the purpose, place, and people that shape the discipleship of every student, seen especially in Deuteronomy 6.
The Purpose of Discipleship
Deuteronomy 6 contains one of the most important texts in the Old Testament: the Shema. The Shema (Meaning “hear”) contains the fundamental statement of Israel’s fauth: “
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”Deut. 6:4-5
By pronouncing this as the core of their identity as a people, God marks Israel as distinctive from all other peoples in their beliefs and affections. They are to believe in the one true God, as opposed to the many gods of other nations that surround them. They are to love and serve the one true God above all else.
This is a calling extended to every individual who claims to follow the Lord, but also to every one of us as a communal people. Parents are called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and might. Youth ministers are to love the Lord their God with their heart, soul, and might. The goal for both parent and youth minister is the same: that the children in our homes and churches would come to love God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, with every part of their being.
But Deuteronomy 6 does not stop there. It also teaches us how these truths are to be shared. It shows us that the primary means in which faith in God is passed to generation after generation is through the ordinary, everyday tasks in the life of the believer.
The Setting of Discipleship
“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”Deut. 6:7-9
The Lord outlines a method of continual speaking and reading of his Word. The teachers are the parents. The setting is both in the house and everywhere they go. In other words, the method, means, and message all flow from the parent to child relationship.
The Context of Discipleship
While the discipleship of children begins in the home, the overall context extends to the covenant people of God as a whole. The Shema is a command to all Israel. This implies that the whole community takes part in raising children to worship and love God alone. It doesn’t merely take a village, but the whole covenant community to raise a child (Prov. 1:3-4).
This covenantal context gives us clarity in the two-way channel that exists in partnering with parents. Parents are the primary disciplers in the home. They know their child in a way that youth ministers and volunteers never will. They see them at their moodiest, at their happiest, at their saddest, and at their most triumphant. Youth ministers must rely on the insight, wisdom, and prayers of parents in order to minister to teenagers where they need it.
Simultaneously, the covenant community has a responsibility to take interest in these children. The community sits in the house, inviting families and children to meals and engaging the across the table. The community walks by the way with students, knowing their names and interests and becoming a powerful presence in their lives. The community walks beside the parents, equipping them with the wisdom to pass on to their children.
This interchange is important. Families who extract their kids from the community miss out on the diverse richness of communal life, testimony, and faithfulness that help raise up the next generation to love God. Churches who remove kids from the context of familial discipleship do injustice to the relational closeness and authority structure that governs the home.
Most importantly, when the connection between church and family in discipleship breaks down, what is ultimately lost is part of the gospel message itself. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that in his death he has covered a multitude of sins for all who would place their faith in him. His gospel is for our students as individuals, but it is for them because it is for us – a communal body depending on the grace of Jesus Christ. This gospel transforms every aspect of our lives—heart, mind, and strength—and enables a life together with renewed hearts, minds, and strengths as we seek to live faithfully together as the day draws near.
Partnering Along the Way
Following that meeting with the previously mentioned parents, I found a new resolve. How many families of students in our ministry could say the same, that I do not know their child as they know them?
This led me to meet with a parent of each student in our ministry over the next year. I did not talk very much. Mostly, I just asked them questions. I learned that most parents were desperate for this sort of partnership. For some, it did not take but one question for them to share all of their hopes, fears, concerns, and admiration for their children. I learned that many of these parents had never had someone come alongside them in this way. It’s not that the church had necessarily failed them, but rather, they had never known to expect it. For them, parenting in the way of the Lord seemed to be a solitary endeavor.
Partnering with parents places a demand on ministers and parents alike in order to keep the channel of communication open. But to teach our students to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength is a task worthy of the work.