What follows was part of the content of our most recent "By the Way…" seminar for parents at Riverview Baptist Church. The seminar focused on some of the spiritual dangers facing children who grow up in the church, and how parents need to be aware of the potential for these dangers so as to modify their discipleship accordingly.
1. Familiarity and Sincerity Vs. True Faith
If you visited the White House and said, "Let me in, I know Barack Obama, and I need to talk to him," Secret Service would probably have you swept away to a secure location before you knew what hit you. But if Barack Obama emerged from the White House and said, "I know this man," then the whole situation is changed. Similarly, the question for would-be believers isn't just "Do you know Jesus?" but is also "Does Jesus know you?"
The negative answer to the latter question appears to be the unfortunate situation of some hypothetical characters in Matthew 7.21-23. These folks claim to know Jesus, and even claim to know him on somewhat of an intimate, personal basis, as demonstrated by calling him, "Lord, Lord." This repetition is a signal to the reader that these folks really, truly believe themselves to be close to Jesus. The only problem is that what they think they are is not what they actually are. Although they claim to know Jesus, Jesus does not reciprocate. Instead, he says he never knew them, which means that these people have deceived themselves into believing themselves to be Jesus' followers when they were not. A significant focus of this passage is not only what these people did/didn't do to disassociated with Jesus, but also the reality that their familiarity with Jesus and sincerity of their misplaced belief led them to believe that they had a spiritual status they in fact, did not.
This is something that parents need to watch out for: does my child know about Jesus (even enough to do things in his name?), or does my child know Jesus? Is it possible that my child has a set of knowledge about Jesus and is familiar with who he is both as man and as God, and what he has done on their behalf, but has no true faith?
2. "Family Faith"
Matthew 3 and John 8 describe two unique encounters that John the Baptist and Jesus both have with Pharisees. In each instance the Pharisees self-identify as "children of Abraham," insinuating that their heritage qualifies them as members of God's family. Not so, declare John and Jesus. One does not belong to God because he or she is of a certain bloodline. Nor does one belong to God because of a certain cultural or ethnic heritage. Instead, those who believe and act as Abraham believed and acted belong to God (of which the Pharisees did neither).
Parents need to be aware of the possibility that their children might identify with the Christian faith simply because it is what their family has always done. The Pharisees of the first century said, "We have Abraham as our father." 21st century children of Christian families say, "I'm a Christian because everyone in my family is a Christian. Of course I'm a Christian! It's the way I was raised." Both the first century Pharisees and 21st century children are wrong.
3. Emotional Manipulation
In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul renounces cheap tricks and deceptive ways of teaching and ministering the gospel because he knows that such teaching is phony and does not contain any real substance. It turns out false teachers of his day were cunning and using "underhanded" methods in how they taught, persuading people to be moved by something other than biblical truth.
A sad but very real trend in modern evangelicalism is to play on people's emotions in order to affect a desired result, such as coming forward during a service, being baptized, making a "commitment," pray a sinner's prayer, give money, or whatever. Some of this manipulation takes place, I believe, intentionally, while other forms are more unintentional and innocent. But innocent as it may be, it has the propensity to lead our children astray, and to lead them to do things they might otherwise not do if they were thinking clearly.
There are numerous examples of this happening throughout the church every week. Furthermore, churches and Christian camps unwittingly play upon people's emotions as a regular part of their ministry methods and practices. It's time to wise up and realize that how we do and say things in ministry is just as important as what we do and say in ministry.
Parents should always be pointing their children toward the truth, while navigating emotions wisely and with the knowledge that emotions can lead us (and our children) astray. They are not infallible.
The Old Testament is replete with examples of people following the letter of God's law but completely disregarding the spirit. What does that mean? It means they technically did everything right on the outside, but the inside was still rotten to the core. These people appeared to be very moral, but inside were completely depraved. They were well behaved sinners. And the Jews of the New Testament didn't fare much better: Jesus compared to them whitewashed tombs were full of rotting corpses on the inside - they did the right stuff, but inwardly were sinful and wicked.
One danger of teaching the Bible and spiritual things to children is that they can interpret the Bible as moralism - a guide for living morally. While the Bible does lead us to righteousness and away from sin, any kind of moral change in a person that is not rooted in Christ is damnable. Parents should attempt to discern if a child's change in behavior is based on real transformation or on a misplaced desire to obey rules.
So what can parents do?
There are several things that parents can do in recognition of these dangers when it comes to ministry in churches and Christian camps.
1. Get to know your child's teachers and pastors.
2. Get to know the curriculum your child is learning.
3. "Test" your child to see where he or she is at spiritually and emotionally in their spiritual awakening/growth process.
4. Ask questions! Find out how your children are processing what they hear and learn. Don't settle for one word answers or "Sunday School answers."
5. Be involved in what they are learning. Throw yourself into the lesson material during the week and at home.
No system is perfect, and God is still sovereign. He will do what he will do. But as parents we are charged to care for our children's spiritual growth and discipleship. It behooves parents therefore to know what dangers exist in ministry to children and to walk with their children through this process.