I go to a church with a healthy, large-ish kids and youth ministry. Once a term, we have a welcome lunch for newcomers. Most of the guests are not genuine newcomers to church; they tend to come from other churches, and after lunch, I often ask them why they’ve come to our church. A hundred per cent of the time, they say it’s because of the kids. They say, “There’s no kids my kids’ age” or “My kid won’t go to youth group” or “I’m unhappy with the youth ministry at our old church” in some way. Underneath their words lies a great fear for their children—a fear that the world, with all the challenges and issues Paul Dudley has outlined, will prevent them from knowing Christ as Lord.
I understand that fear. I too have on occasion felt really overwhelmed about raising the next generation. Raising our children as Christians in this world is really hard. It’s natural to be fearful for them—fearful about what will happen to them and whether they’ll grow up with faith.
But as Mark Earngey has reminded us, since biblical times, it has always been this way. The whole of the Old Testament is about how one generation passes down their faith to the next, and holds on to the promises of God (cf. Deut 4:9-10). So in this article, I’m going to talk more from church history—about how Christians in the past have done that very thing. In particular, I want to look at two transitions when the church had to reconsider how to pass their faith on to the next generation.
1. The Sunday schools
First of all, the Sunday schools in 18th century England. Many people were moving into the cities as the cities became more industrialised. Children were working in factories often six days a week. There was little formal education, and parents were not catechising their children. Middle class Christians became really anxious and fearful that the next generation would not have faith.
So the Sunday schools were invented. The first Sunday school was formed in Gloucester in England in 1783. Robert Raikes, a Christian, was walking through the town one day, and he saw youths running wild, swearing, causing trouble and not attending church on the Sabbath day. Seeing those kids, he had a vision for giving them an education and some basic religious instruction. He employed four women to teach a hundred children on Sundays. In the morning, they were taught to read, and then after lunch, they were taught the catechism and were taken to church.
This concept of Sunday school spread like wildfire. People loved it. In 1870, there were around 3.5 million children in Sunday schools in Britain. That’s incredible, incredible growth! In Australia, the first Sunday school was opened in 1813 at St John’s Parramatta. By 1880, about a half of the children under 15 were in Sunday schools around Australia.
These Sunday schools were a wonderful innovation. They were great at giving children a basic foundation in the Christian faith and an understanding of what was in the Bible. They had a wonderful focus on knowing God’s word.
Looking back, it’s hard for us to assess the Sunday schools and work out what kind of impact they had on people. We can assume that many children did become Christians. In fact, anecdotally, my own mother came from a non-Christian family, but said she wanted to go to Sunday school and became converted in the Sunday school. Unfortunately, history indicates the majority of children actually dropped out of Sunday school after their confirmation at the age of 14, and they never went on to become adult church members.
2. The fellowships
That’s Sunday schools. The next model that I want to look at is the fellowships.
a. The challenge of high schools and teenagers in the 1930s
In the 1930s, there was a different challenge for Christians in passing down the faith to the next generation. Until the 1930s, there were no high schools. Most kids attended an extended primary school, and then at the age of 14, they went out and got a job. You might think that that’s a good idea for kids today!
In the 1930s, the government was encouraging kids to go to the new high schools that they were building. It was like this all over the English-speaking world. This created a new monster called the teenager.
b. The creation of fellowships
At church, these teens were bored with Sunday school and it was difficult to engage them with adult church. But then a new, innovative ministry began: the fellowship groups. They were formed by the young people themselves, and they organised these groups to meet on a weeknight. The group was for peer encouragement, Bible study, prayer and fun. These were the forerunners of our Friday night youth groups.
The name “fellowship” was really important to them, because it encapsulated the goal of the group, which was to have fellowship with God and fellowship with one another (1 John 1:5-7). They wanted to grow in relationship with God and grow together in Christian maturity. The young people themselves gave the talks, led Bible studies, and formed committees to organise meetings, social events, house parties, and fellowship teas.
c. Leadership and agency of young people
When I was writing my book, From a Ministry of Youth to a Ministry for Youth: Aspects of Protestant Youth Ministry in Sydney 1930-1959 (New Growth Press, 2020), I was really struck by the initiative that young people took in setting up and leading these ministries. They had so much agency in doing peer ministry and evangelism themselves. I think this is one reason why the fellowships really thrived.
At the beginning of 2021, I was giving a talk. Afterwards, I was chatting to an older gentleman, and he shared the kind of leadership experience he had had as a teenager. When he was at James Cook High School, he ran his own ISCF group at the age of thirteen. Thirteen! When he was 18, he ran a Sunday school group at Auburn Anglican Church for 300 children. This is incredible responsibility for someone so young that doesn’t happen today.
Both the Sunday schools and the fellowships were ministries focused on God’s word and prayer. They were innovative, and they responded to the historical context to pass the faith on to the next generation. But they also had some weaknesses that have—and continue to have—an impact on us discipling our children today.
Their first weakness is that they separated youth from the rest of the church. Parents dropped their kids off to Sunday school while they went to “real” church. When evening youth services were created in the 1970s, not only Sunday school children, but also youth were separated from the adults and the rest of the church. I think it creates problems when kids and youth ministries become separate from adults: they become almost like a parachurch, off to the side, and there’s this idea that children and young people have to grow up before they finally get to “real” church with the adults.
In contrast, Paul in the New Testament taught that the church—the body of Christ—includes young and old: it’s male and female, Jew and Gentile, and (I’m sure he’d say if he was here) young and old (Gal 3:28). In Ephesians 5 when Paul addresses and instructs the whole church as they gather to hear God’s word, he addresses slaves and masters, husbands and wives, and he also addresses children (Eph 6:1-3). Children are part of the body of Christ. They should not be considered separate from it.
Another problem is that when children are separated from their parents, parents can begin to think that they should leave their children to the experts—the kids minister, the youth minister or their leaders. They can lose confidence in their own discipling of their children. But as Mark Earngey has written, it’s the responsibility of parents to teach their children the faith.
Research tells us that parents are still the greatest influence on their children’s faith development. This separation of young people from the rest of the church can mean that kids and teenagers have a fantastic peer group, but it can also mean that they don’t get to know other Christians older than themselves. There’s a lot of research on discipling young people that keeps showing us how important intergenerational ministry is.
In Faith for Exiles: 5 ways for a new generation to follow Jesus in digital Babylon, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock argue that in order to form resilient faith (that is, faith that lasts), young people need at least five Christian adults apart from their parents in their lives to mentor them, encourage them and love them. The primary responsibility of faith formation is on the parents, but it’s not just the parents; it’s the rest of the church as well. Young people need other adults. They need peers their own age. They need people who are just that little bit older to show them what it’s like to be a Christian in a couple of years’ time. They need to feel like they belong to the whole church.
4. Discipling the next generation
So how can we disciple the next generation? Let me make three points from church history.
First, parents need to fulfill their primary responsibility. A great way that Mark Earngey has already talked about is to do some catechising at home.
b. Young people
Second, we should expect more of young people as disciple-making disciples. They might actually be capable of a lot more than we think. They are disciples of Jesus: they have his Spirit. Let’s give them a bit of space to serve, to be involved, to evangelise and to encourage others.
c. Intergenerational relationships
Third, we should embrace and nurture intergenerational relationships in the church. Young people need to see models outside their family of origin of what it means to follow Christ. They need to feel seen and heard, and welcomed, like they belong to the body of Christ. This might be as simple as allowing kids to do the Bible reading in church or being on the morning tea roster. Learning the names of teenagers in your church and saying hello to them can make a big impact. I also personally think we should bring back the old parish houseparty with a games night (but perhaps we could give the bush dance a miss!).
5. Facing our fears
Let me finish with a word of encouragement: rather than talking about the things we could do better and the things we’re doing wrong, remember that the way that young people will mature as believers is through God’s word and prayer, and the fellowship of believers in the church. So let’s help our young people dwell in God’s word. Let’s pray for them and with them, knowing it is God who is at work in their hearts.
In the end, we don’t have ultimate control. It’s the Lord who gives faith and makes that faith grow. With my own kids, especially during times when I feel afraid or overwhelmed, reading this verse has helped me trust the Lord with them: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow” (1 Cor 3:6).
Except as otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.