Discipling the Future Generation Now
Chapter 1- Prioritizing the Future
My brother-in-law, Jeff, excitedly told me about the preparation process behind his future pastorate. He is currently serving as an associate pastor but the plan is for him to replace the lead pastor in a couple years. The lead pastor, in fact, would continue to serve as part of the congregation after Jeff became pastor. Already the church has developed a preaching team, and the lead pastor has been slowly giving away his ministry.
One of the key resources for the church’s leadership transition was the book, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works, by William Vanderbloemen and Warren Bird. This book highlights successful transitions from one pastor to the next and how to avoid common pitfalls. Vanderbloemen and Bird remind the church that true success is passing the baton to the next generation, rather than abruptly leaving a church without a future leader or failing to leave when it’s time for a replacement.
The story of succession and developing future leadership is as old as the Bible itself. Moses developed Joshua before dying and Elijah appointed Elisha before his departure on a chariot of fire. In the New Testament Jesus left the Church in the hands of the disciples, and they followed this pattern in the early Church. The Bible has a lot to say about developing the next generation.
When thinking about passing the baton to the next generation, we often don’t start soon enough. The premise of this book, in fact, is that we need to start the leadership development process with children, not waiting until they become adults. Making disciples who make disciples, in other words, is not just for the adults. It involves all ages, including children. But to arrive at this level of thinking, we need to be motivated by God himself and the principles and teaching he has laid out in his Word. And God’s Word has a lot to say about children.
Our theology shapes our attitude and our attitude will shape our strategy. Finding the right children’s strategy must start with God’s Word, the foundation for our lives and ministry. It’s not enough to know what to do. We need to know why we are doing what we are doing. Starting with children in the discipleship process—rather than waiting until children become adults—has deep biblical roots.
Children in New Testament Times
Imagine yourself as a child in one of the hundreds of house churches that developed in the first century Church, not long after Christ’s resurrection. Your parents opened their home and even led the house church. You loved the common meal and the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You still recall those warm feelings you experienced when hearing about the risen Jesus and how someday you would live forever with him. You gathered with the adults during the singing of the Psalms, the meal, but you also gathered with the other children in the courtyard to learn about God’s Word, play games, and sing songs. You noticed that the house servants actively participated and worshipped Jesus just like your parents and the other adults. You even remember the day you first prayed to Jesus and sensed his presence in your life. Jesus, in fact, has become a personal friend and you talk to him every day. Your parents constantly encouraged you to follow Jesus in your attitudes and actions. You are grateful that your parents opened their home and got you involved in the Christian faith at such a young age.
The apostle Paul mentions children in his letters because they were an intimate part of all that took place in those early house church meetings. Many of the children addressed in Paul’s letters were probably slave children (some with no knowledge of or contact with their biological parents), and many of the adult slaves no doubt had children (note 1) Because the early church was a network of house churches, which occasionally met together in larger celebrations, the children were present at the house meetings as well as the larger gatherings. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch write,
That children were not merely chance witnesses at early Christian meetings but actually expected to be active listeners to early Christian discourse is made clear by the direct address to them (along with other family groupings) in the New Testament household codes (Col. 3:20; Eph. 6:1) (note 2).
In New Testament times the extended family lived in the same house, the residents including father, mother, children, and probably one or more married sons with their own wives and children. Workers and slaves were often part of the same household. Since the early Church was organized around this extended family, the need arose for specific teaching on how to behave as the new, transformed family of God. In his letters to the house churches in Colossae and Ephesus, Paul includes instructions (often called the household codes) on how the family-oriented house churches should behave. Paul instructed the children to obey their fathers and mothers.
Fathers, mothers, and children are all exhorted to care for one another and fulfill their roles within the family. John Barclay writes, “The household code assumes the solidarity of a Christian family, and projects an image of the household as the context in which Christian discipleship is given practical expression.”(note 3) Paul gave his instructions to:
- Husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22-33; Col. 3:18-19)
- Parents and children (Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20-21)
- Masters and slaves (Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-4:1)
Some children were orphaned or saw their parents imprisoned because of their faith. They must have come under the immediate care of the Christian community. For some children the influence of their family was crucial, even if one of the parents was an unbeliever as in Timothy’s case. In the Roman world, the role of motherhood was often shared by a variety of people, including nurses, caregivers, and surrogate parents of various kinds. Osiek, MacDonald, and Tulloch write,
There must have been many cases in which children (especially of lower status) ended up, for all practical purposes, in the care of others, adopted by default; these orphan children may have been habitually fed, occasionally washed, and put to bed by different people. If we add to this the strong possibility that rescuing abandoned children would have been understood as an act of Christian charity . . . we end up with the likelihood that widows often were caring for children who were not their own. The second-century depictions of early Christian groups welcoming ragamuffin children with slaves and women in tow, therefore, was probably not too far off the mark—especially if one observed the “orphans and widows” from an outsider’s perspective (note 4).
Paul gave his instructions in the plural to clarify that the guidelines are not only directed to the master, wife, children, and servants in one household, but rather toward all members in all households and all house churches—everyone in the entire Church as a whole at that location.
The children saw the faith of their parents not only in the home but also in the local house church community. Therefore, a believer’s faith was wisely linked with the behavior of their children. A leader needed to live the Christian life but also successfully transmit that faith to his or her offspring to equip them to successfully lead others (1 Timothy 3:4-5). Children learned through firsthand experience and participation. They were not merely taught ideas, but they perceived how their parents and other house church members lived out the Christian faith.
Children witnessed the powerful prayers and miracles. They were aware of God’s goodness through people like Dorcas but also saw God’s judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). They were present at the shared meals in the early house churches and saw the believers remembering the Lord’s death (1 Cor. 11). They experienced these things first hand and their lives were molded and shaped by what they saw and heard.
Jesus and the Children
Those fortunate enough to be brought up in a Christian home or taken to a Christian church have probably seen multiple pictures of Jesus with a child in his arms. Usually Jesus is smiling and the child is resting securely on his neck or shoulders. Depending on the country, Jesus either has white or dark skin, blond or black hair, and blue or brown eyes.
What Jesus actually looked like is debatable, but we can be certain that he spent a lot of time with children and gave lengthy teachings about a child’s closeness to the Father’s heart. He even told his disciples that children were the ultimate example of humility and their child-like qualities demonstrated the kingdom of heaven. Jesus taught that God revealed truth to children otherwise hidden from the scholarly and sophisticated (Matthew 11:25). Jesus even set a child in the midst of the disciples and taught them about humility and true greatness (Matt. 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48).
At the busiest point of his ministry, Jesus gladly received children and then became angry when his disciples tried to exclude them. His disciples assumed Jesus did not want to be with children. They were wrong. Jesus delighted in children and always gave them special attention and blessings (Matt. 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). Scripture says,
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
Jesus so completely identified with children that to welcome a child in his name was the same as welcoming him personally. Yet those who caused a child to turn away from God would face God’s anger. The disciples were always obsessing with their own greatness, and Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, brought a little child before them and said, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:47-48). Jesus told his disciples that true greatness was becoming like a child.
The Hebrew Child
In the Old Testament, children were a gift from God and part of a larger community. They were connected to parents, grandparents, and cousins—part of an extended family. From an early age, the young Hebrew child was involved in the daily and weekly prayers of his family. He watched the preparation and observance of the Sabbath. He witnessed the sacrificial patterns of his family, and he would have understood that sin carries a death penalty. We can see that these extended families prioritized passing the faith down to the next generation.
The Hebrew family was not an isolated unit. It was part of a larger community, the tribe, which was in turn part of a still larger unit, the chosen people of God. The network of community reached out from the child to the nation at large. Children were educated primarily by their parents who were responsible for instruction in the law, modeling a godly marriage, and also teaching them a trade.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructs God’s people to remember the law and to, “Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:8-9). When Jewish fathers prayed, they strapped key verses from the Law to their left hand and forehead, which was a way to provide concrete symbols to the children about the importance of God’s Word.
Yet, this was just the beginning. To truly understand God’s ways, children needed to see the commandments lived out. Again and again Moses reminds the Israelites that they are to observe, do, and keep God’s decrees (Deut. 6:1, 2, 3, 17, 18). Living out God’s truth in obedience would make the children different from the non-Jewish people around them.
Moses challenged God’s people to pass their faith along to the next generation. He tells them to recite God’s laws to their children and talk about them when they are at home, away, lying down, and waking up. Conversation about God and God’s laws was not confined to a formal teaching setting. It took place everywhere and at all times. It was supposed to flow freely, spontaneously, and at any time in any place. In this way God became an integral part of the family’s life. The child’s parents, in other words, lived the faith openly and answered questions as they arose.
Notice Moses does not say, “If your children ask,” but “When your children ask” (Deut. 6:20). A God-honoring life of integrity causes children to ask questions, and when they ask, parents need to be ready to listen and learn. Children are naturally full of questions and inquiry. They yearn to know about life, and we need to be ready to answer their questions as those questions arise.
Children comprehend truth through stories. God’s people were supposed to recite the miraculous stories of God’s deliverance and make sure they were an integral part of the children’s lives. It’s the story of what God has done in the lives of the Jewish people—their slavery and deliverance. In this story format, the children discovered their powerful, faithful God. Moses instructs the people how to answer their children, “Then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand’” (Deut. 6:20-21).
While parents have a significant role to play in the spiritual formation of their children, God does not intend for one man and one woman to carry the full responsibility for their children’s spiritual formation. God’s plan, seen in Deuteronomy 6, is that the faith community supports the family and together the children receive nurturing. It’s best when children see many adults living in loving obedience to God. They can ask questions of people they admire and hear many stories of God at work. It’s not only the job of parents to raise and develop children. The people of God are called to participate in developing the next generation.
God’s plan for the Israelite children is the same for us today. When we recite God’s stories to our children, talk about them in the context of daily life, and remind them of God’s faithfulness, they will remember, obey, and follow. Teaching the faith to children strengthens the faith of adults as well. We become stronger as we think of our children and realize they are created in God’s image and important to the Heavenly Father.
Pass the Baton
Prioritizing the future means getting ready for the next generation by preparing children now for future achievements. The biblical basis for children should lead us to view the potential in children right now. God prioritized children and so should we. Just as New Testament house churches met and networked together, the cell provides a similar environment and an excellent way to develop children. Today’s cell church mimics the house church environment as well as the gathering of those house churches on Sunday morning.
Cell-based ministry is a great way to welcome and prepare children both in the large group gathering and the small one. It’s a biblically based strategy (Acts 2:42-46; 1 Cor. 14:26) to disciple children at an early age and continue the process as adolescents, youth, and adults.
There are many children right now who can change the course of history in our cities, countries, and nations. God wants to give us a new vision for making disciples of children now in order to equip them to shape the future.
- Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Y. MacDonald, Janet H. Tulloch, A Women’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis, MI: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), Kindle edition, pp. 73-74.
- Osiek, MacDonald, Tulloch, Kindle edition, pp. 70-71.
- John M.G. Barclay, “The Family as the Bearer of Religion in Judaism and Early Christianity,” in Constructing Early Christian Families, Halvor Moxnes, ed. (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 76.
- Ibid., pp. 76-77.