This sermon is part of the sermon series "From Generation to Generation". See series.
Several years ago, a Peace Corps worker wrote a children's book based upon her experiences in Africa. It tells the story of a young girl named Yemi whose mother asks her to watch her baby brother, Kokou, on their trip to the market. Yemi is proud to be watching her brother all by herself. But soon after they get to the market, Yemi turns her head for a moment, and Kokou slips away. Yemi frantically searches the market for her lost brother, worried that he's hungry, or thirsty, or tired. But as it turns out, Kokou never has a chance to be hungry or thirsty or tired, because every adult he bumped into took care of him for a few minutes, giving him something to eat and something to drink and a quiet place to take a rest.
When Yemi finally found her brother, he was happy, well-fed, and rested. She hurried him back to their mother and told her how she had lost Kokou for a while, but all of the people of the village took care of him until she found him again. Yemi's mother wasn't surprised at all. She looked at her daughter and said: "What my mama told me, I will tell you. We don't raise our children by ourselves. It takes a village to raise a child."
This morning, we're beginning a 3-week series exploring the challenge of passing faith on to the next generation. It's a series designed not just for parents, but for grandparents and aunts and uncles, as well. It's not just for children's workers and youth staff; it's for every Christ-follower. Because the truth is, we all have children and young people in our lives—members of your family or your extended family, kids who live in your neighborhood or community, young people you encounter in the course of your daily life. Some of you work with children professionally as teachers or child care workers or medical professionals. Others of you work with children in your community—coaching sports, leading scouts, serving on a school committee or a service organization.
If you're a member of this church, or of any church for that matter, you have children in your life. We probably have upwards of 1,000 children and teenagers on our campus today. Chances are you won't make it from the worship center to your car without passing some of them in the hallway or parking lot, or sitting beside them on the bus. If you're a member of a small group or community, there are probably children associated with that group, children you pray for and care about. We all have children in our lives, and according to God's Word, we are responsible not only for their physical and emotional welfare, but for their spiritual development as well. We are responsible not only for our own children, but for all the children in our community.
So for the next few weeks, we'll be lifting our vision for ministry to children and young people, learning how to pass our faith on to the next generation, and discovering why children are so important to God and to the advance of God's Kingdom on Earth. Let's begin with Psalm 78.
A public prayer
Look at verses 1-5 to start:
O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from old—things we have heard and known, things our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statures for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children.
Like all of the psalms, Psalm 78 is a prayer. In fact, you might call the Psalms "A Book of Common Prayers." You can find almost every kind of prayer imaginable in the psalms—prayers for help, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for protection and provision, prayers of thanksgiving and celebration. So it's not surprising that we find in the collection a prayer for the next generation; a prayer for our children. My guess is that every person in this room has children on their prayer list, whether your own or those who are close to you. If you're a parent or grandparent, my guess is that you pray for those children first and best and most. I got to thinking about some of the prayers we pray for our children as they grow up:
Lord, watch over my child as he or she grows within my womb.
Lord, let my child be born healthy.
Lord, help my child to sleep through the night, please.
Lord, keep my child safe as she goes off to school.
Lord, please heal my child.
Lord, help my child say no to drugs.
Lord, help him to choose the right friends.
Lord, lead her to the right college, and let us win the lottery so we can pay for it.
Lord, let him meet a nice girl.
Lord, don't let her marry that bum.
Lord, please, make him move out of the house.
Prayers like these, and many more, have been offered up for the children in your life. But if you are a follower of Christ, the prayer you pray first and most for children is, "Lord, may they come to know you as Savior and follow you all their lives."
And that's what this is—a prayer for the next generation to come to faith. The prayer continues in verses 6-7: "So the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands."
Surely we have all prayed prayers like that for the children in our lives—in our families and church and community. But notice something about this prayer: it's not a private prayer to be prayed alone at your kitchen table or kneeling beside your bed. This is a public prayer to be said or read aloud in the company of God's people. It's a corporate prayer of commitment and trust, which tells us that seeing children come to faith is not just a family matter, but a church matter. It is a burden and prayer that the entire community of faith shares together. Notice, too, that this prayer is instructive as well as intercessory; the speaker is praying and preaching at the same time.
He begins by reminding the congregation that the faith we possess is a faith passed on to us by fathers and forefathers, by mothers and grandmothers. Most of us in this room would probably point to an adult or two or three or more who shaped us spiritually, even if we didn't come to faith until we were adults. My guess is that most of us could point to people outside our immediate family who influenced us spiritually—Sunday school teachers and youth workers and coaches and pastors and musicians and baby-sitters and neighbors. (In fact, I'd like you to turn right now and tell someone next to you about one of those people, outside your family, who pointed you to Christ when you were a child.)
The author, the pray-er, goes on to say that his generation now has a responsibility—both to those who follow and to those who came before. He and his peers are a vital link in a generational chain by which knowledge of God is passed on, from one to another to another. And that responsibility belongs not just to families, but to the community of believers. It's as if all the children belong to all the people. It's a sacred trust entered into by each succeeding generation. To paraphrase the African proverb: We don't lead our children to faith by ourselves. It takes a church to raise a child.
It's springtime, and in towns all across Massachusetts and the country, kids of all ages are playing recreational baseball—Little League, Babe Ruth, PAL, whatever it's called in your community, chances are it is staffed by volunteers. Men and women who care enough about kids and enough about baseball to give hours and hours a week organizing, coaching, and car-pooling kids to practice and games. As a parent of four kids, I've been doing this drill for nearly 20 years. And what's amazed me over the years is the collective commitment that we have as adults to see that our children will understand and play the game of baseball.
It's especially true of fathers, who will spend hours and hours going over all the fine points of the game; imparting pearls of baseball wisdom that were impressed upon us as kids: "choke up on the bat," "keep your elbow up," "follow through when throw that ball," "tag up on a fly ball." Sometimes fathers get a little over-zealous. I remember one father gathering his team of 4 and 5-year-olds around and explaining that if the batter hits a ground ball with runners on base and less than two outs, the fielder should check the runners and then throw to first for the out. Check the runners and throw to first? These kids didn't even know where first was!
But as adults, we sense that it's very important for our kids to understand these things as early as possible, and that it's incumbent upon those of us who know, who've been taught, to pass on what we know to the next generation. It runs deep in the male psyche. Try to get men committed to anything else two nights a week and weekends and it's impossible. But they'll do it for baseball; they'll do it for the kids. And not just for their own kids. They feel responsible for other people's kids, too. Some of the men who coach don't have kids on the team—they just coach because they love the game and love kids. I remember one weeknight a father arriving a little bit late for a game, still in his power suit, straight from work, no dinner. Turned out his kid wasn't even there that night, but he stayed anyway, to watch the game and support the other kids.
It's that kind of collective commitment, that sense of shared responsibility, that every generation of believers is to have for those who come behind them. Not only for those of their own family, but for all those who belong to the community of faith. That's what this prayer is all about. It's not simply a prayer for the next generation to come to faith. It's a prayer for the present generation to lead them to faith.
Tell them and teach them
We'll talk more about how we do that next week, but according to this prayer, the present generation is responsible to do two things for the children in their community: tell them God's stories, and teach them God's truth.
First, we have to tell them God's stories. "We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done." One of the ways faith was passed on in ancient Israel was by storytelling. In fact, if you look at the rest of Psalm 78, you'll see that it tells the story of how God brought his people out of Egypt, sent them manna from heaven, and settled them in Canaan. You'll see how God forgave them when they sinned and gave them a king named David.
Storytelling was an art form among the people of God; a primary pastime. As families worked together in the field or the shop, as they sat around fires in the evening, elders would tell stories to their children and to their children's children. They would tell stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, stories of creation and the flood, stories from the battlefield, and stories of the tabernacle. Those stories gave to the next generation a sense of identity and belonging as the people of God. They came to believe that the God who had worked marvelously in their ancestors' lives could work just as marvelously in their lives, too.
And telling stories continues to be a primary means of passing faith on to our children. That's why a major emphasis of our ministry to children is to tell them stories from the Bible and from life. Most of our Sunday school classes include a large-group teaching time, where gifted and passionate leaders tell stories to the children—sometimes using drama or props or role-plays or videos to bring these stories to life. As children listen, as the scenes unfold in their imaginations, lessons are being learned, values are being instilled, and faith is being passed on to the next generation.
It's not just Bible stories that need to be told, but our stories, too. When a child tells you he's afraid, don't just give him a Bible verse or prayer. Tell him a story about a time you were afraid and God protected you or calmed your fears. When a child is sad, tell a story about a time you were sad and God comforted you. Have you ever told your children your faith story? Do they know when and how and why you came to follow Christ? Have you ever taken them to the places that have spiritual meaning to you, or introduced them to the people who shaped your life?
If the next generation is going to know the Lord and trust him, we have to tell them the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord; the stories that will open their hearts to his work in their lives. But we also have to teach them God's truth. Faith is more than experiences with God, it is truth about God. Truth that needs to be communicated, explained, and applied to life. "He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children."
While much of the training in ancient Israel was done through storytelling, there was also a place for formal, systematic teaching from God's Word. In Jesus' day, for instance, 6-year-old boys would go off to "the house of the book," where a rabbi would teach the boys the laws, customs, and beliefs of Israel. They realized that the knowledge of God was so important that it couldn't be left to chance; not a hit-or-miss proposition, but an intentional effort to educate children and young people in the faith. Some of this teaching also took place in the home, as children memorized the commandments and other portions of Scripture, and as parents and grandparents would sit with children and explain the ways of God, teaching them to pray, to give, to obey, and to serve.
And so in our Sunday school classes, after the large-group story time, the children often go into smaller groups, where a caring, godly adult can answer questions about the story, explain it more fully, and apply it to life. Let me commend those parents who work so hard at getting their kids to Sunday school each week. It's a worthy investment. They are learning truths and building friendships that will serve them for the rest of their lives. If you're not taking advantage of your church's ministries to children and teens, let me remind you that you can't raise children spiritually by yourselves. It takes a church.
But this teaching also takes place at home. There are times when parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, sit down with children and teach them God's truth. A simple way to do that is talk over what happened at church on your way home or over lunch. Don't ask a vague question like, "How was Sunday school?" or, "What did you think of the sermon?" Ask a more specific question. "What story did you hear in Sunday school today?" "What was the topic in youth group?" "What did you like best about church today?" But the best thing to do is to watch for teachable moments—when a child asks a question or a young person faces a problem in life. Don't bail out on those opportunities. Don't leave it up to a Sunday school teacher or youth worker. Give an answer. Offer an explanation. Look up the passage together.
So, this prayer for the next generation is actually a prayer for the present generation to fulfill its responsibility to pass faith on to their children by telling them God's stories and teaching them God's truths. It wasn't just a prayer for parents, but for the entire community of faith.
A generation at risk
If ever there was a time when it was crucial for the current generation to fulfill that responsibility, it would seem to be now. They tell us that the present population of elementary school children is the largest ever (73 million of them in 2003), and that that population is just now moving into adolescence. We also know that this current generation of children and young people is growing up in the most secularized environment in our nation's history. They will not be hearing the stories of the Bible or the message of Christ anywhere but in their homes and churches.
Thirdly, we know that childhood and adolescence are the most formative years of a person's life, spiritually speaking. George Barna, along with others, has done significant research in this area in recent years. They tell us that somewhere between 76 to 85 percent of all Christ-followers make their decision to follow Christ before the age of 18, and that the vast majority of those decisions will be made before the age of 14. They also tell us that what a person believes at the age of 13, they are likely to believe for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, according to Barna and others, this generation is being overlooked and under-reached by the vast majority of churches. While children and young people represent over 40 percent of the population in an average church, less than 15 percent of the church's budget is likely to go toward children's ministry. Even though children and young people have been shown to be far more receptive to the gospel message than adults, most churches focus their evangelistic efforts on reaching adults.
And even though the childhood and adolescent years have been shown to be the most formative years of a person's life spiritually, churches continue to focus their discipling ministries on the education and development of adults. When a random sample of senior pastors was asked to identify their church's top ministry priorities, only 24 percent mentioned ministry to children. Twenty or thirty years ago, the first position to be filled on a church staff after the senior pastor was a youth pastor or Christian education director. Now the first staff person hired is likely to be a worship pastor, or some other associate working primarily with adult programming.
In light of the tremendous opportunity represented by this current generation of young people, and in light of the feeble efforts by many current churches to reach this generation, Barna and others are calling for a radical re-commitment to ministry for children and young people; challenging churches to make children their number one priority. He puts it this way: "If you want to have a lasting influence upon the world, you must invest in people's lives; and if you want to maximize that investment, then you must invest in those people while they are young."
One boy's story
As I did my reading and research in preparation for this series, I couldn't help but reflect upon my own experience growing up. My parents knew they couldn't raise us spiritually by themselves, so they intentionally moved us into a community with a vibrant church that was committed to ministry for children and young people.
From the moment you stepped into this church, you understood the priority they placed on children. While they desperately needed a new sanctuary, they had chosen to build first an extensive educational wing with spacious rooms for children's Sunday school. Ministry to children began with the nursery, where they hired a professional nurse, in uniform, to oversee the volunteers caring for the infants. On that child's first day in the nursery, he or she was enrolled in the Sunday school, and his or her name and picture went up on the cradle roll in the hallway so that everyone could welcome that new child into the family. An army of enthusiastic, well-trained, loving people served in the children's ministry, overseen by a professional Christian educator on staff.
Some of you have asked me how I'm able to memorize long passages of Scripture. I learned to do that in Sunday school, where we learned a new verse every week. I learned about church growth through our yearly attendance drives. I learned about personal evangelism by inviting friends to Vacation Bible School. On Friday nights, my father and brother and I would pile into the station wagon and drive around the neighborhood, filling it with kids, and then head up to our Boy's Brigade program, where we would learn about the outdoors, about car engines, about woodworking, and about following Christ from men in the church who cared enough to invest in our lives.
When I reached junior high, the Music Director lured me and a bunch of other boys into the youth choir with the promise of a camping trip. For the next six years of my life, I would spend every Saturday night at choir practice, where I discovered the joy of worship and of leading others in worship. On Sunday evenings, we sang contemporary music with guitars and drums, long before other churches were allowing such things, and at Christmas and Easter we joined the adult choir and orchestra singing Handel's Messiah.
When I was in high school, the youth group wanted to open a coffeehouse, where kids from the community could come out and hear a Christian rock band and have free food. Remarkably, the church turned over an entire wing of the building to us, including the old sanctuary. We painted psychedelic murals on those sacred walls and turned the basement into a youth center.
On Friday nights, hundreds of kids would gather at our building—some of them drunk, some looking for fights. The neighbors complained, the building got trashed. It was a security nightmare and a financial sink-hole, but instead of shutting us down, the trustees of the church took turns coming out on Friday nights to work crowd-control for us. You see, they believed that a bunch of teenagers could do real kingdom work, and that reaching lost kids was more important than a clean building. I fell in love with ministry and the local church in that place.
When I graduated from college a few years later, that church hired me to be its first full-time youth pastor. They didn't have the money, they'd never had that position before, and I was all of 21-years-old. I had to grow this beard so people didn't mistake me for one of the high schoolers. But they believed in kids, they believed in me, and they gave me a chance. They were patient and encouraging as I learned to lead, shepherd, and even preach.
I will forever be grateful to that church and their radical commitment to raising up the next generation of Christ-followers. I am here today, doing what I'm doing, largely because of that church's vision and passion for children and young people. I was blessed to be born into a godly home and to be raised by parents who followed Christ and taught us to do the same. But they didn't raise me to follow Christ by themselves. They were part of a growing, vibrant community of faith. Every person in that church contributed to my spiritual development—by their prayers, by their giving, by their encouragement, and by their service.
Friends, I want us to be that kind of church. More importantly, I believe God wants us to be that kind of church. God has gotten hold of my heart on this, and I believe that ministry to children and teenagers needs to be one of our top priorities in the years to come. I believe it's one of the primary reasons God has provided us with that new building over there. It's going to be great for adults to have a place to connect and to minister to one another, but I can't wait to see those spacious rooms packed with children, and to see that gym and youth center crawling with teenagers.
But it's going to take more than a new facility to raise up the next wave of spiritual champions. It's going to take hundreds of us using our gifts to serve in ministries for children and students. It's going to take thousands of us giving faithfully and generously to provide staff and materials and programming for kids. It's going to take all of us welcoming, loving, and praying for the next generation; accepting our God-given responsibility to raise up the next wave of Christ-followers.
It's a wonderful to imagine that little African boy, Kokou, wandering the marketplace, being loved and cared for by every adult he bumped into along the way. How much more wonderful to imagine a young boy or girl, wandering the halls of Grace Chapel, being loved, served, and prayed for by an entire community of faith. May we become such a place, for the next generation and for the ones that come after it. Because, truly, it takes a church to raise a child.
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.