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Passing the Baton

How to actively transfer faith from generation to generation.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "From Generation to Generation". See series.


A few months ago, I heard a song on the radio by an artist named John Mayer. The song is entitled "Daughters," and you hear it several times a day if you listen to pop music stations. It's sung by a man who can't seem to understand the woman he's falling in love with. While she seems to be interested in him, at times it seems she's unable to receive or return his love. At first, he figures it must have something to do with him, but then he comes to realize that it has more to do with the other man in her life—her father, and his failure to be the person she needed him to be when she was growing up.

It seems that at a critical moment in this young girl's life, her father walked out on her. That experience still haunts her, years later, sabotaging her ability to love and be loved. And so the singer reminds fathers and mothers to consider the impact their decisions have on the children who look up to them. Later in the song, he broadens his message to include more than just mothers and fathers. On behalf of every man, he says, looking out for every girl. He's reminding us that we're all in this thing together; that we all play a part in the development of the children and young people around us. What we do matters; how we live will mark the lives of those who follow us—for better or for worse. So let's be good to the children in our lives.

It's certainly not a Christian song, but it is a biblical truth. We learned last week from Psalm 78 that each generation bears a responsibility to pass faith on to the next generation. We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord so that the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. That responsibility begins and ends at home, with mothers and fathers teaching their children. But that responsibility is shared by the community of faith; it is a collective commitment we make as a family of believers to pass faith on from generation to generation. As we said last week, it takes a church to raise a Christ-follower.

Now, we are a diverse community here at Grace. We're not all mothers and fathers. We're not all living in nuclear families. We cherish that diversity and are enriched by the varieties of people and life-situations represented in this congregation. Some of you have been blessed by your parents and by significant adults in your lives; others have been disappointed and wounded by adults, like the woman in the song. Some parents and children are enjoying seasons of harmony and faith, others are struggling through a season of conflict, and some are estranged from ones that they love.

But the point of the song, and the Scripture, is that we're all in this thing together, no matter what our life circumstances. We are all members of a spiritual family; we all have children in our lives. Because of that, we all share responsibility for passing faith on to the next generation.

This morning, I'd like to consider how that transmission of faith takes place, both in the home and in the church. So I'll be speaking not just to fathers and mothers, but to grandfathers and grandmothers, to aunts and uncles, to neighbors, and to brothers and sisters in Christ.

In order to explain how this works, I've chosen the metaphor of a relay race, in which runners pass a baton from one to another to another on their way to a finish line. They win or lose as a team. And that's how it works for us, as well. As members of a family, we pass the baton of faith from one generation to the next and the next.

I'd like to offer three Biblical principles this morning. I'm careful to call them principles, not promises. There are no guarantees, there are no formulas, when it comes to raising children to believe. But there are things we can do as adults to pass faith on the children in our lives. We've provided a simple outline in the worship folder, and we'll put the verses up on the screens.

Those who run before set the pace for those who follow.

My first, and best, experience with a relay race came in the 6th grade, when I was part of a 440 relay team representing our church in a Boys Brigade Field Day, competing against Stockade groups from other churches. Now, every relay team has it's own strategy. Ours was simple: put Wilkerson where he can do the least damage. I really wasn't very fast. So they put me in second position, and put the fastest guy in first position. The idea, of course, was that the first guy would open up a big enough lead so that I would have a head start on the other second runners. If all went well, I could hold on to some of that lead and pass it on to the third man.

And that's exactly how it went. The gun went off, and our first runner exploded off the starting line. He jumped out to a quick lead, and I watched as he extended that lead with every stride. That not only gave me the advantage of a head start on the other runners, it set the pace for me. If he could run that fast, maybe I could, too!

A similar thing happens as spiritual values are passed from one generation to the next. Each one looks to the preceding generation to see how the race is run. And each generation brings to the one that follows either a head start or a handicap. Look at these verses from Paul's letter to a young pastor named Timothy: "I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also."

Notice how the race began with a woman named Lois running the first leg. We don't know how she came to faith, but she ran a good race, and passed the baton of faith on to her daughter, Eunice, who then handed it off to her son, Timothy. Three generations! But notice the particular kind of faith that was passed on: sincere faith. Not just religion, not cultural Christianity, but real faith—life-saving, life-changing faith. Like a runner in third position, Timothy watched his predecessors run the race, and learned what real faith looked like.

I remember a football coach who used to yell at us during wind sprints, "Come on—my grandmother runs faster than you guys." This grandmother, Lois, ran pretty fast! She set such a mean pace that her grandson not only took hold of her faith, but he became a spiritual champion of his generation.

What kind of pace are you setting for the children who are watching you? Is the quality of your faith giving them a head start, or a handicap? Because, make no mistake about it—children are watching you. Whether you're a parent or not, children in this church, children in the neighborhood, and children in your extended family are watching to see how you work, how you worship, how you treat people, how you spend your time and money. Do you know what they're looking for? Authenticity. They're not looking for perfection. They know you're human; they know you make mistakes. What they're looking for is a faith that's sincere—that's real and personal to you.

Survey after survey reveals that this is what children and young people are looking for in their churches: authenticity. Do we really love each other? Do we really worship? Do we really want to know God and follow him everyday? The style of the worship music is not nearly as important as the fact that the people around them are singing the songs like they really believe them. The hipness of the teachers and leaders is not as important as their humble, honest, caring spirit. They want to see the real thing.

As a youth pastor and pastor, I have often had parents ask me how to raise their children to follow Christ. As I've thought about that—as I've thought about families in which children have embraced faith—I've discovered that there are no standard methods or practices. Some families have had family devotions every night at the dinner table; others are much more spontaneous and haphazard. Some homes were very strict, and others were remarkably permissive. Some parents were very outspoken in their faith and leadership; others were rather quiet and behind the scenes. But the common characteristic in these families was the authenticity of the parents' faith, and the honesty about faith around the home.

I don't ever remember my mother or father telling me that I should have a daily quiet time with God where I read my Bible and pray. But most every morning of my life as a kid, I would come downstairs and find my mother sitting at the kitchen table with her two most precious possessions in front of her—her Bible and a cup of coffee. Sometimes in the evening I would hear talking coming from my father's bedroom, when I knew there was no one else in there. More than once I peeked under the door, and all I could see were his knees on the floor beside the bed as he prayed out loud, for us and for the world. They didn't have to tell me to read my Bible and pray—they showed me how the race is run.

Parents, do your kids ever catch you reading the Bible and praying? Do they see you heading off to Bible study or small group to grow in your faith? Do they overhear you sharing faith with neighbors and relatives? Do they see you serving the church? Or do they hear you bad-mouthing the church, being critical of the leaders or the service? Do they hear you lying about their age to get them into the movie for a cheaper price? Are there words you use at home that you would never use at church?

Again, we're not just talking about parents here. Children and young people look to all the adults in their lives to set the pace for them. Last week I mentioned our church music director and the profound influence he had on my life and many others. He was a single man most of those years, and he invested most of his relational energy into our lives. When he got married at about 40, we were all happy for him—but a little bit ticked off that he wouldn't be free to take us camping anymore. Many of the most effective youth staff I have worked with over the years have been single people.

George Barna reports that nearly half of today's teens say they have no positive role models in their lives. You could be one of those role models to the children and young people in your family or your church. You can show them how the race is run; you can give them a head start on their spiritual journey simply by taking an interest in them, by sharing some of your time and energy with them, and by living a vibrant faith in front of them.

Our move to Massachusetts five years ago was pretty difficult for our kids, especially for our two teenagers. One of them in particular was really struggling with it. He was mad at God, mad at me, and mad at Grace. But Sunday after Sunday, as people met us in the hallway, they would tell our kids that they were praying for them, that they were glad we were here. Many of those people were older people, many were single. When Thanksgiving-eve service rolled around, that child stood and testified that it had been a hard few months, but that the Lord was helping him. And he thanked the people who had welcomed him and prayed for him. That was a pivotal time in that child's life. He was reaching back for the baton of faith. Thankfully, it was there, in part, because people he hardly knew loved him and prayed for him.

Kids need to see and hear real faith—in their parents and in the lives of other significant adults. Because those who run before set the pace for those who follow.

A successful handoff is the result of a thousand practice runs.

In the last summer Olympic Games in Athens, the American women's 4x100 relay race was favored to win the gold medal. The team featured Marion Jones, a sprinter who had won 4 gold medals at the previous games in Sydney. The American team was already off to a strong start when Jones took the baton for the second leg of the race. She gained ground as she ran her 100 and approached Lauryn Williams, a young speedster who would run the third leg.

Williams began running as Jones drew near, but when she reached back to receive the baton, they couldn't seem to complete the handoff. Once, twice, three times Jones thrust the baton forward, but each time it missed William's hand, or she couldn't seem to wrap her fingers around it. Finally, on the fourth try, they made the connection, but by that time they had crossed out of the 20-yard exchange zone and were disqualified. Everyone knew they were the fastest team on the track. The night before, they'd had the fastest qualifying time. But when they couldn't complete the handoff, their race was over.

As important as it is for the previous generation to set the pace by living authentically, at a certain point, a handoff must be made in which the next generation receives the baton of faith and begins to run with it. That handoff isn't as easy as it looks. It isn't automatic. It's the result of thousands and thousands of practice runs.

That's what the Lord calls for in Deuteronomy 6, where we read: "These commandments I give to you today are to be on your hearts. Impresss them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up."

This takes us back to last week, when we talked about the present generation's responsibility to tell God's stories and teach God's truth. These verses remind us that this teaching happens formally and informally; at home and at church. Some of it takes place when you intentionally sit down with children or teens and look at God's Word together. Some of it takes place as you walk through life, responding to situations or talking over challenges and difficulties. You can't rush this process. It goes on for years and years and years. It's the result of a thousand bedtime prayers, a thousand questions about God and faith and heaven and the Bible, and a thousand trips back and forth to church to pickup and drop off your kids.

Unlike an Olympic race, there's no specified zone in which the handoff can and must take place. For some, it will happen at 5-years-old, for others 9 or 13 or after they go off to college. Truth is, there will likely be several exchanges made before the baton is fully passed. But whenever it happens, it will be the result of hours and hours of practice, years and years of walking the track of life.

There will be times when you wonder if it's worth all the effort. If you're a children's worker or youth staff, I know there are times when you drive home and wonder to yourself if anything at all is getting through. Your preschoolers are climbing the walls, the teenagers look like they're half asleep, and you wonder if it's worth all the effort. Parents, how many nights do you read a Bible story to your kids, or pray with them as you tuck them into bed, and there are no remarkable insights, no deep conversations? It feels like you're just going through the motions.

And that's what exactly what you are doing—you're going through the motions. So that when it's time for the real handoff to take place, those motions will come naturally. You and your child are learning to talk about spiritual things, so when an important conversation needs to happen, it can happen, and will happen. You're imparting values, so that when a decision needs to made, it will be made quickly and rightly. That child or teenager is getting used to the feel of the baton in his or her hand, so that at some later point in life, when they reach for it, their fingers will easily grasp it.

As I said, it's not always parents who make the handoff. Our children have made some important faith decisions at home with us, but they've made others with Sunday school teachers and youth volunteers and mission trip leaders.

I know a woman who wasn't raised in a believing home, but every summer she would spend several weeks visiting her relatives in the country. She had two aunts, both of whom were single, and both were believers. Those aunts would spend those weeks loving that niece of theirs, taking her to the swimming hole and to Sunday school, and sharing their faith as they sat at home and walked along the way. Finally, as a teenager, that young woman came to personal faith in Christ.

She went on to devote her entire life to the spiritual development of children, and continues to do so today, teaching Sunday school in her 70's. It all began with two women who didn't have children of their own, but who cared enough for their niece to pass their faith along to her, over the course of many summers, and as the result of many prayers.

Don't underestimate the impact you can have on the children and young people around you—in your extended family, in your neighborhood, in your church. By your authentic faith and personal involvement, you are helping to prepare that child for the day they need to take hold of that baton for themselves.

Once the handoff has been made, keep cheering.

Can you imagine a relay race in which the first runner makes the handoff, watches his teammate take off running, and then picks up his sweats and heads into the locker room without watching the end of the race? I don't think so. He's going to watch and cheer and channel every bit of psychic energy he can to speed his teammates along. The race isn't over after the baton is passed; their's still important work to be done.

So it is in the relay race of faith. You can set a pace for children by the way you run, giving them a good head start. You practice the handoff for years as you jog through childhood and adolescence. But when the exchange is made, or muffed, you're not done. You need to keep cheering.

Now what do I mean by keep cheering? I'm thinking of the things described by Paul in his letter to the believers in Thessalonica: "For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory."

They say you never stop being a parent—that no matter how old your children get, they continue to look to you for love and support, and you continue to serve them and agonize over their challenges and choices. The same is true spiritually. You need to continue to be there spiritually for the children and young people God places in your life, even after they've grown and are running their own race.

I'd like to speak for a minute to those of you whose children are already grown. Maybe there's been a successful passing of the baton, maybe not. I want you to understand that the race isn't over yet. The nice thing about this event is that there's no limited exchange zone. It can happen quickly or over many years, in childhood or adulthood. Even if the baton is dropped, it can always be picked up again. So you want to continue to be there for your children, for the young people you have influenced while they were young. Granted, your influence is limited. Nagging, criticism, and pressure are not likely to help. But you're still able to talk about your faith with them, to invite them to worship and grow, to pray for them, and to show them how the race is run.

My advice to parents whose children have turned away from faith is simply this: keep the door open. Don't shut that person out of your life because you're not happy with the choices they've made. Don't make faith a battleground! Continue to love them, enjoy them, include them, and pray for them.

And don't beat yourself up for things you coulda/shoulda done. In the end, every runner runs her own race. You can't choose for them. There are no formulas or guarantees. You could do everything in your power to hand off that baton, and they could simply decide not to take it. If there are specific failures or sins that you need forgiven, then take them to God, and perhaps to your children. But then move beyond guilt and self-pity and get out on the track. It's way too soon to go to the locker room. The race isn't over yet.

I remember the day a young man named Glenn called me. He'd been a kid in my youth group some years earlier. He wasn't a church kid, but he had become a Christian and made the church his second home. He and I spent a lot of time together during those years. He went off to the university and drifted away from the Lord, but we stayed in touch, and he remained in my prayers. Now he was out of school and in the marketplace, doing well for himself.

But he wasn't just calling to say hi. He was calling to tell me he had cancer, pretty bad, and could I come see him? He never actually said it, but what he was asking me to do was to help him die. So I did. We talked about his relationship with God. We prayed. I even performed his wedding, just months before he died. I'm so glad he felt free to call, so glad that baton was waiting to be picked up, and so glad the Lord was ready to welcome him home.

My experience is that most people raised in faith will embrace it at some point in their lives. There may be some wandering and wasted years. There may be some hurt and heartache. But, usually, they come back, looking for that baton. And when they do, you want to be sure you're still on the track, ready to make the handoff. So keep cheering.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Those who run before set the pace for those who follow.

II. A successful handoff is the result of a thousand practice runs.

III. Once the handoff has been made, keep cheering.