Should parents lean towards preservation, or towards proclamation?
What should parents consider when they make choices that affect their children? Shall they create protectionist boundaries with a goal to raise children who are preserved in the faith and our godly heritage, or shall they proclaim the gospel with adventure and vigor with a goal to raise children who are disciples of Christ, making disciples of Christ?
Are you in for this debate? I’d like to attend it with you and discuss it afterwards over a mocha latte.
After my Grandpa died about 8 years ago at the age of 93, I flew to Missouri to attend the funeral and had a good time reconnecting with my cousins. I have a lot of cousins on my Mom’s side of the family. I told Sandy after I returned that one of the surprises (and frustrations) of my conversations with my cousins after Grandpa’s funeral was that a half dozen (or more) of them asked me a question that went something like this “How will you raise your family in the city?” The questions were posed in sincerity. There were no folded arms, tight lips, or foreboding frowns to make me think that my cousins were out to trap me. They really wanted to know if I thought it possible to raise a family in New York City. Could children raised in NYC become repentant believers, followers of Christ who are active citizens in the Kingdom of God? “Of course it’s possible,” I thought to myself, and tried to respond humbly and gracefully in a way that basically said the best place to live is the place to which God has called you.
In the past two years I am more open to considering this question, and more sympathetic towards those who sincerely ask “How will you raise your family in the city?” My answers that seemed easy eight years ago come with more hesitation and less confidence today. Raising a family in the city requires more knee callouses than I would have calculated before. Prayer looms much larger in our present calculations regarding choices in our family.
What I say regarding preservationists and proclaimers may more specifically apply to the Christian (conservative Anabaptist) subculture with which I grew up and with which I still identify; however, the questions are important to consider even among the broader evangelical Christian community. What do we evaluate when we choose church, calling, ministry, family, location to live, vocation, and “community?” Parents who major on preservation are likely to value for their children choices that promote a stable home environment, proper Christian schooling environment, stable church environment, and godly work environment as the best places in which to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” For preservationist parents, the following likely factor high on their lists of important choices: their children have summer jobs as employees of businesses in the church; their children will be able to hang out with friends whose families are church-going families; they will home school their children or have them attend Christian schools which are safe and boundary-oriented; their children will date and eventually marry a person of like precious faith; their children will become stable, faithful members of a conservative Anabaptist church. For the boiler-plate preservationist parent, if all the above happen and their children “turn out right,” they have succeeded. They have raised up children who have caught onto the godly heritage and will pass it on to the next generation. Oh, and hopefully the children will make wise choices that will preserve the grandchildren’s faith and godly heritage too.
Some of the missing ingredients in the ideology of many preservationist parents are the little parts of Christ’s teachings that have to do with dying to self, taking up the cross, and preaching the gospel to the lost and the unchurched. So, while there may be thousands of 35-year-old, stable, faithful members in conservative Anabaptist churches throughout the US and Canada, how many of them know the first thing about pointing a lost or unchurched person to Christ and His church? I hasten to acknowledge that it is God who saves. We do not save. But Christ followers have the blessed privilege to partner with the Spirit in proclaiming the good news of Christ, doing the work of evangelists, and making disciples who make disciples. How many middle-aged conservative Anabaptists—stable, faithful church members—have spent any time at all engaging in meaningful dialogue that tests their faith in a hostile environment of people who are not like-minded? How many middle-aged Anabaptists have even shared their faith with an unchurched or lost person in the past six months? Asked another way, if we take a poll of conservative Anabaptist churches in the US and Canada, what percentage of our “stable, faithful members” are people who had been lost and outside the church and were pointed to Christ and His church, and then became members? I am going to guess that the current conservative Anabaptist membership is over 95% biological growth, with less than 5% growth from the lost and unchurched in the world “outside” the church. The root of conservative is “conserve.” So it does seem that for conservative Anabaptists, preservation is a big thing. A sincere question then arises in my mind. What, exactly, are we preserving? Is this an attempt to preserve an ethnic subculture with a good work ethic and model citizenship who lean rightwing Republican but don’t participate in war, and try to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount? Are we really, truly raising up the next generation of Christ followers whose feet are beautiful in the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ? What exactly is the end goal of preservationism? Is it building the Kingdom of God. Why does it seem that what is attributed as passing along this oft-noted “godly heritage” to children often looks like raising Christian who grow up pickled (preserved) and barely flickering in their passion for Christ? These are sincere questions. If preservation is the end goal, is what we are “preserving” really the full measure of what Christ is calling us to preserve?
So then we venture to proclamation. Some parents feel called to forsake houses and lands and move to places where they aim to intentionally proclaim the gospel. These parents, if you would interview them in moments where they are willing to be vulnerable and honest, would acknowledge that they often do not know what they are doing. They wish they would be more consistent in their gospel proclamation, and would wish to see more of the lost and unchurched come to Christ and His church. These parents, especially those who have been in pioneer ministry locations for years, would likely acknowledge that is hard to let go of some those things that they can’t give to their children. It’s not easy to homeschool a child who wants to attend a larger Christian school and be with friends. If there are no local Christian schools and homeschooling doesn’t seem to work for a family, what are the options for proclaimers? They homeschool and recognize that this may be one of the things they give up. Some of the urban age restrictions on teenagers working can make it hard for urban dwellers to find jobs for children in their mid-teens. What do proclaimers do? They keep praying and looking for opportunities that will engage their children in productive activity. What if the small church plant or mission setting has no other children their age in the community of faith? What do proclaimers do? They try not to worry about their children’s lack of friends, but they do pray that God would lead unchurched and lost families to the church who have children the ages of their children. There are children in the neighborhood—they pray that God would bring their children friends from the neighborhood. Those whom the Lord calls he equips. The Lord provides for whom He calls. But when years go by and your children express loneliness and a sense of loss, it is hard for a proclaimer to know how to respond. A parent doesn’t want to give a scorpion to a child who asks for a fish, right? I can identify with the angst of parenting in a setting that is more proclamation-focused with fewer of those preservationist perks that seem so important to preservationist parents and their children. And we are not done parenting, so this article will likely look different if I revisit it in ten years and revise it based on what I have learned by then.
If you are a preservationist parent, I can identify with much of what you are hoping to do with your children. You find me at a time when I empathize with many of your positions. If you had interviewed me even three years ago, I may have been a bit chin-in-air and snotty about your preservationist tendencies. Remember my generalizations mentioned earlier? Parents who major on preservation are likely to value for their children choices that promote a stable home environment, proper Christian schooling environment, stable church environment, and godly work environment as the best places in which to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” In our move to The Bronx, my wife and I were suddenly slammed against a wall of reality. We realized that we actually want all of those things for our children, but our move had up-ended the lives of the three oldest, all of whom were teenagers at the time of our move. What had we been thinking? We don’t want to lose our children, right? Absolutely not! We do not want to lose our children to the enemy! If your heart is to see your children grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, keep that heart and pray for your children. That said, I do have a message for preservationist parents. Step back and evaluate what you really want in your child. Do you want your children to grow up to be fully committed Kingdom Christians, engaged in the local church, who take up the full armor of God as proclaimers of the gospel and battle against the gates of hell? Hallelujah! What choices shall you make to provide the best platform where that can happen? It just may be that you are called to a radical lifestyle change that may upend the lives of your children. This radical lifestyle choice may seem counter-preservationist. And it may be very hard at times. But guess what? It may force your children to choose early in life which call they will answer—the call of Christ or the call of the world. Jesus has some strong words for lukewarm Christians in Revelation. From the perspective of this interested observer, sometimes it seems that in our desire to preserve, the unintended consequences of boundary-oriented preservationism ends up with generationally imbibed “godly heritage” passed on to pickled Christians who walk around with sour faces, leading melancholy lives of materialistic pursuit, with no idea how to be disciples or make disciples. Ouch. May it never be. Let’s not forget to proclaim the gospel and listen to God’s call to radical lifestyle obedience. This may actually lead us to re-locate from our green pastures and bucolic havens into the graffiti, grime, and dysfunction of towns and cities who need engaged neighbors who love the Lord our God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Proclaim the gospel while loving and caring for your children.
To you proclaimers, parents who have made conscious lifestyle choices to proclaim the gospel at work, to your neighbors, and wherever you go, you may be wondering how to care for your children while you are out doing the Lord’s work. Well, you probably already know this, but this is a reminder that caring for your children is the Lord’s work. Yes, if you have begun to answer the call of God to proclaim the gospel, you are doing a good thing. But your children need your prayers, your time, and your engagement in the middle of the journey. Those of you who know me, know that I do not advocate for pastors and missionaries and gospel proclaimers to abandon their children for the sake of the gospel. Abandonment is not in the picture. But remember, as you obey the call of God to proclaim the gospel and raise up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, some of the things you can’t give to your children may actually be things they don’t need anyway. Which is more important to give your children: 1. A father/mother who are in love with each other, are in love with Christ and His church, and are actively involved in sharing the gospel in the community; or 2. An environment of sameness and stability and uniformity in thought and relationships that insulates them from encountering anything that may shake their faith? You can provide stability, and you should cultivate an atmosphere of love and respect. But you already know that there callings of proclamation of the gospel in evangelism and discipleship that you can pursue that can actually be good for your children as well. God calls you to be a gospel-centered disciple of Christ—your response to that call is important to your children’s spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being. Do not neglect or abandon your children, dear parents. Love them, teach them, train them, and bring them up on the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And please, continue to prayerfully submit yourself to active service in the Kingdom of God as a minister of reconciliation. He may be calling you to stay right where you are, or He may be calling you to move on. You already know that God’s call is not always an easy one to answer. But don’t forget to consider the hearts of your children when you respond to God’s call. Leaving houses or lands or parents in this life has often not been easy for parents—it is sometimes doubly hard for their children.
In case you missed it, I believe Christian parents should proclaim AND preserve. That said, I offer this generalized, anecdotal-based, experientially-observed critique of the wider conservative Anabaptist churches. We tend to be preservation-oriented at the expense of proclamation of the gospel. So in general, when we “preserve” our children to embrace and adopt our “godly heritage,” I wonder sometimes if we even know what we are preserving. Sometimes we miss key elements of Kingdom Christianity in the name of preservation. Let us courageously and humbly proclaim the full gospel of Jesus and live it out with love and grace in our homes and churches, pointing the lost and unchurched to Christ and His church. And let us pray fervently that our children will listen to the Spirit's call to become repentant believers in Jesus Christ, fully committed to Christ's church, and radical disciples who stand on our shoulders as they proclaim and live the good news of Jesus all over the world. We can enter into the presence of God and fully embrace the Kingdom of God, and our children can even go deeper, by the grace of God.
Is there anything more to say? Probably not, for now.
Would you like another mocha latte?
Son of the Father, husband to Sandy, father of six amazing gifts, Bronx brother, active participant in Believers in Jesus Church, insurance adjuster, occasional runner