I serve in a Presbyterian denomination with congregations generally consisting of first-generation converts to the Reformed faith and their children. We don’t have swarms of young people, and many of them either leave for ‘greener’ Christian pastures or, sadly, go prodigal. So retention is a problem, and ‘sustainability’ (to use an overused term) is a regular worry. Sometimes, it is easy to feel like we’re on the high seas in a leaky rowboat, and the winds are kicking up.
I must confess that I look wistfully at some of those Presbyterian and Reformed congregations that are large, established, and multi-generational. Without having sold out. They are not many, of course. Usually in the present day large equals compromised. But God has been faithful to some communions. The ones I know are Dutch Reformed. They don’t just have Christian but Reformed schools. That is, teachers have to subscribe to the subordinate standards. Many of the children usually profess the faith in the congregations where they were baptized. They then find mates, marry, settle down, bear children and further populate their ranks. If not in their original congregation, then not far off. Often in the same denomination.
When I went to seminary, my wife and I attended a Dutch Reformed congregation with 900+ in church attendance. Both services. Clockwork regularity. The back pew, I remember, was more or less dedicated to one particular extended family. Four generations right there. And Grandpa usually kept a busy blonde grandchild occupied on his lap. Or, at least he tried. Beautiful – but vanishing.
I know, of course, that such congregations have their problems. There is no ecclesiastical utopia, short of the Church Triumphant. Also, I know that we must wait on the outpouring of the Spirit. Only by such heavenly showers will the desert blossom as the rose. Prayer, therefore, is the order of the day. But two things right on its heels. First, shouldn’t we be praying that our churches will stay faithful and become established and multi-generational? And shouldn’t we wait on the Spirit and use lawful means to reverse the process of desertification?
A few proposals on this last point, in order of importance and clarity.
1. As parents, and especially fathers, we must be intoxicated with God in Christ. This is a non-negotiable. If we lose our first love, how shall it become or stay the first love of our children? If we are Spirit-born and the Spirit blesses our children with the new birth, there will be a principle of spiritual gravitation reinforcing the natural, familial pull. If God in His providence calls them away from us geographically, parents and children must resign to separate. At least, then, we are one in the Spirit, and we can do second best with phone and Skype. But would it not also incline them – all other things being equal – to stay close to home?
2. As parents, and especially fathers, we must win the affections and hearts of our children to us. So much to say here. Firm discipline goes without being said. We will lose their heart if we spare the rod. But winning them to us and to our God will take much more than enforcing our authority. If they are going to want to be with family and enjoy it rather than always looking outside the family for their social outlet, then it is going to demand nothing less than a paradigm-shift. Family time must be carved out and kept sacrosanct. We must be together. Dine together. Read, play, and laugh together. And of course, worship together. Parents, and especially fathers, need to create an esprit de corps in their families. Love, devotion, and the desire to stay together will mean we need to be almost if not altogether clannish.
The strongest families I have ever seen were ones where children really liked being with family. Not that they didn’t have original sin. I knew better than that. But by the grace of God, the parents didn’t make an army, compliant but loveless. What they made was a team. A team with a positive brand. And loyalty sprang from love.
Now please don’t misunderstand. I am not advocating a kind of family-olatry. By striving to be tight-knit, I am not calling for families to be islands, cut off from church and society. Quite the opposite. The very point of this post is about creating multi-generational churches. I am a churchman and proud of it. I want my son and daughters to be churchmen. Card-carrying, catechized, psalm-singing Presbyterians! I want them to have friends, young and old, outside our family in the family of God. Further, parental authority should not cancel out ecclesiastical authority. While my ruling elder is not the natural father of my children, he is still a father to them. See Larger Catechism 124 and proof texts. I rest my case.
3. As those in church leadership, we must cultivate 1 & 2 in every household. Family religion has always been paramount within Reformed Christianity. If minister and elders invest in family religion, they invest in the church. And the more families are established, the more the church is established. And under the blessing of God, the future generations join those before them in the praise of God (Psa. 78, 102). More specifically, we must father our fathers and husband our husbands. As the father goes, as a rule, so goes the family. He is the linchpin. As Baxter once put it, get the father, and half if not most of your pastoral work is done. So we absolutely have to stress family religion from the pulpit, and regular household visitation cannot be optional. Really, this one should go at the top.
4. Let us all be devout churchmen and make church-matters paramount. We must be in the house of God every Lord’s Day, at each service. As long as we are not laid up with some illness or away on necessary business. We have to nip flimsy excuses in the bud and fall into ranks. And we must love it there. “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple” (Psa. 27:4). If it is not so with us, it certainly will not be with our children.
Also, we must make decisions of residence conditional on whether we will be near a good church. In our affluent and extremely mobile society, it is very easy to hearken to the call of opportunity. And a bigger income. This has been going on for a long time. Recently, we have been reading the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls-Wilder. It is rather quaint and heart-warming. But Pa Ingalls made his decisions to move his family apparently without the slightest thought of church. Not good, Pa! If we love our families, we will put church first. We cannot sacrifice the bread of life for a bigger slice of the bread that perishes. If this kind of churchmanship isn’t in our hearts, it won’t be in our children’s hearts. If we are loosely attached to our churches, they will also. They will move somewhere, and will settle for something spiritually sub-par. Or worse, without mom and dad to wake them up and get them moving, they’ll sleep the Sabbath away.
5. Let us invest locally and bloom where we are planted. This is a far-reaching concept, but I’ll just focus on its particular application to the issue. Jeremiah called the exiles to unpack their bags and settle down in Babylon. “Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace” (Jer. 29:5-7). Now, as confessional – and not ‘New’ – Calvinists, we don’t believe in the ongoing gift of prophecy. So I can’t say we must chain ourselves for ever to where we presently live until a further word is received. But I do think that there is a timeless principle here. That is, we must recognize that God calls us to be faithful where He plants us, and we ought to be slow to leave our assigned plot until the orders are clear. And the more skillful we are in the Word of God, the better we’ll be able to read providence and be sensitive to His real and not imagined guidance. Time to unpack, folks.
If this is the case, then why not involve our children in the reverse-desertification right where we are? Why not help them marry, plant gardens, and build houses nearby? In the same state, city, or even neighborhood? There is strength in numbers. Of course, God may veto all of this. He may call one of our children to be a missionary and live half-way around the world from us. But shouldn’t this be an exception and not the rule? What law of the Medes and Persians makes us expect that our kids and grandkids must live ten states away? I wonder how much of this comes from assumptions we have just taken over uncritically.
6. Let us rethink, then, the law of sending off to college. It has become more or less a rite of passage in modern America that a child will automatically leave home at 18 to go to a college far, far away from one’s parents and home church. Now, I am not saying that it is necessarily wrong. I am just saying that we should at least rethink it. Must they? Are there educational and vocational opportunities closer to home? And nowadays, options online are expanding exponentially. More often than not, there is gold in these hills.
Here in Rhode Island, there is still a sizeable Roman Catholic population. While what is good in this culture is certainly eroding, immediate and extended family is still at a higher premium than elsewhere in the U.S. At least, from my armchair. As an indicator, many people go to college in state (the smallest in the union), marry in state, and settle in state. Why do they do this? Well, why not? And why can’t we seek to restore it – at least a Protestant version?
Further, while I would suggest we rethink the law of sendingour children off to college, let me make a further distinction. Sons are one thing, daughters are another. We really need to protect our daughters, especially as the modern college scene is often at its best unwholesome, and at its worst a den of wolves. Not in every case, I admit. But in most.
If, however, we’ve already puffed the dandelion and the seeds have drifted far and wide, is there anything we can do to incentivize them to come back? I’ve heard some states and countries hemorrhaging their young because they don’t see a future back home. Other countries suffer from ‘brain drain,’ which makes their economic prospects bleak. So what do they do? They talk policy. Provided that we adhere to biblical principle, isn’t there room for shrewd policy? Let us be harmless as doves, yes. But also wise as serpents!
7. Last, let us seek ‘rest’ for our children. A lot of good things are being said today about how bad casual dating can be. I couldn’t agree more. And many are saying good things about how parents and especially fathers should be significantly involved in the courtship process. But when I read the very, very long lists of extremely detailed questions some fathers have for prospective suitors, I sometimes get worried. I understand 100% that we have to be guardians. Even bulldogs at times. But if we are only guardians and are not actively involved in building healthy family relationships within and without our congregations, we will have no pool of possibilities for our children. And then they’ll have to go out and shift for themselves. If we are not actively looking out for our Isaacs and our Ruths, then we will shoot ourselves and them in the foot. And maybe even the heart.
If we’re doing this, though, and take the fatherly initiative, why not stock the pool strategically? Why not include location to the wish-list? No, location cannot trump piety or confessionality. I’m not marrying my child off to an Arminian because he or she lives on the next street. But can’t I put location somewhere on the list? And within the location category, different ratings? Best location, second best, third, and so on? With three of my four children daughters, I may need to be prepared to kiss some of them goodbye. But if I’ve done my work well, I hope to send them to second best location and not twenty-third. And even then, only after I’ve made my best appeal to hubby to ‘come and stay for awhile.’
But while we think, plan, and busy ourselves in Kingdom building, we must do it always on our knees. Only by the Spirit will the Church be built up. And only by the Spirit will our seed be blessed in her walls. “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil. Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it” (Psa. 90:15-17).