‘Dad, I think it’s really good that you and mum want to live in rough places to help people with problems but that doesn’t make it easy for me and the others, does it?’
The words stabbed at my heart like a knife and I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to avoid crashing the car. I had just picked my kids up from school and my eldest daughter, then only eight years old, was going through a really tough time. It had got to the stage that I was almost scared to ask her how her day had been as I knew there would be yet another tearful retelling of bullying, isolation and trying to learn in a class that was bordering on ‘out of control’.
Rewind seven years
My wife, Michelle, and I both knew that when we moved to a council estate in the Welsh Valleys on a church planting adventure there were going to be challenges, not least for our little girl (then just a year old), plus any subsequent kiddies we might be blessed with (we now have four). But our conviction was that we were on this mission together and we would face adversity together. God had called us as a family and God would keep us as a family. We held that God’s grace would keep us wherever his Spirit led us. That the story of our lives and those of our children were being written by God. Of course, that theological position was all well and good when our baby girl was safe in our arms. It was very different years later when she was enduring six hours of agony each day in school. (Conversely, we had the opposite fears with our eldest son, not so much that he was facing bullying, which he did, but that he was learning a lot more about the ‘real world’ from his friends than we were comfortable with.)
As Michelle and I chatted that evening we asked ourselves some hard, searching questions:
- Had we made a terrible mistake?
- How much more of this should she have to endure?
- Were we gambling with our children’s wellbeing in the name of mission?
- Was God really able to keep our kids safe when out of our sight and care?
I wonder if you have ever asked similar questions.
Fast forward two years
Some two years later Elen was still in the same school and things were, mercifully, going better for her. I asked her one evening where she was at with Jesus. She replied that the gospel was starting to make sense to her, largely because it made sense of the way that our family does life – and that she now liked the way we do life. She was starting to appreciate people and compassion and hospitality and salvation and answered prayers. I can’t overstate how much that answer blessed us.
As I write this article our kids are now in a new school in a tough inner-city neighbourhood as once again out family gets its teeth into a new church planting adventure. Only this time, our kids are that little bit older and a little bit more resilient and it has been amazing to see them confidently stepping into this new space making new friends and navigating new cultures.
Now in all honesty I don’t think either myself or Michelle would consider ourselves experts in parenting. Far from it. Indeed, it’s not lost on us that we haven’t even got to the teenage years yet! But it is fair to say that, in light of our theological and missional convictions, we have had to learn, re-learn and keep re-learning what it means to raise kids on mission. To be in the world, but not of the world. And so, to that end, here are some practical suggestions we’d like to share:
1. Teach on the way
The Scripture that has informed our parenting more than any other is this little nugget:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Teaching on the way is all about seizing moments to learn, discovering and applying theology to life as it happens. It involves directing wide-eyed wonder Godward. Being able to discuss the things our kids are experiencing in culture. Exploring the effects of sin, but also loving and not condemning. It includes praying through problems, even praying for enemies, seeking to try to understand why people act the way they do.
2. Make disciples
One thing that we have found helpful is to think of raising kids less as parenting and more as making disciples. Often our instinct as parents is to shelter our kids from the evils of the world, rather than to help them to understand the world, to love the world and to confidently connect with the world with courage and confidence in the gospel. But did Jesus not pray, ‘I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one’ (John 15:15)? Now obviously, part of our role as parents is to protect our children. They are by nature immature, vulnerable and impressionable and we should certainly not be reckless in our approach. But that doesn’t mean that they should be excluded from the joy of mission.
So much of Jesus’ strategy for discipling his followers was to bring them on mission with him – observing and participating in prayer, preaching, performing miracles and showing mercy. Parenting should function in a very similar way. Some of what our children learn is taught by us. Much of what they learn is caught from us. If we fear the world and hide away from it, we are teaching our kids to do the same. Likewise, if we are disgusted by the world and recoil from it – if we roll our eyes and tut when we should weep and pray – that’s what we pass on. If we are not discipling others while we raise our kids, how will our kids know that disciples make disciples? However, if we are effectively engaging with the world without compromise, we are modelling mission to our children and helping them to see that the world is there to be reached, not rejected.
3. Know your kids
If being parents to four little people has taught us anything, it’s that all children are beautifully and wonderfully different and diverse. Therefore, it’s crucial to know each of them well and to know how they tick. We need to discern how much ‘real life’ they can handle without getting broken or unduly burdened by it. Sometimes they need to be lovingly challenged to press on. Other times they need to be taken aside for comfort and care.
Similarly, it’s also vital that we understand what gifts and passions God has given each of them. For example, Elen is creative and compassionate. Josiah loves adventure. Ezra is strong and protective and Anastasia is ferociously tenacious! All these unique character traits are gifts from God to be used for his glory and the good of their world. Our challenge is to help them identify and grow in those gifts, then to unleash them into the world!
4. Use your home well
In our experience home life is absolutely critical in all this. While the world ‘out there’ can be a tough place to be, home should be a place of sanctuary, rest and sanity for our children. A place where unconditional love, acceptance, patience, forgiveness and grace are on tap. A place where wounds can heal, fears can be calmed and truth applied. However, home is also a place that can and should be used to welcome the outcast and the unbeliever (the Bible calls this ‘hospitality’). We should be seeking God for the integrity to be able to open our homes to those outside the family so they see the same gospel-centred family life that goes on behind closed doors in all its mess, mistakes and joys. Finding the balance is key in this and it’s crucial that we know our kids well in order that they are energised and not crushed by the process.
5. Get salvation in perspective
Finally, let’s make sure that we remember what salvation is really all about! Salvation is God’s sovereign act of invading the lives of sinners (like us) with the soul-saving, life-giving gospel of grace. This is made available to us by the finished work of Jesus and made real to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must surely prayerfully crave this for our kids more than anything else in the world. However, salvation is not getting our kids to heaven with minimum trouble, minimum skirmishes with sin and Satan, and minimal encounters with the real world. We must remind ourselves that the world we pray won’t get ‘in’ to our kids is the same world that the Father loves, that Christ died for and that the Spirit is still very much at work in redeeming.
Jesus didn’t save us to be safe. He saved us to join the rescue mission and nothing excites me more than the thought of my kids getting swept off their feet by King Jesus and swept up into his great adventure for their lives!