Sometimes when I drop our children off at Sunday school, I wonder what’s really going on. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great church with a great children’s program. There are whimsical characters painted on the walls, shelves full of toys, boxes of crafts, reams of Bible curriculum. There is a check-in and check-out process so parents leave with the right child.
And there are lots of people who love our kids – from the director of the program to the shift supervisor to the man who counts the attendance, right down to the teacher and her helper. I trust every one of them. But still, I wonder what’s really going on.
What’s happening with my children? What do they think church is? A building? A Bible lesson? A playtime? What?
I could explain to them what I believe: Church is not a building or a lesson or a playtime; church is so much more. I could tell them this, but would it sink in?
I could use a flannel board with sticky people and a sticky building to make my point. I would ask, “What is church?” and after they point to the building, which is how most kids would answer, I would rip the building off the flannel board, tear it in two, and then point to the people, who are all smiling and holding hands, and I would say, “No, church is not a building, church is people.” Then I would feel satisfied that I contributed to my childrens’ spiritual development. But I don’t think they’d be better off.
Church is a living organism, the Body of Christ. I can’t just tell them about church; I need to show them, let them experience it. But how? By being the church to them. By inviting them to take part. By treating our family as their first church.
I mean “first” in two ways: first as in earliest, meaning our family is the earliest church they’ll know; and first as in primary, meaning our family is the most important church they’ll know.
Here are ten reasons the family is the first church:
A worldview is the way a person interprets the world and interacts in it. In his research George Barna found that worldview starts developing as early as age two and is pretty well solidified by age thirteen (1). Instead of letting it shape haphazardly, parents can pass their worldview down to their children in an intentional manner. Shouldn’t church shape worldview?
Although parents are measured among the most influential in a child’s life, there are other powerful influence agents such as media, friends and the Internet. Practically speaking, parents are in the best position to know what their children are watching and listening to and who they’re hanging out with. Shouldn’t church identify influences?
There is no better place to learn how to live in Christian community than in a family. It’s easy to practice character when you’re at a church service, but what about at home when the kids are fighting or the furnace breaks? In a family, all members have the opportunity to participate in Christian community, up-close and personal. Shouldn’t church be about this?
God has given ministry gifts to every believer. Like flowers, these gifts bloom if given the right environment. For example, if your daughter is concerned about people in need, she might have a gift of mercy. As a family, you can serve in a soup kitchen, expose her to needy people, and see if the mercy gift develops. How exciting and safe to discover and mature your ministry gifts together! Shouldn’t church be a testing ground for ministry gifts?
When your family is your first church, you’ll live your faith every day, out-loud, in front of your children. When you’re struggling and you pray as a family, your kids will learn the power of prayer. When the beauty of the sunset overwhelms you and you praise God, your kids will learn about worship.
When they see you reading your Bible, they’ll pick up on the importance of the Word. Most of all, they’ll learn that faith is something they take with them everywhere, anytime. Shouldn’t church demonstrate real-life faith?
God instituted authority in order to pass down blessing from a “greater” to a “lesser.” We first learn about authority in our families. The trend in parenting is to emphasize independence over obedience (2). But parents can go against the flow by providing true authority, leading to lifelong blessing. Shouldn’t church teach authority?
Parents represent God to their children. We often picture God according to our mother or father. If the example is right, we embrace the image. If it is wrong, we reform the image. Parents who are cognizant that they represent God will hopefully act to form a healthy image. Shouldn’t church represent the right image of God?
Simply put, God commands parents to direct their children in the ways of God: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress 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” (Deut. 6.6-7). Shouldn’t church obey God?
As a parent, you take care of your child’s physical needs: you feed him, clothe him, give him shelter, bandage his wounds, etc. You put a lot into taking care of his body. Well, when he dies, he’ll leave his body behind. It’s his spirit that will remain. Shouldn’t the church care for the spirit?
When you make your family your first church, you’ll grow in intimacy as a family. Now this is quality family time!
So put down the flannel board and start being church. Your family is your first church!
(1) Barna, George. Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions. Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2003.
(2) Ellison, Christopher G. and Sherkat, Darren E., “Obedience and Autonomy: Religion and Parental Values Reconsidered,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, (1993b), 313-329.