Throughout the world, there are believers spreading the light of Christ in the darkest areas.
And as Jesus had done, many are going out and reaching to those labeled by society as the worst of sinners.
No doubt, there are often risks involved – risks that missionaries, pastors, chaplains, evangelists, and even everyday Christians choose to take for the proclamation of the gospel.
But are they risks that their parents would be willing to allow them to take if the decision was up to them?
That will likely depend on what their age is and what types of risks are being discussed here.
At a recent gathering of more than 3,000 children’s ministry workers, Pastor Larry Shallenberger encountered some unexpected resistance when leading a workshop on cultural trends that affect children’s ministry.
“We talked about the risks of raising children who were serious about bringing Jesus to all the children in their classrooms,” Shallenberger reported on Friday, recalling the events from the day before.
“The concern was that if we teach our children to have concern for ‘bad kids’ and to befriend them that their character would suffer,” he recalled in his personal blog.
While Shallenberger, pastor of Next Generations Ministries at Grace Church in Erie, Penn., said he is aware that a verse in the book of Proverbs says bad company corrupts good character, he also notes that “the savior of our children dined with famous sinners.”
“If our children are to imitate Jesus they are going to need to learn how to enjoy the rough kids in their class without being changed by them,” he says.
The idea of allowing or even encouraging their children to befriend “bad kids,” however, will not likely sit well with many parents, especially parents of teenagers.
When asked to identify the most significant or challenging issues facing their teenagers, most parents participating in a 2007 Barna survey listed peer pressure (42 percent), followed by performance in school (16 percent) and substance abuse (16 percent). Among parents of younger children, peer pressure was the second most significant or challenging issue mentioned (24 percent). Topping the list for parents of children was school performance (26 percent).
Parents of teens especially have reason to worry considering that young adults under 25 were found by a Barna poll late last year to be more than twice as likely as all other adults to engage in behaviors considered morally inappropriate by traditional standards.
Furthermore, the percentage of young people plagued by peer pressure issues more than doubles once a child reaches high school, George Barna of the Barna Group noted in his analysis of the 2007 study.
When asked by one participant of last week’s workshop if parents could teach their children to love their classmates without being friends with them, Shallenberger said the answer, in one word, is “no.”
“I’m convinced that children’s pastors need to cast a vision to families to raise children willing to serve and love lost people,” says Shallenberger.
And for parents who are concerned that their children will pick up sins while engaging “moral misfits,” Shallenberger says the only safeguard parents can offer their children is love.
“If our children are passionate about loving God and loving their neighbor (all of them) they will less likely to contaminate themselves,” he argues.
Furthermore, there may be greater risks in keeping children inside a protective “fortress” rather than properly equipping them for life in the world.
“We ... build these walls in a sincere but misguided effort to protect our children,” Shallenberger says.
However, Shallenberger says life “inside the fortress” creates an “Us-Them game” and builds boredom, cynicism, and legalism in children.
“God has given us children to develop. We are to multiply their talents and passions,” he says, referring to the parable of talents told by Jesus to his disciples.
“We are to give them a passion for lost people. If we bury these young ‘talents’ in an effort to not lose them, even for the most noble of reasons, we become the evil and lazy servant,” Shallenberger adds.
In mulling the tension between protecting children and raising Christ followers, Shallenberger came up with seven initial thoughts.
• There are no guarantees in parenting. There are no formulas.
• God loves our children. He is not asking us to discard our own children to reach the lost.
• If we raise children to hide behind our “fortress” they will grow up living behind the fortress.
• If our children watch us repairing our walls by being judgmental and hypocritical, they will grow up to do the same thing.
• There is no way to eliminate risk in the parenting process. (I’m the father of three sons).
• We need to challenge our children at age appropriate levels. I’m NOT advocating tossing our kids to the wolves.
• We still don’t believe that the two Great Loves are among the “Fundamentals.”
Shallenberger’s workshop was one of 60 that were presented during the course of last week’s “Conspire” conference, hosted by the Willow Creek Association in South Barrington, Ill.
Children’s ministry leaders representing 1,000 churches of varying styles, sizes, and locations gathered for the Mar. 18-20 event, which has been held annually under different names since 2003.
This year’s conference was held just a week after a study released by The Barna Group revealed that less than one percent of the youngest adult generation in America, those between ages 18 and 23, has a biblical worldview.
Furthermore, a study last month by LifeWay Research found that the majority of parents (60 percent) heavily rely on their own experiences growing up for parenting guidance but only one-fifth say they receive a lot of guidance from sacred text such as the Bible or Koran.
“We believe that when the church and home are working together in partnership, a child will be spiritually formed for a lifetime,” organizers of “Conspire” say.
The conference’s name, “Conspire,” is the combination of the words “connect” and “inspire.”