To Inculcate or Evangelize?

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 6 Comments

The danger in giving parental advice is manifold. First, it implies a direct cause-effect relationship between parenting techniques and children’s behavior. Second, it can leave parents feeling guilty over wayward children, often falsely so. Third, since Sharon and I got lucky with our own kids, it gives the impression we really knew what we were doing.

With those qualifiers, I feel only slightly safer saying this: Christian parents should think more about evangelizing their kids, less about inculcating them.

I’m thinking here of incremental, sensitive evangelism that listens carefully, loves fully, prays frequently and shares openly. Evangelism that is 100% individualized to the person—whether your little 5-year old explorer, 15-year old wing-spreader, or late-teen wild oats sower.

The crucial difference is this: choice.

Those who inculcate say in essence to their kids: “You don’t really have a choice in the matter. You’re growing up Christian, and that’s that.”

Those who evangelize say something a little different: “You DO have a choice in the matter, and we’re doing all we can to make the Christian pathway attractive and challenging to you.”

Of parental influence, Smith and Denton say this: “The best social predictor, although not a guarantee, of what the religious and spiritual lives of youth will look like is what the religious and spiritual lives of their parents do look like.” (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, p261).

(Folks, is our own spiritual modeling drawing kids in, or pushing them away?)

  • When the evangelized come to me at age 18, most are ready to roll in ministry.
  • When the inculcated show up, often they have little ownership of their faith. Some need a crisis and re-conversion. Others. . . well, they never do show up.

I recognize the inherent risk in what I’m suggesting. But I believe “evangelism” pays off more often than “inculcation.”

Next blog topic: College Campus: what it’s really like out there.

Comments 6

  1. I think that this premise suits my “N of 1” criteria far better than the strict vs. permissive framework previously posed. While there will be nuances and multiple other contributing factors, many of which are outside of parental decisions and control, how one has lived their personal faith in front of their children, undoubtedly has a strong impact. What is challenging, Rick, is that few individuals have the intellectual acumen you have, the personal experiences, and the spousal alignment, to achieve the sophisticated approach you took with your own children. Most of us mere mortals are left to bumbling along, trying to be honest, transparent, and do the 'right' thing. When we rely on our church, which is embedded in our current American Evangelical culture (and you know what I think about that), we may unwittingly create the inculcation which we would, in our better moments of lucidity, avoid like the plague.

  2. Heindoc, nicely stated. I like your triad of being “honest, transparent and doing the ‘right’ thing.” Much better than being neglectful or heavy-handed—the faults, respectively, of permissive and strict parenting.

    You point out some advantages I may have as a person employed professionally in youth (collegiate) ministry. While admitting this, I’d call adults to band together in groups to corporately “parent” kids, providing them with multiple role models and communal wisdom. I might relate better to your child then you; you might relate better to mine than I do. We need each other.
    This approach would make more plausible some of the evangelistic risk I mention in the blog.

    When my son Ryan was in 12th grade, we invited ten of his friends to our house on eight consecutive Sunday evenings for “midreach,” which means outreach to Christians in a way nonChristians can relate to.

    We tackled a different apologetics issue each week, such as “Why does God make it hard to believe?”, “Why does God need worship?”, and “What happens to those who’ve never heard of Jesus?”

    The key was this: We gave the students themselves a hand at answering the questions. I didn’t just spoon-feed them.

    OK, not everyone feels comfortable doing what we did. But there’s probably someone in your church or parachurch circle that can lead a midreach discussion. Kids MUST process these types of issues in a safe (i.e., doubts and objections are OK) environment, or the issues will fester below the surface until spiritual sickness eventually breaks out—often, in the college years.

  3. Rick,

    Thanks for giving me the heads up to this blog – while Em and I don't have kids yet, I think this concept of 'evangelizing' children is beautiful! It speaks of intentionality in the same sense as I have learned/been trained to share my faith with others (through IV, experience, a myriad of authors, seminary, and a guy named Rick Mattson).
    I love that this idea seems to invest the child with the implied dignity of sifting through important questions, while it also expects them to defend or do something with the answers.
    I will want them to know the 'why' to the 'what' that I am commending to them – But I would love to see them able to answer the 'why' question from their own wrestling rather than from my downloading it into them. There's so much more staying power in a conclusion one comes to (or is guided to) on one's own as opposed to inherited data! 'Evangelizing our children' certainly seems to get at that idea. Then again, I'm just an idealist with no experience!
    Hopefully our kids thank you for this idea in advance!
    Matt Bennett

  4. The Term
    The request du jour in our church parent group, specific to kids, is for prayers in helping high school seniors choose the “right” college. I think it generally is intended as “best” college. The next time I hear the request I have a feeling I'll be sharing some of the cold hard realities from Rick's Jan 13 post.

    I have never been a fan of the inculcation method, but must admit it has a certain lure to it, and maybe more so in parent to my-own-kid dynamics; “just repeat the same thing over and over enough and eventually we will all believe it.” Sure.

    “Evangelism,” the term, specific to my own kids is helpful as it more than nods to possibility that they may be of a different view than what I so much don't want them to be. Say it ain't so. I am to be a witness in Jerusalem after all.

    I suppose after the reaction to “the term” in context of our own kids next week at church, we may launch into a great conversation, may end up asking ourselves, “is our own spiritual modeling drawing our own kids in, or pushing them away?”

  5. Rick:

    This makes good sense, although I admit that I sometimes wonder if we our extraordinary focus on choice also has its downside (as if it was the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream). There is a long line of theologians who completely agree that God does not coerce, but, instead, he extends his unmerited love to which we respond. So, could it be that we are inviting our children to “choose to respond to God”? I think you are saying this implicitly, but my point is to emphasize that we aren't making an abstract choice when we trust Christ; rather, we are responding to a loving offer already extended by a Person with a vested interest in us.

    Bob Osburn

  6. To kid-less Matt B: Good word, “downloading” to kids, something to avoid. Yes, I believe they need to own their own faith, wrestling with the offer of grace, and choosing to accept or reject.

    To Mike D: Every time I use the term “evangelism” in parent-child relations, it’s a bit arresting. Anyway, you are courageous to take this approach with your children. Good luck with your parenting group. I wish more churches made these groups a priority.

    To Bob O: Yes, this reminds me of “invitational” evangelism, which respects the free will of others, while still getting our message across. Maybe our culture’s obsession with “choice” has spilled into my thinking. Good for me to ponder.

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