I’ve seen lots of programs blow through churches leaving a wake of disillusionment and disappointment where they promised to bring revival.
For decades, churches have attempted to minister to rising numbers of children who abandon their Christian faith and heritage as fast as they move away from their Christian homes. Proposed solutions to reach the children are as numerous as the families devastated by their defections: hip youth pastors versed in pop culture; trendy program names; provocative sermons devoid of the Gospel; crazy games. The list goes on and on and though each new idea promises to end the mass defection, the result is merely disappointment and exasperation in families and churches as the desertions continue.
A generation of Christian parents are now on the scene who have wisened to the promises of these sensationalistic programs. These parents see through the false pretences and want none of it for their children. Instead, their hope is to offer their children something simpler, something more biblical.
Enter the family integrated church movement (FICM). Like any movement, it is difficult to define. Generally speaking, the FICM is a call for parents to integrate their children of all ages into all aspects of church life, and thus seeks to end age-segregated church ministry. Nursery, children’s ministry, and youth ministry become obsolete, as toddlers, children and teenagers attend Sunday services, prayer meetings, and adult small groups with their parents. The entire family as a unit is thus integrated into the whole of church life and ministry. As a result, the church ministers to families instead of individuals and the church essentially becomes a family of families, not a family of individuals. In some more extreme fringes of this movement, I have even heard where the idea of age-segregation in church ministry is labelled as unbiblical, destructive to the family, or ‘socialistic’. Either explicitly or implicitly, proponents of the FICM teach that the younger generation will be restrained from the brink of defection if the church replaces the model of age-based ministry segregation with a family integrated approach, and if parents alone, without church leaders, disciple their children in the ways of the Lord.
This movement has many good emphases. FICM represents a well-needed call to end superficial attempts to reach youth. No amount of flashy pyrotechnics or programmatic implementation will ever save a child’s soul, and it’s time we all acknowledge this. It is a clear call for fathers to take responsibility for leadership and discipleship in their homes. It is a call for fathers to model an authentic Christian life at home, step up their game and lead their families in devotion and worship instead of dropping their children into a ministry program at church and relying on others to instruct and disciple them. It is a call for families to be strong and intact in a world where the Christian vision for family is largely an alien concept. The FICM is certainly not all bad.
But there are significant concerns, and the FICM is just as certainly not all good.
The movement has the potential to subvert the biblical role of elders in the local church. The New Testament calls all Christians to place themselves under the authority of elders in the local church (Hebrews 13:17), and nowhere in Scripture do we find that only fathers or heads of household are under the care of the elders. The Bible teaches that the elders will give an account for the spiritual condition of all believers within the congregation (Hebrews 13:17). If the elders, desiring to make disciples of all people (Matthew 28:19), direct the church to offer age-appropriate biblically-sound instruction, it is clearly their prerogative to do so. The elders should equip parents to instruct their children, and they must also offer instruction to the children within the congregation.
The movement has the potential to fail to acknowledge the true family of God. The church is a family of individual believers (1 Corinthians 12:27) – some of whom happen to be blood relatives – not a family of families. The Bible indicates that the Church, the bride of Christ, will outlast the nuclear family by an eternity. Jesus said that He came to divide families and turn children against their parents and parents against their children (Matthew 10:35-38). His true family members are those who obey His commands, not necessarily those related by blood (Matthew 12:46-50). Therefore, unbelieving children of believing parents are not part of the church family. They sit clearly on the outside until they are born of the Spirit, not of flesh and blood (John 3:5-6). For the sake of His Kingdom, Jesus told one man to not even attend His own father’s funeral (Luke 9:60). The church is a family of individuals redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, not the redeemed along with their blood relatives.
The movement has the potential to subvert the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus entrusted the evangelism and discipleship of children to the entire church, not just to their Christian parents. Wise parents will acknowledge the unique role that other Christians should have in the discipleship of their children. I thank God for the whole church. There are countless people in our own congregation who have spent time with my children without me present and have reinforced the same things I teach at home. Good children’s teachers are valuable assets to the congregation; not everyone is gifted in the same way. It takes the entire body of Christ to reach and disciple believers. As the entire community upholds and proclaims sound biblical teaching together, an even greater impression is left on our youth. Some plant, others water, but ultimately God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
The movement has the potential to unintentionally segregate people, as it attempts to de-segregate ages. We should be thankful for intact families with strong Christian fathers and mothers. Strong families are unquestionably important for strong churches; but so are singles, widows, orphans, and divorcees – all who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. If we define the church as only a family of families, then what of these people? What of the families with children who aren’t trained to sit in services? What of the parents who appreciate the break various age-appropriate programs offer? What of the people who have serious issues to be discussed in the safety of adult believer small groups, but issues too delicate to be discussed amidst children and unbelievers? None of these people should be marginalized.
The movement has the potential to place unnecessary burden on parents (and on churches) to implement it just the right way to get just the right results. “If I just do this, my children will be like Abel and Seth instead of Cain, or like Jacob instead of Esau,” we tell ourselves. Instead, we should preach the Gospel, trust the Gospel, and be content to live in light of the Gospel. Besides, Jesus was the only perfect child. And His parents didn’t even keep Him with them at all times during all religious services (Luke 2:41-52).
My greatest concern is that this movement, like the myriad other programs that promise to prevent our youth from abandoning their faith, will merely disillusion and disappoint. It is a reincarnation of the same old idea, but the trendy window dressings have been replaced with something plainer and seemingly biblical – a vision for the family. God’s means are sufficient to convert and disciple God’s elect; the local church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Word, prayer, and biblical preaching are enough.
In the end, the people of God must trust God. Jesus is Lord of the Church, and He will build His Church.
I need to acknowledge, with thankfulness, Brandon Plattner who offered many helpful editorial suggestions as I put this together.