Trained in the Fear of God: Family Ministry in Theological, Historical, and Practical Perspective, ed. Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011. 290 pages.
Randy Stinson is dean of the School of Church Ministries and vice president of Student Services and Institutional Improvement at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Timothy Paul Jones is an associate professor of leadership and family ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a best-selling author.
The extended title of the book makes no secret of its ambitious goal. By exploring the theology, history and practical aspects of family ministry, the editors seek to paint a picture of what it means to train families in the fear of God. It’s certainly a pressing and godly goal that every church has reason to struggle with. To meet this goal the editors have collected seventeen essays, almost exclusively penned by the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Though speaking from a different theological viewpoint, the problems the authors seek to address will sound very familiar. They see churches that are rich in programs aimed at every part of the family, yet families that are poor in growing in God’s Word in their own homes. Youth groups are thriving, yet youth are spiritually languishing. Sunday School classrooms are full, but family Bibles are closed. The value of – and alternatives to – this “segmented programmatic” approach to family ministry is put under the microscope.
After a brief preface, the book is divided into three main groupings of essays. The first part seeks to build a solid theological foundation for family ministry that could be summed up this way: God designs the home, not the church, to be the primary place of discipleship. Basic scriptural tenets of human sexuality, gender roles, and parental responsibilities are discussed. Part II traces the history of home-based, church-equipped faith formation work. While not much can be said for the early centuries of the church, greater detail is provided within post-Reformation church bodies. The third part of the book aspires to equip ministers and churches for a more comprehensive, family-equipping ministry approach.
The Lutheran minister won’t find too many surprises in these pages. The renewed call to strengthen families and have God’s Word living in our homes is something to which every Lutheran pastor would give a heart-felt, “Ja!” Nor would one be shocked at the false doctrines that creep into the essays – the pedigree of the authors might lead us to expect unscriptural statements on the nature of faith and conversion. The gospel-driven power of baptism is, of course, flatly denied (58-59, 202), and it’s assumed that young children cannot yet have saving faith (180).
It shouldn’t surprise us to encounter such teachings; likewise, we might not be surprised with how similar of a challenge we face in our own churches. The pastor looks wistfully at the heading in the Small Catechism, “As the head of the family should teach them in the simplest way to those in his household.” Is this happening? The Sunday School teacher mourns when her students –so faithful during the school year! – all but disappear from church during the summer months. As our worker training college aggressively pursues programs in Early Childhood Ministry which aim to bring youth into increased contact with the church, there’s always reason to ask ourselves, Are we strengthening families or circumventing them? Are we equipping parents to give their children what they need, or are we giving them the impression that this is primarily the church’s responsibility?
The challenge is a valid and ever-present one. The authors have done a fine service by raising the question and addressing its implications. Once the reader sorts through the doctrinal issues and the at-times heavy history, he would likely be saying, “I agree with the premise! Let’s dig into the solution.”
It’s at this point where the book disappoints. The authors argue that a segmented-programmatic approach (centered on youth groups, VBS, Sunday School, etc) doesn’t strengthen family catechesis. We might grant that argument. It’s time for churches to do a better job of partnering with parents and equipping them for lives of devotion, discipleship and missiological purpose. When it comes to concrete suggestions or guidance, though, the essays are lacking. There is a fine suggestion here or there (do consider teaching your children to say the Creed as part of your morning or bed-time routine; you won’t regret it), but the “practical” part of the book reads more like a theoretical map. We agree that families should read scripture in the home, that parents should cultivate informal opportunities to teach faith lessons, and that there is great value when the church helps train and equip families to do so. Yet practical suggestions for how this family ministry might look or function are scarce.
That’s not to say that this book is without value. Essayist Kevin Smith gives the congregation serving in a matriarchal African American community much to think about (131-142). “Why Your Child’s Brain Needs Family Ministry” (211-220) is concise and approachable enough to share with parents when discussing the impact of television and video games on a child’s ability to develop higher level critical (and theological) thought. “The Freedom of Christ and the Unforeseen Consequences of Feminism” (235-242) gives much food for thought and material for discussion in a Bible study setting as the essayist talks about her journey to finding true joy in her calling as a Christian woman.
The greatest value of this book might be in reminding frustrated church leaders: You aren’t alone in facing this challenge. May that point – and the importance of facing this challenge – not be lost on us.