From Generation to Generation We Will Recount Thy Praise
Today more than ever, there is a need to reflect on how we pass on the Reformed faith to the next generation. Among some young people there is a growing estrangement from what the Reformed churches have always held as the elementary truths of the Bible. There are some withdrawals of young people from the churches. Some give up on practicing religion altogether. Others join evangelical churches. There may be any number of reasons for these things. However, I believe that estrangement and withdrawals from the church are a serious call to all adults to consider how we can better be instruments of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit has promised the youth of the church that He will dwell in them and make them living members of Christ (see Form for Baptism, Book of Praise, p. 584). It has pleased Him to use adults, especially parents, to fulfill this promise. We need to think about how we can be most effective instruments of the Spirit's working of faith in the hearts of the children of the covenant.
One thing we need to realize now more than ever is that we may not just assume that the next generation will appropriate the Reformed heritage and continue in the same faith as a matter of course. In the past, adults could more readily assume that the youth of the church would be satisfied to continue in the Reformed faith. But this assumption is no longer very realistic. And there are a number of reasons, I believe, why this is so.
The Questions of Youth
One of the primary reasons is that we live in a very individualistic society today: in other words, a society that invites people to question all the standard principles and values. Young people are no longer taught norms and values, but are encouraged to question the standard principles and practices. Everything is up for grabs nowadays. Youth are encouraged to question. And that's not all bad, but it does mean that parents and adults have to be prepared to deal with all sorts of questions from their children: questions which they never asked, and felt no need to ask in their youth, but which the youth of today do ask. We need take that questioning into account when dealing with the youth of the church. It is not good to ignore or play down the questions which with the youth struggle, for then we leave them in a vacuum, which makes them vulnerable to wrong Bible interpretation or to apostacy.
Another reason why we can no longer assume that the next generation will carry on in the same faith is that we live in an increasingly secularized society. Western society and culture used at least to pay lip service to Christian values and norms. But God and religion hardly play a role in the life and activities of the average North American anymore, and the media promotes a Godless and basically normless culture. There is pressure on Reformed believers to push God and religion out of everyday life also. Young people of the covenant are bombarded by Godless books, film, and media in general. It is no wonder that they struggle more intensely than ever before with basic issues of faith and what faith really means for their everyday lives.
Our young people live and mature in a changing society, a society which is already very much different from the society in which the adults of today grew up. Modem youth struggle with questions which the adults of today didn't have to deal with as intensely in their youth. What do I really need God for? If God truly exists, why is it that I notice so little of Him? If it's so wonderful to believe, how come I don't feel that great about it? What does the Bible have to do with life today? And why doesn't prayer seem to do very much for me?
A Search for Stability
Adults have to be careful that they don't just ascribe this questioning to indifference or rebellion. The youth of the churches struggle with these kind of questions because they are looking for stability and for certainty. They live in a world which seems so sure of itself, and which often makes itself appear as if it has all the answers. The young people are uncertain. They want to believe, but they don't really know how to do that in this day and age. And they need help and guidance that is geared to this day and age. It cannot just be assumed that they will continue in the faith of their fathers. They need real help and guidance from adults.
They need this good guidance primarily from parents – helped by the words and actions of other adults in the communion of saints, of course. But the primary task of giving guidance and help to the youth belongs to the parents. It is, in fact, a promise made by the parents at the baptism of their children. At the baptism of their children, parents are asked:
Do you promise as father and as mother to instruct your child in this doctrine, as soon as he (she) is able to understand, and to have him (her) instructed therein to the utmost of your power?
Now the last part of that promise is important. It is an important incentive to be involved in Christian education, for instance. But it flows out of the first part. The first part of the promise is the basic part here. It is the duty of the parents themselves to instruct their children in the doctrine of God's Word as soon as their children are able to understand.
That instruction, which the parents promise to give their children, has to be understood in the light of what it says about the doctrine of baptism at the beginning of the Form: “First, we and our children are conceived and born in sin and are therefore by nature children of wrath so that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we are born again” (Book of Praise, p. 584). Note that phrase, “unless we are born again.” That's ultimately the purpose of the instruction. Their children are certainly covenant children, and that is a great blessing to know. God has given them glorious promises. But these children are not yet born again. They need to be regenerated in order to enter the kingdom of God. And that's the real purpose behind their upbringing and instruction: that they may be born again, regenerated, grow to maturity in living faith.
And that's not something that comes automatically. It isn't so that the duty of the parents is simply to expose their children to the right information and obligations and that by some process similar to osmosis they are then naturally born again. The children of the covenant are conceived and born in sin like everyone else. They need to be taught and guided so that they themselves can come to real, personal and living faith. It has to be their personal and conscious choice. And that choice is not something they should be suddenly faced with when they attend pre-confession class. It's something they ought to be led to by parents throughout their upbringing.
Of course, no parent can really bring rebirth about in their children as such. It is the Holy Spirit who has to work that. But they certainly have the task to be good instruments of the Holy Spirit and, as much as they are able, to pass on the kind of knowledge and create the kind of environment in which their children can also be born anew and make the good confession (see 2 Timothy 1:5, 3:15; Ephesians 6:4). And that takes much effort and wisdom on the part of the parents.
What do young people today need in order to be guided to that good confession? What should parents do to give their children what they need to make a personal choice to love and serve their Lord in these times? There has been considerable attention given to this subject in the Reformed media in the Netherlands. Rev. H. Messelink, of Barneveld, the Netherlands, has given some good suggestions for parents in Gereformeerde Kerkblad, which are well-worth taking into account. Nothing new, really. But things which parents need to be reminded of and which require redoubled effort in today's circumstances.
In the first place, Messelink points out, parents need do away with the idea that their children will automatically continue in the faith which they themselves hold dear. The young people do not automatically take over and carry on with what we profess. It's the amazing work of the Holy Spirit when children come to faith. But the Spirit wants to use the parents in this work of His. So parents are called to be conscious of their task and to make every effort to bring their children to the good confession.
That means then that parents need to listen to what the young people are thinking and saying. There isn't enough communication between adults and young people today. Everybody is busy. It's also most likely a degree of self-consciousness on the part of adults which prevents good communication – self-consciousness, because you have to bare your own soul, when you speak heart-to-heart with the issues young people today wrestle with. You have to show what goes on inside yourself too, and that's not always easy to do. But it's sure to open the way to communication with young people.
The questions young people today ask can also cause discomfort to adults. As an adult believer, you may have to admit that you don't have answers to all their questions. But that's not so bad either. All questions don't need a black-and-white answer. Faith is the conviction of things not seen. The point is that parents should know their children, know what lives inside them, understand them. And to get to know that, there has to be good communication. Good communication is fostered where there is a close relationship between parent and child – a relationship in which there is openness and trust. Parents need to take an interest in the lives and thoughts of their children and to listen to the young people. A good relationship provides a positive atmosphere for guiding the youth.
Another thing which needs added attention today is prayer for the youth. As we mentioned before, personally choosing to worship and serve the Lord doesn't come automatically to the youth of the church. A miracle has to take place in their hearts, a resurrection from the dead (Canons of Dort III/IV, Article 12). This requires prayer. Parents need to pray daily for the miraculous work of the Spirit in the hearts of their children. They may do so on the basis of the promise spoken over their children at baptism. There the Holy Spirit promised that He would dwell in them and make them living members of Christ. Prayer based on that promise is needed every day.
As well, parents need to encourage their children to choose for the Lord themselves. That has to start early. It includes, for instance, teaching them to pray independently when they're around eight or nine years old, and talking it over with them later on too. Some parents hardly discuss prayer with their children at all. Some don't even know if their teens speak to the Lord at all.
In addition, children should be encouraged to read the Bible regularly on their own. Discussing what was read at table from time to time and incorporating it in the prayer also gives the good environment for spiritual growth.
Parents shouldn't be afraid either to ask their children personally from time to time whether they choose for the Lord. That also guides them towards the choice.
Messelink makes a good point when he says that parents should give their children room to develop. It's important that parents give their children the room to have questions and doubts and struggles as far as faith and church are concerned. If they are knocked down every time they question something, resentment can result, instead of interest. Young people often notice the weak spots in church life, and they should be given the opportunity to question and to discuss openly and honestly. Parents may not have all the answers then, but young people respect honesty and openness.
Another matter which we as adults need to concentrate on is how much devotion to the Lord actually shows in our own words and deeds. We need to be conscious of the example and image we as adults present to the youth of the church. Do they see devotion to the Lord and enthusiasm for church and for the faith in our words and deeds? Are we consistent in a Christian walk of life? Are we able to speak honestly and openly with others about our own faith life? Our children watch us closely. We don't need to be perfect. It's OK if they see that we have our weaknesses and struggles too, as long as they also see our humble repentance and turning to the Lord, especially also in prayer. Parental prayer communicates quite a bit to young people. It shouldn't become just a memorized prayer rattled off by habit at the table.
The atmosphere in the home is also very important for the choice of faith which young people have to make in their lives. Our faith and trust in God should be part and parcel of family life. Trust is important. Where parents and children don't trust each other, you hardly have an environment in which trust in God will be cultivated. And how can a young person believe that faith regenerates and makes new people out of us if the home is often full of conflict and anger? If faith is not practised in the home, seeds for not choosing for the faith are sown already from early childhood. Parents certainly need to make sure that the home is a place where God is served and trusted.
Finally, Messelink draws attention to the fact that child-rearing is a process which culminates in letting go of your children. Parents have to realize that there comes a time when their children will continue in life without them. That's in fact the goal of raising covenant children: that they learn to live as Christians on their own. Raising children rightly, then, actually means letting go of them bit by bit, like teaching a child to ride a bike. You run alongside, holding on at first, but you let go more and more until at last they ride alone. That's how Reformed parents should raise their children: so they can continue on their own in faith. Let them learn from their mistakes too, then, for that teaches them independence. Let go of them. It's not good if a young person of twenty is still overly dependent on parents for opinions and ideas.
Parents need to concentrate on all these things today. Aggressively pursue them. When you think about it all, it may seem a bit intimidating. You might think you need to be almost a perfect parent. But don't forget that the point is to instruct your children in the joyful truth of the Word of God as much as you are able, to the best of your ability. As long as the effort is there, He is ready to forgive and to bless. He will use what we do, even if it is still very imperfect, to work the miracle of living faith in the hearts of our youth. It is ultimately His work. We just need to do our best in the task He gives us as parents and adults. And prayerfully seek His blessing and leave the rest to Him. Then we may expect His help and His blessing on the youth. From generation to generation we will recount God's praise, as Asaph says in Psalm 79:13.