Family life looked much different before the Industrial Revolution. Here’s a brief survey of some cultural and social developments since the 18th century that have impacted current family discipleship (Some of this material is adapted from Ryan Steenburg with Timothy Paul Jones, “Growing Gaps from Generation to Generation,” in Trained in the Fear of God, edited by Randy Stinson and Timothy Paul Jones).
Industrialization: Family Fragmentation
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, making a living was often a family matter: all members of the family participated and worked together. With increased industrialization, however, the population shifted to urban centers, and factory labor fragmented the family (Stinson & Jones 2011, 146). We still see this fragmentation today. A family’s livelihood is far less a family team effort, but rather the result of a main bread-winner, usually the father. The more a dad’s career separates him from his wife and children, the more difficult it is for him to engage in meaningful discipleship.
Interestingly, with the rise of technology, we are seeing somewhat a reversal of the industrialization impact on families. An increasing number of parents are able to work from home via the internet, fusing career and home life once again. We have yet to see where this phenomenon will take us, but it most likely will not take us to a setting in which families work together like they did prior to the Industrial Revolution. This is due to another factor that shapes current relationships between parents and children, namely, government-paid (and compulsory) formal education.
Public Education: Peer-Influenced Adolescents
As the father’s work removed him from his wife and children, home education became less practical, and the 18th and 17th centuries saw the development of government schools (147-149). Public education, as it became called, standardized curricula and made education compulsory. One important result of public education is that children and adolescents began to be influenced primarily by their own peer group rather than by their parents and other elders.
Religious Societies and Youth Groups—Parents Bypassed as Primary Disciplers
Motivated by efficiency, and leveraging the peer-influenced culture of adolescence, religious societies for youth sprang up in England and the United States in the early 20th century (149-40). They were “wildly successful” (152). Although these programs appeared to be an efficient way to challenge young people to live for Christ, they effectively bypassed the role of the parents as the primarily disciplers of their children. At a time when the culture was spiraling toward antiauthoritarianism and sexual licentiousness (especially in the 1950s-60s), parents were relieved to hand over the job of discipling their children to the professionals (153-54). Many were happy to know that their children were in church at all—even if their “church” was virtually an enclave of the rest of the church and essentially mirrored the trends of popular culture, but with a Christian twist. As a result of age-segregated ministries, the gap between parents and their children widened, and parents were less and less inclined or equipped to disciple their children themselves.
What Can Parents and Churches Do?
It is helpful for us to understand how history and culture have shaped families, but our task is not to turn back the clock or even long for the “good old days.” Rather, we must see the present scenario as offering unique challenges and opportunities for discipleship of both parents and their children.
First, churches must affirm parents as the primary disciplers of their children. Parents must be convinced that this is not a task they can delegate to a youth group or Christian school. Second, beyond affirming parents in their God-given role, a church family ministry must encourage parents to assess their priorities. Are they being intentional in spending time together, in directing conversation toward things of God, in worshiping together, and in reaching out to others who need Christ, or are they letting their values and priorities be shaped by the culture? Third, an effective church ministry can equip parents and children by structuring their programs to facilitate intergenerational interaction. The church itself must assess whether they are perpetuating parental non-involvement by giving the impression that discipling children and adolescents is something that is best left to the professionals. Finally, the church should provide resources and instruction for practical issues, such as discipline, family devotions, celebrating milestones, etc.
It is easy to peer back into time and assume that it was easy to disciple a family in the years before the Industrial Revolution, or even before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But we must recognize that each generation has its challenges, and that in every age, God can give parents and their children the grace to live godly lives, no matter their circumstances (2 Peter 1:3, 2:9).