Christian Education for the Church’s Children


On our recent trip to Europe, the Prices, Florence and I visited my daughter and son-in-law who are currently residing in St. Andrews, Scotland. We spent a day in Edinburgh and, as I do whenever I am in Edinburgh, I made a pilgrimage to St. George’s, the church which a hero of mine, Alexander Whyte, pastored for most of 50 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a large church, with a towering spire, in the fashionable West End, not far off the fabled Princes Street and only a stone’s throw from Edinburgh’s central landmark, the Castle.

It was known as Free St. George’s in Whyte’s day, because it was a congregation that, influenced by the evangelical revival, had left the Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843 to become part of the Free Church. The building it presently occupies was built by the congregation during its Free Church days. With most of the Free Church it returned to the Church of Scotland in the early 20th century and is now known simply as St. George’s. It is a church with a history of great ministers. Andrew Mitchell Thomson pastored the church before the Disruption. Thomson, a leading evangelical in the Church of Scotland of his day, was a preacher of considerable power. He was once described by none less than Thomas Chalmers as a man of colossal mind, wielding the weapons of spiritual warfare with an arm of might and voice of resistless energy, carrying, as if by storm the convictions of his people. [Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, 820] He was the editor of an influential church paper, the author of important books, and, as we know, was also a considerable musician. He wrote the tune, appropriately entitled “St. George’s Edinburgh,” that we use for the verses of the 24th Psalm that begin, “Ye gates, lift up your heads on high.” He was a faithful pastor and started a Christian school out of the church for the neighborhood. Thomson was followed by Robert Candlish, the leader of the Free Church in the middle of the 19th century, a theologian of international significance, and after the principal (we would say “president”) of the Free Church’s theological seminary. Candlish was then followed by the greatest preacher of all of St. George’s pastors, Alexander Whyte, who held the large congregation spellbound for nearly 50 years. You can still see the plaque – I saw it a few weeks ago – in the narthex of the church, a profile of Whyte with an inscription describing his long and faithful ministry and the undying affection of the congregation for him.

Some of you will remember that the congregation of this church gave me as a gift, in June of 1995, on the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination and installation as the pastor of this church, a volume of handwritten transcriptions of sermons delivered by Whyte in Free St. George’s in October and November of 1881. Interestingly, at the beginning of several of the sermons the transcriptionist entered a note right beside the text and title of the sermon and the date on which it was delivered. In one case it reads “church full,” in another, “church very full.” It was one of the most influential congregations in the Scottish church and it was full almost every Sunday. What is more, this church was very like the famous churches of our day. It was not only large, it was influential. The pastors’ messages were published in books read all over the world. Important people were officers or members and attended services. The ministers were public figures and among the most honored citizens of the city. It was Coral Ridge and Saddleback all rolled into one.

The first time I visited St. George’s – this was in 1984 – it was a weekday afternoon and I just happened to find a janitor on the premises who let me into the sanctuary to see the pulpit where Whyte preached and take in the history of the place. This time when we found ourselves outside the church the door was wide open and the narthex was filled with booths and activity. It was Festival week in Edinburgh – the city has a world-famous music festival in August every year – and many other organizations seek to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city who fill its streets and halls during the Festival week. Well, St. George’s narthex was filled with what, I suppose, would be called “social justice” organizations peddling their wares. Crafts from Africa were for sale and printed materials describing various programs to promote justice in other parts of the world were there for the taking. They were hoping that you would sign up for this or for that. I wanted to show Josh and Jim the sanctuary of the great church, but there was a concert going on at the time and we weren’t allowed in. I did find among all the rest of the literature a newsletter from the church itself. It was full of this report and that meeting having to do with a now very familiar approach to social justice using all the predictable vocabulary so beloved of the liberal church. The name Jesus Christ did not appear in the pamphlet and nothing was said – nothing whatsoever – of the church’s commitment to the gospel of Christ as a message of the salvation of sinners. There was nothing distinctively Christian in all the pages of that booklet, and I looked carefully. So typical now of liberal churches, St. George’s has a male minister, a female associate minister, and women run virtually everything else.

As it happens, from what I understand, Sunday would have been less impressive still. The congregation is small, services are poorly attended, a hundred people or less, a tiny fraction of the immense crowds of people that used to fill the church twice on Sunday to hear the sermons of Thomson, Candlish, and Whyte.

Now, no one who loves the church of God can fail to ask the question: what went wrong? How can it be that a church full of intelligent, committed Christians, Christians who had fought and paid a price for the gospel of Jesus Christ, how can it be that they, of all people, should have passed this pathetic excuse for a Christian church on to modern Edinburgh?

No doubt there are a number of things that can be said in answer to that question. The entire church lost its grip on the gospel and their confidence in the Word of God under the onslaught of Darwinism and German higher criticism in the late 19th and early 20th century. But few of those people who filled Alexander Whyte’s congregations in 1900 or 1920 would have said that they had abandoned their old faith. They would never have said that they no longer believed in the incarnation of God the Son, or his death on the cross for our sins, or his bodily resurrection from the dead, or his coming again. They would have continued to the end singing the familiar evangelical hymns and believing what they sang of Christ and salvation. They hadn’t given it up. Quite the reverse. They would have died, certainly most of them, evangelical Christians, holding sincerely, if less intelligently and less clearly than their parents and grandparents had done, to the gospel as it had been taught by three generations of St. George’s ministers. So how did St. George’s become the shadow of a Christian church, the mockery of a Christian church it is today?

Well, among the many answers that might be given to this question, and among the most important of those answers is this: the parents of that congregation did not pass on their faith to their children; the children of the church were not taught not only to believe the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, but to devote their lives to defending it against all comers and to proclaiming it to the world. The children of the next generation of that church were not put on notice that upon their embrace of the truth as it is in Christ hangs their own eternal life and that of their loved ones. They were not radicalized and made militant in the battle that wages in this world between the Lord Christ and the Evil One.

The problem was not first and foremost that the church did not remain faithful in evangelism. No doubt it failed there as well. But, fact is, in the second half of the 20th century and into the beginning years of the 21st, relatively few people in Scotland have been called to new life in Christ out of the world. For whatever reason, the Holy Spirit has not been mightily at work in summoning Scotland to Christ and salvation. The church should never have let that fact discourage her in the evangelistic task. She has impossibly good news and she ought to be sharing it all the time and with everyone. She ought to continue to share that news whether anyone will listen or not. The church has no excuse for keeping the gospel to herself.

But, the fact is, the church’s fortunes are never hostage to the Spirit’s blessing of the evangelistic enterprise. Evangelism has never been the primary means of the church’s growth. As a matter of simple historical fact often and easily proved, evangelism has never been the main way in which the church has added numbers to her membership. Apart from those times and places when and where the gospel has first come to a people, evangelism – profoundly important as it is and as unquestionably the church’s sacred responsibility – the church’s growth has always come principally from the discipleship of her children. From the very first generation of post-apostolic Christianity – and that, remember, was a particularly fruitful period of evangelism – the church’s growth came in largest part through covenanted grace. By that phrase, “covenanted grace,” I mean God’s fulfillment of his ancient promise to be not only the God of believers but also the God of their children, a promise the fulfillment of which is suspended many times in the Bible on the faithful spiritual nurture or discipleship of those children in believing homes and in faithful churches. Most of the church’s membership, in every era and in every part of the world, was born into the church, baptized into its membership as infants, and raised in the faith of their parents which they came to embrace for themselves year by year and experience by experience. And I am not speaking of the nominal church – the church that baptizes but does not disciple in fidelity to Christ and his Word. I am speaking of the believing church, the faithful church, the evangelical church. And I am speaking of that church whatever its theology. It is as true of Baptist churches as it is of Presbyterian ones; of Pentecostal churches as it is of Episcopalian ones. It is the church’s children – however they are viewed, however God’s relationship to them is understood – who fill the pews of those churches in the succeeding generation, far more so than outsiders who have been won to the faith by evangelism.

Every study indicates that the primary reason – so much so that it is often mistakenly suggested that it is the only reason – that evangelical churches are larger than liberal churches and often continue to grow, which liberal churches almost never do, is because the evangelical churches keep so many more of their children. There is nothing whatsoever surprising in that, or should not be: that is precisely what the Bible says ought to be the case!

Whether the church’s evangelism is being visited by the Spirit’s power or not, the church should always be growing. It should always be supplying itself with the next generation of able leadership – especially able male leadership. It should always be growing in understanding, conviction, and intelligent engagement with the world – precisely because its children have been taught all the hard-won lessons learned by their parents before they learn more themselves as they study God’s Word and walk with the Lord Jesus by his Spirit. Indeed, if the church will only be faithful to this glorious covenant that God made with her – to be her God and the God of her children and the God of her children’s children – the church should not only always be growing – geometrically not arithmetically (any Covenant High School student can, I’m sure, explain the difference to you) – but should be maturing in every way: intellectually, spiritually, and ministerially. Each generation should be adding to the accumulated wisdom and experience of the church’s past.

It is not, alas, always the case. It is, in fact, often not the case. So when the church does not grow, when a large and influential evangelical church becomes a mockery of its formerly self, it is not difficult to tell what has gone wrong and where the failure is to be found. The church and her parents have failed to pass on the faith to the next generation. Whether it was a loss of nerve, or worldliness, or a weakening faith in the first generation, the next generation was largely lost to the church. An indifferent discipleship does not produce indifferent Christians; it produces unbelievers; people who have no commitment to the church whatsoever and no interest in Christ or his kingdom. That is how you go from Alexander Whyte’s immense Sunday congregations to a more than faintly pathetic little group of folk who are little more than a club met to discuss hopeless political solutions to the world’s profound spiritual catastrophes.

It is this fearful prospect and this very real, this all too real possibility that brings me tonight to Covenant High School and the ministry of Christian education. For Christian education is nothing else but precisely that discipleship that we are called to provide for the church’s children – not simply our own children as parents, but the church’s children as a church. In a world such as ours, where education of whatever type cannot help but transmit a worldview, an understanding of God, man, the world, and the future, Christian education, rightly understood, is the attempt to inculcate the Bible’s viewpoint regarding everything. It aims to produce young adults who think as Christians ought to think about everything and who intend to think about everything as Christians ought to think. It aims to produce a loyalty to Jesus Christ that permeates every facet of life. And eight hours a day, together with all the instruction received at home and at church, is scarcely enough to do that! The influences of the unbelieving world are constant, subtle, powerful, and insidious. That is why it is not enough, not nearly enough, simply to secure our children’s assent to the doctrines of the faith. It is not enough simply to confess one’s agreement with the various tenets of biblical Christianity. The congregation that Alexander Whyte left at St. George’s did that. But if that confession does not penetrate to the heart, does not secure the willing and determined agreement of the will, if it does not touch the passions and loyalty of a young man or woman’s life, if it does not shape and control the intentions, the goals, the aspirations of one’s life, then it remains but a shadow of the Christian faith. And here is the historical and biblical fact: a shadow cannot produce a shadow! The church may now have a pew-sitter – it may not have even that – but it may now have a pew-sitter. What it won’t have is a committed Christian to fill that place in the pew in the next generation. The church will empty faster than anyone will think possible.

And, as I said, in our day in particular, to secure that measure of living commitment, a great effort must be made. In a day in which in new and powerful ways, and by new and powerful means the love of self, the love of money, and the love of pleasure is being constantly and powerfully recommended to our young people, a concerted, thoughtful, and intentional effort must be made to insinuate into their minds and hearts the love of Christ and loyalty to his cause and kingdom in the world.

I read recently the results of a survey of Christian young people in the United States. The head of the survey, a Christian Smith, Professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, undertook a study more extensive by several orders of magnitude than other recent surveys of the religious views of young people in the United States. It is published by Oxford University Press under the title, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Now the survey does not limit itself to evangelical young people: for example, Jewish and Muslim teenagers were also surveyed and interviewed. But in terms of fundamental perspectives, it is not clear that evangelical young people have a different religious mind than those of their non-Christian contemporaries. What is more, they make up the largest part of the younger religious community in our land and so their responses figured still more largely in the conclusions of the survey. Prof. Smith provided his own summary of the results. Here is that summary.

Out of the vague answers the teens provided about faith, Smith detected a pattern of thought, a particular religious outlook that he calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD. Another term Smith employs as a synonym for Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is Benign Whateverism.

The creed of MTD, based on what emerged from the survey, breaks down as follows (remember now, these are church kids, religious kids, and, in most cases, evangelical kids):

  1. Faraway God. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. “But God is distant. God is inaccessible and far away. He is out there somewhere, but he is not really involved in history or world events,” Smith said.
  2. Don’t be a jerk. God does not make demands of us that we need to respond to. “But God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most other world religions,” Smith said. “Some teens summarize their moral worldview as ‘Just don’t be a jerk.’”
  3. No bad feelings. “The central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself – not to be a disciple, not to be a servant of the most high; not to be a part of a people from a very long tradition that shapes who you are,” Smith said. “The primary idea is to be happy, not feel bad about oneself or have bad feelings.”
  4. Cosmic therapist. God does not need to be involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem. “God is there to call when you are in trouble or when you have a problem. He is there to call when you have bad feelings. Otherwise God can stay away,” Smith said. “God is a combination of a divine butler and a cosmic therapist.”
  5. Be good. You just need to be “good,” and you will go to heaven. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Q: Does Moralistic Therapeutic Deism represent a new emerging creed?

“A lot of what I heard didn’t sound a lot like Christianity or Catholicism. What is emerging is something different. Moralistic therapeutic deism is my label to help figure out exactly what it is. It is distinct from traditional religion, and it exerts significant influence among many contemporary US teenagers,” Smith said.

One has only to live in our world, occasionally to watch American television, to listen to and to watch American teenagers to know how utterly predictable such views are and how subtly and powerfully they are always being recommended, taught if you will, to our young people.

In a relativistic, pluralistic, scientific, therapeutic, hedonistic, prosperous, sensual, self-worshipping age such as our own, it is not difficult to understand that young people would come to think that their happiness is first and foremost the reason for their existence; or that it is wrong, or at least impolite to believe, much less to say, that one must be a follower of Jesus Christ in order to go to heaven at death; or that God should seem distant and removed; or that he should exist in largest part for us and for our own sake. Higher and transcendent purposes are so utterly alien to our social discourse at this time in American history that is it utterly unsurprising that young people do not understand them, still less so that they don’t embrace them for themselves. It would make them unusual, weird, anti-social, a very hard thing for a teenager to be.

Now hear me. Many of the young people who gave answers to Prof. Smith and his researchers that he has summarized in this way, would also say that they believed in the doctrines of biblical Christianity. What is clear is that nevertheless they believe those doctrines in an utterly unnatural way. They are not the foundation of their worldview as Christian doctrines ought to be and must be. They do not shape their response to the entertainment they enjoy, the music they listen to, the way they conduct their relationships, the way they think about the opinions and convictions of others, the way they think about their careers, the way they read a newspaper or listen to the news, and their understanding of the meaning and purpose of their lives. For many of them Biblical Christianity is a thin veneer laid down over a pagan core. And they do not know it. And what that spells is disaster for the church in the next generation. A shadow cannot produce a shadow. These young people may live their entire lives making confession of their faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. It is highly doubtful that their children will follow them into the life of faith; still more doubtful that the following generation will be faithful soldiers of the kingdom of God.

We hear a great deal nowadays about the fact that young people supposedly don’t connect with their parents’ churches. This has become the rallying cry for a generation of church strategists who argue that the church must change to make itself more interesting and more relevant to America’s young adults. Wholesale changes have followed: out with hymns and organs and in with praise bands and contemporary Christian singing. Out with sermons on sin and redemption, divine judgment and a summons to radical discipleship and in with messages designed to soothe modern American troubles: stress, money, sex, and marriage. The great problem with this, of course, as seems now self-evident and is being commented on by Christians and non-Christians alike is that biblical, historic Christianity is slipping away from the church’s grasp. She isn’t denying it, she is just thinking about other things almost all of the time. And the things she is thinking about are the very things this unbelieving culture is teaching her to think about. And, once again, the problem is not that these people are not Christians – no doubt many of them are. The problem is that a shadow cannot reproduce a shadow. We have learned too many times over the last 200 years that large churches can be emptied in a generation if the true and ancient faith of Jesus Christ is not insinuated into the mind and heart of the young in the church and loyalty to Jesus Christ and his kingdom made the defining feature of their characters.

To do that is the calling of this and every other Christian church. And in our day, with a reinvigorated paganism now shaping the culture that bears down upon the hearts and minds of our young people in more ways than we can possibly count, now in the water they drink and in the air they breathe, the task of making biblical Christianity – the Bible’s view of God, of man, of human life, of meaning and purpose, of history and the future, of right and wrong, of wisdom and foolishness, of faith and unbelief, of salvation and damnation – I say, the task of making biblical Christianity the skeleton, the organs, and the nervous system of their lives is as difficult as it has ever been. That is why Christian education is so important: at every point, in respect to everything, with regard to every subject, every question of life, Christ’s truth and God’s Word are taught, the world’s thinking critiqued from the vantage point of the Bible, and, perhaps most important, a biblical worldview adorned and recommended. At least that is the goal and that is our aspiration at Covenant High School. We know full well how much we can improve, but we are also clear as to what we are to be about and why it is so important. As Christians we must have a view to the church and kingdom of God. It is the church that lies at the center of God’s purpose in the world. “I will build my church…” Jesus said. That is what he is about. And raising children for the church, for Christ’s church, to serve the church, to enlarge and purify and adorn her, is the church’s first calling. Let no one take our crown in evangelizing the lost. Our children need to see us doing that. They need to see lives being transformed by the grace and Spirit of God. They need to see the proof that the gospel is the power of God to salvation. I say, let no one take our crown in bringing the good news to the lost here and around the world. But our first task is our own children. If we do not keep them, evangelism will never make up the loss. And hopeless is the church’s effort to reach the unbelieving world with the gospel if it is easy for the world to see that the church’s own children are abandoning ship. If the children of the church don’t want to believe, why should they?

In the final analysis, it is everyone’s concern. Everyone who loves the church and kingdom of God and everyone who hopes for the salvation of the world should be dismayed and heartbroken to see what has happened to St. George’s Edinburgh and to countless other Christian churches, who, not so very long ago, had plenty of children to continue the rich and glorious tradition of worship and ministry in that congregation for generations to come. They were lost and now the congregation is a pathetic parody of its former self.

The same thing will happen to countless seemingly quite healthy and prosperous evangelical churches today if they don’t make it their first priority to enlist the rising generation in the cause of Christ, instilling in their hearts true faith, in their minds deep and rich knowledge of the truth, and in their wills a zeal for the kingdom of God.

It is very easy to come to think of what is happening at our high school in terms of the individual student and his or her grades, academic successes and failures, his or her success at preparation for college, the happiness of the campus’ social life, and so on. All of this is no doubt important in its own way. But we should never lose sight of the larger picture: what we are about is ensuring the future of the church of Jesus Christ, preparing the rising generation of Christians to think and to live as the Christians that they are, and equipping them in our sophisticated culture to outthink the unbelievers who now run the machinery of society. It is not an add-on. Still less is it simply moral protection for our young people. It is life and death for the church in the United States of America; it is a substantial part of the church’s hope for better things in the generations to come. If we do not raise a next generation of Christians, more thoughtful and more committed and more zealous than we are, God help us all!