Raising Children Behind Fortress Evangelicalism

I had an interesting experience presenting at Willowcreek's Conspire Conference yesterday. I presented Lyon and Kinnaman’s research regarding how the unchurched and de-churched perceive the church. (They view the church as 1) hypocritical, 2) judgmental, 3) anti-homosexual, 4) intellectually and culturally sheltered, 5) too focused on conversions, and 6) too political.)

This matters to children’s ministries because young families are less likely to return to the church once they have children then they would have been 20 years ago. In the eighties, young parents would return to church to give their children “values” or a “moral compass.” They wanted their children to have religion. They might not have understood what it meant to be a Christ follower, but they viewed the church to be like a spiritual scouting program that would help mold their children to be model citizens.

However, today’s dechurched and unchurched families are more likely to view the church as petri dishes of intolerance and bigotry. They don’t want to raise rigid children who are unable to love and respect others. So they keep their children away from our ministries.

This is a problem, and it’s not merely an image problem. Those six themes are points of repentance for the church. I challenged the participants to imagine a children ministry that challenged those points. What lessons could they teach that would help children understand that God loves people regardless of their rebellion to him? How could we emphasize heroes like MLK Jr who stood up to unjustice? How could we teach children to serve others simply because they are Divine image bearers?

I was surprised by the resistance I got. The concern was that if we teach our children to have concern for “bad kids” and to befriend them that their character would suffer. We talked about the risks of raising children who were serious about bringing Jesus to all the children in their classrooms. Proverbs does say that bad company corrupts good character. But on the other hand, the savior of our children dined with famous sinners. If our children are to imitate Jesus they are going to need to learn how to enjoy the rough kids in their class without being changed by them.

I realized that those six perceptions of outsiders are evidence that we Evangelicals operate under a fortress mentality. We build our wall so we can feel good about ourselves by creating an Us-Them game. But we also build these walls in a sincere but misguided effort to protect our children.

I’m mulling this tension between protecting our children and raising Christ-followers. Some initial thoughts:

* There are no guarantees in parenting. There are no formulas.
* God loves our children. He is not asking us to discard our own children to reach the lost.
* If we raise children to hide behind our “fortress” they will grow up living behind the fortress.
* If our children watch us repairing our walls by being judgmental and hypocritical, they will grow up to do the same thing.
* There is no way to eliminate risk in the parenting process. (I’m the father of three sons).
* We need to challenge our children at age appropriate levels. I’m NOT advocating tossing our kids to the wolves.
* We still don’t believe that the two Great Loves are among the “Fundementals.”

I’m convinced that children’s pastors need to cast a vision to families to raise children willing to serve and love lost people. One workshop participant ask me if we could teach children to love their classmates without being friends with them. The answer, in a word is “no.” Jesus ENJOYED the moral misfits. We need to teach our children do the same. The only prophylactic we can offer our children to guard again sin is love. If our children are passionate about loving God and loving their neighbor (all of them) they will less likely to contaminate themselves. Life inside the fortress builds boredom, cynicism, and legalism in our kids.

During the workshop God prompted me to share the parable of the talents. I didn’t. I whimped out. Here’s what I should have said: “God has given us children to develop. We are to multiply their talents and passions. We are to give them a passion for lost people. If we bury these young “talents” in an effort to not lose them, even for the most noble of reasons, we become the evil and lazy servant."


  1. I agree with you almost whole-heartedly. Christians can be the proudest and most exclusive people! And yet I am wondering why it is our children we are wanting to send to the forefront of the missionfield. Why are we as adults not reaching out to other adults? Why are we not striving to bring whole families to the Lord? A *little* sheltering of our young children can give them the firm foundation that will withstand the storms a little later in their lives. I would be really interested to read a column from a homeschool parent who is resisting the fortress evangelicalism: giving their kids a firm foundation at home while still encouraging a heart for missions and an involvement in the culture.

  2. Great words, Larry. I would have loved to be at your conference.

    Though I'm a few years off from the parenting-'game', I was raised within the double-fortified walls of the Church and Homeschool community.

    I've since watched many of my friends fall into two groups.

    The first, are the kids that stick their head outside the window of the walls (read: college) and dive into the mote, swim across, and take off running without looking back.

    The second group are the ones who stick their head out the same window, freak out, shut the window tight, and decide to dig and sit in a hole inside the fortress... just in case.

    Our Children's Pastors would do well to catch this vision.

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  4. Larry, I agree with you in general.
    However, I am going to teach my kids that right is right and wrong is wrong. What I am getting from your post--correct me if I'm wrong--is that we are not to take a stand regarding behavior if the behavior in question is homosexuality, but we are to applaud MLK, who took a stand when the behavior was institutional racism. I see some inconsistency here.
    James W (middletree)

  5. Larry, I think this is an excellent post. (Was your presentation recorded for public viewing/hearing?) It reminds me a great deal of So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore? and the realization that children's ministry turns out to be little more than achievement-based motivation to do good (perfect attendance, who's memorized the most verses, etc) or watered-down stories of the Bible (e.g. feeding the 5000 is about sharing).

    We have definitely flirted with being "dechurched", yet we still want our kids to learn the faith for themselves. While being dechurched may work for us because we can find real community elsewhere, that's not always true for the kids. So at the very least, we are using church for social interactions and hoping to break down the fortress at home.

  6. James,

    You are misreading me. I presented research that "outsiders" view the church as being anti-homosexual. In that sentence I described a perception. I did not make a moral position.

    I'll do that now. God, in Scriptures, describes homosexual expression as immoral. However, the Bible did not advocating our demonization of the gay community as a threat to our marriages and children. The Bible does not prescribe the way we dehumanize this group of people.

    Homosexual expression and systematic religious homophobia are both wrong.