Urban Ministry and Your Children

I've recently been reading what is so far an excellent book by Tim Chester and Ed Moll called Gospel Centred Family.

The first chapter is based on Ephesians 6:1-4, which includes the rather challenging v.4:
"Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord." (ESV)
The second chapter, entitled Gospel-Centred Hopes, focuses on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and has a particular challenge to Christian parents that our priorities are not to nurture middle-class children, but children who believe in Jesus.  Let me quote at length:
"I've often heard people say they would consider living in the city, but they're concerned about their children's influences and education.  But that begs the question: what do you want for your children?  If you want them to be middle-class, prosperous and respectable, then live in a leafy suburb, send them to a good school and keep them away from messed-up people.  But if you want them to serve Christ in a radical, whole-hearted way, then model that for them in the way you live.  That won't necessarily mean moving to the inner city.  But it does mean exposing them to costly ministry.  Teach them that following Jesus, denying yourself and taking up the cross are what matters (Mark 8 v 34).  And teach them that by following Jesus, denying yourself and taking up the cross for yourself." (p.19)
Now in some some ways my heart sings when I read that.  It must be right that we need to challenge what is often a very middle-class evangelical church in the UK to be willing to sacrifice.  But, and here's the thing, it raises a question that has nagged away at me for years about what is right and wrong with children.

I'll be the first to admit that the question was prompted by experience.  I have lots of friends who are ministers' or missionaries' children and having seen the negative impact ministry had on some of them, it made me wonder, whether it was right to put children in what are often very difficult situations.

I remember asking the question at theological college and receiving pretty much the answer in the paragraph from Chester and Moll above (although I don't think it would be fair to suggest that this is their full word on the issue, it's just what got me thinking again!).  But that answer never quite satisfied, because I still saw what had happened to these ministry children and, although I'm sure their parents weren't perfect, from what I could tell their parents had been faithfully modelling that kind of sacrificial service.

Now this is an obvious problem and pressure for those who want to pursue urban ministry (as in other contexts), where schooling can be difficult, friendships groups can be problematic and so on.  At the moment it's not a problem we feel particularly acutely, but we may do in the future.  The inevitable question for an urban ministry parent is: Would you feel your ministry choices were in part the cause of a child turning from Christ?

It could be, simply, that those kids who turn from Christ were rebellious human beings like we all are and so had taken a negative from what should have been a positive.  In that case the urban ministry parent isn't to blame.  But over time, I've increasingly wondered if that's right and here's what I've thought so far (feel free to correct me!).

  • The urban minister with children has two relevant roles here.  First they are a Dad.  Second they are a minister in an urban context.  The first of those can't be changed without sin (I can't disown, give away, etc. my child).  The second can be changed without sin.  That's more complicated, but I take it that because Scripture doesn't say to any individual that they are to be an urban minister, we can't put that on them as God's command for their life.  All things being equal, a move out urban ministry may be right.
  • The urban minister with children is commanded not to provoke his children to anger. Interestingly Moll and Chester don't comment much on this [Edit: reading a bit further on in the book they do come back to this], but it seems quite important to me, because (here comes the rub): what if an urban ministry situation is provoking the minister's children to anger?

I decided I needed to think about what that might mean.  Here's what Peter O'Brien writes in his Pillar Commentary on this phrase, quoting Lincoln's WBC and referring to Stott's BST:
"Effectively, the apostle is ruling out 'excessive severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child's needs and sensibilities' (Lincoln p.406)  Behind this curbing of the father's authority is the clear recognition that children, while they are expected to obey their parents in the Lord, are persons in their own right who are not to be manipulated, exploited, or crushed. (footnote to Stott p.246)"
Now I can see how those things of schools, influences and messed-up people could crush a minister's child in an urban setting. I could see how an urban minister could provoke their child to anger by being insensitive to their experiences of living in as the minister's child in an urban setting.  I can see how it would vary from setting to setting and I can see how it would vary from child to child.

My suggestions would be:

  • We need to gently challenge (a) the idolatry of middle-class education and culture, but also (b) the common idolatry of ministry/service that could cause us to provoke our children and that may have particular application if you're in urban ministry.
  • Because these issues are nuanced around particular situations and people, we need to be pretty careful what we say in the general sense (there may be an irony here given I've just written a general blog!) and very careful about judging other people's decisions.
  • Urban ministers need to think especially carefully about their children's context if it's not the context they came from.  For example, if you were a boarder at a public school and you plan to send your child to an inner city comprehensive, it may be fair to say that you don't know much about what their school experience will be like, or how it will affect them.  If you grew up in a nice suburban context in the south-east and your ministry is in an ex-industrial town in the north then you may not know much about what it's like growing up there.  Obvious I know, but when we're ignorant and what we do affects our children, the risks of provocation are higher. Presumably we need to work harder to find out what it's like and be faithful parents.

What do you think?  Am I on the right track here?


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