No More Ignoring Second Place

Originally published in Kidzmatter magazine

I was dead wrong.

My first staff position in a small church was as a youth/children’s pastor. To be transparent, I was afflicted with a young man’s ego, and saw myself as the be-all and end-all to discipling the kids in my group. It never occurred to me that the parents might be better positioned to influence them. God did use me, but I was so wrong to not consider the parents. SO wrong.

I eventually saw the error of my own ego, and moved into a role of training others, but my approach still put the responsibility for discipling children on workers in the church. I trained them with fervor. And I still didn’t really consider the role of parents. Still wrong.

 Then, I saw with new eyes the commandment of Ephesians 6:4, and like many, many others in the early 2000’s, became convicted that I had ignored the truth revealed in that verse: that parents are to be the primary spiritual trainers of their children. My approach was forever changed. Got that part right.

At the same time, I became a grandfather, and that changed my perspective. After three little ones, my daughter’s marriage failed. They moved in with us, and I become both dad and grandpa. I began to have a new fervor—to influence my grandkids. But I was neither the children’s worker in the church nor the parent, and I still never thought beyond those grandchildren to a broader ministry implication. More perspective change, but still more learning to come.

I was like my friend Wayne Rice, the co-founder of Youth Specialties and one of youth ministry’s most respected voices (children’s ministry people know him as Mary Rice Hopkins’ brother). Wayne told me recently, “For decades, I taught youth pastors that parents had the most influence; grandparents were second, and youth workers were third. It just occurred to me that in all those years, I talked about the first and the third, but never once talked about the second.”

Then another verse—that I had read so many times—became new to me: Deuteronomy 4:9. “…make them [the things of God] known to your sons and your grandsons.” The ”and” riveted my attention. I began to study the “generation-to-generation” passages in the Bible, and I became passionate about the truth that I had a two-generation responsibility to influence my family. And my desire to be an intentional Christian grandparent grew.

I observed that my peers—other grandparents—often lacked this vision. I looked for books on the subject and found very few. I tried to find videos, and found only two. I work with lots of large churches, and began asking, “Do you have a grandparenting ministry?” And none that I’ve asked said yes (I later found one). And a new calling began to become clearer.

Now I’m on a mission—to help the church, and the grandparents in it, to see the model that is in Scripture: that while parents are primarily responsible for the spiritual training of children, grandparents have a secondary responsibility that is nearly as powerful as that of the parents.

I want to see my peers go from being Christian grandparents to being intentional Christian grandparents. I want to see churches recognize this potential for discipleship and begin to equip it. I want to see resource providers begin to develop studies and materials that will encourage and equip grandparents for their role in discipling children.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. Grandparents are second only to parents in their potential to influence children spiritually. They have way more potential than the children’s worker in the church because they have the child’s heart, and they usually have way more time with them.
  1. Grandparents are usually highly motivated to influence their grandchildren for Christ. Sometimes it’s because of their own failures, sometimes because of the widening chasm between culture and biblical truth, and sometimes because of the lack of interest in spiritual things by their adult kids. They are often more passionate than parents about the spiritual development of the grandkids. Children’s pastors tell me that at least ten percent of the children in their ministry are brought by grandparents—some because they have custody, and some because they simply care more than the parents.
  1. Intentional involvement of grandparents in their grandchildren’s spiritual development is congruent with the family patterns that are revealed in Scripture. In other words, it is Biblical.

On the other hand,

  1. The role of grandparents is given little attention in churches; it is a mostly overlooked ministry with a huge potential to influence our youngest generation. Most church leaders have never thought about such a ministry; they properly have a focus on parenting, and minister to senior saints, but overlook the group in between – younger grandparents.
  1. There are simple too few resources. For the nearly 30 million Christian grandparents in America, there are very few books, videos, blogs, or seminars that address their potential for influence. We can do better.

What must churches do?

  1. Redefine what they mean by “family ministry”. Most churches target the nuclear family, but do not think of the exceptions (i.e., grandparents raising kids) or the extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.
  1. Recognize their mental image of a “grandparent” may be wrong. Too many think “senior saints” when they hear the word, but the average age for becoming a grandparent is 47. The emerging grandparent is who we can and must target.
  1. Recognize the passion of this group.  They are called “empty nesters” or named by their age group; how much better to name them after their greatest passion (their grandkids)!
  1. Envision them for being intentional. I have not found a more eager audience than grandparents when you start talking about their grandkids and how to help them grow spiritually. They are typically much more receptive than parents.
  1. Equip them for ministry. There are many barriers, like uncooperative adult children or their spouses, broken relationships, and distance. They need to know of tools they can use, and resources they can find.
  1. Create a core group of impassioned grandparents and launch something. A seminar, a small group, or a class. Just get it going!

How does this impact children’s ministry?

If you want it to do that I suggest you take a new approach to engage grandparents. Usually we try to guilt them into staying involved, and we get the answer back, “Well, I did my time.”

Try the side door since the front one isn’t working: get them passionate about ministering to their own grandchildren, and then ask, “If your grandchildren were in another city (of course many are), wouldn’t you want a grandparent there to be an influence on your grandkids? So how about you return the favor by being an influence to the kids we have in our church whose grandparents live in another city?

Then, create a position that allows them to be who they are. One of our best Awana ministries has created an option for game time that is called “grandpa and grandma time”, where kids who don’t want to play can just go sit and talk one on one with a grandparent. Both the kids love it, and so do the grandparents.

Here’s another idea, but I’ll present it in a story: I was teaching series on grandparents at a church in my town to an adult class on Sunday mornings. The last session was on how to give a blessing to their grandchildren. I taught them the Levitical blessing (Numbers 6:24-26), and then had them practice on each other. The children’s pastor, Kerry, and I, had planned together for what was next, and then I told them “Okay, now we are going to practice on some real kids.” Kerry was at the door with enough kids to have two or three per table, and they came in to our room. As we were sending the kids to the tables, and giving instructions, Kerry said to me, “Larry, I’ve got a problem. I’ve got a bunch of angry kids back in children’s ministry who wanted to come be blessed by a grandparent. I had way more want to come than I could bring.”

It took just a few minutes for the grandparents to practice the blessing, and then we gathered the kids together on the side of the room. I asked them, “so what did you think?” I got a lot of thumbs up, but one boy raised his hand to talk. “I really liked it because I don’t have a grandpa or grandma.” The aahs were audible all over the room. “How many of you don’t have a grandpa or grandma living close by?” I asked. More than half raised their hands.

At that point, Kerry took the kids back to the room. We had planned together; I asked the grandparents if they would be willing to serve in children’s ministry for the last few minutes. Our idea was that they would stand at the doors and as parents were coming to pick their children up, they would ask the kids “would you like a blessing from a grandparent before you leave?” We felt it would be easy service, appropriate for a grandparent, meaningful to the kid, and a great example for the parent.

As we were talking about it, Kerry came back in and interrupted. “Larry, can I show everyone what I was given when I got back to the room?” “Sure, go ahead,” I responded. He held up a paper torn out of a note pad, with large capital letters across the top: “WE DEMAND TO BE BLESSED BY GRANDPARENTS.” On the paper, front and back, were the signatures of the kids who had been left behind. They had started their own petition!!!

Little did we realize how hungry they were for grandparent involvement.

Do you see it?

There is simply incredible potential for grandparents to influence our youngest generation, and we have overlooked that potential too long. Now is time to harness the wisdom, the resources, the energy, the savvy, and the passion of millions of Christians in America – grandparents.

Join me.  Join a growing army.  Let’s impact the future–for the sake of our grandkids.