Evangelism / Parenting / Teaching / May 18, 2012

Evangelize, not Indoctrinate

It’s a parent’s job to teach children. Children are malleable and impressionable. If we don’t teach them and shape them someone else will. They need to be protected, guided, and trained. We need to put the right raw materials in so that as they mature the right refined, processed results can begin to appear and we need to help them in the actual processing and refining.

Too often, though, this effort by parents becomes skewed; it takes a weird turn. We get this idea we have authority over our children’s hearts. We demand right responses to theological questions. We put in biblical material and expect biblical results. We catechize them to perfection under the assumption if their answers are right so too are their hearts. In short we indoctrinate them.

The reality is that we have no more authority over our children’s hearts than we do our next door neighbor’s or our office mate’s. Now, if given the opportunity and liberty, we might indoctrinate them too. But I tend to think we find more pleasure and genuineness in seeing people come to belief rather than imposing belief on them. Oh, and no free-thinking adult would allow this sort of imposition, whereas our children have very little choice in the matter.

Why is it we do not often evangelize our children with the same grace, patience, interaction, and mutual respect we do our neighbors? We correct our children’s ideas about God or morality with a “no, that’s not right” method rather than an “I believe _____ because _____.” method. But what if our children don’t agree? They are under our authority and either afraid of or tired of the “no, that’s not right” response so they keep their thoughts and disbelief to themselves until the day comes they no longer have to listen to us. Then they go about believing and acting upon whatever it is they feel like.

When my daughter comes from school and asks why one classmate has two mommies or why another classmate doesn’t eat all day because of something called “Ramadan” how do I react? Or, just as likely, what about the times she will express those counter-biblical, but very cultural, notions of “self” that will suffuse her education? What if she quotes her teacher’s views on the existence of God and empathizes with the doubts? And I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about the horrors of high school sex ed. Am I going to respond as one whose indoctrinations have failed or as a gracious evangelist seeking to win and convince?

It’s my responsibility to teach my kids. But if I replace education and evangelism with information and indoctrination I am setting them up to fall far and fall hard. My children are my neighbors and thus deserve grace and conversation about truth and belief. In their early years this is a more one-sided conversation but, it must become a two-way flow of ideas in time. I do not rule their hearts, so to attempt to wield authority over them is a vain and angst inducing effort. I shepherd them, but I do not convert them. I teach and influence them, but I do not make them. And so I should emphasize evangelizing them not indoctrinating them.


May 19, 2012

Excellent post. We hinder the work of the Holy Spirit when we pump them with religion and religious ideas without also seeking, no begging God to do the necessary work of regeneration. I am a mother of 4 grown/almost grown kids. God has done a much better job with my children’s hearts than I ever could have done.

May 19, 2012

I understand what you are saying in general, and I’d agree that we need to give our children room by discussing matters with them rather than simply ‘This is the way it is.’ Indoctrination isn’t bad if it is done in in a teaching/discussion manner, is it? Further, we do need to be careful in exposing our children in their formative years to ungodly teachers. You rightly note that as parents we have a responsibility to teach our children in the knowledge of the Lord. In the end it depends on how you define ‘indoctrination’. Post-modernism is promoting the idea that we all need to arrive at our own version of truth – which is simply unbiblical. Our children need to be taught that truth is objectively based on the scriptures – not our feelings.

May 19, 2012

Hear, hear, John Koopman! I’d simply like to add that the term “indoctrination,” is pejorative, at least in the context here.

It’s a commonplace that indotrination = bad in our culture. But, etymologically speaking, it merely means to inculcate some set of teachings. If what you are teaching your children is sound, catechetical doctrine, tested through time (e.g. The Heidelberg Catechism, one among many good ones), that should lay the foundation for, and even facilitate critical, independent thinking about the Christian faith.

Barnabas’ own experience as a child and now father may be different, but most Protestants do no catechizing with their children. Catechisms are printed and sold, and bought, but rarely put into practice.

What IS catechized, even if only unintentionally or mindlessly through the weekly activities of the typical Protestant/Evangelical church in the US, is a form of the faith that is very culturally similar to a weekly seminar from self-help gurus or pep rallys, that gives our children the idea that the faith has no foundations, and/or that it is mostly instrumental to a good life now, etc.

That sets up a scenario, at least in the developed west, of a Christianity that, when challenged by other faiths, is trivial, rhetorically and aesthetically impoverished, and disconnected from its thousands of years of history and deep thoughtfulness. This leaves the young person raised in this context unprepared for the challenge of relatively equally practical religious or moral systems that provide richer, more historically conscious, or more rhetorically and aesthetically satisfying results for them. Never mind that the gospel has been turned into a buzzword with no real meaning except to identify with Christianity something that is far from it.

Certainly, the primary components of faith & discipleship the prerogative of the Holy Spirit, but we are still commanded, as parents to teach our children the faith. All of the above is to say, catechism is a rarer bird (at least in Protestantism, and certainly in garden variety evangelicalism) than Barnabas’ short article makes out. It’s also to try to say that catechism (read: indoctrination) doesn’t necessarily need to be pitted against a gentle, winsome approach to sharing our faith with our children. We can do both.

May 19, 2012

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May 19, 2012

Barnabas is saying that we tend to *think* we are doing both, when actually we are ONLY indoctrinating. And yes, indoctrination without evangelism ought be spoken of as a pejorative. It is as useful as the Law — which Paul explains is indeed useful, but only to show us how dead and broken we are…not much help at all when it comes to changing the heart.

Remember that any evil that lives on the outside already exists inside us. Any facts or ideas (whether disconnected or historically concious) will make the least difference in helping our children stand against evil and sin. Only the love of Jesus will do that, because it is the only thing that changes our hearts. When we live Jesus to our children, they learn to love Jesus through us. That is evangelism. Only when we do this, can indoctrination become a means of grace, rather than a curse of law.

Finally, Barnabas is highlighting an error of emphasis. Too much attention placed here. Not enough there. Rhetorically, you can’t make that point by being balanced. You have to fall more heavily on one side to make the correction. Chiding him for being unbalanced makes it sound like you missed his point.

May 20, 2012

I suspect that there will be two types of reactions to this post: hearty agreement or quizzical “Huh?”s. And it would be fair to describe those who respond in the first case as American evangelicals who’ve been raised in churches that profess some form of Dispensational antinomianism, while those in the second case are Protestants with a more mature understanding of the law-Gospel dichotomy.

Those with a Biblical appreciation of the law would know that Jesus came not to abolish it, nor that the law merely shows us our sin (a belief common as well to Lutherans), but that the law of God is good and something to be cherished while it is nonetheless powerless to save. Only Jesus can, and He did so by fulfilling the law (again, not “abolishing” it) for the elect, thereby transforming their relationship to it from being a source of condemnation to a model of righteousness.

The nature of the law did not change; the nature of the elect did. That’s the good news we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ (which, to rebut Dispensational thinking, is actually the same gospel preached by Paul and, indeed, all the Apostles). And that Gospel is the source of the activity we call evangelism, which in its Biblical form does not sneer at God’s law as is evident in this post, but teaches us that it is us sinners, not God’s law, that are truly unworthy of love, and yet God loved us mercifully nonetheless in Christ.

By the way, “Dubbahdee,” only Jesus could “live Jesus,” whatever that means. Read Romans 7:7-24; even in our best moments, we are wretched in comparison to our perfect Lord. Paul was writing neither as “natural man” nor before conversion, but as one who had a received from the Holy Spirit by grace alone a more mature understanding of how the New Covenant promises had made the Old Covenant obsolete. Not the law, but the Old Covenant.

Our covenantal obligation to God is still stated in Deut. 6:6-7 and affirmed in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). We are to disciple our children by baptizing them as members of the visible covenant community and teaching them everything He has commanded. Whether they succeed momentarily or fail continually, we are to always point them at Jesus, who does live in us, yet we must never confuse us with Him.

May 20, 2012


I really appreciate you reading, considering, and responding to my post. I especially appreciate the civility with you have done so. I love the sharing of ideas and search for truth, so thanks.


May 22, 2012

Thanks for starting this conversation and I also want to enter into with civility. I think the article is helpful but overreaches. It is similar to the famous quotation from Yeats, “Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire.” My response is that Biblically this creates a false dichotomy. Biblical education is both filling a bucket AND lighting a fire of love for Jesus Christ. My whole response is here. Grace on all as we seek to disciple our children for the kingdom.

May 28, 2012

Calls upon us to consider how Jesus “taught.”

Jun 22, 2012

We really love your blog….our podcast highlights some of the things that you share on your blog….we will mention you on the show! Thanks for keeping Jesus first above everything!

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