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Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come. -Psalm 71:17-18
What does it mean for a father to pass faith on to his son? In working with young people for almost three decades, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the "task" of passing on faith to the next generation really is. Of course, many books, philosophies, and definitions of "discipleship" have tried to uniquely and finally clarify the task. But passing on faith from one person to another across generations brings additional dynamics to the language of discipleship. What a son needs from his father is fluid and complex. He needs, first, a trusted model of authentic faith, and second, a father who knows what it means to create enough space for his son to grow up into the man God has called him to be.
THE ESSENCE OF ADOLESCENT DISCIPLESHIP
When Dee and I were young parents, desperate to bring up our sons "in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4), we grabbed any information we could get our hands on. We wanted to make sure we did the right thing as we raised our kids. But the older our boys got, the more we realized that, while some standard philosophies can apply in our parenting, our sons are unique. While short-term grounding worked great for one of our sons, it had exactly the opposite effect on the other. One needed to talk and understand where we were coming from, but the other wanted to quickly reconcile and move on. One is more a dreamer-lover; the other has a strong-willed, legal mind. Tips, techniques, and cookie-cutter formulas weren't the answer for our boys, and I suspect they're not the answer for yours.
I'm telling you this in case you're expecting this book to be another fill-in-the-blanks, follow the formula, how-to-type resource. I'm warning you now-this is not one of those books. Rather, it's a tool to help you define the tasks and parameters for bringing your son into a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, there are practical strategies and even a few programmatic specifics, but the bulk of this book is committed to helping dads know what it means to pass on faith to their sons. Actual "success" is defined here by how a father operates within the context of the issues of discipling a son, not by how quickly and observably his son lives the Christian life. That remains in the hands of the son and depends on his own relationship with God. We as fathers are simply called to model our faith, create an environment where faith can flourish, and walk with our sons on the journey.
Our attitude toward discipling our sons seems to have fallen victim to the instant messaging, on-the-fly e-mail, techno-gadget world that has seeped into our understanding and experience of faith. But neither parenting nor discipleship can be that easy or fast. Faith is an invitation to a wild, new journey. It can't be reduced to a secret now revealed or to six easy steps. It's a step-by-step daily walk with God, who promises to lead us.
A TRUSTED MODEL
In a rapidly changing and socially evolving world, two unique yet related issues emerge that affect a father's ability to touch his son for Christ. First, cultural fragmentation has torn apart nearly every society. Different attitudes, commitments, and perceptions of reality between generations are just a sampling of many factors that can place a wedge between a father and his son. For example, consider the definition of "sex." For most Christian fathers, sex involves any intimate physical contact or fantasies about intimate contact. Most contemporary adults would acknowledge that a kiss or even holding hands can be a sexual expression. But not in today's adolescent world. Quite possibly, for your son, sex is intercourse; everything else is "just messing around." This is just one example of a world changing so rapidly that few of us can hope to keep up.
Many men offhandedly believe that the effects of cultural fragmentation aren't an issue for them and their sons. But I do believe this is a far wider and deeper problem than most dads recognize. You may think you know your son and his world and that you understand how he and his friends look at life. But I invite you to prayerfully consider that there's much about your son and his world that you know little or nothing about.
The second factor, which has been greatly influenced by the first, is the fact that adolescence lasts ten years longer than it did in the 1970s. Obviously, the reasons behind this are complex and varied, and it's not necessarily true for all kids. But most researchers agree that this stage in life that used to be completed around eighteen years of age now lasts well into the twenties and beyond for most kids. For many, it also begins earlier. Why? The majority opinion is that we have effectively dismantled many of the support systems that were designed to help children become adults. In our world, adults want to recapture their youth; kids see this and do not feel any rush to leave the freedoms they now enjoy.
This extended adolescence also influences a father's ability to impact his son for Jesus Christ. The kind of growth your son will probably experience is a slower, more frustrating, and less consistent journey than yours was. Only the rare father recognizes that development has changed and that kids today need far more time for authentic growth to occur. This impacts all aspects of the developmental journey-from relationships to identity to problem solving to conceptualization.
If you want to do a little firsthand research in this area, just check out the fifth-grade class at your local school. You'll notice that many of the girls look like they should be in high school, and the language and topics of conversation of both boys and girls are the stuff of R-rated movies. Then consider, on the other end of the adolescence spectrum, households who have children in their twenties (and even older) who are either living at home or are financially and emotionally dependent on their parents, perhaps coming back after college or even post-divorce in a renewed adolescence.
This culturally sanctioned extended adolescence means the road to maturity is long and winding. And it's more about baby steps and a slow, deliberate, inconsistent, and incremental process than a linear, neatly progressing "spiritual maturity" while your son is still in high school (or even college). This also means the bar of observable growth needs to be lowered to accommodate the realities of life in the new millennium. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. As in many areas of life, a long and careful process of growth can produce far healthier results than hurried strategies that attempt to rush kids from one stage of development to another.
While some family ministry advocates would disagree with or even dismiss my perspective on these two cultural dynamics, I can neither close my eyes to the facts of where kids are today nor be discouraged. Instead, I see the way things are as an honest and fresh starting point where Christ-centered, real discipleship can take place. I'm not discouraged, angry, or even nervous about these changes in adolescent development. If we simply acknowledge what we are dealing with and commit to loving and caring for our sons in the midst of these and other cultural realities, I believe God will produce strong men to carry the torch of faith to coming generations. But we all need help with the "baby steps" of fathering, learning how to think strategically over the long haul.
THE ESSENCE OF FATHER-SON DISCIPLESHIP
The father-son relationship is perhaps the most important discipleship opportunity in the life of a young man. As a father walks with God and invites his son into that journey, the son has the best chance to experience for himself the essence of a vibrant, alive faith. To begin understanding this process, it's important to ask two fundamental questions:
What exactly is a disciple?
What is the essence of father-son discipleship?
According to the New Testament, an easy definition of "disciple" is a follower of Jesus Christ who "walks" as Jesus did: "Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did" (1 John 2:6). Another definition, similar yet a little more descriptive, is that whoever believes in Jesus Christ and expresses that faith by loving others is a disciple: "And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us" (1 John 3:23).
Both of these definitions are examples of the consistently simple message of the Bible. A disciple is a person who has responded to God's love in Christ Jesus by believing (or equally as true to the Greek word used in 1 John 3:23, by "trusting" or "having faith") in God and his Word- in the message that proclaims freedom, peace, and restored relationship in a fractured world. A disciple is therefore someone who expresses this belief by committing to and walking in a life of unconditional, sacrificial, sometimes illogical and often unnoticed love. This is consistent and clear throughout the Scriptures. God calls men and women to trust him, and he then gives them the power to truly love. A disciple loves God, others, and even-made possible by the cross-himself: "The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'" (Galatians 5:14).
So, as a father, how do you lead and guide your son into this discipleship relationship and lifestyle? How do you teach your son, in word and actions, what it looks like for him to fully trust Jesus Christ and to surrender his life for others in love?
A father who seeks to disciple his son must recognize that life is different for his son than it was for him. He must be willing to rise above assumptions and stale propositions. And a father must recognize that the life he lives will become the most indelible voice his son will ever hear.
Frank, a fairly well-known and well-respected Christian leader, learned this too late. He has always been seen as a man who knows what it means to live an authentic Christian life. He's married and has two sons who as children attended church, were active in youth ministry, and went to Christian college. From all appearances, Frank and his wife were a shining example that being a Christian parent isn't that hard if you are faithful, committed, and live the way people expect you to live.
During the past decade, Frank learned the hard way that much of what he thought was authentic Christian living was actually living by the numbers. He confided in me the struggles he and his family had encountered the last few years. He'd thought that as long as his family had family devotionals together every week, as long as his boys were involved in church activities, and as long as public personas were maintained, all would be well. What he has discovered is that life is much more complicated and delicate than that.
According to Frank, his older son had never talked with him about his sexual escapades because he felt he couldn't tell his dad the truth. This deceptive behavior has cost his son his marriage, for years of hidden and unfettered sexual stimulation and experience kept him from being faithful to his Christian bride. His younger son confessed that he "never was really a Christian," and he's living estranged from his family, thousands of miles away from home. The last time Frank and his younger son talked, they argued about his lifestyle, and just before his son hung up on him, he said, "You never knew me." Frank is heartbroken, but feels he has nowhere to take his pain. He told a friend that Christians would never understand what his family is going through.
Frank and I are a lot alike. I'm just a few years younger than he is. Since the day I knew I was going to be a father, I dreamed for my sons to know and love God. Neither Frank nor I want to do anything to get in the way of that. But Frank's story is a wake-up call to all of us. Loving my kids to Christ is a much deeper, proactive, and relationally focused process than I'd ever thought. It takes understanding my sons, it takes listening, and it takes the willingness to slog through the mud of adolescence alongside my boys.
The relationship between a father and his son, then, is perhaps the key factor in raising a son who has a heart for God and a love of people. A relationship with Christ is most effectively communicated when the messenger lives out of a vital determination to be the message to his son. This kind of disciple, and this definition of discipleship, is in short supply today (and, I believe, has been for a very long time). And yet even in the midst of these dynamics, an adolescent needs and almost always internally longs for an adult who cares.
So, leading and guiding your son on a journey with Christ takes at least as much commitment as the practice of spiritual disciplines and/or doctrinal precision. Perhaps more so. Nuances of theology, spiritual "consistency" (an oxymoron in the life of an adolescent), and even some of the specific "duties" of the faith-daily quiet time, active involvement in a youth group, dressing "properly" for church-have much less of an impact than an authentic, Christ-centered, life-on-life, soul-to-soul relationship between a developing not-yet-adult son and a developing, striving, and maturing father.
FRAMEWORK FOR GROWTH
This book offers three main areas for fathers to consider as they seek to influence sons for Christ-the marks of any disciple, the goals of the fatherhood discipleship process, and a father's unique role in a son's journey toward spiritual adulthood. What matters for authentic discipleship is what has always mattered to God, and it's summarized in Micah 6:6-8:
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Excerpted from FROM FATHER TO SON by CHAP CLARK Copyright © 2002 by Chap Clark. Excerpted by permission.
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