Parenting is both timeless and urgent, according to Russell Moore, as each new generation of moms and dads face age-old challenges complicated by rapidly changing cultural norms. Christians need to think carefully about how they pass on life and godliness to their children, but it won’t be easy, so Moore is asking people to trust in Christ and rely on the church.
Photo by Rocket Republic
Russell Moore delivers a plenary talk at the 2016 ERLC National Conference.
Moore, who serves as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), spoke with the Biblical Recorder via telephone to answer questions about cultural issues related to childrearing and the upcoming ERLC national conference, “Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World.”
The annual event will take place Aug. 24-26 in Nashville, Tenn., featuring key speakers such as Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Sally Lloyd-Jones, New York Times bestselling children’s book writer, including The Jesus Storybook Bible; Jen Wilkin, well-known writer and speaker; and Crawford Loritts, author and senior pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, Ga.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.
Q: Of all the pressing issues clamoring for attention today, why did you choose to focus on parenting at this year’s ERLC national conference?
A: Largely because parenting is the No. 1 issue that I’m asked about on any given day. It applies to the whole spectrum of gospel, moral and ethical issues that we face: from technology, to gender questions, to explaining cultural issues to kids.
It’s by far the No. 1 question that we get, both from parents and from churches that are seeking to equip parents. We hear quite a bit from youth pastors and children’s ministers who are dealing with parents who feel as though they lack confidence in training up kids in a time like this.
Q: There are two things you never discuss in polite company, so the saying goes: politics and religion. But today you could add “parenting” as a third. Conversations about how to raise children can easily become heated. The term “mommy wars” is now a topic of its own because of how volatile parenting debates can be. Should churches address parenting issues as part of discipleship, or are people squabbling over mere matters of preference?
A: We should address parenting issues as part of discipleship, but we need to speak definitively where scripture speaks definitively and not speak definitively where scripture does not.
We already know how that works in other areas of discipleship. There are some things that we call out as morally wrong, but other things that we – in a Romans 14 way – leave to people’s consciences. The same thing applies to parenting.
Sometimes the heated debates that go on about parenting are really about preferences or people seeking to exalt their way of parenting over against some else’s. That’s not a Christian pattern. The Bible calls us to count others as more significant than ourselves.
We also need to recognize that parenting is hard. As one friend of mine puts it, “Parenting is not just humbling, it’s humiliating.” Even those who think they’re experts on parenting come to a point where one realizes just how difficult this is.
So, we equip families to parent without shaming or seeking to belittle them.
There are certain biblical principles that we seek to embed in one another’s hearts that might express themselves in different ways in different contexts in different families.
The way, for instance, that I do family devotions is not something I would say every family ought to do this way. What I would say is the Bible calls us to teach our children the scriptures, and teach our children the gospel, and different families will work that out in different ways.
I think we have to constantly be differentiating between clear biblical principle and prudential wisdom, where we’re not giving explicit direction but we are giving a biblical framework.
Q: Parenting is a wide-ranging topic. Will you outline some of the issues the event will cover?
A: We’ll be talking about how to rear children who see the church as their primary community and Christ as their primary identity.
I think that’s where the pre-eminent struggle is now – whether or not our children identify themselves first with the global body of Christ or with a peer group or an economic group or a consumer group. That’s one of the main issues that we’ll be dealing with.
We’ll also be talking about how to deal with prodigals: what to do with children who are wandering away from the Lord, in a way that stands by both conviction and connectedness.
And then we’ll be talking about a range of issues: how to make decisions about technology, how to raise children to understand biblical categories of male and female, how churches can equip parents who have unique situations – special needs children, children in the foster care system and others.
We recognize there are some things that every generation has been talking about, all the way back to Abraham. There are other questions, though, that our parents and grandparents never had to answer.
Q: A lot has been said in recent years about the negative impact of “screen time” on children. But older generations have lamented the effects of new technology as far back as Socrates, who claimed the newfangled written word would destroy our memory. Do you think the current hand-wringing is unwarranted, or is there truly something unique going on with today’s handheld digital devices?
A: I don’t think we have too much hand-wringing about technology. I think we don’t have enough hand-wringing on this particular issue.
Christians are often overly fearful of various things in culture, but this is one where I think Christians aren’t fearful enough. I don’t think we take seriously what actually is going on with technology, partly because it’s impossible to keep one or two steps ahead of emerging technology.
Sometimes parents think if they have a filter on their Internet at home then the technology issue is settled. That’s just not sufficient.
There’s not only the question of how to keep our children moving toward sexual purity in a “pornified” culture, but there’s also a question of what it means to be a human being.
What does it mean to have real human connectedness in a time like this? When you say that every generation has talked about technology in negative ways, that is definitely true, but many of the ways previous generations talked about technology turned out to be true.
Think, for instance, of the warnings about television that Neil Postman gave us in the 1970s and 80s. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman was prophetic and really wasn’t paid attention to at the time. So, I don’t think there’s enough careful thought going into technology today.
Technology is skyrocketing in terms of speed. We don’t know what the next generation will be facing, but we know it will be even more confusing than what we’re dealing with now.
Q: Gender issues flooded our national conversation quicker than anyone expected. Many Christian parents have been caught off-guard by the need to discuss what it means to be male and female with children at a very early age. How can Christian parents address gender issues from a biblical perspective in proactive ways, rather than reacting to the latest thing their child heard on the playground?
A: Some parents are reluctant to talk about these issues for fear that they will discuss them too early, in a way that could be unsettling or confusing for their child.
My counsel to parents is to try as best you can to get to your child first with a framework for gender and sexual issues, so that the framing of these issues comes first from parents and the church before it’s confronted on the playground.
That means having wisdom about what is appropriate when. That’s often going to be unique to each child and their context.
So, for instance, in my home we homeschool our children. Our children’s primary peer group is within the church and within the neighborhood. My then-six-year-old came home and asked me about transgenderism. I asked where he heard this, and it was sitting in the dentist’s office, seeing a news report on transgenderism. He’d never heard of it.
The temptation for us as parents is to be so alarmed when asked about these things that we can give a sense of a lack of confidence to our children. If the Bible has given us everything we need for life and godliness, then we don’t have any reason to be fearful about addressing these sorts of questions.
Q: Your talk is titled “Cross Shaped Parenting.” What does that mean?
A: We can sometimes fall to a kind of prosperity gospel parenting, in which we give biblical principles along with the assumption that if we put these into place then our families will flourish with sustained happiness and blessing – in the way the world defines happiness and blessing.
The biblical picture is that, when we take up our cross and follow Christ, it applies to our parenting as well. When we become parents, we are entering into a realm of spiritual warfare. We’re dealing with the cultivating of a new generation. The principalities and powers are going to kick back against that, and they do.
My message is going to be that parenting is, in fact, difficult. In every era and in every culture, there are spiritual reasons behind that difficulty, but none the less, parenting is worth it.
Just as we see in the cross – both the beauty of God’s grace and the horror of human sin – in parenting we see a reflection of what it means to know God as Father, what it means to know church as family.
We need each other when it comes to parenting. We need to bear one another’s burdens, recognizing and knowing, if one isn’t in a difficult situation right now in parenting, one will be.
Q: Pew Research released a study last year saying young adults ages 18-34 are now more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse or partner in their own household. Do you think that’s a problem, and if so, how can parents of these young adults respond to the growing trend?
A: That’s definitely a problem, and I think there are many reasons for it.
One of those reasons is economic. We’re living in a time of great economic uncertainty and instability, especially for those who are just starting their careers. That’s especially true when they start those careers with horrifying amounts of student debt. So, I think the economic piece is one factor here, but I think there’s another piece that’s cultural and spiritual.
There are many in the emerging generation that lived through “divorce culture” as children as their parents were splitting apart. They desperately want to avoid being in that situation themselves, but the way they’re responding to that is not by committing themselves to faithful, intact, stable marriages, but by avoiding marriage altogether.
I think there’s a fear of marriage, parenting and maturity that snowballs when one doesn’t have a peer group that’s marrying and starting families. There are people who simply cannot see how they could go out on their own and “leave and cleave.”
That’s part of what the older generation of the church is here to do, to say to young men and young women, “You really can do this. You really can be faithful husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, even though you don’t feel as though you’re ready.” No one is ready. No one feels ready to take on that responsibility.
Some of our generational disconnectedness plays into that as well. It’s ironic because at one level it would seem that we have more generational connectedness because the 28-year-old is still living at home with mom and dad, but it’s actually the result of generational disconnectedness because the adult child doesn’t see how he or she could live out the sort of path that his or her parents or grandparents took.
Q: What parenting issues do you see on the horizon that Christians should be prepared for?
A: One of the issues is the overprotectiveness that we see from many parents in American culture right now. It’s combined with a kind of parental negligence.
There are some parents who are fearful of having their children play outside or ride a bicycle to the neighbor’s house but who aren’t really concerned about the media intake of their children or whether or not their children are thriving spiritually. That’s a problem.
Many of us are sheltering where we shouldn’t be sheltering and not sheltering where we should be sheltering. And it’s difficult to know the difference between those two things. Another issue is navigating how to raise children who have biblical convictions without empowering children to be Pharisees.
Different children have different points of vulnerability. Some of my children have a natural tendency to be really lax about discernment issues. Some of my other children are more like me and have a vulnerability toward being Pharisees or judgmental.
I have to figure out how to teach my children about what the Bible commands – how Jesus defines reality – without teaching them how to divide people up into the good people and the bad people, so that we have children who are actually gospel people who are on mission with Christ. That’s a difficult thing to do, and I think it’s a challenge right now for Christian parents.
For more information, visit ERLC.com.
Biblical Recorder readers get 20% off registration