Reaching home schooled kids in your children’s ministry may be one of the toughest challenges you face. Are you up to the task?
At Southside Bible Church, the youth pastor walked by a tight circle of teenagers chatting animatedly in the hall after Sunday services. They glanced at him and nodded politely, but he got the feeling for about the fiftieth time that he was from another planet. Something inside him snapped.
“The home-schooled kids in this church have a 10-foot-thick wall around them,” he said hotly in the next morning’s staff meeting. “They seem to like living in their own little home-school world, separate from the rest of the kids here. They’ve got these intact, strong families who’ve given them incredible amounts of attention… you’d think they’d have more to give to others, but it seems as though they have less. They keep a hands-off approach to the kids in public school as if they somehow don’t want to be contaminated. They’re polite enough one-on-one, but they seem to have their own little home school zone that has a ‘Hey, World: Keep Out!’ sign posted!”
The senior pastor nodded in agreement. He’d been a fan of home schooling; his wife even educated their two children at home for a couple of years when they were younger. But lately, he’d seen some of the same dynamics at work in the home schooling parents that the youth pastor was describing among the kids. What was going on here?
ANYONE AT HOME?
If it’s true that Christianity functions as a subculture, then Christian home-schoolers form a strongly defined subset of that Christian subculture. And this Christian home schooling subset stands out clearly against the backdrop of its relationship with the local church.
Twenty years ago, when a family chose to home school, the parents were likely to have incredibly strong faith convictions.
They certainly needed those convictions then because in many states home schooling was illegal.
Today, home schooling is legal in all 50 states, and the number of homeschooled children in America is up 61.8% over the last 10 years. The home-schooling movement has moved from the domain of a few committed families to a much more diverse group that includes Christians as its largest percentage. There are also secular, Mormon, Islamic, and Jewish families who’ve chosen this academic alternative.
The common thread that links all these home-schoolers together is some degree of frustration with the public school system, whether it’s on the academic, social, or moral front — or a measure of all three.
Of those Christian families who are making the choice to home school, they’re usually strongly committed to their faith. Because other outside influences are limited by the choice to home school, what goes on at the local church can take on increased importance for these families. Home-schoolers can either become a vital part of a local church’s ministry or function as dead weight, sapping life and energy from the rest of the body.
ROOM IN THE MIDDLE
In extreme instances, home-schooling families may call for a paradigm shift in the way a church does ministry, insisting that the established programs within a church such as Sunday school and youth ministry (with their attendant time demands and age-segregated offerings) are unbiblical, since these home-schoolers believe that Scripture indicates it’s solely the parents’ responsibility to train their children.
In the case of Southside Bible Church mentioned at the beginning of this article, many of the home-schooling families had been reacting to a youth group that seemed to attract more than its share of troubled kids and endless calls for staffing church programs that seemed to drain precious family time. A vocal segment of the speakers and writers addressing home-schooling parents through books and conferences tout idyllic, family-centered fellowship (and home birth, home-based businesses, and home churches) as God’s Perfect Answer for the way the body of Christ should function, giving these Southside families justification for their emotional withdrawal from church life.
One pastor put it like this: “There’s a tension between living the Great Commission and living holy and separate lives. It is both-and not either-or. I’ve known quite a few home-schoolers who tend to be drawn to the holy part and have pulled away from the Great Commission calling. It’s tempting to resolve this tension by moving to one extreme or the other.”
Jesus invites each of us to pitch our tents on the fault line of this “both-and” tension — an important corrective term for all those who ache for sanctuary, comfort, and protection in a decaying culture.
There are thousands of home-schooling families living creatively on that fault line by serving as foster parents, church cleaning crews, casserole preparers, or tutors for neighborhood children, thereby integrating themselves seamlessly into the ministry of their local churches and finding ways to transfer an active, passionate faith to their children.
A CHURCH REMODELED
However, there are a number of friction points that can develop between home-schooling families and their local churches. For instance, home-schoolers can present a church with programming issues. How can a woman attend the daytime women’s Bible study where the young mothers tend to fellowship if she’s home schooling her children? Many home-schooling parents have valid concerns about negative socialization and peer dependence. How can children’s ministry leaders support kids of all kinds learning to fellowship and learn together — and support parents who may be outspoken in expressing their concerns about mixing children? Creating a church environment where home-schooling families can become an integral part of the ministry takes intentional effort.
Here are practical tips for working through any friction.
“Educate yourself. Even if you find yourself philosophically opposed to the whole idea of home schooling, you may find it helpful, especially if you have a growing population of home-schooling families, to give yourself a crash course in home education. Spend a portion of a day at a home-schooling conference (pastors can often attend for free) or a local home school support group meeting.
“Don’t make home-schooling a point of contention. If you’re a ministry leader who home schools your kids, it’s crucial to minimize this choice as much as possible at church. Church members tend to see your choice as an implicit endorsement that your choice is best. Support each family’s biblical responsibility as the primary educators of their children, and encourage them to seek God for how he best wants them to accomplish that task.
“Follow the motivation trail. It’s worth doing a little fact-finding to see if you can discover why people in your church have chosen to home school their children. If they’re home schooling because they want to give their children a better academic alternative, are interested in integrating spiritual training into their studies, or have a child with learning disabilities who would be better served by one-on-one tutoring, their relationship to their local church and the home-schooling movement will be very different than if they’re home schooling out of fear of the evil one-world government that’s bent on trying to brainwash their children. Parents will perceive your children’s ministry differently based on their motivations.
“Seek to integrate home-schoolers into the ministry of your church where possible. When the mother involved in setting up the children’s ministry Christmas concert at the nursing home let her pastor know about a niche ministry she thought other home-schooling families could fill during the daytime hours, he encouraged her to be a liaison between the group and the church, letting the church staff know about needs that the residents expressed during their weekly visits. The children were occasionally invited to share their experiences with the rest of the kids in Sunday school. The home-schoolers were able to effectively extend the ministry of the church beyond an occasional program.
“Think out of the program box when it comes to ministering to home-schooled kids. A youth pastor of a mid-size church needed a sound and PowerPoint slide person for Wednesday night youth group. His answer came in the form of a technologically savvy 12-year-old home-schooled boy who was a computer whiz with the schedule flexibility to come in on Wednesday afternoons and work with the youth pastor to set up the audiovisuals. This nurturing relationship has given the boy the confidence to lead others in this service ministry.
“Understand that home-schooling families can present a contradictory mix of needs and problems. Some mothers, tired from the demands of home schooling all week, may be reticent to volunteer to teach Sunday school. On the other hand, many home-schooling parents are intensely interested in what’s being taught to their children at church, and they may offer strong opinions about the structure and content of children’s and youth programs.
Because of the 24/7 nature of home-schooling, relational issues within some families tend to get magnified. At the same time, authority issues, pride, or mistrust of involving outsiders can prevent a family from asking for help.
Though these are all stumbling blocks for most people when it comes to asking for help, they may be ratcheted up a couple of notches for some home-schooling families due to the self-imposed expectation that home schooling should make their families stronger and better.
By simply being aware of these contradictions, you may be able to hear the real struggle behind the words of a home-schooling parent who presents a concern to you.
“Funnel all demands for additional ministry through the vision of your church. While some churches may gladly devote resources to supporting their home-schooling families (providing academic enrichment activities for home-schooled children so the mothers can attend the daytime women’s Bible study, for instance), other churches simply don’t have the time or inclination to meet those needs. Communication based on a clearly stated (and oft-revisited) vision statement can help minimize false expectations on the part of the home-schooling families in your congregation — and can keep your church’s ministry “on task.”
The gift the home school movement brings to the church is the holy reminder that parents are their children’s first and most important teachers. The gift your church brings to the home school movement is its unique ability to be God’s school, equipping believers and demonstrating the love of Christ to non-Christians. In God’s eyes, there are no subsets. There’s only Jesus’ aching prayer for all of us in John 17:11: “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name — the name you gave me — so that they may be one as we are one.”
|ONE MOM’S VIEW|
Home schooling is based on the conviction that God has ordained us, the parents, to be our children’s protectors and teachers. As such, home schooling is both an energizing delight and a fatiguing challenge — sometimes all at once. The church can be a part of both truths. As a home-schooling family, we’ve struggled with the church, not just one, but many over the years and miles. Pondering the situation, I’ve come up with several reasons and even a few solutions — for the church and for us as a family.
Having chosen to keep our kids out of the flow of general juvenile society, we have high expectations for kid behaviors and exposures. We expect children in the church to exhibit quiet, respectful, submissive behaviors, not to model the world and its activities. We need a supportive environment for our kids to learn God-honoring group interaction and study skills. The kids need to see an expectation for them to respond to other adults in a quiet, modest manner. Often the church doesn’t expect such behavior of its children, nor provide the forum.
We spend much of our day in biblical teaching. Thus, our kids are bored with the average children’s curriculum or presentation. Some churches do, however, provide great programs such as Bible Quizzing and opportunities to live out specific scriptural teaching.
We try to model worship for our children. I believe children naturally learn to be responsible, worshipful adults in an adult environment better than in a kid environment. We need to know our children are welcome in worship services. Often, we’ve known they aren’t.
Children’s ministries often take the approach that social time is simply play, talk, or movie time. Why shouldn’t children be guided into individual or group acts of service, appropriate for their age? Too often, we forget that children are here to serve the Lord and his people — not to be served — and that if we don’t teach them to serve while they’re young, they won’t serve when they’re adults. Service is something God’s church could be more dedicated to — perhaps something we as a home-schooling family could help facilitate.
Not all home-schoolers face these issues in the same manner we do. Each home-schooling family is as unique as any other, with unique needs and responses. May God bless you as you minister to your home-schooling families and allow them to minister within your body.
— Debbie L. Barker
— Michelle Van Loon is a children’s minister in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
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