“Train Up a Child …”
Behold, one of the most famous verses from the books of Proverbs:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
–Proverbs 22:6 ESV
You can understand why people like this one. If ever there were a promise parents want to be true, this would be it. This proverb seems to promise that a solid parenting foundation will ensure smooth sailing for a kid’s whole life. I do my part as dad, and I’m guaranteed God will do his part to make sure my kids turn out right.
Of course, we know that’s not always the case. (Bear with me, because this isn’t actually my main point—but I can’t skip past it.) The book of Proverbs shows life as it generally operates:
- Pursue wisdom and you’ll become wise.
- Speak with caution and people will heed your words.
- Work hard, be honest, and treat others with justice … and you’ll succeed.
Proverbs encourages us to live “with the grain of the universe,” because on the whole, it is not only morally better but usually tangibly better to live a life of integrity, justice, and wisdom. Are they guarantees? Absolutely not. Are they still worth heeding? Yup.
We clear? Good. Because there’s something else about this verse that I really want to know:
What is this verse actually encouraging us to do with our children?
Parenting as Training
The answer is in the verb: train. Not teaching. What sticks with this hypothetical child when he grows old is not a lesson learned in Sunday School. It’s not a conversation shared around the dinner table. (Both of those matter, but something larger is at play here.) We train our children with our entire lives.
What we say, what we do, where we live, who we invite into our homes, how we spend our money, what we do with our free time. All of it trains up our child in a certain way.
And that word “way” is pivotal. We aren’t giving a child a belief to hold or a commitment to make or an insight to understand. We’re modeling a way of life. A system of habits and practices and assumptions.
So if we say we believe Jesus is better than anything life can offer, but we act like the good life is found in a bigger home, a cooler vacation, or a better wardrobe, which one our kids will believe? We’ve trained them to seek the good life in stuff. They’ll follow that way.
If we say we believe all ethnicities are beautiful in God’s eyes, but if the only people in our homes look just like us, what will our kids believe? We’ve trained them to see their ethnic identity as normal (and others’ as odd—or worse). And they’ll follow that way.
We say, “Life doesn’t happen on a screen,” but then we lose ourselves, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling—all while our kids fight for the leftover scraps of our attention. We’ve trained our kids to see a screen as a retreat and refuge. They’ll follow that way.
Raising a child is a matter of training. It’s practice. Practicing what we know to be true by working it out in the way—in the nitty gritty of everyday life.
You still with me? Great. Because one more question presents itself:
Who exactly is “training up” this child?
The Family or the Church Family?
Usually, Proverbs 22:6 is mentioned in the context of the immediate family. Parents, maybe you’ve heard it offered as good advice for your beleaguered moments: Keep it up, because remember, what you’re investing in matters!
I’m all for it. After all, parenting is tough and tedious work. So we parents can’t be reminded enough that the tedium has value.
There’s value in the thousands of conversations you have with your son—as you put him to bed, or drive him to school, or help him tie his shoes.
There’s value in the thousands of hours you spend with your daughter—reading to her, or correcting her mistakes, or listening to her dreams.
Parents, what you do matters. Nobody has more authority, intimacy, or opportunity with your kids than you do. “Training up a child” happens at home more than anywhere else.
But church leaders, you're not off the hook here. What could this verse look like in the context of the local church?
We believe discipleship happens first and best in the home, but that it gains momentum when families join together. When an entire church practices the faith together, everyone benefits. It’s easier to stay on course because you’ve got accountability. It takes some of the pressure off parents, because some of the road is already paved in front of them. And it’s usually a lot more fun.
Just think of how goofy it would be for a church if they decided all the families should just worship on their own, whenever worked best for them. (And yes, I realize this was literally 2020 for so many of us. Uggg.) It would be tremendously hard to keep that commitment. We know it makes sense for a church to come together when it comes to the worship service—so wouldn’t it be great if churches did the same thing in training up their children?
This is why, for instance, we created the Local Church Program for our Advent Blocks. We sell the blocks for an absurdly low price. Why? So more of you can do this together. It works well in your home. But it works better with your whole church.
And it’s true well beyond Christmas. Take Sabbath, a practice I’ve always struggled with personally. I’ve never been anti-Sabbath, per se. But I’ve always been pretty terrible at actually practicing it. But then, a few months ago, my family decided to practice Sabbath with a couple other families. It’s still not my easiest discipline, but I’ve become much more consistent. The church helps.
Or how about this less spiritual example: I’ve been trying to get back into running. It wasn’t going well. So I signed up for a 5-mile race with a friend. And guess what? My running shoes are being used again. Community helps.
Part of what makes the church the church—rather than just a collection of Christian families—is that we are headed the same way together. Call it whatever you want: alignment, congruence, message integrity. I simply like to think of it as training. All of us, together, practicing our faith in big venues as well as small. At the dinner table on Tuesday night and during the worship service on Sunday morning.
So, does discipleship happen at home or at church?