Have Our Memorials Lost Their Meaning?

Memorials are built to remember something. Today we remember the men and women in our armed forces who have give the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom. We thank God for them. Last week I had the privilege of giving a talk about biblical memorials and generational discipleship. My thoughts on the subject follow…

And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” Joshua 4:21-24

Petoskey Stones
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Beth via Compfight

The idea of remembering and memorials is important in the Bible. In Joshua 4 we find Joshua and the people of Israel crossing the Jordan and setting up a memorial for a very specific purpose. The text helps us understand the biblical mandate for generational discipleship with great implications for those of us who are parents. Joshua 4:21 gives the purpose for this memorial – When your children ask their fathers in times to come, “What do these stones mean?” The memorial was for instruction. This is not new to God’s method of transmission of the faith from generation to generation.

This is a theme repeated throughout the Bible. Consider these memorials and God’s instruction to parents:

• Of the Passover: “You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever. And when you come to the land that the LORD will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the LORD’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 12:24-27 ESV)

• Of the Feast of Unleavened Bread: “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:14-16 ESV)

• Of the giving of the Law: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’”(Deuteronomy 6:20-25 ESV)

There is a consistent idea in these memorials that parents should pass faith along to their children. The question that the children were to ask in Joshua 4 in the text is, “What do these stones mean?”

Memorials without Meaning

Today, I believe many children in our churches have the memorials without the meaning! In other words, the church and Christianity surround them while they have no personal ownership of their faith. You see, Joshua 4:6 adds an important qualifier to the question children will ask, “What do these stones mean to you?” The idea is a personalized faith on the part of the parent. But the state of discipleship today is such that Southern Baptist pastor Brian Haynes in his book The Legacy Path, comments, “The greatest obstacle that parents have to overcome in leading their children spiritually is their own mediocre or morbidly religious relationship with God accompanied by a juvenile understanding of his word.” This underscores the point that parents must be disciples first.

I am convinced this dearth of parental discipleship exists in large part as an unintended consequence of our stellar church programming for youth and children which is relegating parents to the backseat when it comes to delivering faith to our children. Notice I said unintended consequence. We are, as it were, victims of our own success when it comes to ministry to children and youth. We have given parents a “drop-off” mentality in which they perceive their role in spiritual formation ends when the child is transported to the church. Haynes continues, “for a very long time parents have depended on children’s pastors or youth pastors to disciple their kids. This is a great partnership but it does not take the place of parent-to-child faith training.”

It is no exaggeration to say that there is a crisis in discipleship of the next generation. We have all heard the alarming dropout statistics from the church after a child leaves for college. The National Survey of Youth and Religion showed that between graduation from high school and what is the equivalent of the end of the young people’s sophomore year in college, from 60-70 percent of those in-church youth left the church and became inactive. The study showed that those dropouts were not actively a part of any church of any denomination by that end date.

The solution to this is not better programming at the church. The solution lies in discipling parents to disciple their kids. Strong homes will make strong churches.

Memorials with the Wrong Meaning

But, as tragic as it is that our children may see memorials with no meaning, I believe there may be an even more dangerous implication we can draw from Joshua 4. Many children have the memorials with the wrong meaning! In other words, they have been told what the faith means to their parents, but it is a kind of Christianity that falls short of the commands of Christ.

Notice the true meaning behind the memorial for the Israelites in vv. 22-24. Parents were to recount the mighty acts of God so that ALL THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH MAY KNOW THE HAND OF THE LORD IS MIGHTY AND THAT YOU MAY FEAR THE LORD YOUR GOD FOR EVER – the meaning behind the memorial was mission and worship! tThat is why we disciple our children. We disciple them to fear the LORD and proclaim His glory to the nations.

But the Western church in the 21st century has lowered the bar. As a result of the study noted above, a term has been coined that has gained popularity among many in the blogosphere and in the seminary classroom – moralistic, therapeutic deism.

Moralistic, therapeutic deism, according to the researchers has replaced biblical Christianity in many homes and churches. It is the belief that Christianity is to make us be good (moralistic), feel good (therapeutic), and to keep God at arms length until one of those first two goes wrong (deism). In her book, Almost Christian, flowing from the research already noted, Kenda Creasy Dean, notes “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length… Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no pretense at changing lives; it is a low commitment, compartmentalized set of attitudes aimed at “meeting my needs” and “making me happy” rather than bending my life into a pattern of love and obedience to God…We have received from teenagers exactly what we have asked them for: assent, not conviction; compliance, not faith. Young people invest in religion precisely what they think it is worth—and if they think the church is worthy of benign whatever-ism and no more, then the indictment falls not on them, but on us.”

In short, the lie that parents and teens have bought is making the Gospel too small. The solution is to teach the true biblical meaning of the “memorials” to parents who in turn teach their children.

The issue lies in the church, yes, and there are challenging questions we must ask about our effectiveness. But more so, the issue must be addressed in the home. We must champion a return of parents to their God-given privilege of discipling their own children. We must resource them, train them, and involve them in the spiritual nurture of their children.

We must challenge them with their own understanding of the memorial. We must call parents back to proclaim the Gospel so all the peoples of the earth will know the might hand of the Lord and that they may fear the LORD forever.

There is indeed more to do, and it begins with raising the bar for generational discipleship!

So, what about your homes? Have you built a memorial? Not with stones, but with sound spiritual practices that teach your children the glories of God and His mission to the world?

Would you do one thing this week and challenge the families of your church to do one thing to explain to children what these stones mean to you?