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Dads: The Next Big Revolution in Family Ministry

The debate over family ministry has been alive and well over the past 10 years, and for that I am grateful. One of the things I was not aware of is how dads were removed from being the primary spiritual leaders of their homes through the industrial revolution. Up to that point, there was no separation of duties within the family. The husband and wife were partners in both the economics of their home as well as the more domestic duties of child-rearing within the home. What’s crazy is the church let it happen.
In her book Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey describes the role of fathers:
Dad was called to sacrifice his own interests—to be disinterested—in order to represent the interests of the whole. Husbands and fathers were not to be driven by personal ambition or self-interest but to take responsibility for the common good of the entire household.

Being a father was not a separate activity to come home to after a day at work; rather, it was an integral part of a man’s daily routine. Historical records reveal that colonial literature on parenting—like sermons and child-rearing manuals—were not addressed to mothers, as the majority are today. Instead, they were typically addressed to fathers. Fathers were considered the primary parent and were held to be particularly important in their children’s religious and intellectual training.

The most striking feature of child-rearing manuals of the mid-nineteenth century is the disappearance of references to fathers. For the first time we find sermons and pamphlets on the topic of child-rearing addressed exclusively to mothers rather than to fathers or both parents. Men began to feel connected to their children primarily through their wives.

Women took men’s place as the custodians of communal virtue, freeing men to pursue self-interest.  In other words, men were being let off the hook. Instead of challenging the growing secularism among men, the church largely acquiesced—by turning to women. Churchmen seemed relieved to find at least one sphere, the home, where religion still held sway. Whereas traditional church teaching had held that fathers were responsible for their children’s education, in the early 1800s, says one historian, “New England ministers fervently reiterated their consensus that mothers were more important than fathers in forming ‘the tastes, sentiments, and habits of children,’ and more effective in instructing them.” As a result, mothers increasingly took over the formerly paternal task of conducting family prayers.

We need godly women and godly mothers, but I have to say that I agree with Nancy—our culture in general and the church in particular has let men off the hook. We preach to mothers and expect them to translate it to fathers. We seek the path of least resistance, and it has hurt both the church and the family. I have been guilty myself at times in decrying the feminization of the church. I will be the first to admit many times I have given in to the idea that women are the bastions of virtue, and guys are the lucky recipients of said virtue.  The church has taken its parenting cue from culture that says parenting is women’s work and dads get a pass. Who suffers? Our kids. If I am honest, I gear most of my “parental partnership plans” to mothers. This has to change.

Nancy’s damning statement cuts so deep every time I read it: “Instead of challenging the growing secularism among men, the church largely acquiesced—by turning to women.” I think the next wave of family ministry focus needs to be geared toward Dad. How do we help Dad engage in the home? How do we help dads win? How do we move the deeply entrenched idea that raising children is not women’s work?

Lastly, in our stance against gender confusion, let’s clearly define how God sees the family unit as it functions best, not rejecting hundreds of years of orthodoxy because we are afraid of challenging the growing secularism in our culture.

Dads, be who God has called you to be where he’s placed you. Being a good dad comes from a place of understanding the heart of the Father who, while you were still a sinner, sent his only Son at grave cost to redeem you and restore a relationship with you. It doesn’t matter what kind of father you did or didn’t have. You have been rescued by almighty God. Be the dad your kids need, grace allows and the gospel demands.