Of merit badges and fruit

In my ongoing process of learning to raise my kids in the light of the Triune God of grace, I am starting to rethink the Boy-Scouts model of character formation.  You know what I’m talking about:

  1. I want my child to embrace values like Service, Honesty, Citizenship.
  2. He won’t embrace these values on his own, so I provide an external motivator (like a merit badge).
  3. He performs the necessary tasks in order to earn the merit badge, but in the process also (presumably) builds the character traits I wish to see.
  4. As he matures, he will (presumably) grow to value character more than merit badges.

I’m not bad-mouthing Scouts here.  There are probably several contexts where that model of training works great.  But I am beginning to doubt its usefulness in the area of spiritual formation, and for parenting in general.  Then again, my doubts could be wrong; Christian lists have been around a long time:

  • Saint Paul (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, etc.)
  • The medieval church (prudence, temperance, fortitude, etc.)
  • The monastic tradition (poverty, chastity, obedience)
  • The Puritans (submission, fidelity, industry)
  • Purpose-Driven Church (worship, fellowship, discipleship, service, evangelism)

Because of this long history of Christian list-o-philia, I have toyed with ideas of defining a list of Stonecypher Family Virtues, and then being intentional about promoting and pursuing these virtues as a family.  I even looked into non-Scout merit badges that you can buy, for anything from Bible-Reading to Dishwashing.

Here’s the rub:  These are all ways to manipulate people’s insides so that they will match an external standard.  But what if it’s true that Christ is already inside them?  What if it’s true that the Incarnation has already put the Triune Life into the basic human equipment my children were born with?

I’m still figuring all this out, but here’s how I try to parent these days:  I live among my children and I keep my eyes and ears open.  I look for what’s going on in their lives.  I listen for whispers of the Divine Triune passions getting expressed in their feelings and thoughts and actions.  I try to fan the flames when and where they arise.

Yes, we still read the Bible together and pray together and all that.  We still talk about why patience and honesty and self-sacrifice are good. But I would say these activities are secondary rather than primary.

Trees don’t produce fruit because it gets them merit badges.  Tree produce fruit by simply being trees.

10 comments so far

  1. doulosophi on

    I hear and appreciate you with regard to parenting, but i am struggling wth applying this to youth ministry where the “dwell among” amounts to 1 hour at most per week and the opportunity to nurture the life already nascent is not understood or sought in that home during the other 167 hours of the week. Thanks for the article.

  2. Hey man, if you ever figure out teenagers, please contact me immediately. I will have one in 3 years, and I have no idea what I’m going to do when the time comes. 🙂 God bless your efforts among youth!

  3. Nan Kuhlman on

    I love this post, John, mainly for its “down in the trenches” imagery which takes Trinitarian theology and gives a glimpse of what it looks like in real life. As for your first commenter, doulosophi, I would like to offer that the one hour a week is an opportunity to build a relationship with the young person and share the joy of being included as we are, no expectations attached. As parents, youth ministers, or friends, we aren’t called to change or transform anybody, but simply speak the good news about who we (and they) are in Jesus. Perhaps the most effective “technique” (if I dare call it that) is the one you suggested, that of fanning the flames when and where you see the goodness and grace of Jesus oozing out of them. As the parent of three teenagers, I can attest that they can smell an organized transformation effort a mile away and begin resisting it even subconsciously. Far better to cultivate an accepting attitude and “fan the flames” than to be a manipulator.

  4. Bob Vischer (pastor) on

    Ongoing from the “merit badge” system, I hate the upcoming “Xmas” (intended!) season, cause if you are good you get! Whereas children should be taught they have already “gotten” the Triune God as the BEST present ever!!!!!

  5. Jeannine on

    Fabulous points, John – I couldn’t agree more and I love your approaches with your kids. Incidentally, we just signed my oldest up for Cub Scouts this week – I was mainly interested in it for it’s outdoor/survival aspects – I wasn’t even thinking about the merit badges. (But I had taken a look at the Cub Scout Promise and the “I promise to obey the law of the pack” was already giving me pause…) I guess we’ll see how it goes, but badges will definitely not be our focus.

    If you haven’t read Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting, I think you’d really like it because what you are saying here echoes the authors thoughts as well. Though the book is not theological in nature in the slightest, it complemented so perfectly what I was learning about the Triune God at the time – the fact that God doesn’t love us based on our performance; nor does He withdraw His love from us when we don’t perform. That’s HUGE – because so much of what I was trained to believe growing up had me believing that God only liked me when I was doing the right things – when I was earning my merit badges, so to speak. Looking back, I realise that I knew better, deep down – but I definitely felt intellectually that His love was tied to my performance. It’s been life-changing to see that His love for me is truly unconditional.

    A point the author makes really well is that we can love our kids unconditionally (as well as humans can), but they can still receive the message that our love for them is based on their performance. It takes a conscious effort to make sure this is not the case and it is CRITICAL to our children that we do.

  6. Jeannine on

    (And Nan, I think your comments are spot on.)

  7. Jeannine, thx for the book recommend. I will definitely check into Alfie Kohn!
    Doulosophi (Love the username, BTW!), have you ever heard of Jeff McSwain and his approach to youth ministry? It’s been awhile since I’ve done the youth-group thing, but his ideas sound attractive to me. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&ved=0CDkQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.gci.org%2FYI068&ei=a0lTUOnMIpT02wWPloCgCw&usg=AFQjCNFunQI9U0VoiP-6chLBS6lJipncvA&sig2=W6BCsQeQnxxFs1Xm2lqi_Q

  8. Jerome on

    I appreciate the post and the give and take of the responses! Like the first response, my wife and I have one hour a week at church with 6-10 4th-6th graders, mostly boys. Every week the atmosphere and dynamic is different. A lot of what we do we consider seed planting. As part of that we occasionally ask them to memorize a verse. And sometimes we offer a “prize” for accomplishing that – a $2 bill. Right now we are going thru Galatians 5:22-23 – the fruit of the Spirit. I want them to know that this is Who our Triune God is. I am hoping that they can remember this verse in the future when they might need it, when the Holy Spirit might bring it to their mind at the right time. We are also trying to connect this (and any other verse) to who they are now, in Christ.

  9. Jerome, it sounds like we are on related journeys–trying to live out this theology in our relationships with children. May Papa bless us both on it! I do still think St Paul is right, that there is a place for “train yourself for godliness,” where we engage in regular practices where we intentionally remove distractions and focus our attention on the One who has placed us into this crucible of Divine Love. I think of such spiritual disciplines as ways of forming new neural pathways–new habits of thought–that are necessary on the journey of repentance, the journey which is started, finished, and upheld by Christ, who has himself joined us on the journey. May His neural patterns transform ours!

    • Nan Kuhlman on

      Just an addendum to my previous comment…I do think that when children are younger (as Jerome mentioned his work with 4th-6th graders), there is value in using spiritual disciplines (Bible verse memorization, etc.). However, by the time they are teens, they do not respond as well to these practices (at least, in my limited experience). I find it more effective to speak of God as I see Him interacting with the teen in his/her own life, helping them to notice God’s continual presence and affirmation as being one of His beloved children.


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