"Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children, and Mainline Churches" by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth

Sean Michael Lucas
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2002

In Growing Up Protestant, Margaret Lamberts Bendroth offers a fascinating account of northern mainline Protestant attitudes about families and children in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bendroth, professor of history at Calvin College, begins her account with the domestication of the family in the North during the mid-nineteenth century. As programs of catechesis were replaced by Sunday schools influenced by Horace Bushnell's Christian Nature, and the later educational insights of John Dewey, mainline Protestants shifted their attention from training children in the faith to developing personalities to meet the demands of modern life.

Concomitant with this shift in religious training goals was the Protestant exaltation of the family as the chief institution ordained by God for the salvation of children, which, in turn, led to the denigration of the church and its ministry of Word and sacrament. By the 1930s, however, ecclesiastical experts influenced by social science and psychology became convinced that parental nurture would not achieve the goal of psychological adjustment to modernity. In response, denominational leaders developed a plethora of educational programs, light on doctrine but heavy on moralism, designed to replace family nurture as the chief influence in the child's "salvation." But parents failed to heed the denominational bureaucrats: instead, in the 1950s and 1960s they increasingly allowed their children to abandon the church, following the dictates of pop psychologists rather than ministers. The result was the increasing absence of theological awareness in the mainline church as well as the precipitous decline of adherence to church teaching over the past thirty years.

Though she does not draw out the moral of the story, Bendroth's account points to the mainline church's failure to prioritize doctrinal understanding and ecclesiastical centrality as the chief culprits for its decline. As a result, this book raises several issues for confessing evangelicals seeking to pass on the faith to their children. First, what is the relation of the household to the church? Whereas some evangelicals are drawn to a home-based mentality where the household is school and church as well as family, Bendroth's work suggests that evangelicals need to be careful. To be sure, the visible church consists of household heads and their children; still, the church does have a disciplinary role in the life of the family, and elders work with and through household heads in order to discipline noncommuning members. In short, although the family is the basic integer of the church, the church at times has priority over the family because Christ gave the keys of the kingdom to the church, not to individual families.

A second question is how should Christian parents nurture their children and pass on the faith? Bendroth's work should give encouragement to the recent revival of catechesis, represented in publications such as Starr Meade's Training Hearts, Teaching Minds (P&R, 2000), Donald Van Dyken's Rediscovering Catechism (P&R, 2000), and Tom J. Nettles's Teaching Truth, Training Hearts (Calvary Press, 1998). If the downfall of the mainline was due to lack of the doctrinal instruction of the young, then contemporary Protestants should heed the lesson and ensure that their church's educational programs emphasize not simply Bible facts, atomized verses, and moral virtues, but doctrinal knowledge as well-mental furniture that will help young minds conceptualize the depths of their sinfulness and the wonders of the Redeemer and his salvation.

In all, Growing Up Protestant is an intellectually satisfying and compelling book. Full of insight and nuance, Bendroth successfully demonstrates the failures of recent mainline Protestant reflection on religious training of children and subtly urges contemporary believers toward the recovery of older ways of raising their children in the "nurture and admonition of the Lord."

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church