Joshua succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites. Initially a soldier, he became a spy, then a servant or assistant to Moses, then second-in-command, and finally Moses’ successor. An outstanding leader, who was visited by the “Commander of the Army of the Lord,” probably the pre-incarnate Christ.
Joshua understood succession and, and knowing that, after all the battles that lay ahead, people would settle down into much more routine living and farming, wanted to ensure that the memory of what they were about to do would be retained. So he told each tribal leader to bring a rock, or “stone,” out of the River Jordan as they crossed, and then used it to build a memorial in Gilgal (Josh 4:20) with the explicit purpose that when their children asked what the pile of stones was for, the parents could say, “This is where we crossed over the River Jordan on dry ground.”
Hopefully an element of faith would thus be transmitted. The transmission of faith today, however, is not always given such importance. David Voas’ research has shown that Christian parents today seem less concerned that their offspring should follow them in their faith. It is visibly true that in many churches not all the children of the leaders, ordained or lay, either come to church with them, or follow them in their commitment to Christ. If Paul’s injunction to Timothy about the appointment of “bishops” (“keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way,” 1 Tim 3:4) was strictly followed, some church leaders today would never have been appointed.
What is true of leadership is also true across the many other church families who worship on a Sunday. The Langham Survey found that only two-fifths of U.K. Christian parents regularly pray with their children. Sunday football, music practice, family outings, and peer pressure all combine to tear young people away from church. Numbers in Sunday School have been declining over the past 50 years, although perhaps not as drastically over the past five years. The percentage of people under the age of 15 in church on a Sunday dropped from 26% in 1979 to 19% in 2005.
How long does it take to lose a generation? Just one generation. “That whole generation [Joshua’s and the elders’ who outlived him] was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work He had done for Israel” (Judg 2:10), is one of the saddest verses in Scripture. The appalling chaos, rivalry, idolatry, and cynicism that followed in the century or two of the Judges is vividly recorded. Believers then became few and isolated and brave to hold fast to the old traditions. As Archbishop Carey said in 1999, “The church is always one generation away from extinction.”
We too are fast losing—some would say have already lost—the next generation. The consequences are longitudinal—fewer Christian children, likely means fewer Christian teenagers, which likely means fewer Christian students, which likely means fewer Christians in their twenties, and, ultimately, fewer Christian families, with thus fewer Christian children. The cycle repeats and quickly deteriorates. Internal transmission within the family is a key priority today, but are we in danger of parents blaming the church for not doing enough to keep children, and the church blaming the parents for the low level of commitment in family life?
Matt Summerfield, the leader of Urban Saints (previously called Crusaders) often says, “I want to reach as many young people today as we can for Christ, so that in 20 years’ time they will be producing Christian children for the next generation.” Few seem to have that vision.