faith and family
The Three-Legged Stool
by Marcus J. Carlson
One of the images that was used often in my own education was the image of the three-legged stool. Three is a good number for Christians, primarily due to the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Great Commandment is to love God, love others and love yourself. A stool with only two legs is not quite strong enough, but having a stool with too many legs is unnecessary. Three brings a great sense of balance. When we think in threes, it is simple and easy to remember as three is not too large a number. I have also found the number three to be valuable as I think about ministry, being in uenced by the use of triangles to describe, de ne and diagram various aspects of ministry in the church. Much of this imagery comes from a couple churches in Shef eld, England.
When thinking about the spiritual formation of children and adolescents, the image of the three-legged stool is also immensely helpful. Building the spiritual life and faith of our children and adolescents can feel like an overwhelming call, so simplifying it truly is a gift. The spiritual and faith formation of your children and adolescents happens primarily in three different contexts, and it is these three contexts that make up the three-legged stool of spiritual formation of children and adolescents. The three contexts are home, church and community.
Parents are the most significant in uence in the life of a child or adolescent. All solid research, as well as natural order and the Biblical story, point to this truth. This does not necessarily mean or translate to parents being the rst, main or majority spiritual in uent in the life of their children, but they certainly are the most signi cant. Children and adolescents spend most of their time either with their family or in school. As a result, the home is a one of the three contexts in which children and adolescents experience their spiritual formation. In order for this leg of the stool to be strong, parents must be intentional. Three of the key ways to keep this leg strong are modeling; engaging in worship, prayer and spiritual life together (inside and outside the home); and making your own growth in discipleship a priority.
The church has long been seen as one of—if not the main source—of spiritual formation, faith and discipleship for children and adolescents. As signi cant as the role of the church has been, the church has not always embraced this role. While the church has always been a source of information in the faith of children and adolescents, it has not always been focused on relationship, discipleship and the overall spiritual formation of the children and adolescents in its midst. While the faith formation, spiritual formation and discipleship should be shaped in part by the church, the church cannot do it alone. It is imperative that we do not farm out the spiritual formation of our children and adolescents to the church alone. The church must also take seriously its role in faith development and formation of children and adolescents. It is a high call and one that cannot be ignored. Three of the key ways to keep this leg strong are mentoring relationships, intergenerational ministry and a strong focus on church as a community of adopted children of God.
This is a broad term for an important, often overlooked and misunderstood leg of the stool. Community includes all the positive, healthy, Christ-centered adults, organizations and environments in the life of a child or adolescent. This might be youth groups, sports teams, scouts, other family members, family friends and other groups, activities and individuals. It also includes the community at large, which even if not having any particular faith value bears responsibility in the faith formation of our children and adolescents. At the very least, each those represented by this leg should be open and supportive, allowing children and adolescents to be exposed to positive spiritual in uences.
In the context of Christian groups or adults, there is a call to assist in the Christian discipleship of the children and adolescents that they encounter. Three of the key ways to keep this leg strong are mentoring relationships, unconditional, healthy concern and support and modeling a strong faith to them. Each of these areas have value and it is futile to assign one more value than another. To assume even that one is primary would be a mistake. It is all a balancing act, both literally and guratively. We often only notice the leg of a stool when it is weak, loose or broken. Even in that moment, we know that leg is still as important as the other two, which are now bearing more of the burden. This analogy may seem confusing or even simplistic, but careful observation, solid research, the nature of Creation and common sense tell us otherwise. Each of these contexts are centered around relationship. Research, experience, the Scripture and our Christian faith all point to the important truth that relationships are central and that most of ministry happens in relationship. When once asked to describe and de ne discipleship, my rst response was to note that discipleship happens life on life. Discipleship, spiritual formation and spiritual growth all happen in the context of relationship.
When I think about this relationship as a parent of two children, one of whom who has started entry into adolescence, I nd myself carefully examining our own three-legged stool for each of our children. As a parent, I know I bear responsibility for each of these three legs, perhaps more signi cantly so because I also serve as a pastor. As both a pastor and a parent, I recognize that I must sincerely ask myself about the strength of each of these legs. Which is the strongest? Which needs tightening? Giving my children the very best environment to grow and thrive, particularly in their faith, is more than a passion, more than a call—it is my absolute, God-designed role as their parent. Perhaps the most important truth in this illustration is that we are all in this together. For the healthy spiritual development of our children and adolescents we all must work together, making discipleship a priority in our homes, churches and all places in which we encounter our children and youth. Discipleship happens life on life. Discipleship happens in relationship.