I’m Chinese. My culture is famous for its “tiger mums” (and dads). Tiger parenting happens when mum and dad push their children to succeed, and push hard.

The assumption behind tiger parenting is that unless mum and dad create and enforce structures of learning and development in the child, their children will never reach their full potential.

The consequence of tiger parenting is that a child’s life is filled to the brim with extra-curricular activities. It’s pretty standard in my culture to have children getting extra tuition from early primary school. Add to that music lessons, swimming, sports, and other parent-enforced hobbies and endeavours, the child’s week is completely filled with activity, with little to no room for recreation. (Unless of course compulsory recreation is also programmed in somehow.)


Tiger Pastoring

Now the purpose of this article isn’t about the merits or problems of this kind of parenting. Those who haven’t come from aspirational migrant families will never really understand what motivates parents of my culture (and others) to push their children so hard. It’s easy to criticise from the outside without really understanding. That’s not what I’m here to do.

What I would like to do is to challenge the assumptions and sound a warning bell to the consequences of this way of thinking. However, not as it’s applied to parenting. For as I look at church life, I now wonder if we’ve been doing this kind of thing in ministry.

It’s not unusual for churches to assume that in order for Christians to mature, they need to follow a certain pathway of development that the church leadership set for them. Now I have no problem with the clarity of ‘pathway thinking’ in our ministries. What I question is our execution of this maturity program and the assumptions it reveals.

What this can look like for a new Christian or a new person at our church is an ever-increasing mix of programs and groups they are encouraged (or expected) to be a part of in order for them to grow.

It’s not unusual for churches to assume that Christians need to follow a certain pathway of development. I have no problem with the clarity of ‘pathway thinking’ in our ministries. What I question is our execution of this maturity program and the assumptions it reveals.

Apart from Sunday gatherings, it’s weekly small groups, and perhaps the monthly or weekly prayer meeting. Add to that one-on-one or extra meetings if you’re a new believer for follow-up, or are being trained in some aspect of Christian ministry. And if you’re in leadership, then there are more meetings, rehearsals (if you’re a muso), and training days, not to mention the time you need to prepare for these ministries. Then in seasons of church mission or other special events, make sure you’re involved in that as well.

For those who have grown up with tiger parenting, this all sounds a bit familiar.

Attacking Assumptions

Now it’s not the busyness and church-programming I want to raise concerns about at this point.[1]

Because I believe they may be symptoms of deeper unquestioned assumptions; the same assumptions that are worth a second-thought about when it comes to tiger parenting.

One key assumption is this: our children and our congregations will not be able to develop, grow, and reach their full potential unless they are participating in the programs and activities that we, their carers, have set for them.

Is this a reasonable, fair, or indeed, a Biblical assumption?

When we look at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians Christians, we read of a very healthy church. Though they were a very young church, they were ‘model Christians’ who were growing in both maturity and gospel impact (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8). They were the kind of church that would make any pastor or church planter very envious.

How much time would you expect they had someone like Paul pastor them, lead them, stay with them, and help them mature? Three years? Five years? Maybe not. Paul was an missionary church planter who very rarely stayed that long. What about one year? Six months?

In Acts 17:2 we read that Paul was in Thessalonica for three sabbaths. Then shortly after the church was founded, he and Silas were chased out by hostile Jews. Three sabbaths is three weeks. Allowing for a bit of extra time, commentators think that it may not have been more than around three months before Paul and his companions were secretly sent away to Berea.

And yet the church in Thessalonica, a few months after this, was in such good shape that Paul could call them ‘model believers’.

Paul was in Thessalonica for three sabbaths. And yet the church in Thessalonica, a few months after this, was in such good shape that Paul could call them ‘model believers’.

Now of course we need to allow for the fact that God was especially at work in them to help them grow in spite of the unusually short time Paul was able to spend with them. This is certainly not a ministry mandate or model for church planting (though many church planters like me would love to leave after a short period of time to go to the next project without having to deal with the mess of a bigger church!).

However this does question our assumption doesn’t it? Does healthy Christian growth require us to apply our model of ‘tiger pastoring’? Or is God powerfully at work by his Spirit, through his Word, so that if his sheep are fed and taught well, and are guarded and cared for by good shepherds, they will grow?

Back to the analogy of parenting, isn’t it healthier to assume that if a child is given his or her basic necessities: food, shelter, clothing, security, schooling, friendships etc., that child will naturally grow and flourish? Could it be that in our well-motivated desire to shepherd our people well, we’ve stopped trusting that Christ will help his people and his body to grow and flourish if the basics are given to them? Corporate worship, faithful teaching and preaching, a church community, and leaders who will guard the truth and fight error. Is there much more that’s needed for healthy Christian growth?

Dumb Sheep?

It’s sometimes said to us as pastor/shepherds that ‘sheep are dumb.’ And, because sheep are dumb, they need to be led. Yes, I agree, they need to be led. But no, our sheep are not dumb. If they have the Spirit of Christ, are truly regenerate, they will recognise their Master’s voice. They will long to hear his Word. They will desire fellowship and community. They will overflow with love for neighbour and the world. It will happen. They will grow. Assuming that sheep are dumb (and children are dumb) is what leads to tiger parenting – of the home and ministry variety.

Consider another way of pastoring. Let’s do the basics (worship, Word, community, mission) and let’s do them well. Let’s assume that God is at work in his people and that they will take the initiative to grow. Let’s declutter our church programs and expectations to give them space to do that. Let’s provide support and scaffolding for them when that happens.

Then let’s step back and see what God our Father is doing to grow his own healthy children.

[1] As usual Steve McAlpine has a bunch of insightful things to say about this and other related matters: https://stephenmcalpine.com/20…

Photos: Berklee Valencia Campus (head), Batara (inset); flickr