Spiritual Upward Mobility?

J.D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, is a hard-hitting and immensely practical book for those of us in pastoral ministry. Vance identifies major sources of the depression, hopelessness, and substance abuse many of the people we're trying to reach are experiencing. If we can read this book without identifying ways to communicate the gospel so that the person—the whole person: body, mind, and spirit—is changed, we’re not carrying out our mission correctly.

Hillbilly Elegy also raises interesting parallels with raising Christian kids. Throughout his story, Vance notes that his experience wasn’t all that unique. Most kids in his community had families plagued by relational instability, drug and alcohol use, incarceration, and nearly inescapable poverty. Where his experience diverged was the influence of his grandparents. He writes, “despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me” (60). While most kids drowned under the overwhelming brokenness around them, Mamaw and Papaw Vance taught J.D. the value of hard work and determination, which enabled him to succeed in school and life.

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J.D.’s life at home largely inoculated him against the forces at work around him. I wonder if our kids can say the same. The forces at work around them may not be as ominous as those in Middletown, Ohio, (our kids only face pressures toward unbelief, sexual promiscuity and experimentation, or irreverence). But what force is at work in our family? What message are they hearing from us? Do our kids hear about the triumph of the Lord Christ over all his foes, or the defeat of the church by the forces in the world? Is the gospel of Jesus the aroma of the home? Is the Spirit knitting us to them not only with the natural affection appropriate between parent and child, but with the love that only He can produce?

Believe it or not, the message they hear at home largely influences the way our children develop in their faith.1 “Training up a child in the way they should go” generally ensures that “when they are old they won’t depart from it.” They’ll either grow up to be as spiritually impoverished as we are, or building on the spiritual progress they make while at home, grow up to exceed us in their walk with Jesus. Is there such a thing as spiritual upward mobility?


  1. Of course, the uncomfortable reality is that J.D.’s family situation was an exception in his working-class neighborhood. Every kid isn’t born into the ideal spiritual environment either. This is where the men and women of church must become a second family, a home away from home, for children and students in spiritually impoverished homes.  ↩