Barnabas Piper is the son of famed pastor John Piper, but he wants you to know he’s more than that. In his provocative new book, “The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity,” he shares honest insights from his childhood. So honest, in fact, that John Piper writes in the book’s foreword:
You will ask, “Was it painful for me to read this book?” The answer is yes…First, it exposes sins and weaknesses and imperfections in me. Second, it is not always clear which of its criticisms attach to me and the church I love. Third, this is my son, and he is writing out of his own sorrows.
Here, Barnabas discusses the false intimacy he experienced growing up, what he thought of his brother’s excommunication, and the role his mother played in the household.
RNS: You say that growing up the son of a well-known pastor was like “being a sinner on display.” What is the worst sin you got caught in? Any arrests or pregnancies?
BP: I was a pretty good kid growing up, at least in terms of illegal activity and the like. The big things I got in trouble for were mainly being argumentative–with everyone–and lying. I got myself in some sticky spots both ways. My biggest struggles came after I moved out of the house when the little lies of childhood stopped being so little.
RNS: You describe how pastors’ kids often experience a “false intimacy.” What did this look like for you? Do you still struggle with this?
BP: I thought I was close to God because I knew all the answers. I could answer every question small group leaders or youth pastors threw at me about relationship with God. But I had fooled myself into thinking that was the same as relationship with Jesus. I still struggle with this to a degree. The difference is that now I have a relationship with Christ, so those hollow or dry aspects of knowing God are easier to spot and repair or repent of.
RNS: Did you experience pressure to follow your dad in ministry?
BP: Yes and no. My parents never pushed me a particular direction, but I picked up a sort of tacit understanding of vocational ministry as a higher calling. I’m not sure if it was from them or just the way the church taught–or didn’t teach–about gifts and vocation.
RNS: What was the biggest negative you experienced growing up in the Piper household? Greatest positive?
BP: The biggest negative was not connecting with God in a personal way. My dad’s view of, and relationship with, God is so big and so powerful that it looked like the only way to come to God. But it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t until I was out of college and things kind of fell apart for me that I encountered God’s grace and the person of Jesus in a profound way on my own.
There were lots of positives too. The biggest one is that my parents loved me and have always been there for me.
RNS: What is one thing people would be shocked to learn about the Piper household?
BP: Depends on who you ask. Those who are huge fans might be surprised to know that our family has a lot of tensions and quirks. We have dysfunction and conflict. We don’t always get along very well. It’s not the idyllic repository of peace and knowledge they might have painted a picture of in their heads.
Those who see him as a heavy-handed fire breather would be surprised to know that he loves movies like “What About Bob” and is fiercely competitive. He even got a yellow card for berating referee at one of my brothers’ soccer games one time.
RNS: An English teacher once told me that she expected more of me because she knew I came from a good home. Is the idea that we should have a higher standard for our leaders and their families Biblical or even fair in your opinion? Should there be two standards–one for the “called” and one for “regular” people?
BP: The short answer is no, it’s not fair, at least not at the personal level. It’s reasonable to hold people to the standard of their official position (like pastors), but to hold people to a higher personal standard because of their background or the position of their parents is just stupid. In our daily lives, all believers are held to the standard of “be Holy as I am holy,” so to craft a different set of moral or behavioral expectations is unbiblical.
RNS: A while back, your dad rather publicly enacted church discipline on your brother, and even excommunicated him from the church. Did you support this at the time?
BP: I understood. “Support” might be a bit too strong because it was too sad to be supportive of. My brother at that time was not a believer, by his own admission. So it was a case of removal from church membership after years of trying to restore him. Also to say my dad did the discipline isn’t quite fair. It was a decision by a board of elders. In all, I understood why it happened based on the church’s membership standards, but I always felt the sense that it had to do with the “manage your household” criteria out of 1 Timothy too. And that made it feel like something unique to a family in our position.
RNS: A “regular” kid would never have had to face what your brother did. Was this one of the negative side effects of being a pastor’s kid?
BP: Absolutely, especially the public nature of it. If a child of a regular member had been excommunicated it may have been voted on by the church, but outsiders would never know about it. The pastor’s family, especially that of a nationally known pastor, is always under scrutiny. It makes hard things more pronounced and amplifies pressure. People still ask me about my brother now, and it’s been 11 or 12 years. That’s kind of ridiculous.
RNS: In my home, my mother often worked to soften the blows of being a pastor’s kid. Describe the role your mom played.
BP: My mom made the home a place my dad didn’t have to stress about because she ran it so well. She was my dad’s partner in ministry in a behind-the-scenes way and never ever disparaged his ministry. She was a good mom who took care of us and supported my dad. She is an incredibly strong and steady lady, and that itself relieved some pressure. She didn’t vocally shield us, but her persona and character did to a degree.
RNS: Pastors often carry a heavy burden and it shifts from day to day depending on the state of the church and the season of ministry. Did your parents’ mood change based on what was going on outside of the home?
BP: Both my parents are constant. I’m sure the turmoil at church—and there were some bad seasons—ate at them, but they did a good job not passing that along to us kids. We could pick up on it because kids are intuitive, but my parents were emotionally steady types in the home. They were good about keeping their worried-angry-pensive moods in check at home even when things were rough at church.
RNS: Talk to pastors. What do they need to do to increase the blessings and minimize the burdens of ministry for their children?
The ones that come to mind first are:
Don’t preach. Converse. Your kids hear enough sermons but really want to talk with you.
Don’t pray. Talk to God. Your kids need to see and hear what it means to connect to God, not speak formally to a distant deity.
Have a hobby you can share. Your kids love to be included in your life, and it makes for a wonderful escape form the hard aspects of ministry.