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Extending Your Youth Ministry to Families

You cannot get second things by putting them first. You can only get second things by putting first things first.

C.S. Lewis

When I moved to Nashville almost 10 years ago, my new position came with a curious title, “Associate Minister to Youth and Their Families.” “I like it,” I said to the senior minister. But underneath my agreement, I wondered, “How in the world and I supposed to do THAT?”

We knew we wanted to build a youth ministry that went beyond the traditional programming that isolates kids from adults. We determined to build a strategy that focused first on undergirding the entire youth program with proactive Christian parents and a well-stocked cheering (and praying) section of mature Christian adults in the church. The emphasis was not on creating a different program but a different foundation.

Over the years, I’ve heard my fair share of objections to building “Family-Based Youth Ministry”–from lack of time, to lack of expertise, to simply not wanting to deal with troublesome parents. But the benefits are too obvious to ignore.

Benefit #1: Getting Beyond the Reinventing-the-Wheel-Revolving-Door-Youth-Ministry-Syndrome.

It has become standard operating procedure for churches to go through youth ministers like disposable diapers (the soiled variety). In informal discussions with church leaders about their youth programs, I hear over and over again, “We are in a rebuilding stage. After our last youth pastor left, we have struggled…”

Churches get trapped in the revolving door syndrome when they make the youth leader the lynch pin for the entire youth ministry, forgetting that no one has as big a stake in the junior highers than their parents. Not long ago, a mother came to me with an idea for our junior high program. The mother was nervous. Apparently, in her previous church, the youth pastor had historically stonewalled her ideas. After she told me her idea, I asked if she would spearhead an effort to it a reality. She pulled together 10 other parents and put on a fine event. All it cost me was an hour for lunch (she even paid), and it saved me the untold hours it would have taken me to pull off the event myself.

Benefit #2: Exposing our Teenagers to the Most Important Sources of Long-Lasting Faith Development: Parents and an Extended Family of Mature Christian Adults
Most youth workers know by experience how powerful (for good or for evil) a parent’s influence can be. For a young person to make it to maturity as a Christian, he or she needs a cloud of witnesses, not a mass production system. Our traditional youth programs focus so strongly on establishing “community” among youth that our kids are typically robbed of the opportunity to get to know real live adults who are living out their faith without the benefit of a youth group.

Benefit #3: Providing a Lasting Extended Christian Family for Kids who Don’t Come from Christian Homes
One of the strangest objections to Family-Based Youth Ministry has been that it leaves out the kids who don’t come from Christian homes. In reality, it’s the traditional youth ministries that are most prone to orphan kids. They carry young people until they graduate from the youth group, then leave them with limited ties to the world of Christian adults. Family-Based Youth Ministry, on the other hand, seeks to provide an extended Christian family of other adults in the church (i.e., Christian parents on loan) for those kids who don’t have Christian parents of their own.

But how?

If you are like most people who hear these ideas for the first time, you probably have just one question on your mind: “Okay, smart guy, if the way we’ve always done youth ministry doesn’t work anymore, where do we start?”

First the bad news – I’ve tried enough of the “quick and easy steps to an effective ministry” to know that youth ministry has never been anything like “quick” or “easy.” But here’s the good news: Though I have no foolproof road map, I do have a compass. And I can tell you some of the essentials you’ll need.

  1. Establish a Dream Team that is committed to the idea of Family-Based Youth Ministry. But don’t expect it to be established in the next six weeks. This kind of ministry typically does not begin with a single, explosive. A compelling (with adults and youth together) can often be a RESULT, but it is seldom the starting point.

    Creating a dream team may be easier than you think. You can begin simply by asking people to pray about Family-Based Youth Ministry, sharing books and articles that can help the group begin thinking in new ways. Listen to enough people to be sure that there is enough consensus behind a change to give you the freedom to move forward.

  2. Try Something New – Once a team is in place, ask them to help you pull off a single, parent/youth event. It could be a Sunday School class, a dinner with a speaker, a picnic. The great news with this first event is that even it is less than successful (this is still youth ministry, remember), the dream team can then get back together to determine what will work in your setting. Keep returning the compass, and the course will become clear.
  3. Go Slowly – As I have watched groups all over the country try to implement this type of ministry, I have become convinced that Family-Based Youth Ministry will not work like a microwave – it’s not fast and it’s not particularly hot (at least initially). Churches all around the country are beginning bold experiments to bring parents into the mainstream of youth ministry. Things will not likely be neat and tidy. But the long-term impact on the faith of our teenagers will be well worth the mess.

The message I try to give youth ministers is not that they need to abandon what they are doing, but that BEFORE they focus on programming, the first priority should be to insure that a solid foundation is in place.

As a matter of fact, if a church is considering asking its already-strung-out youth director to take on the ADDITIONAL ministry of working with the families of young people, my advice is DON’T DO IT! Adding “ministry to families of teenagers” to a youth leader’s job description will drastically complicate his or her work. This kind of ministry is much too complex and much too important to be placed as #53 on the “to do list” of a harried youth leader.

I intentionally called my book on families in youth ministry, Family Based Youth Ministry. Parents of youth can be a marvelous FOUNDATION for youth ministry. But families ministry is a lousy appendage to youth ministry. I am no handy-man expert, but I know that if I use foundation materials (like tons of concrete) on my roof, my house will cave in. To lay responsibility for family ministry “on top of” the other things a youth minister is required to do is a prescription for disaster.

If, on the other hand, a church is committed to building a lasting ministry to teenagers, I can think of no foundation (other than Jesus Christ, of course) that compares to the undergirding strength and power of parents and the extended family of other adults in the church. Three long-term benefits of this kind of ministry are immediately clear:

With many fits and starts, I have developed over these years two foundational principles that have guided my work with teenagers and their parents: First, I have focused on finding ways to empower parents to provide intentionally for the Christian nurture of their children. “Faithful Families” parenting courses, vision-sharing meetings with parents at the beginning of the year, and periodic parents’ newsletters are all ideas that helped us move toward this goal. Our second foundational principle has been to provide multiple settings in which kids can make connections with their extended family of mature Christian adults in the church. Matching each youth an adult prayer partner, providing annual parent-youth Sunday School classes, and developing an annual parent/youth kick-off celebration have all become central strategies of what we have grown to call “Family Based Youth Ministry.”

I enjoyed my years as an expert on teenagers.

When parents came to me for counsel or the church leaders looked to me for advice, it was nice to have the detachment and authority that being an “expert” brings. But with a growing youth ministry staff and increasing responsibilities in other areas, it had been, in the pointed words of the little girl in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “a long time since I smelled the inside of a real school bus.”

But all that change a year and a half ago when my son joined the junior high group.

Now that I’m a parent of a junior higher, I can’t help but see youth ministry through radically different lenses. I realize now that what I want my son to gain from our youth ministry is exactly what parents of junior highers I have worked with for years have wanted. I don’t want another program to fill up my son’s calendar or another place for him to be isolated from “interfering adults.” In fact, I’ve come to believe that youth ministries that habitually separate kids from parent-types may actually be more a part of problem than the solution.

But, some might argue, youth directors simply don’t have time to work with the families of youth. It’s true that between the Banana Bash and the junior high girl who’s chronically in crisis, little time is left to add anything else.

There is little debate today about the power of parents in the formation of their children’s faith. Certainly, there are studies and statistics aplenty to make this case, but
I check out this theory periodically when I lead Family Based Youth Ministry seminars around the country. Typically, I ask groups of Christian youth leaders, “How many of you came from homes in which there was at least one Christian parent?” I have yet to meet a group in which more than five percent of the group came from non-Christian homes.

Our kids don’t need another Messiah. They need a community of Christian adults who are willing to be instruments of the only true Messiah.

In this new model, the youth ministry cannot afford to be like the officer who ran so far ahead of his troops that they mistook him for the enemy and shot him.

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Extending Your Youth Ministry to Fami...

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