One of the more radical things Jesus ever did was redefine family. To the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus offers this radical invitation: “You must be born again.” Jesus means, in reality, we must be born a second time into the family of God. And when we accept this invitation, we have a foot in our earthly family and a foot in our kingdom-of-God family.
Youth ministers experience this duality as well. We partner with young people’s families yet also help teenagers find their role in God’s family. In addition, our group becomes a type of family itself, filled with imperfect members on a mission to serve Jesus, one another, and the world.
Surveys show that young people crave time with their parents and families. Research also shows that parents are the #1 influence on kids’ faith. Yet many teenagers struggle with broken or dysfunctional family relationships. As we work with and honor kids’ parents, we set examples of godly interaction and respect. And, in the process, we have the privilege of ministering to adults as well as to young people.
Kids Long for Interaction
When asked about their connections with their parents, Christian teenagers said:
- Spending time with my parents is one of my favorite things to do. (52% agreed)
- I’m around my parents a lot—going to events and activities and commitments—but we rarely have long, enjoyable conversations. (40% agreed)
- My family is very supportive about my relationship with Christ and is great about helping me grow closer to Jesus. (85% agreed)
- My friends have had more of an impact than my parents in helping me grow in my relationship with Christ. (64% disagreed)
- Most parents think their kids secretly wish their jobs weren’t so demanding so they could spend more time together. But the truth is that kids simply wish their parents were less stressed and tired.
- Today’s parents spend lots of time with their kids, but it’s often dominated by rushing from one commitment to another. Galinsky says: “Not only is the amount of time the parents spend with their kids important, but what happens in that time is also important…And particularly important to young people is that there’s time to hang around together.”
- Galinsky says most kids are clamoring to loop back to their parents while simultaneously pushing them away. “Even if they push us away,” says Galinsky, “they want to be with us…We thought of development as kind of a straight line toward independence. But all through development, there’s separation and connection…they go hand in hand.”
- Only a third of kids believe their parents are engaged in their lives enough to pursue them well. One teenager told Galinsky, “I want my parents to ask me about my day and care about what I answer.”
The upshot: Most kids simply want to be pursued passionately and seen well by adults who don’t have to love them but do anyway.
Parents Have the Biggest Influence
In its “College Transition Project,” the Fuller Youth Institute made these intriguing findings about the role of parents and family when it comes to an enduring, “sticky” faith.
Truth #1: Parents are usually the most important spiritual influence in their kids’ lives. While there’s power in adult mentoring, it’s impossible to point to a faith factor that’s more significant than teenagers’ parents.
Sociologist Dr. Christian Smith says,
Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.”
Of course there are exceptions. Your own faith might be vastly different than your parents’ faith. Plus, we’ve met plenty of parents whose kids end up all over the faith spectrum. But parents are more than an initial launching pad for their kids’ faith journeys—they continue to shape them as ongoing companions and guides.
Truth #2: Most parents miss out on opportunities to talk about faith with their kids.
According to a nationwide study by the Search Institute, just one out of eight kids (12 percent) has a regular dialogue with their mom about faith issues. The percentage is far lower (5 percent) for dads. One more interesting stat: Approximately one out of 10 (9 percent) of teenagers participate in regular Bible reading and devotions with their family. When it comes to matters of faith, mum’s usually the word at home.
Truth #3: The best discussions about faith happen not just when parents ask questions, but when parents share their own experiences, too. That relatively small group of parents who do talk with their kids about faith tend to default to rote questions that only skim the surface:
- What did you talk about in church today?
- How was youth group?
- What did you think of the sermon?
Depending on the personality and mood of the teenager, responses usually range from a grunt to “the usual.” Not very satisfying for the parent or the kid. But research shows that asking these questions can pay off. Even more, a sticky faith is dependent on parents also sharing about their own faith. In other words, parents shouldn’t merely interview their kids; they need to discuss their own faith journey and all of its ups and downs, too.
Everyday Faith Discussions
Parents can weave faith conversations through the everyday events of life, during meals and while watching TV shows or movies. Here are a bunch of practical ideas you can leverage to help parents and kids talk about faith together.
- Give parents regular updates on youth culture. Parents are eager for resources that can help them better understand and relate to their kids. For parents confused by their kids’ behavior, monthly tips or resources you email can both alleviate their anxiety and help them know how to better talk with their kids. Check out Walt Mueller’s excellent culture resources at Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.
- Debrief big events with parents in person. Tim Nielson, the youth pastor at Grace Chapel in Denver, decided he wanted to help his parents better debrief the annual winter retreat with their kids. So he left the retreat one hour early to meet parents at his church an hour before the kids arrived. He took this hour to share the spiritual highlights of the weekend and give parents questions they could ask their kids related to the Scriptures covered during the retreat. As a bonus, since parents showed up an hour early, Tim and his team didn’t have to wait around for parents who were late to pick up their kids.
- Email debriefs as the second best option. Often it’s not feasible for you to leave a major event early to debrief with parents (if you’re driving the church bus, it’s best not to delegate that to one of the kids). If you don’t have a chance to meet with parents, send them a simple debrief sheet the day you get back with a summary of what God was doing in the lives of their kids, along with a few targeted (and natural-sounding) questions they can ask them.
- Encourage parents to check in with you. The more parents know what’s happening in their kids’ lives, the better their conversations will be. Without betraying any kids’ confidences, welcome parents to touch-base with you periodically so you can share how you see God working in their teenager’s life, as well as any concerns you might have. Some youth ministries are even encouraging parents to schedule “Parent/Teacher Conferences” with the youth pastor, just like they do at their kids’ school.
- Take the initiative with parents. Often the only time parents hear from us is when their kids are causing problems. So build time into your calendar for proactive encouragement—call or send parents emails letting them know what’s happening with their teenagers, empowering them to ask better questions as they talk with their kids.
- Ask parents to share their testimonies with your ministry. One urban youth leader regularly invites parents of her kids to share their testimonies with the entire youth ministry. Not only does this make it more likely for that parent to have deeper conversations with their own teenager afterwards, it also motivates other kids to go a bit deeper with their own parents.
Your kids can be a catalyst for their parents’ faith. While you don’t want to pressure them or guilt them into feeling like it’s up to them to “convert” their parents, you can help your teenagers impact their parents’ trajectory by asking them questions like these:
- What’s God doing with your mom?
- What signs of openness are you seeing in your stepdad?
Kids who don’t come from Christian families should be at the top of your list of those who need intentional mentoring and connection to intergenerational relationships. Caring adults can help provide the spiritual scaffolding these kids need to grow. In most cases, non-Christian parents also still very much want to know about the other adults involved in their kids’ lives too, so don’t skimp on communicating with them.
One way to recognize the value of parents’ role in their teenagers’ spiritual lives is by establishing a family ministry at your church. Ben Freudenburg, co-author of The Family-Friendly Church, provides this definition of family ministry:
Family ministry is really about building positive relationships between people. For instance, between couples, mom and dad, siblings, and their extended relationships. It’s about giving them the tools and knowledge and the attitudes to be in relationship together, to sustain family. Then, as you think about it as a Christian, we’re helping them sustain those relationships in a Christ-like manner.”
Freudenburg adds that churches need to be “intentional marriage- and family-forming centers.” That involves parent education, helping stepfamilies be all they can be for a lifetime, developing biblical cultures around sexuality and money management—really equipping the home to be the center of faith and life formation. After all, Freudenburg says,
He offers these additional insights about implementing a family ministry at church:
- The senior pastor has to really be passionate about it and be willing to move in that direction.
- Staff have to be re-trained in what it means to be about ministry to today’s family. You can’t just take a box of family life materials and call it family ministry. Those are great boxes, but unless you understand the dynamics and the knowledge, it’s just another program.
- It takes a lifespan. If you’ve implemented these processes in your congregation, by the time a child is 12 they’re so ingrained in it that you’re not fighting the parents anymore. It takes about four to six years to begin changing the culture. That’s because they’ve connected to the concept that they are the primary teachers of the faith, and they love it. So you still have to keep the old program going, and you have to kind of build the new one and let them kind of grow out of it.
- Another fruit is to see families become whole. To watch families actually overcome the crises in their life and end up whole, rather than splintered, because we’ve equipped them—that’s exciting. It’s also exciting to see kids begin thinking about lifelong mates from a Christian perspective because they’ve been struggling through this with their parents. Kids will say, “I want to be like my mom and dad’s marriage,” rather than “I don’t want to be anything like them.”
- Most of us in youth ministry have not yet been parents of teenagers. And it’s hard for us to imagine what that’s like. Parents are often coming from a place of their own need—there’s a lot of fear wrapped up in raising (and discipling) an adolescent. And so they bring this anxiety to the table, and we feel like they’re complaining or attacking us. The truth is, they have a weight about their own kids that we’ll never feel. They’re going to be worried about their kids 10 years from now in ways we never will. When parents have that level of commitment, we hope they care enough to raise issues. But sometimes we take that as an attack on us.
- The ministry of presence is huge—for parents to feel like they’ve got somebody on their side. Often I think we’re trying to get parents to get with our program when, in fact, they need us to support them more than we need them to support us. I think our challenge is to find ways to listen deeply to what’s going on with them. When you don’t return phone calls and emails, that communicates to parents that their needs or input isn’t valuable. What would happen if the average youth director said, “I’m going to take a lunch out of every week and take a dad or mom out—just to listen to what’s going on”? And I want to end that conversation with, “How can we walk with you? How can we give you support while you’re doing this?” You know, you have 50 of those conversations in a year and I think you’re going to feel the weight of what a parent is feeling.
- If we’re investing and creating the right sort of culture so parents virally infect other parents with the good news about what’s going on in our ministry, that’s an investment we’ll always get back. If the typical youth worker spent two hours a week investing in knowing parents’ names, meeting with a few, talking on the phone, and checking in with “How’s Johnny doing?” that actually yields more margin for us because the parents become our advocates rather than our critics.
- There is a time to expand the circle of influence in our kids’ lives and surround them with other disciplers. The chances of parents doing more spiritual nurture for their kids when they’re teenagers than when they were younger is pretty slim. So I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to get parents to do more and try harder. We need to be architecting a constellation of relationships around kids so they’ve got six or eight adults—the parent passes on the baton so the kid knows what it’s like to be a part of a lifelong faith community. The phrase I like is “stacking the stands”—using that picture from Hebrews 12. We want to stack the arena so that when kids leave our ministry, they sense the stands are filled with 10 to 20 to 50 adults who are cheering for them. That doesn’t just happen naturally.
Ways to Connect
When we asked youth leaders to brainstorm great ideas for connecting with parents, here’s a sampler of what they came up with:
- Family movie night at church—Serve popcorn and drinks, have families sit together, then stay afterward to answer a few discussion questions about the film.
- Parent/child ministry teams—Pair a student and his or her parents for “regular” ministry activities in your church—for example, reading a scripture passage together in your worship service.
- Questions for Take Your Child to Work Day—Before the next Take Your Child to Work day, give parents a simple resource to help them talk about their vocation in the context of God’s calling on their life. And give them questions that can stimulate discussion during the day.
- Hobby clubs—Plan intergenerational gatherings for parents and students interested in a shared hobby—cooking, photography, sculpture, video gaming, painting, scrapbooking, car repair, or home decorating, for example.
- Mother/daughter discipleship—Use a book such as John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating as a “roadmap” for a weekly or monthly mother/daughter gathering focused on shared discipleship. They do something fun together once a month (a field trip, for example), then gather for a book discussion time once a month.
- Parent bulletin board—Keep parents updated with announcements, photos, and opportunities to serve.
- Family retreat weekend—Kids and their parents participate in parallel experiences, studies, and conversations, giving them the basis for a common discussion.
- Father/son shopping trip—Have fathers take their sons when they shop for a Valentine’s Day or birthday gift for their wife. Have them involve their sons in picking the gift. Give dads a few simple discussion questions to spark conversation about romance, serving sacrificially, and treating women with respect.
- Mother/Daughter Scrapbooking—On the second Saturday of the month, moms and daughters go on a field trip together to a location tied to a theme. Have them take pictures using their smartphone, a digital camera, or a throwaway camera. On the last Saturday of the month, have them bring their pictures to work on scrapbook pages together. After nine months they’ll have a full scrapbook of activities.
- Family service project—Every quarter plan a family outreach event—serve at a homeless shelter, or adopt a disadvantaged family, or clean up a city block together.
- Barbecue University for fathers and sons—Plan a Saturday afternoon “basics of barbecue” time where sons get hands-on instruction and everyone gets to enjoy the “fruits of their labor” afterward.
- Father/son fly-fishing lesson or hunter safety course—Some of these courses last several weeks—remember to give dads a few great discussion starters that are tied to their experience.
- Christmas shopping for the needy—Organize a shopping trip for parents and teenagers—to buy Christmas gifts for the needy. Encourage families to adopt families that are similar to their own. Or shop together to fill boxes for Operation Christmas Child.
- Family creed—Have families brainstorm a “Family Creed,” then have them present it, and the convictions behind it, at a regular youth group gathering.
- Mini-golf—On a Saturday, have families design a mini-golf course inside the church, then spend the rest of the time playing the course.
- Quarterly parent support groups—Every three months, bring in a good speaker who can focus on a relevant topic for families. Have kids and parents discuss the topic during and after the presentation.
Parent-Friendly Junior High Ministry
Parents of elementary-aged kids have it relatively easy: They’re mostly caregivers and cops. They provide for their children’s needs and exist to serve and protect them. Pretty basic. Parents of high schoolers have it rather easy, too: They’re mostly coaches and cheerleaders. They offer vital input and instruction and then cheer on their kids. Pretty basic. But parents of junior highers? They play the role of caregiver meets cop, meets coach, meets cheerleader, meets cop, meets coach, meets caregiver meets cop, meets cheerleader, meets… You get the point! No wonder many parents of junior highers feel overwhelmed and underqualified. You can help them with these simple ideas:
- Work with, not against, parents. A youth group can unknowingly cause tension at home. This happens when we pack the calendar without considering school schedules and naturally busy times for families. It happens when we have so many events that parents have to take out a small loan so their kids can participate. It happens when we make spiritual proclamations that most parents aren’t even living up to. (“Good Christians don’t miss church.” “If you love Jesus, you won’t listen to that kind of music.”) It happens a lot. Look for ways to make parents’ lives easier, not harder.
- “Been there, done that!” Create a team of parents who’ve already navigated the junior high years with their own kids and are willing to grab coffee with one or two newbies. To people in the midst of the storm, reassurance that everything will be okay is a welcomed gift.
- Give parents your cell number. I’m serious! Invite them to call any time they have a concern or question, or need encouragement or advice. Most parents will never take you up on the offer, but some might call—and those will be powerful ministry moments.
- Point families toward help. Keep a dozen of your favorite parenting books on hand. Memorize a few great Web sites. Have a list of professional counselors for referrals. For starters, here are a few resources:
Young people hunger for someone to listen to them, challenge them, and believe in them. And not all teenagers have that resource through a parent. That’s why just “doing life” together is also a “best practice” in ministry. Here are some insights for youth workers:
- We play an important role in single-parent homes. Kids are looking up to us right now. We can be a role model, parent figure, and resource for them today.
- Embrace opportunities to pour into spiritually orphaned teenagers. Even if you’re drawn to crowds and energized by large-group events, realize that you can make a life-altering impact for one young person—if you can just see the opportunity and embrace that role. Driving a student home after an overnighter might have even more spiritual-growth potential than the overnighter itself.
- Ask forgiveness for blind spots. Pray that God will forgive you for the times you’ve overlooked your responsibilities as a spiritual leader for your youth group kids. You need God’s help to be present with them and to care for them as he, their heavenly Father, does.
What Young People Are Looking For
- They’re seeking a place to belong.
- Many come from dysfunctional families; they’re looking for a stable environment and people to love them.
- Many have experienced abuse, and all are aware of it. They’re looking for people who do not take advantage of them physically or sexually.
- They live with repressed emotions. They’re seeking a support group that understands their emotions and accepts them for who they are and who they want to become.
- They’re seeking a sexual identity. Young adults have witnessed the severe consequences of a twisted morality in their lives. With sexually transmitted diseases on the rise, they’re seeking ways to remain sexually pure.
- They demonstrate a lack of commitment—yet they’re willing to join most anything that will address the needs in their lives. They have no brand loyalty, and that includes their “church brand.”
- They want personal contact. They want to know the people they’re sitting next to in class or church. They want to know if these people can be friends.
- • They experience more stress and need to learn how to relax and enjoy life.
- • They’re looking for ways to live a traditional life in nontraditional ways. They may postpone marriage and children until they establish their careers. Being well-off financially is more important to them than developing a meaningful faith.
- • They have a hunger for spiritual truth. They need to internalize their faith, but many are giving less energy to developing their spiritual lives than other pursuits.
- • They’re highly skeptical but generally respond to people who are authentic with them.
- • Their time is squeezed, therefore they spend their time more cautiously—they’ll quickly dump something that starts to feel like a time-waster.
- • They want to discover their strengths and weaknesses—to get a clearer picture of who they are and how they relate to and affect their world.
- • They’re creating a new family every day.
Check out GROUP Magazine interview with Jeff Wallace here.