In my opinion, Moses should go down as the first youth worker in history. In fact, in Deuteronomy 6 he published the first youth ministry idea book, and it had some pretty good stuff in it, such as: impress these things on your children; talk about them when you sit at home; talk about them while you walk along the road; talk about them at bedtime; and talk about them when you get up in the morning.
If I were reinventing youth ministry, I don’t think I’d have to look too much further than Deuteronomy 6 for a game plan. There are three things in particular that stand out in this passage.
First, the spiritual formation of children wasn’t reserved for the Sabbath day or for special times of corporate worship in the temple or synagogue; it was to take place in the daily routines of life and home. Second, the spiritual formation of children was the responsibility of not only the immediate family, but also the entire faith community. Third, the truth the Israelites were to pass on existed long before the children of Israel were born. The God they were to tell their children about was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Likewise, we have the gospel of Jesus Christ—given to us in the Word of God and preserved and preached by the church for generations—which now must be faithfully passed on to our children in its completeness and without compromise. Reinvented youth ministry, therefore, has to begin by taking parents and families seriously.
But, as many youth workers know, partnering with parents in youth ministry is not an easy thing to do. I’ve found that many youth workers have had a hard time wrapping their arms around the concept of including parents and families in youth ministry. Following are just a few of the obstacles we have to overcome.
Negative Image of Parents
When I do seminars for youth workers on parent ministry, I sometimes play a little word association game with them: “What word or phrase first comes to mind when you think about parents of teenagers?” It’s not uncommon to hear words like “incompetent,” “clueless” or “overly critical.”
If we are going to have an effective ministry to parents, we’ll need to honor them, not criticize or stereotype them. Teens themselves like to perpetuate the my-parent-is-an-idiot mythology; we sometimes encourage and reinforce it with our jokes and parent slurs. As youth workers, we should be encouraging and blessing parents, holding them up in a positive light.
One wrong assumption is that teens don’t want their parents to be involved. One study asked teenagers, “What, if anything, would you like to change about your family?” The most common response was, “I wish I was closer to my parents.”
When they were asked, “Why aren’t you closer to them right now?” most replied, “I don’t know how.” Our youth ministries can help both parents and teens learn how to be closer to one another.
Fear of Parents
I conducted a seminar at a church recently, and before it started, the youth pastor looked at all the parents who were there and said, “I don’t think I’ve met most of these people.” I asked him, “Why not?” He said, “Well, meeting parents just gets me out of my comfort zone.”
He’s not alone. There are many youth workers who have a difficult time meeting parents, let alone helping them. Maybe like the teens they work with, they just don’t know how to relate to parents. Maybe they have an irrational fear of them or just don’t have the time. But whatever the reason, the very idea of working with parents strikes fear and loathing into the hearts of many youth workers. This is a serious obstacle to overcome.
Another obstacle is the belief that things are just fine the way they are. When I point out that we’ve got problems in youth ministry, some frustrated youth pastors get a little defensive. “Who are you to tell me that my ministry isn’t effective the way it is?” It’s not easy for youth workers to admit that youth ministry might not be working.
After all, everything looks pretty good on the surface. The church has invested a ton of money in youth ministry, the kids are coming, and the programs are humming right along. From the point of view of a youth pastor, life is good. “I like working with kids, and I know that God has called me to do this.”
I acknowledge that most youth pastors and most youth ministries are getting some good results and doing a lot of good. But we can get better, and the consensus is growing that one of the most effective things we can do to get better is to engage parents.
Misperceptions About Results
For many youth workers, results are comfortably measured in attendance figures, number (or quality) of programs and events, conversions, decisions, baptisms and the like. But ministry to and with parents changes the rules of the game quite a bit, making youth workers very uneasy. How will results be measured? Can they be measured at all?
The truth is, results will be not only measurable, but they should be considerably better and more meaningful than those of the past. More and more pastors (and the churches they serve) are now realizing that youth ministry is not about short-term results but those which produce fruit in the lives of kids long after they leave our youth groups.
It’s easy to achieve short-term outcomes with a program. But to get long-term outcomes, a long-term strategy is required. We may never know exactly what our efforts to help parents will produce, but we have every reason to believe that our efforts will not be in vain.
Adapted from Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again): From Bells and Whistles to Flesh and Blood by Wayne Rice, copyright 2010. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. This article may not be copied or distributed in any form. Visit IVP online for more information on this and other IVP titles.