What role do parents play in your ministry?
How do you get more parents to volunteer?
Questions like these are often asked in student ministry circles, but there’s one inherent issue with them all. They assume you (the youth pastor) are the key spiritual leader in the lives of teenagers, that parents are to help you in your ministry to their teens. But the Bible never makes this assumption. Rather, it assumes—and commands—parents be the key spiritual leaders in the lives of their teenagers.
Woven throughout the Bible we see parents as the primary disciplers for their kids (Prov. 1:8; Ps. 78:1–8; Eph. 6:4). Perhaps the clearest example is Deuteronomy 6:7:
You shall teach [these words] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
Whether or not they take up that role, parents are the main spiritual influence for their kids. Sociologist Christian Smith conducted the largest study ever on the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, he concludes:
The single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents. . . . The best social predictor, although not a guarantee, of what the religious and spiritual lives of youth will look like is what the religious and spiritual lives of their parents do look like. Parents . . . most likely “will get what they are.” (261)
Spectrum for Parent Involvement
This reality calls for traditional student ministries to progress forward (or is it backward?) to a more biblical model. You could plot parent involvement in most student ministries somewhere along this spectrum:
Absent parents come in two forms: by their choice or by ours. Parents choose to be absent in the spiritual lives of their teens for a slew of reasons. They may not be Christians themselves. They may be physically absent due to divorce or separation. They may be spiritually weak or immature. Or they may be handing the baton for this leg of the race to you, the youth pastor. If that’s the case, heed the advice of Steve Wright and Chris Graves: it’s not yours to take. As they write in their book reThink: Decide for Yourself—Is Student Ministry Working?:
Student pastors have too quickly accepted responsibility for teens’ spirituality and may be too reluctant to remind and equip parents to take their responsibility as primary spiritual disciplers. (47–48)
The flip side is when youth pastors organize their ministries in a way that keeps parents absent (unintentionally or not). So before you point the finger at absent parents, see if you’ve already made that choice for them.
Informed parents are a step in the right direction. If your ministry lands here, then you’re at least communicating with parents. However, your communication may be limited to event and program information.
A diagnostic question could be, “Am I the only one teaching students?” You might also look through your e-mails and mail-outs to see how much space is given to event information and how much is encouraging parents as spiritual leaders.
Involved parents are probably where most of fall on the spectrum (including me). You’re not the only teacher. Most of your small group leaders are youth parents. They’re willing to be sponsors at an event or on a mission trip. They’re likely to be a camp counselor. A daring few will even sign up for the ungodly event known as a “lock-in.”
This is a good place to be, since parents are taking stake in the spiritual lives of their teens. But we can still strive for better.
Equipped parents no longer feel the need to partner with the youth pastor to disciple their teens because the youth pastor has partnered with them. They have a healthy walk with Christ. They know what’s on the calendar and what’s being taught. They can lead a discussion about Scripture at home, or even a family worship time. They were guided through the awkwardness of starting this journey by a loving youth pastor (and pastor) who simply wanted to shape church ministries after the Word of God.
Equipped parents understand the reality they “will get what they are” and feel well equipped to lead their children to become mature disciples. Isn’t this type of “equipping the saints” our job anyway (Eph. 4:11–12)?
Now some may argue that if we progress to the point where all our parents are equipped, then we’ll be out of a job. The truth is that won’t happen in this fallen world. Student ministries will always have teens whose parents are absent. So there will always be a need for youth pastors to help bridge the gap where sin affects the family.
Making Progress with Parents
Youth pastors, I believe this is where our field is progressing. Smith advises churches that an “overall youth ministry would probably best be pursued in a larger context of family ministry” (267). Yet our motivating factor must be greater than research findings.
Moses’s final instruction to the second wilderness generation was this: “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law” (Deut. 32:46). Under Joshua’s leadership, Israel did just that (Josh. 24:31; Judg. 2:7), but the subsequent generation did not take these words to heart:
And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. (Judg. 2:10)
Equipped parents are the goal, but not the end. We must equip parents for the sake of teenagers today, but also for the future of the church. Equipped parents produce equipped teenagers who will eventually parent in a similar fashion. Multi-generational discipleship until Christ returns—that’s the end.