After years of attending Sunday school and children’s ministry programs at the church his family attends, 15-year-old Jacob has decided he wants to go to youth group at the church across town. When he asks his parents if he can make the switch, they aren’t sure what to say. This scenario is a common one, and you may be facing it with your own teen.
Before you give your child an answer, consider why this happens and how we can respond.
Why Does This Happen?
As a student pastor, I’ve seen three common reasons why students want to attend another student ministry.
We live in a consumer culture. Our students are accustomed to finding the best product in every avenue of their lives. Our social media world makes life infinitely customizable. Teens are used to exercising control over what they do and when and how they do it.
When it comes to youth group, students expect to exercise the same freedom of choice they enjoy with respect to what sports they play, whom they eat lunch with, and what music they listen to. When they hear about a student ministry where more of their friends attend, the music suits their taste, or there’s a more engaging speaker, they may want to attend that group instead of their local church’s youth group.
When it comes to youth group, students expect to exercise freedom of choice.
Sometimes students change youth groups over theological convictions. Students with Catholic parents may attend a Protestant student ministry but still honor their parents by attending mass with them. A parent may be a nominal attendee at one church, but the student becomes a committed member or attendee of another through its youth ministry. These circumstances don’t happen often, but when they do, these young adults should be applauded for their theologically informed decisions.
I have two scenarios in mind. First, a student is committed to a local church, but circumstances hinder his involvement in its student ministry. He may have a practice during the gathering time, live too far away to travel midweek, or not be able to get a ride.
Second, a local church doesn’t have the resources to provide a student ministry or to disciple a child with unique needs. Many small churches don’t have a youth ministry or the resources to provide regular discipleship programs for young people. Even a church with a thriving youth group may not have worked through how to disciple a child with a severe disability. In these situations, students may attend another church’s student ministry while remaining involved with their home church.
What Should We Do?
Each of these situations is different, so the way we respond must vary as well.
1. Don’t give into preferences. Keep covenant.
While your child may insist she doesn’t want to go to your church’s youth group due to a preference, that doesn’t mean you should give in. It can be tempting to say yes out of a genuine concern for her faith: If I don’t let her go where she wants, she may resent me and Christianity. While I understand this inclination, young people need to learn preference doesn’t fuel commitment. Rather, as Christians, we’re called to covenant with Christ’s body by being faithful members, submitting to leaders, and serving with our gifts (see 1 Cor. 12).
In my church, we don’t see youth ministry as a take-it-or-leave-it parachurch option. It’s a key discipleship environment where teenagers encounter biblical teaching geared to their age and context, direct mentorship, and training in spiritual disciplines. Our church’s leaders have invested in this ministry because we believe it’s critical. We tell kids, “Commitment to discipleship is worth forsaking preferences for, even for a teenager.”
Having said this, parents (and church leaders) should recognize that when a kid wants to attend another youth group, he’s usually wanting to hang out with his Christian friends. That’s not a bad desire. We ought to be thankful when our kids want to spend time doing spiritual activities with other believers, even when those Christians don’t attend our local church. So even if the ultimate answer is “No, you can’t go with your friends to a different youth group,” parents should acknowledge the importance of Christian friendships in a teen’s life and work with their sons and daughters to find other ways to cultivate those relationships.
2. Address convictions with conversation.
Matters of conviction require careful conversations. If the doctrine taught in a youth ministry deviates from your church’s confession of faith, you should address that with your pastors.
If your child is going through a crisis of faith (as often happens in the teenage years), see this as an opportunity to partner with your church in discipling your child theologically. In a situation where you and your family are uncomfortable with student ministry teaching that your church leaders support, the best answer may be to move churches as a family.
This should never be done lightly but with care, prayer, and communication. Because the teaching ministry of the church matters, it’s important you show your child you value the work of the pastors who oversee them. If you can’t honor your pastors’ teaching, it may be a sign your family is at a church you don’t align with.
3. Maintain a clear conscience.
Exercise flexibility and charity in matters of availability. If your church can’t offer programming for teenagers and you find a student ministry you trust, there’s nothing wrong with your child attending that group. I recommend making this decision with your pastor and communicating your commitment to the life and health of your local church.
Commitment to discipleship is worth forsaking preferences for, even for a teenager.
If your schedule has gotten in the way of your child participating in church life, consider removing good things from your schedule to invest in the eternal good of your local church. Your schedule is one of the clearest ways you communicate priorities to your kids, so prioritize life with the body over lesser things.
When your child asks if he or she can attend a different youth group, ask yourself these questions:
- Will this decision help or hurt your child’s view of commitment to the church?
- Does this decision line up with the Bible’s teaching about family discipleship?
- Will this decision fuel lifelong faith or short-term ease?
Ultimately our children’s view of the church is at stake with how we answer these questions about their involvement. So, before you answer your child, consider these questions prayerfully in conversation with the leaders at your church. I’m confident that as you seek God’s wisdom in community, he’ll give it to you “generously” and “without finding fault” (James 1:5 NIV).
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