Imagine leading the church of your dreams. The congregation sings with joy and delights to hear the Word and obey it. Unbelievers are coming to faith in Christ and missionaries are sent out to plant new churches locally and abroad. You even have a good reputation in the community for the way you love your neighbors. There’s only one weakness: the overwhelming majority of your kids walk away from the faith after graduating high school.
Is this a healthy church?
For me, a veteran youth pastor who has advocated for youth ministry for a decade, this isn’t far-fetched scenario. Statistically, more than half the students who’ve been part of our churches’ youth ministries are leaving the faith behind. We’re overdue to reconsider the way we minister to teenagers. This is a Christian problem for us to address, not merely a youth ministry problem.
More than half the students who’ve been part of our churches’ youth ministries are leaving the faith behind.
Here are a few reasons why senior pastors should study youth and family ministry.
1. We Reach Teenagers Through Their Parents
Scripture and sociology both highlight the reality that parents have the greatest spiritual influence in their child’s life. If this is true (and it is), churches need to ask themselves how they will equip parents to do the best possible job raising their children and teenagers in the gospel. For many churches, that will require a significant resolve to consider youth and children’s ministry a place where parents and church leaders co-evangelize and co-disciple the next generation.
Pastors who engage research and best practices in youth and family ministries will be ready to lead the church in a new direction, rather than continuing what’s been done for the last few decades. The youth-ministry world is talking about what it means to integrate students into the life of the church, and to forge meaningful partnerships with parents. I’m hopeful for meaningful change across the youth-ministry landscape in the decade to come. Senior pastors who are informed and invested could have a significant voice in the conversation.
2. We Don’t Learn It in Seminary
The overwhelming majority of seminaries include courses on youth and family ministries as electives in the MDiv curriculum. Few seminarians ever take one of those classes, though, unless they plan to serve in youth and family ministries. That means we are sending out a generation of pastors who can parse Greek infinitives and explain why the Documentary Hypothesis is false, but who’ve never meaningfully thought about how a church should structure itself to pass the faith from generation to generation.
I’m not accusing pastors of never thinking about children or teenagers. Many have spent time evaluating their experiences in church, Sunday school, and youth group. Obviously, many parents are prayerful and diligent about raising their kids in the faith. But that doesn’t mean they’ve actually studied youth and family ministries. Reading a book like my Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry with your elders might equip you to process how your church is passing on the gospel and enfolding students into the life of the church.
3. We Should Keep Our Vows
Churches that dedicate or baptize infants make a sacred vow. It’s more than a cute moment for parents to celebrate their kids. It is a holy moment, reflected throughout the Old and New Testaments by parents who present their children before the Lord and ask for his blessing on their life. And the church makes a similar commitment, pledging prayer and support to co-evangelize and co-disciple that child alongside the parents. Some churches seem to forget these vows once children leave the children’s ministry, but there’s no expiration date.
When pastors and elders are content to delegate this ministry and avoid personal investment, the church is neglecting its vow to those children, their parents, and even to the Lord. It would be better for churches to stop dedicating or baptizing children than to fall under the Lord’s discipline because they have broken their vow. Perhaps one reason we’ve seen so many churches die and children walk away from the faith is that the Lord is “removing their lampstand” (Rev. 2:5) for making vows they will not keep.
4. We Are a Family; These Are Our Children
Pastors prayerfully committed to raising up the next generation in the gospel remember that “all kids are our kids.” If the church really is a family, then single adults, couples who experience infertility, empty-nesters, and grandparents all identify the church’s children as their own.
Pastors have a lot on their plate. Especially in this post-COVID world, it seems pastors are expected to be proficient in everything. My desire isn’t to add to pastors’ already overflowing to-do lists. Instead, let this be a simple reminder that your pastoral calling includes the next generation. In pursuing healthy, gospel-centered churches, have we overlooked our children and teenagers?
One of the most obvious ways pastors can keep their vow is by remembering the children and teenagers in the pews while they prepare and deliver their sermon. Asking a simple question—“How does this text reveal the character and goodness of God to the next generation?”—seems like a no-brainer. If you’ve never thought about teenagers while preparing your sermon, then talk to your youth pastor or parents of teens and ask for help in making meaningful applications to students’ lives. It’s a good place to start renewing your vow.