Youth ministry is temporary because youth is temporary. I know that’s an obvious statement, but it’s one I as a youth pastor need to remember. Before I know it, the students in my youth ministry will no longer be eligible to attend. Some will graduate and go to college, others will enter the working world, and still others will wander for a few years in order to “find themselves.” My ministry is temporary, since it targets those in that particular life stage known as adolescence.

Why Families Matter

The most committed students may see me for four hours on a busy ministry week, but then they go home. Students aren’t born into churches; they’re born into families. That’s God’s design, and it’s a good one.

In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Moses has just finished giving the 10 commandments when he turns to Israel and says:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them 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. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

This can become a messy recipe for frustration: the pastor reads this passage and tells parents they need to disciple their children, yet the parents have never been discipled themselves and thus have no idea what to do. Most Christian parents openly confess their desire to be more faithful in this responsibility. They don’t need more guilt or conviction. They need help and guidance in knowing how.

As youth pastors, we have a great opportunity to help parents be faithful to this biblical command. Be an advocate for families. Resist the temptation to view them as your enemies. They will give account before God for how they raised their kids, so equip them so they can stand without shame and say, “I was faithful to the children you entrusted to me.”

Church Is Eternal; Families Are Not

It’s important to recognize that the “nuclear family” (mom, dad, and kids living together in one house) didn’t exist in Israel. Families lived in clans—one big happy family surrounded by all their relatives. Dad and Mom didn’t receive Moses’ command with the expectation they’d be responsible to do obey it alone. On the contrary, all of Israel received and obeyed it together.

God created the family and the church. The church is eternal; the family is not. While the family is a sort of mini-church, faithful families ought to submit themselves to a local church, because the local church reflects the universal body of Christ. As a covenant family of faith, we recognize our responsibility to one another.

Many voices today affirm everything I’ve written, but they frame it in a way that undercuts youth ministry. Some even suggest youth ministry is blatantly unbiblical and at fault for many of the problems within the church. These advocates rightly uphold the Scriptures and many Reformers and Puritans for affirming the parents’ call as those primarily responsible for catechizing and discipling their kids. However, they take these arguments a step further and accuse youth ministry of usurping parental authority and upholding “age segregation” in the church. While I strongly disagree with these conclusions, the advocates of such family-ministry movements have vital questions for youth workers to seriously consider.

Questions to Ask

If you’re in youth ministry, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I view myself as a support to parents as they disciple their teenager?
  • Is my youth ministry doing what parents should be doing, or am I empowering parents to reclaim that responsibility?
  • Do I affirm parental authority by encouraging students to be more receptive to learning from their parents, or do I default to siding with students and arming them with arguments to disagree with their parents?
  • Am I ministering to the parents of unchurched kids in my youth ministry as well, or am I only interested in their teenagers?

We may be tempted to think, I only see students for a few hours each week, but parents have tons of time with and influence on their kids. While this is hopefully true, we must remember that family time has become a rare commodity because of work, school, and other responsibilities. Families may only spend one or two hours a day together. If the youth ministry calendar is taking teens out of the house multiple nights a week, are we short-circuiting the family discipleship we also hope to restore?

Youth Ministry Is a Bridge

Who doesn’t want to see teens embrace their Christian identity through participation in the local church? Youth ministry is the best bridge to connect the local church with the home. Remember, unlike the church and home, youth ministry is temporary. Our students will always belong to their family, and hopefully they will continue as fruitful and active members of a church.

If we aren’t functioning as a bridge for students to practice their faith in both the home and the church, then we’re missing our purpose.

Resources to Explore

Think Orange (Reggie Joiner)

ReInventing Youth Ministry (Again) (Wayne Rice)

Perspectives on Family Ministry (Timothy Paul Jones, ed.)

Sticky Faith (Kara Powell and Chap Clark)