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Youth Ministry: What's Gone Wrong and How To Get It Right
By david olshine
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO PARENTS?
"I don't have the knowledge or time to help my teen with spiritual things." —mother of a fourteen-year-old
I have a confession. I love youth ministry.
Yet inside my soul is a love-hate relationship with what's happening in the church today. Let me explain, because I am troubled.
I love the universal church, and I have spent most of my adult years doing youth ministry. When you love someone, or something, it enables you to be affirming and critical in order to make changes and improvements. Take marriage for example. I have been with my wife, Rhonda, in a wonderful adventure for three decades, and in order to maximize our relationship, weekly we look to see the good things we have going for us. Then on occasion (okay, on multiple occasions) we analyze and critique the way we listen, communicate, and share life together. We do this because we love each other and don't want our marriage to grow drab, ineffective, or out of touch. We seek to discover new ways to keep the fires burning and the commitment, intimacy, and friendship alive and growing. Evaluation is essential to making sure things are on the right track.
The Bible compares the church (body of Christ) and marriage (Ephesians 5). In the same way Rhonda and I took vows before a congregation of more than six hundred friends and family (and others who wanted free food) "to love and to cherish in sickness and in health." Part of loving and cherishing each other in marriage is not being afraid to identify the weaknesses of the relationship and to come up with solutions. The same approach is taken in this book as it pertains to youth ministry.
The reason I am writing this book is that I deeply care about teenagers, paid youth workers, parents, and volunteers, and I want us to get better at what God has called all of us to do. In fact, I have given my heart and soul to youth ministry!
There is much that is right about youth ministry. We have some great leaders in the youth ministry world along with some fantastic resources and innovative and creative organizations. We offer super conferences and seminars and host some amazing events and outreaches. And when it comes down to intentionally hanging out with students and building personal relationships, few do it better than youth workers! Anytime individuals and groups surface who love teenagers and want to see them grow in a relationship with Jesus, it's a good thing!
What's the Problem?
Let me first stop and affirm that a number of youth workers—paid and nonpaid servants—highly appreciate and value the parents of their teens. But from my perspective, one of the most troubling issues in American youth ministry is our current approach of not partnering and empowering the parents of youth. I believe this silent but enormous elephant in the room can no longer be ignored. We have to address this topic before we head down the road of no return.
How Have We Excluded Parents?
We often exclude parents because of our own insecurities. My friend Paul Borthwick calls it "parent-noia," a deep-seated fear and anxiety of parents. We in youth ministry have sometimes made parents adversaries rather than allies. Why? We can be intimidated by parents, and some parents are a little scary! And yet parents are not the enemy; they are on the same team with us, trying to influence teens for great impact.
We exclude parents because of the tradition of "payroll entitlement." It is easy for a church to say, "We will hire a person to care for our students. We will pay you to shepherd our sheep (teenagers) and provide you with two weeks' vacation, a pension, continuing education, and a medical package. Your job is simple: evangelize and disciple teens and have a solid support system with good adult volunteers. Take care of our kids!" Initially that sounds fabulous, but two things are missing in that job description. First, there is no mention of parents, and, second, the job seems ultimately dependent on the paid youth worker to "get the job done."
Most of us were trained to work with students only. The title of youth director or youth pastor pretty much states the obvious: we are working with students, and that is our mission field. And if the sense of calling is primarily to teens, oftentimes youth workers think that partnering with parents is something for another person to take on and guide.
The past few decades have seen an escalation of activity in the youth program. I believe teens need their time and space with one another, but when we start establishing two or three weekly youth group meetings, plus retreats, camps, and conferences, perhaps it sends a message, "Parents, please stay away." The youth program has become an island unto itself and a sacred cow.
Finding a Solution
Based on the authority of God's written Word, the Scriptures, we see that God-fearing parents are the cornerstone of depositing faith in their children. I believe youth ministry has oftentimes unknowingly contributed to the breakdown of parents' role in the discipleship of their children.
In the book of Deuteronomy, we are introduced to what is known as the Shema. At the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith, the clarion call is to "love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (6:5). Moses spoke these words from God, and Jesus affirmed this text also to communicate one foundational truth: God-fearing parents are to be the primary nurturers of their children's faith.
Even today, the Shema is prayed three times a day in Orthodox Jewish homes and is central to the formation of a child's purpose in life.
Do We Believe Parents Are Primary?
One youth worker whom I interviewed, named William, told me this:
Our youth ministry started believing that parents didn't think about spiritual nurture for their children, so we took on the baton of leadership. It was a huge mistake. My team started taking on the role of "spiritual parenting." Parents will naturally abdicate their spiritual role if the church wants to run with it. In the long run, this is what started to burn me out.
William is not alone.
We have some decisions to make as youth workers. Will we believe the Bible's instructions for families to lead their children to know God deeply, or will we move the baton away from parents?
God's book is clear: spiritual training is primarily and directly driven and motivated first and foremost by faith-driven parents to their kids—not by the church or synagogue, not by the clergy or paid youth workers. Listen to the words of Moses that are often missed in Deuteronomy 6:6-9:
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
The words that jump out from the text for me are these: "Impress them on your children"; "Talk about them"; "At home"; "When you walk"; "When you lie down"; and "When you get up."
Spiritual formation is primarily transferred from parent to child; it is from generation to generation.
Where Does Nurture Take Place?
After I became a dad, I took this challenge seriously. I have two children who are amazing, but that does not mean parenting is simple; it's not. But man, has it been rewarding!
As a father I desperately wanted to be a "Deuteronomy six dad"—to spiritually care for my children. Early on it dawned on me, "I need help from the body of Christ, from mentors and others who would also help shape my kids. I cannot do this alone." I am grateful for the youth pastors and spouses and our school and friends and family who supplemented my role.
I needed the additional help from others. Yet, I see no mention of the collective gathering of believers doing the primary job of disciple-making (although the Scriptures stress the importance of "other influencers" to young people, which will be addressed in future chapters). It was my job and that of my wife, Rhonda, to be the head chefs in the kitchen.
Parents are commanded to have God's Word on their "hearts" first and then are to "impress" Scripture on "your children." I love the natural flow of how this happens, of talking about God at home—when you are walking to a baseball game, going to bed, and eating Cheerios for breakfast.
The main place of spiritual nurture and connection is the family—parents dispensing, forming, loving, and shaping their kids. The bone I am picking is this: American youth ministry has not done an effective job in assisting parents to prepare their children to love and know God. One of the famous lines from the Apollo 13 mission was, "Houston, we have a problem." Well, American youth ministry has a big problem.
Reality or Excuses?
So why do I have a love-hate relationship with the church I love? Why do I stress over American youth ministry, which I have sweated blood and tears over for almost thirty years?
My love-hate relationship is related to expectations. For years, I have heard all the reasons and excuses about why parents cannot lead their kids spiritually: "Parents are apathetic about their kids' relationship with Jesus"; "Parents are too busy"; "Parents don't even crack open their Bible, so why should their kids?"; and "My dad probably thinks John 3:16 is a bathroom on the third floor."
Maybe you are not convinced that youth ministry is contributing to this problem of parental removal in teens' spiritual development. Consider these questions:
 Would you agree that many parents are not spiritually nurturing their kids?
 Would you confirm that a number of parents are too busy to even try?
 Or that the single parent is worn out?
 What about the "average Christian parent" who is extremely intimidated with the thought of reading the Bible together as a family, much less explain it?
 How about the parent who tries to create a "devotional time" with great intentions but the children push back and look bored?
I think I am hearing a yes to all the questions I have just raised, so what on earth do we do to mend this problem?
I believe the Bible is true, and I know that it's practical. I have seen parents step up to the plate and lead their students. I know most Christian parents can nurture their kids if given the proper tools and motivation. I have witnessed the power of God when parents lead their kids to grow in their friendship with God. I have watched hundreds of parents who didn't know what to do ask for help, and changes were made. I have seen youth ministries partner with parents to make a difference. Yes, parents can be empowered to be the spiritual leaders of their teenager.
Can youth ministry help resolve this problem? Will we find ways to give the ball back to parents? I answer with a resounding yes! What does it mean to be an empowered parent? Here are ten practical strategies to push us to get it right:
1. The church needs to affirm and vocalize that Christian parents are the most important spiritual influencers for their children.
The problem was exacerbated when preachers and leaders started saying, "The church is the primary place to be for children and youth." You might respond, "I've never heard someone say that." Maybe not, but many church leaders guide their congregations as if life depended on spending hours being involved in the local church building. The way some ministries function on a daily basis would lead us to believe that the church is the main instrument of change in the lives of children and youth.
I have heard well-meaning pastors during baptism ask the congregation to recite promises and vows to support the child being immersed, sprinkled, or drenched with holy water, followed by the question, "Who is responsible to see that this kid grows up to love Jesus?" The leader says out loud, "We are." But I don't find the Scriptures proclaiming that the church is the primary instrument to help a kid grow to maturity in Jesus.
I have heard key leaders in the American church say, "The local church is the hope of the world." That sounds nice and good, but where is that in the word of God? The church needs to say it loud and clear: "The mission of God in reaching children is primarily through parents, not through youth group or the church." Don't get me wrong, I believe children's ministry is vital and youth ministry is important, but they are supplemental in walking with Christian families.
The analogy could be stretched further to include the role of schools, government, sports, medicine, and extracurricular events in the lives of teens. I am grateful that our children have other people "at the table" to impact and add other voices of wisdom to their minds and hearts, but when it comes down to ultimate influence, that is the role of a parent. The guidance of the other voices is secondary, not primary.
A renewed mission for American youth ministry needs to be clear: to empower parents to be the primary spiritual nurturer and caregiver of their kids.
2. Let's acknowledge that teens do want a relationship with their parents.
I have been guilty as a youth pastor in trying to run a program that pushed parents away, sometimes not even knowing it. I wonder how many youth workers have made youth group an American idol.
As a paid youth pastor, I have attended many sporting events to support students in my youth ministry. I have always enjoyed knowing that one of "my kids" on the court or gridiron has spotted me in the crowd. Yet deep down in the soul of a young person are the eyes that scan the audience. Who do they really want to see in the stands? They are looking for Mom and Dad.
Most teens do respect their parents and want a relationship with their mom and dad. As a pastor, professor, youth and family counselor, I have lost count of the number of times I've heard these aches and cries from teens, college kids, and adults: "My dad never came to one of my basketball games"; "Why was Mom's job more important than me?"; "They just don't care about anyone but themselves"; and "I can't believe Dad missed my graduation." Young people desperately desire a relationship with their parents, and youth ministry needs to do all it can to make sure that happens and not go against the grain.
3. Youth ministry must not compete for family time.
How many times have you seen youth workers plan events over spring break or summer, which, unbeknownst to the youth leader, is running major competition with the family? The teen must choose between youth group and the parent, which is not an easy choice to make. If the young person chooses the church event, then the parents sometimes feel like they are losing the battle. If the student chooses to vacation with the family, some youth workers will throw a guilt trip on the teen for "not being committed to Jesus."
My youth pastor friend Jack said, "I would be a much better youth pastor these days because I've been on the other side of the fence as a parent now and understand their plight more than I did when I was a young youth pastor with no kids."
4. Youth ministry programs must complement the good values parents are teaching at home.
Have you ever heard a youth worker contradict a parent? I have. It is unsettling and arrogant. Youth ministry must uphold the values of the family, even if we disagree with the manner or the methodology. Some paid youth workers have no children of their own, so they really have no idea of the magnitude of what it means to be a parent. Instead of trying to understand the values of a family, some youth leaders will criticize the parents in front of the teenager.
This can lead to a disaster waiting to happen. So if you recognize the vital necessity of seeing youth and their parents connecting, then at least develop programs while keeping parents in mind. Programs that can benefit parents as well as youth should be considered; avoid programs that might alienate parents. Consider offering specific mother-daughter and father-son events, movie nights, or baseball games for families. Provide retreats, seminars, and potluck meals and prayer nights for families. Listen to parents' hurts and needs and program accordingly. Consider nonthreatening events and, yes, even some nonspiritual programs for parents who are not interested in church or Christianity. Two of my favorite events are: (1) parent-teen messy game night and (2) broomball, in which you rent out an ice skating rink, put on your tennis shoes, and play with brooms and an old volleyball. Also remember that events such as roller-skating and ice-skating are just fun ways of watching people fall down! When you program, try and coincide with families' calendars rather than conflict with them.
5. Parents want a youth ministry that is family friendly and sensitive to their finances.
One of the insidious problems we must be aware of is being non–family friendly. What does that look like? An overabundance of programs, late nights, and all-night lock-ins (the invention of some crazy youth worker) can be a huge barrier to teens and their parents connecting better. When teens are constantly at the church building, attending youth group or Sunday school while their parents are elsewhere, this is not the way God intended it to be. When the pace is out of control and parents are running their kids from event to event, this is not family friendly.
Excerpted from Youth Ministry: What's Gone Wrong and How To Get It Right by david olshine. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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