This is the last in a series on how one traditional church and traditional youth ministry took steps to transition to an approach where the parents were equipped to disciple their children. We are including all four parts in a pdf that you can download and/or pass along to any ministers or churches you know who are trying to figure out this transition. The more youth ministers I talk with the more I am hearing this conversation come up. It may be the most widely discussed topic in youth ministry circles at this point in time. Our hope is that these articles from Joel Singleton and previously from Duncan Campbell (also in this issue) will help spark some insight into how to actually make this work. Download the PDF of Joel’s articles here and Download Duncan’s here.
In the last 3 posts I have written about: (1) the state of youth ministry and the family, (2) a philosophy of ministry, (3) a theology of youth ministry, (4) and the nuts and bolts of a multi-year strategy. In this last post I’d like to tell two stories that highlight the difference between traditional youth ministry and what I would call “faith-at-home youth ministry.”
I had been doing ministry for 5 years when I had my first “youth ministry is broken” epiphany. I had been doing what I had considered my best ministry, but the walls of traditional youth ministry began to crumble. One student’s fall from faith caused a painful rupture in my belief in traditional youth ministry. This student had a poor family life and was someone who I had considered at-risk for losing their faith in God. As the youth minister, I had become a replacement parent to this student in many ways. I would regularly be called for advice, counseling, support, and biblical perspectives on life. This teen desperately needed stable adults because of difficult relationships within her family. I had become the proud adopted parent of a 6th grader. I had watched and guided this student from a young student into a junior in high school along each arduous step. She was a mainstay in our youth ministry. She was present for almost every event and for nearly every class and worship service. However, in what seemed like an instant this student’s commitment to God and church vanished. This student chose to disconnect from church altogether. This teen rejected youth group, Christian peer influence, my influence, and the influence of almost every caring adult at church. There was no warning nor any explanation of her departure from faith. There was nothing I nor anyone else at church could say or do about it. We were cut off. This teen had become involved in a sexual relationship at school and couldn’t face me or others at church. It was at that moment that I realized how quickly a youth minster, youth group, and a church could be sidelined at the whim of any teenager. I spoke to the parents of this teen. They were unwilling and unmotivated to help their teens see God or their faith differently. They were unwilling to have a conversation challenging her choices and decisions to walk away from church and from God. They wouldn’t even entertain the thought of challenging her sexual relationship that had many implications for her and for their family. For years I had been working with this student growing her faith, and her parents had been undoing much of the growth over her 5 years. Somehow I failed to see how this was a time-bomb waiting to lay waste to the years of youth ministry support.
I foolishly overestimated my influence and the influence of the youth group, and vastly underestimated the influence of her parents. Why was I surprised that her parents wouldn’t help her back onto the right path? They considered themselves “Christians,” however, this student’s Mom was emotionally distant from anything spiritual, and Dad had strained relationships with everyone in the family. Mom didn’t want to talk about faith with her children, and Dad didn’t know how. How could I expect the student to become a genuine disciple if her parents weren’t genuine disciples themselves? I had assumed that the best ministry practice was to leave the chaos of this student’s home-life untouched, while I transformed her spiritual life apart from her home. This is the normal practice of traditional youth ministry. The phrase, “Disciple the teens, despite the family,” is an unspoken truth embedded into bedrock of traditional youth ministry. The more I processed this student’s past the more I realized that traditional youth ministry was broken.
If this student’s story was an isolated incident, I would carry the scars of her story, but would continue ministry as normal. I know that every minister has regrets and lessons that they have learned. Yet this student’s story isn’t isolated. Every youth minister I have talked to has a story just like mine. The names were different, the family make-up was varied, but the endings of these stories were all the same. The students from Godless families, who the youth ministry thought would be glaring examples of what their ministry accomplishes, had instead turned into glaring examples of the limitations and failure of traditional youth ministry.
It took me the better part of three years to make what seemed like minuscule changes within our youth ministry. Yet the moment when I realized how far we had journeyed came in a remarkably similar situation to the story of the student told above.
We had another student in our youth ministry who had a difficult home life. Her Mom was spiritually and emotionally distant and her Dad had a strained relationships with her and her siblings. Yet within this family context our new plan for ministry began to increase the likelihood that this student would remain in faith. I knew I couldn’t fix all of the family dynamics. The reality was by the time our church knew about the family problems, talks of divorce had already begun in the home. This student’s mom wouldn’t meet with me, but her Dad was motivated to help the faith of his children. He didn’t know how to talk to them about faith or where to start. He had been shut out of many of the details of his daughter’s life because of prior conversations that had escalated into heated yelling matches. He hadn’t given up. I met with him for a few hours and talked about the dynamics of their situation at home, and how to repair his relationship with his daughter. We discussed strategies for sharing faith in a way that she would accept. I began talking to her about being open to faith conversations with both of her parents. She was resistant at first, but kept thinking about this possibility. Many of our classes and sermons at church were on faith and family. The biggest obstacle between her relationship with her dad was her dad’s assumption that his role as “the dad” was to teach her the correct view on scripture whether she agreed or not. Their talks were doctrinal in nature, instead of relational. Unfortunately, this idealistic view of faith in the family had exploded numerous times before leaving scars in the life of this student. I explained that he was trading his “faith relationship” with his daughter for “being right” in his views about faith. He valued good arguments and discussion, but she did not share his enthusiasm for debate. We talked about how to value her opinion even if he didn’t agree with her perspective. It didn’t happen overnight but slowly their talks began to go better, and she began to appreciate that her dad was really trying to do things differently.
Late one night I got a text from her that said, “I just wanna thank you for talking to my dad about talking to me about faith… and for talking to me about talking to my dad and my family about faith. I don’t think I would have opened up to my parents about faith by myself even though I needed to. I don’t know what it was in me that made me push my own dad away but I’m happy to say I’m done with that now.”
She continued and said “I think even though my family may not even be all together soon I’m getting more and more comfortable talking to my parents about my faith! :)”
Those words instantly brought me to tears. She had gained a faith relationship with her parents that she appreciated and valued amidst the destruction of her traditional family environment. Our message had made its way through all of the hurt and chaos of a family that was being torn apart. Instead of blaming God for the destruction of her family she found God among the rubble. Weeks later she was baptized and began to live her life for God. All the work to help families put faith back in the home is worth it when you experience moments like these. I know that years after she graduates from the youth group she will still have a relationship with her parents that supports her faith rather than diminishes it. The influence of the youth group will vanish, but the influence in the home that was sparked from the youth ministry will stay with her indefinitely.
The backgrounds of these two students were remarkably similar, but the change in our approach to ministry had changed drastically. We had rediscovered God’s plan for faith in the family and we had discovered a role for the youth ministry to help this dad and this student discover God’s plan for faith in their home. It had changed the second student’s life and even she realized its significance!