in late april, a group of 23 veteran junior high pastors gathered again for a 4-day summit. between all of us, we have 270 years of experience working with middle schoolers. it’s a great group of people, who are passionate about their calling to young teens, and very interested in re-thinking their assumptions and approaches.
this year, noted sociologist christian smith (see post here about christian) join us for a half day, and talked with us primarily about the role of parents in the faith formation of teenagers. out of christian’s data and thoughts, and his responses to our many questions, we formulated a long list of discussion topics, voted on them, and formulated the agenda for the remainder of our days.
we all agreed this was the best of the 8 annual times we’ve met, primarily because we didn’t have easy answers to the issues raised.
i’ll post the notes from the gathering here.
Q&A with Christian Smith
• What are the affects of having a Youth Leader for an extended period of time when the youth pastor leaves? (Brooklyn).
CS: There is no data on this, but losing a youth leader tends to be disruptive in a youth’s life. And also when a good youth pastor leaves it can cause disengagement from the students. If people would give what they should give, then we would be able to fund any sort of ministry that we would want.
• Your data said that having a full time Youth Minister makes a significant difference; what does this mean? (Marko)
CS: It is probably a proxy that shows that churches either have the funding for a full fledged Youth Ministry, or they are so enthused with Youth Ministry that they want to have Youth group regardless of the cost.
• Is it fair to assume that this has an influence on the middle bandwith of students faith, those whose faith is very similar to their parents? (Marko)
CS: Yes, it’s fair to assume.
• Are Kids predominantly coming because of the 5 friends or other things? (Nate)
CS: they need both that and the full-time youth worker, not just one of them. Who is in the position to reach out to teenagers in non-religious homes? Churches with Fulltime youth ministry that are able to express this to their own Youth.
• What Would it look like to bridge the intergenerational gap while still maintaining the full time Youth Pastor? (Sean)
CS: We didn’t study congregations like this. A Full time Youth Minister has the capability to bridge the gap by getting together with the youth, the parents, and other adults. It would have to come down from the Senior pastor as a priority rather than slamming all the weight on the youth pastor.
• The book “Hurt” showed a bleak image of teens, but your findings are in opposition, How does that work? (Marko)
CS: We had a public disagreement about this, we did have different stories, he went from one location in SoCal, but much more in-depth, ours was at the national level. So his could be reflecting simply a SoCal thing. My Comparisson is teens to adults, as far as teens to the world yes teens are hurting, but so are all other generations. So therefore my comparison shows that teens are suffering in the world, but no more than other groups.
• You don’t see a large difference over time, are you interested in going and starting over? (Christina)
CS: It will be really interesting to see the change this summer (with 4+ years of data), because it will be a lot different than when it was just 2 years.
• If students won’t go beyond the ceiling of where their parents are, then where do these college students go? Do You think the church as a whole needs to be doing something different so that the whole ceiling is raised and faith in general gets much deeper across the board? If Teenagers are content with being what their parents are then it would seem counter intuitive to try to change the kids. (Alan M)
CS: That is my implication, we need to raise the whole level rather than focusing on a “Youth Problem.” Parents are getting exactly what they want, just coasting by, and maybe that means that churches are getting just what they want, and not trying to help the youth by helping everyone else. If Parents really thought about it then they might sort through their priorities and their reflection on their children.
• How does Moralistic Therapeutic deism reflect in their development? (April)
CS: I find that it cant be explained by developmental influence, rather it is being picked up through what they see around them.
Talking about God with these teens was easy, but the second we tried to talk about Jesus, the students closed up.
There is one difference between middle schoolers and High Schoolers, their examples are different. Middle Schoolers would imagine things, High schoolers would give an example from their own life. Middle School was all about “ifs”, Highschool was “When”
Kids Pray A lot, but other than that there was very little evidence of spiritual practice. Any number of sports, school, band, and other stuff had practice forced upon them, yet when it came to spirituality parents were afraid to shove it down their throats.
There is a vision that teenagers are here to have fun and not fail, the other practices contribute to not failing. So then faith doesn’t fit in. Not failing may be in competition with youth group, aka grades before church.
• Globalization of the American teenage culture and what does it project for our future? (April)
CS: I would love to see that too, but I have no data outside the USA. Friends of mine say just more of the same thing, if anything the US is just a little more religious.
To What extent is the vision that the Youth group exists to take care of the teens in the church, or to what extent does the youth group exist to reach out and draw teenagers outside of the church. A lack of everyone on the same page opens things up to be controversial.
• The Church Community gets very authoritarian with the outreach kids, which scares them away (Brooklyn)
• Youth Pastors are either completely invested in core kids, or are all about outreach it is hard to find a balance (Heather)
CS: Parents need to be given positive affirmation, they are still very relevant.
• How can we teach parents how to parent when we ourselves haven’t parented teens? (Jason)
CS: I think that Youth ministers can refer to what they have read and studied opposed to their actual experience.
It is not about adding extra parent programs, but rather involving them in the ones that are existing.
• Parents say their kids want their space and don’t want the parents to be involved. (Eric)
CS: There are times that kids do need there space, but what I want to see is the quality of the time they do spend together.
• What have you learned as a Parent? (Andy)
CS: I am authorized and responsible, the choices I make will affect their well being in the future. It is possible for me to have a happy warm relationship with my kids while they are teens. To be more aware of what I am modeling, telling someone something matters, but not as profoundly as my actual actions. Getting up the guts to address issues head on rather than letting them slide. It is really important for teens to know that the adults haven’t given up.
we asked kids, “If you could change anything about your family what would you change?” The number one answer was I wish I could be closer to my parents.
• Then We are approaching this from the wrong side, if the parents have all this influence, but they are not doing anything, then what?(Scott)
CS: It isn’t that they do nothing, it is that their influence is manifested through all their actions.
• What if we canceled all our Youth Ministries and just put on Parent things to try and engage them?(Scott)
CS: My hope would be that their family time throughout the week would be a ministry.
• Parent Ministries can leave parents feeling worse then before (Heather)
CS: We are caught up in the Adults are mature, and teens have identity issues, but adults have identity issues to!
• Students feel disconnected from parents because they don’t get it, but often times parents get it but don’t know it (corrie)
• We are often there to translate these things in between our students and their parents (Eric)
• In your ministry what is there that tells students that it is cool to seek a relationship with your parents? (Phil)
• If you could change one thing about youth ministry, what would it be?
CS: If I could Change one thing about youth ministers is I would have YM stop calling teens “students”, because that relates teens to what they know about school. In Youth Group they should be seen as whole people who have a life outside of academic success. To call them students narrows them down to their scholastic identity. Church should be an institution that sees them as all that they are. There are a lot of kids that have dropped out of school and therefore lost there identity in Church as well! Our Public language should be Teens or Youth. If someone’s job is to legitimately work with youth in school then they are student ministers, outside of that, why would they be titled that? I don’t care what they want to be called, they shouldn’t be called students, it is collaborating with the motto of don’t fail, and they don’t need that from the church.