the future of youth ministry, episode 4

i led a late night discussion at the national youth workers convention this past fall on “the future of youth ministry”. in preparation for that discussion, i emailed a few dozen friends with better youth ministry minds than my own, and asked them to complete the sentence, “the future of youth ministry….” about 15 of them responded (often with more than a sentence!). i’m posting them here as a series, sometimes with a bit of commentary from myself, and sometimes merely as a reflection-prod. would love to hear your responses.
episode 1
episode 2
episode 3

while the last episode, with kara powell and brad griffin’s comments, focused on intergenerational ministry, andy root and lars rood (hmm, last name similarity?) narrow that focus a bit more to parents. i have noticed that discussion about youth ministry often makes these two subjects (intergenerational ministry and parent ministry) one and the same; but they’re not. there’s some overlap, to be sure; but the intergenerational question is more focused on helping teenagers rub shoulders with the whole community of faith, while the parent question is more focused on the role of parents in the faith formation of teenagers, and understanding the family systems teenagers live in.

mini bios:
andy root (andrew, if you’re looking for his books and such) is the associate professor of youth and family ministry at luther seminary. andy’s first book is on the top 10 youth ministry books list of lots of thoughtful youth ministry peeps: revisiting relational youth ministry. after that, andy cranked out 3 books in the time it takes many to read 3 books (relationships unfiltered, the promise of despair, and children of divorce). in short: dude is wicked smart.

lars rood is, in my opinion, one of the next wave of youth ministry voices. the lead youth minister at highland park presbyterian church in dallas, lars is one of the very, very few practicing youth workers with a doctorate. he’s got a book coming out soon, and i expect will have much more to say to us in the years to come.

here’s what andy and lars had to say (andy mentions more than parents, but i’m grouping these two together since they both touch on that question):

Andy Root
In the next few decades youth ministry will need to face the following: a way to actually work with families in a very complicated familial cultural locale, a way of dealing with pluralism–being able to claim the particularity of Jesus without it sliding into rigidity, and to find a robust theological position that connects revelation (the way we understand God’s revealing presence) with our practices and strategies of day to day ministry.

Lars Rood
I’m scared of one thing. How much we are going to have to shift things to draw parents into their faith for the first time. I think parent ministry is going to be a huge new reality of youth pastors.

here’s my 2 cents: i think there has been a LOT of talk about engaging parents and working with parents and parent ministry (and “family ministry”) in the last 10 or more years. but, other than youth workers trying to increase communication, and offering a parent event once in a while, i’ve seen very little rubber hitting the road. mostly what i see are middle aged youth workers changing their titles to “pastor of family ministries”, or something similar, as a way of sounding like they’re doing more, so they can warrant a salary on which they can survive. yeah, that’s snarky and pessimistic; but it’s what i’ve seen. i’m sure there are myriad exceptions; but they’re in the minority.

all the research out there (like christian smith’s stuff) shows us what we know, but often don’t want to admit: parents have a WAY bigger impact on their teenagers’ faith than we do. when we DO admit that, it’s usually our rationale for a student who didn’t respond to our amazing ministry efforts.

so what to do? i think lars brings up a good point: we have to engage the faith formation of parents. “but that’s not my job!” some would say. well, maybe it needs to be…

24 thoughts on “the future of youth ministry, episode 4”

  1. I think the major issue youth ministry faces is the same as it was when I first started (over 10 years ago)…creating an environment where true dialog can take place between the generational gaps. Too often there’s this disconnected between the children’s ministry, the youth ministry, and if you’re lucky…young adult ministry, and the congregation. Most congregations say they support the ministries of it’s future-all the above mentioned, but when it comes to budgets…we end up cutting in those areas. Often, youth pastors such as myself have to give a ‘pitch’ to pursuade those in charge of final budget decisions.
    Now, I know I’m not saying anything new here, however, some youth pastors want to focus on the ministry aspect of it all forgetting that fundamentally it starts with communication, communication, communication…
    Forgive my rambling, but too often youth pastors come into their position thinking they’re entitled to the budget they’ve requested without really assessing the current environment-family dynamic as I like to refer to it…especially since we’re the body of Christ.
    Again, I think the major issue youth ministry has yet to address is how to create an enviroment of true change and buy-in to it’s own future.
    *While I was fortunate enough to have some training in the area of Youth Ministry, I can tell you that none of my professors were former youth pastors or former pastors who dealt with real congregational dynamics or conflict. I can only imagine how many currently burnt out, or soon to be burnt out youth pastors will be stepping away because of how unhealthy their boundaries have truly become-not just in the area of being the voice of the youth ministry, but wholistic care-mind, body, and soul.

  2. I am actually about to move to a new position, Director of Family Ministry, in another church, and I am grateful that one of my main roles there is to actually do what Lars speaks of: develop the faith of the parents themselves. I do think that is one of those Elephants in the Room…that many of our parents do not have a vibrant, growing relationship with Jesus. If they are to be the main spiritual guides for kids (Deut 6 et. al), and are the #1 influence on kids (Christian Smith), then we need to better help them have the faith that can navigate those waters… I am honored to be placed in a new role where that can happen, and is expected to happen. Some would say, ‘But, why couldn’t you still do that in the current locale?’ Good question…I think the reality for most youth workers is that in many people’s opinion at our churches, ‘You weren’t hired for the parents, you were hired for the teens’. I have made attempts to shift that method of thinking with some success, but until a church from the top-down discerns that it is time for a massive paradigm shift in how ministry to kids, teens, parents etc. is done, it is just a large uphill battle. My being in the current place for 6 1/2+ years has helped my ‘voice’ be heard more to some due to trust, respect, etc., but for this church’s majority, my role is to worry about the teens (and little else). And therefore, to many, attempts to shift to focus more on parents’ faith are met with more adversity than in a place where it’s expected to be a part of my calling and responsibility…

  3. Everytime I hear this issue brought up, I think about my own experiences as a youth minister. At my last ministry, close to 80% of my youth were from unchurched families. Most of thief parents were not Christians or nominal Christians. They didn’t show any interest in the spiritual development of their children. For youthworkers in similar situations, how do we approach family focused youth ministry?

  4. I will suggest that leaders of youth ministry would be better equipped for the future if they understood their role as “Director of Adults Who Work With Youth”. This pushes the role to focus on other adults as the primary method of getting the kingdom work done. The good news is, there is a powerful leadership team already in place in just about every congregation.
    While this is somewhat simplistic, try to grab the idea and not the words in this example. List every opportunity in the church currently available to a youth aged person. Next list the names of every person currently giving primary leadership to each of those roles. Then take the time to visit with each leader on the list and discuss what would be involved in preparing, placing, and supporting a youth within that particular function. Most will readily accept, many will be more excited than you can believe.
    Youth leaders of the future must move toward becoming amalgamators of ministry opportunities already in place, places where adults are ready and willing to receive and work with them. Youth truly desire being with adults, especially those who act like adults and look for good qualities to develop. Youth quickly get bored with adults that try to act like youth, which is more good news for maturity. Any church that has adults looking at and working with children and youth for what their gifts are and actively helps them name and claim the gifts, will always be robust and vital.

    Many have mentioned Sunday school issues with youth. It is curious to me that adults classes are often multiple choice while 17 and 18 year old youth/young adults are regulated to one class – the same way we set up elementary level classes. What would happen if we actually offered multiple options for 16 and up? If we want youth to work into adultness, offer the options that lead in that direction. Just a thought.

  5. I think that in most church situations, it’s too much to ask of a youth minister to focus on more than just the youth (i.e. to broaden their responsibilities to include parents/families of youth). I think that in order to reach the parents/families of youth, there will have to be just as much–if not more–of this commitment coming from the senior pastor and all others who are in leadership of the church at large. To refer to a recent post on this blog–it’s gotta be instilled into the culture of that church, not just a passion from the youth minister. As I’ve just transitioned from being a youth pastor to pastoring a small rural church, I’m not saying this put blame on someone else. I think it’s gotta start with me, and that I need to feel like one of the most important things our church must address is truly discipling our adults/parents. That would be the best thing for the effectiveness of our ministry to youth. The more disciples we have, the more who can take our responsibility seriously to invest in those who should be following us–especially parents. If we adults would be willing to lead them and take that call seriously, I believe they would be willing to follow.

    By the way, Marko, I’ve had a small idea about one way to help this become more of a reality, and it involves publishing, and I wanted to get your opinion of whether you think it’s a good, plausible idea, or if it has little chance of being a good resource. From what I can find, I think it’s a new idea, but there may already be something out there like this that I’m not aware of.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with Lars’ comment and Marko’s observation. I’ve been in youth ministry for 30 years – which doesn’t make me smarter or wiser… just old. Youth ministry is very different now than when I began. What more can be said about the paradigm shift that has taken place over the last 10-15 years or so… so I won’t add to it, but I do think that Angus and Geezer above (sounds like an FM morning show duo) make two vaild points – the resistance of church leaders and parents to see the big picture and the maturity issue of youth leaders. I could write pages about this, but here’s my point, as the window of adolescence is nearing 30 years of age, young adults on average are getting married, starting families, and returning to the church later in life. Their needs for spiritual growth, mentoring, and accountability are not that different than the needs of their children. Church leaders don’t readily grasp or embrace this reality and thus their expectations for what youth ministry should look like is different to say the least, or grounded in the past, to say even more.

    A couple of years ago when Marko’s YM 3.0 was released, I gave a copy to my pastor (who is younger than me, but much smarter). He read it and made it mandatory reading for the Elders of out church. Why? Because as he put it, this book was manifesto for the entire church, not just youth ministry. It was a seed that helped launch a top-down restructuring of the church’s vision for ministry, organization, and staffing towards a more missional family-based entity. It wasn’t easy, but it has engaged the parent’s formation in a way that wasn’t there before.

  7. I meant to post again earlier but oops, hit ‘back’!

    Basically, I was loving my new radio partner (apparently, haha!), Geezer’s, comment on how youth min’s need to embrace the ‘Director of Adults Who Work With Youth’-responsibility more. I think many YM’s don’t consider this as much a focus as they should, since many have (and I’d argue, “all of us did at one point”) the belief that WE are the best ones to reach the kids, when in reality, there are other adults (including parents) that may reach some kids better than we can! But, we don’t invest in them… One thing I have made strides in recently and plan to continue when I start my new position is basically meeting with as many servant leaders as I can, hearing their stories, dreams, gifts, passions, etc., and then discerning how to best let them run amok in the youth ministry. I will still have a role with kids, sure, but I am increasingly seeking to develop mentors, who will then go and be Jesus to kids they relate best with. Same goes with parents… Meet with as many parents as you can (maybe schedule at least one meeting a week with a family?) and hear their story, dreams, hopes, etc., and see how you can help them be the spiritual force they can be among their kids and beyond… That also shows those parents that you care deeply about THEIR FAMILY as a whole, and should give you a greater voice…

  8. I never thought about the parents as being a barrier to kids becoming more involved with faith, but it completely makes sense. I, growing up in a Christian home, was never exposed to parents who were apposed to going to church. If anything, we were the ones resisting. I think faith is important for children to teach them values and make them better adults.

    How do you all plan on combating this issue of parents who are against the youth programs?

  9. Hey all- Thought I’d weigh in a little bit. I love parents and think many of them are amazing. As I wrote my short blurb back to Marko I was thinking about parents who really need spiritual direction and teaching just as much as their kids do. Yes most of us spend the majority of our time with students but I think that we are moving more and more into a role where we begin to do Youth Ministry both to and with the whole family. Perhaps that sounds like an Orange comment and it is but I think it’s different than it to. Increasingly I think we will see parents who didn’t grow up in the church coming to it when they have kids and they don’t have the foundation of faith that we might have expected 10 years ago. So as we minister to their kids we are also ministering to the parents. I believe that it’s not the role of the “Family Minister” or the Middle Age Youth Pastor to do this. I believe that even young youth workers in their 20’s have much to offer to parents. I wrote a post that might help unpack this more. Check it out here.

  10. as the parent of a child ready to transition into middle school, this topic is important to me, and one thing that I found really helpful was when you (marko) spoke along with other pastoral team at journey for a seminar that was designed to help us understand our kids…we went when our son was 8, but it was really helpful because I got an understanding of where my church saw their role in terms of stewardship, and what I could do to further it along…and In fact the seminar (when they repeated it the following year) became an invite opportunity to some of our not church going friends.

  11. To build off Andy Root’s phrase about a “very complicated familial cultural locale,” the family landscape has changed so much over the past few decades that we in the youth ministry world have to find a new normal. “Normal” isn’t mom + dad + 2.5 kids. A new normal includes single parents, divorced families, blended families, foster parents, adoption, grandparents and aunts/uncles, half-siblings and step-siblings, gay/lesbian parents, and multiethnic families. Some are Christian; some clearly aren’t; some think they are, but aren’t.

    It’s a new family culture, and it’ll take family-cultural intelligence to navigate it well.

  12. If “family” ministry is ever going to succeed, it will have to tackle parents. Most of my parents wouldn’t have a first step, much less long range plan in discipling their child. Most don’t really want to.

    This is where youth ministry is enabling parental inversion spiritually.

  13. “Tackling parents”. Rock on, Paul. Agreed. Many ‘family ministries’ I have encoutered are, as has already been said, just a repackaging of children’s and-or youth ministries, but little is done differently save from an occasional parent seminar or sending home a parent devotional based on the week’s lesson. My prayer is that we will move instead into a place where parents are discipled, and those who are already ‘doing this’ well in their own families can be encouraged/trained to mentor other families/parents that are younger in faith (if believers at all). I won’t ignore the kiddoes, but I may ‘invest’ more heavily in parents and other mentors as I journey onward in ministry…

  14. I actually like the picture of “tackling parents”! Here’s why: Last week, we hosted our first parent meeting in several years. We always have camp and mission trip meetings for parents to have their questions answered, etc. but this was a night for any parent of junior high or high schoolers who wanted a chance to meet other parents, get a little encouragement, and get to know the youth workers at our church.

    We had a DISMALL turnout. In fact, dismall is being too generous.

    Going into the night I wondered if maybe we weren’t trying to bring an outdated concept back from the dead…that maybe the days of parent meetings had passed us by. Maybe they have, and maybe they haven’t, but the experience was a great reminder that instead of expecting parents to come to us, we need to look for ways to go to them.

    If relational youth ministry wins out over programatic youth ministry every time, then it probably makes sense that relational parent ministry would win out over programatic parent ministry, as well.

    Just my most recent experience and thoughts on a slice of the issue…

  15. Remember, Jesus taught adults and blessed the children. We in the church prefer it the other way around.
    One of the nine marks of effective disicpling churches (Jack Stewart’s forthcoming book from Eerdmanns) is a strong adult faith formation program–then get them alongside the youth and watch it happen.

  16. “Jesus taught adults and blessed the children. We in the church prefer it the other way around.” Keith, for whatever reason I’ve never seen it put that way, but what an unfortunately true statement! I’ll need to check out that book when it comes out.

Leave a Reply