When I started in youth ministry, I was told in various ways that one of the main goals was to get youth away from their parents because then we could really do some spiritual good. Some para-church organizations still promote this idea. So let me start by saying that always felt wrong to me. At the same time, I realize that some parents don’t give a flip about the spiritual education of their own youth(s) until of course something goes wrong in their lives; then they do march into the youthworker’s office for some “free” help.
After 3 decades in youth ministry I’ve come to believe that my job as a youthworker is about working with parents every bit as much as it is about working with youth. Parent’s need help to navigate the landscape of youth culture. Hopefully I can be a helpful guide in that journey. I believe it is far past time that we partner with parents!
While we are helping teenagers to deal with the ins and outs as well as the ups and downs of peers, school, family, sports, sex, busyness, ethics, parties, God, friendships, vocation, evil, life skills, prayer, divorce, drugs, identity, etc. we should also be helping parents and allowing parents to help us.
Most people feel the need for more help with basic prayer. I have no empirical evidence for this but I have noticed that when I call for volunteers to pray, regardless of the age of the group, people wait for me to say that I will do it. I also know that I have two ears yet one mouth so maybe I should listen to God twice as long as I talk. It is important to move our prayer lives beyond just saying grace at mealtimes.
What if we helped parents know some of the different ways to pray privately, as a family, and how to empower their own youth to lead those family prayers in good times and bad. What if we helped people to listen for God more often?
How comfortable are you with prayer?
Most people are stuck in a Sunday school version of what I call God-talk. They have difficult questions, but they do not feel it appropriate to ask those questions, especially at church or in front of their own youth. It may be about death and disaster. It may be about creation and science. Maybe it is about explaining the whole Trinity thing. In many ways, some parents think they need to know exactly the right thing to say and if they do not know what the correct thing is, they say nothing at all hoping that the youth minister will cover that in Sunday school.
What if we helped parents develop a vocabulary to think and speak theologically with their youth? What if we helped them to know the range of acceptable things that can and cannot be said about God? What if we gave permission to ask uncomfortable questions about God?
How comfortable are you with God-talk?
#3. Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
Most of the resources available in youth ministry are what I call “911.” These well meaning resources focus on emergency prevention. Or they focus on what to do after the fact or how to “just say no” and most youth can see right through these mini-morality programs. They don’t trust their parents or us because they know we made different choices that we are currently promoting.
What if we helped youth and parents know what to say yes to? What if we helped them to know how to analyze the pop-culture moments they are immersed in? To think deeply about song lyrics and to look carefully for the Christ-figure in movies are learnable skills. What if we helped parents to be non-anxious dialogue partners with their own kids?
How comfortable are you in teaching people how to think and not what to think?
I have worked with more than a few “dysfunctional families” over the years. One item that I often see with at-risk youth is that their own parents have a very limited (or non-existent) peer/friend group. If adults have not learned how to be good friends, chances are that the youth in their family system will also have troubles in connecting. Some parents even go to the extreme of saying they want to be their daughter/son’s best friend.
What if we helped parents have a sound peer group at church? What if we helped everybody in the family to know what it means to be a friend and have a friend by teaching (and modeling) healthy friendships that have clear boundaries and mutual accountability?
How comfortable are you with your current circle of friendships?
Teaching youth that their true calling is when they do what God most needs done in the world AND what they most need to do often competes with parent’s expectations of “success” and “achievement” for their own kids. Not every youth who excels at sports with become a professional athlete. Not every youth who excels at academics will go on to cure cancer. Many parents feel trapped in their own job and don’t feel like they are living the dreams they had for themselves a decade or two ago.
How can we help youth and parents uncover their spiritual gifts? How can we help them utilize their talents for the glory of God? How can we offer many models of what it looks like to live out a faithful life where each person can recover their own image of God as they live in God’s world?
How comfortable are you in honestly living our your own vocation?
#6. Food and Health Issues
Many of us eat terrible diets in youth ministry. Many of us are overweight and out of shape. I certainly am. We go from one pizza offering to another. Fast food is cheap and easy and quick. It is as true for families as it is for us that too many bad food options are available. In a world where everyone is too busy, many do not take care of their physical health. For a few years my only exercise program was having an office on the third floor.
How can we help parents know healthy alternatives for their family? How can we model for youth that we care about what they eat? What if we all changed the evening youth group menu for the year to only allow for fresh foods that have not been created in a factory? What if we drank filtered water instead of sugary substances? What if on youth trips we took the extra time and budgeted for the (possible) extra expense of making our own fresh food together at each mealtime? What if we did some basic stretching and exercise each day of a mission trip or camp? What if we made sure each person got enough water and enough sleep each day?
How comfortable are you in changing your own lifestyle?
I actually wonder if this just totally escapes most/all of us in the church regardless of our roles. But as youthworkers, do we take at least 1 day a week to focus of resting in God? And even if we are good at doing this, what do we offer that helps families to take the 1 day per week as well? Do we fill up Sundays with so many activities that there is no actual resting in God? Do we expect families to give up spiritual time together because we want to offer one more thing to their Youth?
What if we had a family do nothing retreat once a year? No agenda, no schedule, we just let people organically form to modes of praise and worship, study of Scripture, play, rest, and participate in the time heavy job of preparing fresh foods for mealtimes? What if our newsletter youth calendars showed what day we spend with God and had suggested ideas of how each family could spend their own day with God each week?
How comfortable are you in believing that your own personal calendar honors one of the Ten Commandments?
I totally understand that I have oversimplified things here. There are no easy answers. Some of these things may not be issues in your context for ministry. Your list of 7 may be different than mine. I hope I at least have you thinking what should be different about our praxis of ministry with both youth and especially their parents? so that you as a youthworker grow in your sustainability and usefulnes–rather than becoming yet another roadblock in each family’s spiritual journey together.
I’ll be praying for you.
Peace and Grace,
Charles W. Harrison