Youth Ministry in a Family Ministry Context

Is your church similar to a family holiday celebration? The table is set, the decorations adorn the room, all ages are gathered together… but sitting at different tables. The “adult’s table” is the set with the large platters of food, and the fine wine to match the fine china. At the “kids’ table” are plastic plates that won’t break, no table clothes that could be stained, and no food platters – the plates of food will be served to the children by a parent in pre-approved samplings that the adult chooses.

Dave Keehn's family standing in front of Christmas tree

Does this sound like the difference between the adult worship vs. kids worship: one gets the better equipment and musicians while we assume the kids are content with student musicians. Adult mission trips push the limits of opportunities while kids are often ignored for true missional experiences. Even our language of “big church” gives away the “second-class status” with which we classify the children and youth ministries. The larger the church, the more professional the youth ministry becomes… the more segregated youth are from the church. The result is tragically youth are “guests” in church, and hear the message “don’t mess it up”.

A growing trend in both children and youth ministries is to develop a Family Ministry context for these established ministries to operate within. (For more information on this trend see the Orange Conference and resources). Too often in our effort to create a family ministry we commit tragic mistakes, wasting time, resources and the momentum, discouraging those who truly want a youth ministry in a context of family ministry. Some of the mistakes I have stumbled through are: doing family events for event’s sake, caving to the pressure to do something just to say I did something. A second mistake was trying to get families to come out one more night of the week; this actually took away from the precious time they have together. In frustration, I committed the worst mistake, and did nothing at all.

We must realize the Church is a Family of Families! This becomes our design for Youth Ministry in a Family Ministry context. So how do we do that?

First change our mindset to look for the family of the teenager

Most youth workers have a natural “radar” for teenagers. We can’t help but be see students, whether it is around the church or in the community. Having a mindset that thinks about the whole family of our teenage student will change the smallest aspects of youth ministry, as no longer will it be enough to hang out in the youth center, sharing our lives with teenagers only.

The mindset of “family first” is acted out in how we walk through the church grounds, saying hello and connecting with parents as well as students. This mindset may take some of us out of “teenage comfort zone” but the benefits will be worth the effort. A few practical ways I live out this new mindset are:

  1. When meeting a new student, his or her parents are usually there as well, after welcoming the new student and connecting them to other students (the student’s main concern: who will I be with?), I spend time with the parents, telling them of our youth ministry’s focus and programs (the parents’ main concern: what will this church offer my teenager). An important element of this initial time with the parents is to ask them questions about their spiritual journey as a family, along with questions that will help me understand their family better. I want to show I am interested in partnering with them in the spiritual formation of their teenager, and not appear like our youth ministry has “the answer” for them. This is the beginning of our church’s relationship with that new family.
  2. As the youth program is getting started, I position myself outside, in the “drop off zone”, to meet and greet the students. My volunteer team handles the youth interactions inside our room, while I remain outside to been seen as available to talk to the parents. You may be surprised when a parent needs to talk and being available to them in this manner has enhanced our ministry’s reputation in their eyes.
  3. The youth mentors have the expectation of connecting with each of their students about every other week through a phone call. I have trained my volunteers to talk to the parents first, as the parent is often the person who answers the phone. This alleviates any concern about who is calling their teenager; this is also a great way to begin to build relationships with families who do not attend the church.

Second train and refer parents to become stronger in their marriages and parenting skills.

Wes Black’s study of adolescence spiritual journeys found the family home has a tremendous impact on a teenager’s “sticking” with his or her faith.

“The type of home in which teenagers grew up has an impact on church participation in young adulthood. Those whose parents were divorced, those who grew up with a single parent, and those who live with step siblings during their teenage years tend to drop out following high school graduation.” (Black, p.28)

At this time of crises, the family may want to talk to the youth worker, who can listen and pray with the family and then should refer the family onto to a professional counselor trained in that area of need. A youth worker should not assume they are expected to be the expert in all matters of youth and family dynamics. Learning when and to whom to refer a family is perhaps the greatest resource a youth worker can be to the families in the church. In this two-step action – train and refer – the youth worker will help develop the parenting skills and marriages of the families of the church. Some specific practices for “train and refer” are:

  1. I host a monthly parent class during one of the Parent of Teen Bible studies that regularly meet at our church. This class serves two additional purposes besides providing training on a parenting skill. It is a time for connecting new parents of the church to an existing network of parents for support and encouragement. Secondly, I pick training topics that are felt needs to draw in parents from non-churched families. Topics that I have used are: preparing your teen for college, teaching your teen to handle money, and communicating for a change. These are topics that even non-churched parents care about and may be willing to attend a church for help in this area.
  2. One of the most important training topics I have found concerns parenting “styles”. This is a sensitive matter as some conservative Christian parents feel it their duty to control the decisions of their teenagers until they are old enough to leave the house. Their mindset is that the teenager is not ready for the challenge of choices presented to him or her and may make a bad decision. With these parents I have to remind them the goal is to have the child leave the home ready to be a mature and responsible young adult. Wes Black makes the same suggestion as a result as his study, suggesting training in “Parenting style - guiding youth toward making wise choices in friendships, lifestyle, and priorities when they are older and away from the direct influence of the parents” (Black, p. 39). The key word here is “guiding”. The youth worker must point out that as the child grows older, the parenting style needs to adjust from “controlling” (elementary years) to “coaching” (teenage years) to “consulting friend” (young adult years). The parents’ true goal is transitioning their teen through adolescence to adulthood. This pathway is treacherous and cannot be avoided. Parents cannot assume that if they make all the decisions for their teenager, they will arrive safely on the other side. While learning (being trained) to adjust their parenting role may be very difficult and be a source of conflict, Black provided an encouraging statement from a young adult who had parents taking this guiding mindset:“It's really cool when your dad thinks of you as an adult and you have your dad's respect. Now I submit to him because I want to not because I have to” (Black, p. 39).
  3. Involve parents to reach parents: A useful tip I have used to get parents to participate who does not normally attend is to have a parent of each age group call other parents from that age group. For example, I will ask Patty to call all the parents of 7th grade boys because her son is in the 7th grade and they have natural connections. I have witnessed many times a non-churched parent attend a parenting class looking for the other mom who called her; this has often been the link that this parent needed to begin attending the church for themselves. I used to host this class on another night of the week, but found it too difficult to bring parents back one more night; so instead I utilize a time they are already gathering.
  4. Develop a list of the professional, Christian counselors in your area. I have taken the time to interview these individuals to understand the area of their expertise so as I can make the best referral to a hurting family.

Third, empower parents to be Spiritual Leaders in the home

Let’s begin this practical discussion examining the level of communications we can have with parents. Communicating with parents needs to be more than just event details if we are to empower them to be the spiritual leaders of their home. If all they ever hear from us is the activities cost and date, then we are reducing them to be merely “yes-no” voices to their children. For some situations, parents would be happy just to know the dates and cost of key events further in advance. A simple youth calendar that gives a parents a quarterly view of the youth activities will help a parent budget their time and money to enable their teenager to participate. Some ideas I have utilized are:

  1. A parent newsletter, a monthly resource giving parents insights to the youth ministry, highlighting past events or profiling volunteers. This can be a place to pass on training topics and information. If the youth worker is too busy to write this monthly newsletter, GROUP publishing provides resource called “The Parent Link” ( for $99 a year, giving the youth worker the template for a newsletter filled with topical articles on parenting and discussion starters for the family. They also include analysis of current music and movies so parents can be aware of what their teenagers are listening to and watching. I have had many parents praise me for the resource that I provide for them. This newsletter can either be snail-mailed or emailed to parents.
  2. Spiritual discussions that are started at the youth ministry should be continued on at home. Traditionally, children’s ministries have provided “take home” papers for parents to be aware of what the children were taught and to facilitate further conversations. While most of these papers would never find their way to teenager’s homes, I have found good success by providing a weekly email, and now text blast, to parents after our youth program. This email simply provides parents with the key thought of the night, the Biblical passage that was discussed and some follow-up questions with which they can engage their teen in the following days. I do not recommend parents trying to get into the questions on the car ride home from youth group, but to simply allow the teenager to share their feelings of the night and any highlights they want to voluntarily discuss. I encourage the parents in my ministry to have a weekly “date” meal with their teens to discuss life; this is a prime time for a spiritual discussion based on the subject matter the teenager was already discussing in our youth ministry.
  3. Rites of Passage: These Rites of Passage have three elements: preparation, challenge, and celebration. If a milestone is allowed to pass with little preparation or only a brief celebration, it will have lost its opportunity to be a significant spiritual formation experience for both the teenager and the family. The milestones are connected to key decisions that a teenager makes. Some of these milestones are: baptism (following a personal decision of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord), purity commitment (following a decision to begin dating, but prior to first date), blessing ceremony (following high school graduation as the teenager decides to pursue God’s kingdom purposes).

Final thoughts…

As we examine the Scriptures, God was working in the lives of young people long before “Youth Ministry” became a “buzz-word” of church growth movements. God’s original design was to work through parents and the family. Later, God added the spiritual community – first with the Law and Tabernacle and later the Church – to work alongside the family in raising godly children and young adults. However, youth pastors have ignored this powerful source of spiritual formation far too long, and in the process led misguided programs wasting resources.

Some of you may be thinking this doesn’t sound too different from how youth ministry has traditionally been done: larger community of faith instructing teenagers, or even the latest emphasis of connecting them to mentors. The difference is in how you begin to minister to youth! How you begin makes all the difference of the results achieved.

NASA learned this lesson in a very tragic way. In 1986 I sat in horror in a high school history class watching the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which had just exploded just 73 seconds into the flight. The cause of the destruction was the failure of the O-ring in the right rocket booster. Sadly, NASA knew the O ring design “contained a potentially catastrophic flaw … since 1977, but they failed to address it properly” (Wikipedia: Space Shuttle Challenger). The Challenger was doomed from the beginning and there was nothing the astronauts could do about it. This sad illustration serves to make our point, how you begin - the planning, the resources selected, and the focus of your ministry team – determines how you end. Let’s decide now to begin the important changes to develop a youth ministry that begins within a family ministry context.