The Problem with Family-Based Youth Ministry

This is a post that I have started to write, stopped, deleted, and rewritten a few times over the past year. The reason I’ve been so hesitant to finish it and share it with the world is because I wanted to get it right, and I didn’t want to say something I never intended to say. So before I dive in, I want to clearly affirm something:

The responsibility of discipling a child–whether a preschooler or a teenager–lies primarily (although not solely) on that child’s parent. I think that’s pretty clear in Deuteronomy 6, among other places in the Bible. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously as a dad, and one that I want the parents in our church to take seriously, especially the parents of teenagers that I work with.

So now that you know that, let me dive into what I think of a family-based approach to youth ministry. There are many different ways to implement a family-based approach to youth ministry, but the general idea is that most of the resources (staff, budget, volunteers) is spent equipping and building up families of teenagers so that parents can disciple teenagers, rather than focus programming to connect with teenagers directly.

In some ways, it’s a great approach to ministry. It’s biblical in that it places the emphasis on parents being the primary disciplers of their kids rather than the youth pastor. That’s a really good thing. It’s empowering in that pushes parents to take responsibility for their role as parents in a culture where parents tend outsource the moral, intellectual, and spiritual development to “professionals” such as educators and youth pastors. I love that, and I try to do that myself: A couple of months ago a dad asked if I could come to his house lead a weekly Bible study for his kids, because their schedule wouldn’t allow them to attend youth group. I encouraged him to perhaps be the one to lead the study, and pointed him toward some resources that would help him do that. Empowering parents is really important. However, there is a major flaw in a family-based approach to youth ministry:

It focuses primarily on church insiders rather than those who don’t yet know Jesus.

Think about it: a big assumption of a family-based approach to youth ministry is that the parents want to be involved in the spiritual lives of their teenagers. I would love to live in a world where families are intact and teenagers have two parents who only need a nudge in the right direction to be the spiritual leaders of their home God created them to be. But that’s not the reality I minister in.

Most of the guests who are invited by friends to our church don’t have parents who are interested in Jesus–some are antagonistic toward him! I’ve had to drive students home because their parents were angry that they came to church in the first place so they wanted to make them walk the four miles back to their house. In the high school I’ve tutored in for the past four years, I met plenty of students with parents to whom it made no difference whether their teenager was at school, at church, or at a party with plenty of drugs. Sure, those are some of the more extreme examples, but the point is that for many teenagers in our communities, the parent-discipling-the-teenager approach isn’t a viable option.

The problem with a family-based approach to youth ministry is that the majority of teenagers who have parents that are available and even remotely willing to disciple their teenagers are insiders. And Jesus did not instruct his Church to focus primarily on insiders. He was very clear that we are to make disciples of people who exist outside of our current, tight-knit, church circles (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 for starters). Yes, the teenagers currently in our church are a part of our endeavor to make disciples, but we can’t use that as an excuse to build programs that focus primarily on insiders. When we spend the majority of our efforts on the people who are already a part of our community, we become insider-focused instead of mission-oriented.

By all means, we need to encourage the families we know and who are present to spiritually lead their teenagers. Shout that vision from the rooftops of your church until you’re blue in the face. Don’t let parents abdicate the responsibility they have to lead their teenagers in a relationship with Jesus. For teenagers with those kinds of families, I would much rather see them around a Bible at their kitchen table or at a homeless shelter serving together than in our youth room. But when it comes to the teenagers who don’t have parents who will ever open a Bible with them (barring a miracle, which God is certainly in the business of doing), go to where they are, tell them about Jesus, put your arm around them, teach them at youth group, put them in a small group, and introduce them to caring adults who will point them to Jesus. It’s the best gift you could ever hope to give them.

Video of the Week: "Gotcha Day"

If you aren’t too familiar with adoption, “Gotcha Day” is often used to refer to the day an adopted child is given over to his or her new parents. Many families celebrate the day each year like you would a birthday. Check out this video of one family’s Gotcha Day…better grab a tissue:

Video of the Week: Just Like Me (Mother’s Day Tribute)

Fun Mother’s Day video from Igniter Media…check it out:

Hey Youth Pastor: You’re Spending Way Too Much Time With Students

I was a sophomore in college when Peter, a long-haired youth pastor approached me while I was attending a church pancake supper. I’m not sure what it was that made him talk to me of all people, but I’d imagine it had something to do with the fact that I was the youngest person in the room by far, except for the teenagers running the pancake supper fundraiser. He asked if I wanted to be a leader in the high school ministry, and since I was a new believer who wanted to be a high school math teacher, it seemed like a good fit.

My first week at youth group, Peter handed me a 10-dollar bill and told me to choose one of the high school guys to go out to coffee with. The point was clear: my job was to hang out with high school students. That set the stage for an incredibly fun three years at that church doing youth ministry, hanging out at the bus station where kids would wait up to an hour for their bus, mentoring kids at coffee shops, and doing all sorts of “relational” ministry that probably would get me fired today, such as driving to see a movie with nine kids in the back of a pickup truck. By the end of those three years, I was hooked on youth ministry, and I got a job at a local church as a youth director when I graduated from college.

Ten years later, I still love the “incarnational” part of youth ministry: going to soccer games and high school musicals, having a coke at McDonald’s with a few students, leading a small group of seniors, and being present in a student’s life when their whole world comes crashing down in some way. That part of youth ministry is important, and any youth pastor who wants to do ministry like Jesus did and really love teenagers needs to be willing to be with teenagers. If that’s not something you like doing on some level, you probably shouldn’t be in youth ministry.

That being said, there’s something you need to hear:

You’re spending too much time with students.

To some youth workers, that will seem like a sacrilegious statement. Isn’t spending time with teenagers what student ministry is about? Isn’t that why we became youth pastors?

I understand you love being with students. I do, too. A highlight of my week is Tuesday night, when I get to lead a small group of juniors and seniors in high school. I love tutoring at a local high school each week. And if I had to choose between being cooped up in an office or being at a soccer game cheering on a student, I’d probably pick the soccer game every time. But you shouldn’t be spending all your time with students, and here are some reasons why:

Preparing solid messages takes time. It doesn’t matter who you are: if you’re winging your messages every week or just throwing something together at Starbucks a half an hour before youth group, you’re not taking your biblical responsibility as a pastor to teenagers seriously by “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Even if you’re using someone else’s curriculum, a certain amount of time is needed to give your students your best. You may not be in a full-time ministry position where you can devote several hours each week to serious study and message prep, but we all know the difference between throwing something together at the last minute and a lesson you’ve given some amount of serious thought and prayer to.

Developing a team of leaders takes time. If you have charge over a youth ministry (whether at your local church or in a parachurch organization), part of your responsibility is to raise up and train other leaders. It doesn’t matter if 2 or 200 teenagers attend your youth group; a leader who isn’t gathering other leaders around him or her isn’t really a leader. Teams are much more effective than individuals, and if you’re feeling burned out because of all you are doing in ministry, one reason might be that you’re trying to do it all yourself. And before you protest that Jesus was all about being with people and not building organizational structures, don’t forget that even Jesus sent out his disciples to do work that he was most likely very capable of doing himself (see Luke 10:1-23).

Serving parents takes time. Parents–for better or for worse–have a far greater impact in a teenager’s life than you or I ever will. If you don’t believe that, then you likely don’t believe in serving and ministering to parents. Yes, there will always be parents you can’t reach. But chances are there are several parents of teenagers in your church who would welcome a little nudge to become better disciplers of their kids. This is a huge ministry opportunity that I believe churches miss out on. What if you spent just two hours less per week at football games or interacting with teenagers on Facebook so that you could spend that time pouring into parents. I’d be willing to bet if you made that commitment for a year, you’d be amazed at the results.

Chime in: Do you think youth pastors spend way too much time with students?

Guest Post: Are We Caring for the Spouses of Rookie Youth Pastors?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post for Youth Ministry 360 on the responsibility veteran youth pastors have toward young and/or rookie youth pastors. From that post, a conversation developed between myself and a professor at Western Seminary, Dr. Ron Marrs. For his Ph.D., Ron spent a substantial amount of time studying the experience of young/rookie youth pastors. He wrote about his findings in his dissertation, aptly (and robustly) named “Understanding the Lived Experience of Novice Youth Ministers in the Evangelical Protestant Tradition.”

I was really interested in Ron’s findings, and so I asked him to share a portion of his research on this blog. He graciously agreed to do so, and his post today focuses on some of the experiences the spouses of “novice” youth ministers had in their early years of ministry.

As a part of my reasearch, between 2009 and 2012 I interviewed 26 people about their rookie youth pastor experience. As part of my research, I also interviewed 24 people who supervised these people in their rookie experience. I found out many interesting things, but the one that burdened me the most was the experience of the spouses. Of the 26 youth ministers in this study, five were single (including the only two women in the study) and 21 were married. Sixteen of the 21 married youth ministers reported that their wives struggled to some degree during their rookie experience. In addition, thirteen of those 16 youth ministers reported not thriving in their position. But rather than simply share data, I thought I’d let you hear from the youth workers I interviewed in their own words regarding their spouses experiences while they were rookies. What follows are word-for-word excerpts from three separate interviews I conducted during my research:

Sample 1: “Another one would be—my wife wasn’t fond of the hours. She’s a stability, consistency type person and I’ll never forget her saying, “We are first—our son”—She said, “I feel like a single mom” ’cause I was usually out. And I was pretty good–if I was out really late doing something–I’d go in the office at noon the next day, but she was not fond of the hours. And that was tough for her. I was not the 100-hour-week guy. I wasn’t trying to be Superman, but if it was a long few days in a row, we’d have a conversation about that.”

Sample 2: “The 2 years in ministry were, that was a huge conflict for our marriage and probably more so because she was working so intimately with me and I almost have to…you’d have to speak with [my wife] about it, but, it was such a tenuous relationship because I had visions of what I would want to do, but I couldn’t communicate them and just the stress of everything made it that much more difficult. (Note: This youth pastor left the church and vocational ministry and his marriage survived the major upheaval that occurred for him in this situation.)

Sample 3: “What would my wife say…well, I think it would be fair to say that she did not enjoy it very much. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. For her it was that church was hard for her to make new friends at. There weren’t people who were her age that were people she’d be friends with. And not having people at church that she was connected with, people she wanted to see at church, she never really developed deep relationships with anyone there. She developed friends outside of the church, other avenues, but she was also more affected by some of the criticisms and conflicts than I was. It was more deep and hurtful for her and she felt it more personally…well, I don’t know how to summarize it. One area would be her attempt to develop friendships with the ladies and their pettiness. And basically they were saying they didn’t want to be friends with her. Those were some of the parents criticizing her because she was too young to know any better or didn’t know anything. She had a desire to invest in some of the girls but they essentially told her that that was my job as a youth pastor to be the one to give the input, not hers.” (Note: They were at the church a very short time and went through a serious time of reflection to see if they wanted to continue in church ministry. Eventually he took a ministry position which was not youth ministry.)

As you can see, the experience of these youth pastors’ spouses were less than ideal. What I learned from these interviews has led me to understand that rookie youth pastors and those who supervise them need to be concerned about the spiritual life of the youth pastor’s spouse. However, this is more difficult and gets very complicated if the youth pastor is sideways with his or her supervisor. As anyone who has been in youth ministry for any length of time can tell you, there is a lot that can be said on this subject that doesn’t fit in just a blog post. If you’re interested in reading the full dissertation, you are welcome to check it out online. It’s a good idea to skip ahead to Chapter 5, which is where I share the results of my research.

Note from Benjer: I’d love to hear from others on this topic. If you’re married, what has the experience of your spouse been during your time in youth ministry? How do you feel churches care for the spouses of youth pastors in general? Are there any difficulties Ron didn’t mention that spouses of youth pastors face?

Three Commitments I Want to Make to My Kids

My sweet, sweet girls

A couple of weeks ago, some (very public) discipline issues in our family got me thinking about how I’d like to handle such situations as our girls continue to get older. As I continued to ponder other parenting situations I might face as my kids grow older, I compiled a short list of three commitments I want to make to my kids when it comes to some situations that can often be very stressful for families. Obviously, it’s not a complete list, but I thought I’d share it here:

1) That I won’t ever be embarrassed of them when they get in trouble.
As a youth pastor, a tough thing I have to do sometimes is to call or talk with parents when their teenager broke a major rule at an event or mistreated another student. It’s not usually a fun thing in itself, but what makes it really painful is when parents seem more concerned about and embarrassed by how their child’s poor choice reflects on them as a parent than they are about what their child actually did. I never want my girls to feel like I’m embarrassed of them, even when their misdeed occurs in a very public way–such as when I have to be called away from what I’m doing as a pastor because one of my sweet girls threw a chair in their children’s ministry classroom. While I may be disappointed in my kids’ actions sometimes, I pledge never to be embarrassed or ashamed of them as people.

2) That I will be gentle with them when they fail.
This one will be the toughest one for me as a dad. Somehow, I started fatherhood already well-stocked with a large number of “you should have seen that coming” or “I told you it would happen that way” lectures in my mental filing cabinet. I have failed a great deal in my own life, and God has always been gentle with me, even in his chastisement. I want to be that kind of dad. When my kids fail, I pledge to always lead with a hug and not with a lecture.

3) That I will trust them when they believe they are following God’s lead in making a major decision.
So far, Jennifer and I have two children, both girls. I don’t know what other children God will bring us, but already in our small family, we have an others-centered Bethany who I truly believe would travel halfway around the world if she thought it would help just one person. We also have a fiery, determined Samantha who will do whatever it takes to complete a task her heart is set on, no matter the cost. I can already see the day coming when each will believe that God is leading them to do something that Jennifer and I aren’t entirely comfortable with (and that neither of us can find a biblical reason for them not to do). Though it will be difficult to allow them to take their own risks for Jesus, I pledge in such situations to do everything I can to help them follow God’s lead, even if it means simply stepping out of the way.

An Open Letter to (Some) Parents of Teenagers

Credit: Creative Commons (sporkist)

Dear Parent of a Teenager:

You don’t know me, but our paths have crossed before in shopping malls, on Facebook, and in the grocery store. Do not think poorly of me, but through the years, I have occasionally overheard bits and pieces of some of your conversations about your teenage kids. Quite frankly, some of those bits and pieces of conversations I have picked up on have made me sad.

Please understand that I do not doubt your love for your teenager: As best as I can tell, you have provided your child with a safe home, their basic needs, and everything they need to thrive. There might even be some days when you look at a photo of you holding your son soon after his birth or a piece of art you’ve kept all these years that your daughter drew in kindergarten, and you remember just why you keep doing this crazy thing called parenting.

Still, I would kindly request that you break the habit of demeaning your teenager in public conversations–especially within earshot of your teenagers or on Facebook, where your teenager will read it. It has become, unfortunately, acceptable and even popular for parents to speak unkindly about their teenagers in a humorous manner. Your teenager does not need to hear you making sarcastic remarks in a public setting about how lazy he or she is or how you’re fed up with him or her. I understand that it might have begun as simply a humorous way to cope with the stress of being a parent of a teenager.

However, your words have power, not just when others hear them, but they also have power over you when you say them repeatedly. When you say something often enough, you start to believe it, and I sincerely hope you do not really mean some of the things you’ve said. In addition, I’d like to point out that if I ever talked as openly about wanting to strangle my three-year-old as you do about wanting to strangle your teenager, I am quite sure that I would receive a visit from our local social worker. I’m not quite sure when it became so in vogue to publicly threaten the physical safety of our teenage children. There is nothing wrong with venting to or seeking the advice from a trusted friend. Parenting is tough, and the more people you can have supporting you, the better. But you and I both know there is a big difference between talking with a friend about how your teenager is failing three classes and saying some of the things you’ve said about her, which I’d rather not repeat.

No, I am not a parent of a teenager–yet. I have never experienced first-hand the struggles that come with being a parent of a teenager: The emotional roller coaster that comes with their heightened hormones, the inclination to rebel in their quest to find their identity, the slamming doors, or the silent mornings after a terrible fight. Though I am only a parent of preschool girls at this stage in my life, I do not believe that my girls–who still kiss me goodbye every morning and shout “DADDY!” at the top of their lungs when I return home–will be any less of a blessing when they have gained ten years and refuse to kiss my cheek in public. Yes, things will be different, and there may be a day when I reach the end of my rope as a parent. But they are a gift from God to me today, and they will be no less a gift should their teenage selves ever tell me they hate me because I have grounded them the same weekend as their friend’s birthday party. Remember how much you trust them. After all, some of you guys will likely pay, or take out a car loan for them that you can learn more about at, for their cars or motorbikes, even their 125cc insurance! So let’s build them up in public, not break them down. Show the trust you have always unconsciously done their entire lives.

This letter is meant as a loving encouragement to you. I hope you know that I respect you for all that is on your plate as a parent. I’m still figuring out how to hand the middle-of-the-grocery-store-aisle tantrum; I can’t say I would know how to handle the parental struggles you’ve been through. But I do know that you love your kids, and that the words you utter in public probably aren’t what you really want to convey about your kids. Thanks for what you do as a parent, for sticking with it, and I pray that this letter would at least make you think twice before airing frustrations about your kids in such a public manner.


Why Serving as a Team Is Better Than Serving on Your Own

Credit: Creative Commons (Matt McGee)

My wife and I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old at our house. We try to make a practice of having tons of fun, which often means making a big mess. In fact, just about every activity we do at our house seems to require a decent amount of cleaning up after the fun is over. Play-Doh? Needs to be cleaned up. Huge fort in the living room? Blankets need to be put away. Painting on the easel? Definitely a lot of cleaning up there.

Usually, we don’t make a big enough mess that I couldn’t clean it up with just a few minutes of quick work. What takes the most time is when I include my kids in the task. Here’s the issue: by including my girls in the task of cleaning up, it usually increases the amount of time the clean-up process takes, and it sometimes can decrease the effectiveness of cleaning up.

If you’re a parent, you know that the point of asking your preschoolers to help clean isn’t because you want a sparkling house. You incude them because there’s something bigger going on than just putting things back the way they should go. Including your kids helps them take responsibility for the care of our house and their toys, and it teaches them that when they make a mess, they clean it up. What’s more, there are many times when they actually like to help clean up. (Cue the song: “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere!”)

The same is true in ministry. As a youth pastor, there are plenty of tasks that I could do myself–but that I shouldn’t do myself. Why? Because just like when I ask my kids to help me clean up, there’s something bigger going on when I ask people to lead with me than having things be just so and running a “sparkling” ministry (if such a thing is possible). Here are some benefits to not doing things yourself and allowing others to serve alongside you in ministry in a meaningful way:

You will have more fun.
If you don’t like serving as a part of a team, then being a ministry leader probably isn’t for you. When you have a team mentality when it comes to ministry, you will discover that doing ministry as a team is really, really, fun! Some of my favorite memories in youth ministry have come while serving with fantastic volunteers who also had become great friends.

Your team will learn to fail.
When you let others share in your leadership, there will come a day when they will fail. When someone on your team fails, drops the ball, or makes a bonehead mistake, it’s easy to think, That’s why I should’ve done it myself! But God can use failure in an incredible way, and your team will grow far more than if you had just done it yourself and done it “right” (whatever that is). If I never let my kids do anything, then they would never learn what it’s like to fail, regroup, and try again. The same is true of the people you lead.

They may do it better than you.
I hate to admit it, but even though my girls are five and three, there are already things they do better than their dad. (Bethany can totally rock “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the violin, and there’s no doubt Samantha is a better artist than me.) There are probably things that people on your team do better than you, and you need to let them do what they’re good at. If you’re a good leader, your goal shouldn’t just be to lead a good team in the here and now; you should also work to see people on your team go on to do what you do–only better.

QUESTION: What are some other benefits of doing ministry as a team?

Top Ten Posts of 2012

Credit: Stockerre (Creative Commons)

It’s been another fun year for me writing on this blog. Thanks so much to those of you who trust me with your time by allowing me to be a part of your reading list. As I enjoy a fun week off with family, here are the ten most-read posts of 2012:

10) (Guest Post by Christine Niles): “Twenty-One Ways Churches Can Support Adopting Parents” (April 14th)

9) “Youth Ministry Tools That Will Be Relics in Ten Years” (June 5th)

8) “Three Signs You Aren’t Preaching the Word in Youth Ministry” (August 14th)

7) “KONY 2012, Invisible Children’s Detractors, and Loving, Christ-Centered Discernment and Disagreement” (March 7th)

6) “Dear Youth Pastor (How do I know if I’m called to youth ministry?)” (April 19th)

5) “Dear Youth Pastor (My Students Like Another Youth Pastor)” (May 24th)

4) “How to Alienate and Burn Out a Pastor’s Wife” (January 11th)

3) “Questions From Teenagers on God, Faith, and Life in General” (February 29th)

2) “Great Apologetic Resources” (April 11th)

1) “Lesson On Loving Your Family From Jeff Hornacek” (March 12th)

Check back tomorrow for the top five videos from 2012!