The Problem with Family-Based Youth Ministry

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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.

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  1. Hello Benjer,
    I stumbled on this post while researching “Family-Based” youth ministry for my Philosophy of Youth Ministry class. (I’m actually an English major but needed the elective and since my husband is an actual youth pastor, I felt like it made sense to choose this one… I already had the books, after all.) I have to say, the more I read about family-based youth ministry, the more it sounds great… for another youth group. For primarily the same reason you mention– the parents are already, or want to be, involved in their child’s spiritual growth. In our youth group currently, we have about 50-75 solid Wednesday night youth group students. They come to worship, go to small groups, and are consistent. Unfortunately, only about 10 of those students represent families within our larger congregation. A few years ago we changed our focus from trying to reach kids to trying to reach LOST kids. It was a shift from, “Hey! Invite your (already attending church somewhere else) friends to this or that event!” to “Hey! Invite the lost kids who don’t have a church home to come here on Wednesday!” It worked. We now have several kids who are lost and several kids who have been changed by Jesus. But reaching their parents has felt almost impossible. Most of these kids come from broken homes. Many of them have parents who don’t care where they are. My husband picks them up from school on Wednesday and drops them off after service. We have started focusing more on parent-involvement. Sending home letters (most of which get left behind), sending out a parent newsletter with helpful discipleship and parenting tips, meeting with parents… but the fact remains that it is difficult to completely turn over the responsibility of a kid’s spiritual health to a parent who is indifferent (at best) or antagonistic (at worst) to the gospel. thanks for articulating why family-based youth ministry may not work for every ministry.

    • Erin: You hit the nail on the head…ministering to parents is super important. But when you start ministering to kids whose parents are not connected—and have no interested in being connected yet—to your church, the family-based model falls apart. Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Minister TJ says:

    Do both

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