Youth Ministry is Done in Families
It’s difficult showing churches and ministries the benefits of shifting the focus from a segmented community to a Family that fosters numerous mature adult relationships.
As Chap Clark, author of Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers expresses, “Young people are desperate for an adult who cares.” He explains that “the foundational reason behind separation between the adult world and the world of adolescents is that society has abdicated its responsibility to nurture the young into adulthood.”
Unfortunately churches do the same thing.
“This generation feels separated,” says Clark Blakeman, Pastor of Community Relations at Imago Dei Community Church in Portland, Or. Blakeman was asked by senior pastor Rick McKinley to help with the vision for the youth ministry at Imago Dei. Blakeman had served as a youth pastor for the past 8 years in the Portland area.
“One of the things that would be a distinctive of the youth ministry here,” says Blakeman, “was to integrate it into the life of the whole. Without letting go of the fact that teens are in a special place in their life and do need special attention.”
“The teens have their own thing, but they’re also invited into the other things in the church. We are constantly inviting the youth to participate in those.”
Blakeman admits, “It take a little bit to change people’s thinking or approach about it. We’re trying to bring them in, but it’s a little bit slow.”
The idea of youth involved with the larger story of the ministry is foreign to many churches. But we can’t expect our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow if a family or community isn’t leading them.
“Instead of one adult relationship for every five teenagers we should be thinking in terms of five positive adult relationships for one teenager,” said Blakeman. “I think that’s key.”
Blakeman said when he began his first youth ministry position he saw that there was “definite segregation” among the youth and the larger church body.
“We made one shift [in the ministry] that was real significant.” said Blakeman, “And that was including parents.”
It isn’t easy shifting a youth ministry to a family focus. I met a young youth pastor at a northwest church who wanted to start a father-son bible study. When he brought the idea before the parents the idea was met with enthusiasm. But when no fathers showed up to the first study he realized that the father’s were too busy to participate. When he approached about the matter they had work and other family obligations and didn’t have time. The young man was exasperated.
Another youth pastor was amazed at the involvement of the mother’s in the youth ministry, but when he saw the rebellious behavior of the young women he began to ask questions. He realized the mother’s were too involved with the ministry, in organizing events and planning, they didn’t take time for the relationships with their daughters.
Frank Brown’s approach to ministering to the youth in his church began with the parents.
“I went to the parents,” said Frank Brown. “And told them if they wanted youth group then they need to be involved.”
When parents are involved the dynamics change. When godly older men lead younger men and when godly older women lead younger women it creates a stronger family. It creates a grounded and supported youth, marked for long-term success on the basis that their faith is firm and they don’t walk alone with only their friends, maybe a parent, or a youth pastor if he can fit you in for coffee on Tuesday (“How about a rain check?”).
According to Phil Schwadel and Christian Smith in Portraits of Protestant Teens: A Report on Teenagers in Major U.S. Denominations:
“Almost three-quarters of Protestant parents who attend church at least a few times a year (73 percent) say that ministry to teens is a very important priority in their churches, suggesting that over a quarter of Protestant parents feel that their churches are not placing a high priority on ministry to teens.”
This study doesn’t mention the amount of involvement by the parents, but it does show that families are interested in the well being of their children and do hope that the church is a part of the faith formation and growth in their lives.
A study by the University of Illinois, in the September 07 issue of Development Psychology reported 40 percent of students in faith-based groups said they “got to know people in the community,” compared to 20 percent of students in other organized activities. And 46 percent of teens in faith-based groups reported “This activity improved my relationship with my parents” versus 21 percent of students in other activities.
A seven-year-old boy sits next to me flipping through his Pokeman cards.
“Which one is your favorite?” he asks me.
I point to a cool piranha looking one.
“Here you can have it.” He starts pulling it out of the plastic.
His parents don’t live together anymore. He only comes to church when it’s his mother’s week to have him. He is rambunctious and wild with a high probability of becoming a troubled child, the product of an unsupported and fragmented home life.
“Here,” he says. “You can have it.” He puts the card in my hand and smiles and jumps off his seat.
What if he becomes like the lonely young man at the church youth event, wishing he had someone in his life to care enough about his problems, someone who would listen.
Maybe the church, our families, leaders, communities need to be more like the little boy. Placing in our youth’s hands the hope and faithfulness, trust and support, love and encouragement God offers us all.
“Here,” we can say, “You can have it.”