The Best Youth Ministers

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By Les Christie

A youth-ministry expert tells why and how the church must partner with parents to bring their kids to spiritual maturity.

Fifty years ago youth leaders in churches were still largely volunteers, many of them parents of teenagers. When I was in high school and attending Cardiff Avenue Christian Church in West Los Angeles, I remember Mrs. Curry (who turns 100 this year and still drives a car—yikes!) was a parent volunteer in the youth department. Jim Irby was our part-time youth minister. Both strongly influenced my early years, and I still stay in touch with them.

Churches were smaller (mine averaged 125 in attendance), and teenagers were integrated into the whole life of the church.

Fifty years ago youth leaders in churches were still largely volunteers, many of them parents of teenagers. When I was in high school and attending Cardiff Avenue Christian Church in West Los Angeles, I remember Mrs. Curry (who turns 100 this year and still drives a car—yikes!) was a parent volunteer in the youth department. Jim Irby was our part-time youth minister. Both strongly influenced my early years, and I still stay in touch with them.

Churches were smaller (mine averaged 125 in attendance), and teenagers were integrated into the whole life of the church. Now in midsize churches (attendance of more than 300) clear up to very large churches (more than 2,000), kids are likely to be isolated from adults, even their own parents. They may arrive in the same car but then they scatter to their appropriate buildings. In many churches today the predominant influence/role model for many teenagers is a part- or full-time, 20-something youth minister. Not their own parents and not the senior minister. So what are churches to do?

Eliminate Youth Ministries?

One reaction to both the secularization and the ineffectiveness of public schools has been the home-schooling movement that is educating more than 2 million children. A portion of this group is advocating the elimination of church youth ministries because of the deeply held conviction that fathers should provide Christian training for their children.

I remember early in my ministry hearing Jay Kesler describe what he called the “bright young man” model of youth ministry. He compared youth workers with light bulbs. Just as light bulbs attract bugs, so bright young men (sorry, there were fewer women pastors in those days) attracted teenagers. Every congregation needed a bright young man to keep the kids buzzing around the church.

The bright young man (or woman) model has been a popular one. It worked well, but we know that light bulbs burn out frequently. When the youth pastor would leave, the bugs (teens) disappeared.

Another image of youth workers comes from the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, about a small town (Hamelin) infested with rats. A man dressed in pied (multicolored) clothing showed up who claimed to be a rat catcher. The people of the town agreed to pay him a fair amount if he would rid their town of rats. So one day he played his musical pipe (something like a bagpipe) and the rats followed him out of town and into the river, where they drowned.

The people of Hamelin were very pleased with this outcome, but then refused to pay the piper for his service (which is where we get the phrase “It’s time to pay the piper”).

To get revenge, the Pied Piper came back into the town while all the villagers were in the church. This time the music from his pipe attracted all the children of the village, who followed him out of town and into a cave where they were never heard from again. They simply disappeared.

In America the end result has been similar: Teenagers are largely disappearing from churches across the United States.

In Faith Begins at Home, Mark Holmen writes,

Pied Pipers are usually gifted in working with children or teens but simply don’t have the interest or desire to bridge their ministry to the home. Through their dynamic and charismatic leadership, they are able to draw a crowd of students to follow them. Yet in many cases, Pied Pipers see parents as a disruption to the work they’re trying to do. Unfortunately they don’t realize that their success or influence is only temporary.

Many senior pastors fall into this same trap. Paul warned the church at Corinth not to focus on personalities like himself (see 1 Corinthians 1:13-17).

My friend Kara Powell serves as executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. In her studies and surveys, she raises the concern that “teens attend youth groups because they admire the youth pastors or other adults who lead the group.” If the teen’s primary connection to the church is their youth pastor, what happens when the youth pastor leaves?

In many churches, some parents expect the youth worker to take care of all the kids’ spiritual needs. This has to change. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 clearly states parents ought to be the primary spiritual educators of kids.

Youth Ministers Reinvented

We need to reinvent the role of the youth pastor. The youth pastor today should be focused more on equipping adults, especially parents, rather than teenagers. The youth pastor should spend the majority of his or her time encouraging parents who have way more influence over their teenagers than he or she does. I realize partnering with parents will be a completely new way of doing ministry for some reading this, but it is well worth the effort.

Training schools, colleges, and universities are now including courses on working with parents. At the university where I teach, we offer an entire class on “Ministering to Families with Teenagers.”

In the last 50 years, we have seen seeker-driven, purpose-driven, transformational, contemplative, and presence-centered ministries. I think we need to see family-driven ministries.

The most influential people in forming a teen’s spiritual life are his or her parents. The church needs to return to its roots of doing a more effective job of partnering with parents, in other words, a family-based youth ministry.

We need to encourage and equip parents through parent meetings and retreats. My friend Heather Flies wrote, “Each time I stand in front of my [students’] parents I say this: ‘We see it is our job to partner with you—to advocate for you—to speak the same truth you’re speaking.’”

I realize not all parents should be directly involved as youth workers, but we can do a lot more to involve parents. Good youth workers are passionate about coming alongside parents. I’ve never heard a youth worker say “parents are the enemy,” but I have sensed this unspoken attitude. The majority of parents love their children, want what’s best for them, and are terrific role models for kids. We need to view them as allies and our biggest fans.

Reggie Joiner wrote, “All parents love their children. It may not be a perfect love, and there may be varying degrees of dysfunction, but most parents love their children in the best way they know how.”

Parents and other family members are the biggest influence on a teen’s life, followed by peers. Survey after survey has shown that, though the media seems to ignore it. We need to focus on resourcing and equipping parents and family members. Most parents worry about the direction their kids may be going.

Students need an intergenerational connection. Invite them to worship in the big church. Consider meeting your teens in the youth room just before the service begins and walk in with them. The kids can then sit with or at least sit near their parents. The parents and their kids will hear the same message. Provide questions for discussion, perhaps via the bulletin, for families to discuss at home after church.

I saw a sign that said, “Be the shepherd, not the veterinarian.” What parents need most is reassurance, perspective, and the knowledge that someone is willing to listen. Be available—most parents want help.

Woody Allen once said that showing up is 80 percent of life. I would suggest that a good amount of a parenting ministry is simply showing up and listening to parents. Ask more questions and make fewer statements. Stand in the parking lot and talk to kids while they are waiting for their parents to pick them up. Call or e-mail parents a couple of times a year and ask, “How can we be praying for you?” and “Is there anything we can do to support your family?”

We also need to keep parents informed. Let them know what you are teaching and the dates and purposes for upcoming events. Give them discussion questions they can ask their kids that relate to the lessons you are teaching. Communicate your vision, rules, and expectations.

Ask parents to chaperone when you go on a trip. Have a parent-advisory committee that meets quarterly. Have some parents do guest teaching; they can start by sharing their own testimony. Schedule only one student ministry program a week (with rare exception). This is also helpful for volunteers.

Have parent meetings right after a church service so parents don’t have to make two trips. Offer to have lunch brought in. Offer parents opportunities to serve around the edges of your ministries—hosting a youth group gathering at their home, driving a vehicle for an event, staffing the information desk, running the soundboard, or chaperoning a one-time event.

We also need to reach out to parents who don’t go to church. We need to offer them the love of the gospel and serve them wholeheartedly as a work for the Lord. Build rapport with these families and they will invite you in, but don’t push it. When you’re with them, listen to them more than you speak. Equip their students to minister to their parents.

Next Generations

The theme verse for my life and ministry is, “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:18). This verse is in a frame that sits on my desk. We need to come alongside parents in their effort to grow their children spiritually. Our influence on kids is limited—we have a maximum of about five hours a week—so the church and parents must work together.

My friend Jim Burns has written, “Today’s students are growing up in an amoral culture where ‘each person does what is right in his/her own eyes.’ It is no surprise they are living in a world that has grown increasingly hostile to the traditional values of the Christian faith.”

Let’s encourage parents to live lives of integrity and authenticity. Most parents are frightened by the amount of negative distractions and temptations facing their kids. However, as we partner with parents and support them along the way, we can help our students make it through the maze of negative influences and develop positive morals and values that they, in turn, can pass on to their own children.

Les Christie retires this year as chair of the youth ministry department at William Jessup University, Rocklin, California.

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Rites of Passage

I believe we need to bring back rites of passage. A rite of passage is a formalized ceremony or program (like a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah) intended to act as a community-endorsed acknowledgement of the passage from childhood to adulthood. These ceremonies teach students that they are a part of something bigger then themselves; they make the student the star of the community. Such ceremonies are a spiritual experience, and God is at the center. The “rites” acknowledge that the student is no longer a child—they are now on the road to manhood or womanhood. 

In such a ceremony, friends, family, elders, pastors, and church members who care come and pray over the student and read affirmations to them. An event such as this gives the teen a vision for who they are and who they are becoming and demonstrates the church’s commitment to them as a person. Make sure the student plays some important role in the ceremony.

Another idea is to do a “passage retreat.” Every year take a group of 13- or 14-year-old girls or boys on separate weekend retreats. Have the same-gender parent come to the retreat. Give each girl a necklace that symbolizes their commitment to each other and to following Christ. Give each guy a ring that symbolizes his commitment to the group and to pursuing Jesus. Have participants dream what it means to be a man or a woman, and make an oath to each other to adhere to that dream. Jesus went through something similar to this in Luke 2 when he was in the temple talking with the men and reading Scripture.

—L.C.

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