Before I dive into my point, let me make one thing crystal clear: I believe that the family should be the number one influence on the spiritual development of our children and teenagers. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 was written to the moms and dads of Israel in the Old Testament and is a powerful reminder to all of us moms and dads in the New Testament that spiritual development starts in the home.
If the teenagers in your church have believing parents, it’s on them to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). We, as parents, should never delegate this sacred duty to a 25-year-old youth leader straight out of seminary. In a perfect world, parents would work in conjunction with youth leaders to build teenagers who are fully committed to and maturing in Christ.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world of broken dreams and broken families. We live in a world where many of the teenagers who attend our youth meetings don’t come from a Christian family…and, sadly, too many of the ones who do don’t have a solid, solvent Christian faith modeled to them by their parents.
In these far-more-often-than-we’d-like-to-admit real life situations, youth leaders can become the primary spiritual influence on our teenagers. They become the key role models and mentors. They become the game changers in the lives of our teenagers.
I was one of those teenagers growing up. I never knew my biological father (abandoned us before I was ever born). Up until the time I was 15 years old, my mom was not a Christian. But the adult leaders in our church poured themselves into me and the other teenagers in our youth group, many of whom also came from broken, unbelieving families.
So what’s the danger of dropping youth ministry for a family ministry approach? It’s not just the fact that many of our teenagers come from unbelieving or spiritually immature families. It’s that, far too often, once this switch takes place the youth ministry goes from externally focused to internally focused.
This was first brought to my attention by my friend Mark Matlock. He pointed out to me that, from his experience, once churches exchanged youth ministry for family ministry, outreach usually slowed down or stopped altogether. Why? Because for many of these churches it became about “their kids,” and soon reaching “those kids” (the not-yet-Christian ones) was off the grid.
And, as I’ve thought about it, I have to admit that I don’t meet a lot of family ministry leaders at our training events. At Dare 2 Share we have thousands of youth leaders who come to get equipped to gospelize their youth ministries annually but, at best, only handfuls of family ministry leaders.
It seems as though once churches make the switch from youth ministry to family ministry the temptation is to turn inward, to spend their time equipping believing parents to engage their teenagers spiritually. Evangelism becomes something moms and dads lecture on instead of actually do and equip their teenagers to do. There’s no longer a full court press to reach unbelieving teenagers as much as there is a push to train Christian teenagers in the faith.
The flaw in this thinking is the belief that what our teenagers need is more information. Some believe that if we can teach them enough of the Bible then everything will be OK. But if Bible knowledge was the key then the Pharisees would have never been rebuked by Jesus.
Of course teenagers need Bible teaching and theological information. But they also need hands-on activation. And there’s nothing like relational evangelism to activate a teenager’s faith. When young people are trained to embrace the Great Commission as the ultimate cause and begin reaching their peers with the Gospel, it creates an unstoppable spiritual momentum in them and around them.
Now, I don’t believe that an inward focus due to a family ministry approach is an inevitable conclusion. I’ve seen some powerful exceptions to this rule, especially with my buddy Derwin Gray who leads Transformation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his team have mastered the art of integrating teenagers into their church at large, equipping parents to lead their own teens, and mobilizing youth leaders via small groups to invest in the lives of teenagers. But this is an exceptional church that is Gospel advancing to begin with. These teenagers haven’t turned inward because the church is always pointing upward (to God), inward (to each other) and outward (to reach the lost).
But, in a less exceptional setting, the danger of family ministry is to become an inwardly obsessed “it’s all about our kids’ spiritual health” approach. But, like fresh milk poured into a sponge, the teenagers who grow up in these settings often spoil because they don’t wring themselves out to reach others.
And that’s one of the reasons I love my friends at D6. They recognize the benefits of both youth ministry and family ministry. Instead of an either/or approach, they challenge church leaders to embrace the best of both worlds while keeping their gospel edge.
So, before you exchange your youth ministry for a fully family ministry approach, be aware of the danger. And, whatever you decide to do, keep your teenagers fully immersed in both the message and mission of Jesus.