As a youth pastor, I often get asked what the best practices and strategies are for youth ministry. Parents and church leaders will ask how to improve the youth ministry and help their kids. The expectation is that the youth pastor and youth ministry will fix all their kids’ problems – both spiritual and emotional.
After all, that’s why they hired me, right?
What I tell them isn’t usually the answer they’re looking for: the best practice and strategy for helping kids know the gospel, come to saving faith, and grow as a disciple, is a parent investing in the discipleship of their child. Nothing helps a teenager know the gospel like seeing it modeled in the home; not just taught or spoken to them, but modeled through their parents’ relationship to each other and to the kids.
Easy to Tell
Though I’m not a parent myself, after eight years of youth ministry, it is easy to tell a teenager who has parents actively discipling them from those who don’t. It’s rare to find students that care deeply about the gospel with parents who do not also care deeply about the gospel at home. Though there will always be students whom God will work in regardless of their parents’ physical and spiritual involvement, this is usually the exception, not the norm.
If we want to see teenagers saved by the power of the gospel, we would do well to heed the words of Solomon: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Though not a failsafe promise for our kids’ salvation, Solomon writes as a father himself, discipling his son and raising him up in the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:8). According to Solomon’s biblical wisdom, what was essential for his child’s salvation was not youth ministry, but his own discipling of the child in the ways of God.
Too often, I face the sad reality of Christian parents who are spiritually absent from their kids. They see their role as “Christian” parents primarily as taking their kids to church, but it often stops there. What’s modeled in the home is not a priority and commitment to Jesus, but a priority and commitment to success, wealth, and good grades. Parents focus on the life success of their kids, while they leave the spiritual “success” to the church.
Much like education has been outsourced to the school system, discipleship has been outsourced to the youth ministry. As vital as church involvement is for the spiritual health of our kids, no amount of church activity can replace a parent’s discipleship in their kid’s life.
There are many times I’ll meet with a parent who is worried because their child has stopped coming to church, wondering what went wrong given that the child grew up going to all the youth activities. Or the parent may ask how I, as a youth minister, can accommodate their child’s busy schedule of tutoring, sports, and band. It is difficult to help the parent recognize that often there is no quick fix to make their kids love Jesus.
Not Just Another Activity
Church is not just another activity that can be tacked on to a kid’s schedule in order to better his or her resume, thus ensuring a secure future in the prestigious “school” of eternity. Just as Jesus calls us as his disciples to give up the world in order to gain life in him (Mark 8:34-36), so we are called to model that kind of discipleship to our children. Discipleship is not a church program or activity, but a lifelong relationship developed with a child around the gospel.
Parents, the youth pastor is your ally, not the answer to your child’s salvation. It is typical of parents to put their kids in the church, make them go to corporate worship, Sunday School, etc., and then expect their child to be fine, without personally investing in him or her. Then when the kid is about to graduate high school, they come to the youth pastor and ask why their kid isn’t a good Christian boy or girl yet.
Instead of outsourcing your discipleship to the church, see the church and youth ministry as your allies.
Church is indeed vital to the growth of a Christian; more parents would do well to make church a greater priority. Discipleship for our children must, at a minimum, involve the local church. We rarely see students grow up to love Christ who don’t also grow up loving the local church. Parents need the support of other parents, of the church community, and of the youth ministry. But the main arena of discipleship for a child is not in the church through the youth pastor, but in the home through the parent.
Through and Despite Us
Just like a husband can’t expect the church to disciple his wife, so parents cannot take a backseat to the church in the discipleship of their kids. More often than not, we as youth pastors and parents want the same thing—the salvation of our children. So let’s partner together in that difficult and long process of raising them up in the gospel.
Discipling teens is no easy feat, and we often fail miserably at it. I’ve met with parents who tried to disciple their kids in the home, and involved them in the local church, but still saw their kid walk away from the faith. I’ve met with parents who have the desire to be the main discipler, but don’t know where to start, or look back on their early years as parents as failures. The good news for those of us who have tried and failed, tried and seen no fruit, or are realizing our lack of effort in years past, is that Jesus still works for the good of our kids.
Ultimately the salvation of our kids is not up to us, but the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. While God desires to use our faithfulness—and often does for the salvation of others—he is sovereign over the lives of our kids. He will bring about their salvation through us and despite us. We can disciple our teens knowing full well that our failures and shortcomings are no obstacle to the saving power of the gospel.
Clark Forbes is the Youth Pastor at Sunset Church in San Francisco, CA, and has been serving in youth ministry in the Asian-American context since 2009. He is also part of the steering committee for Rooted, a ministry dedicated to advancing grace-driven youth ministty by equipping youth leaders.