The Church Family as the Needed Authoritative Community

Originally published July 15, 2009.

The Commission on Children at Risk, a panel of 33 leading children's doctors, neuroscientists, research scholars and youth service professionals, drew upon a large body of recent research showing that children are biologically primed ("hardwired") for enduring connections to others and for moral and spiritual meaning. In this report the authors introduced a new public policy and social science term--authoritative communities--to describe the ten essential traits across social institutions that produce better outcomes for children.Of those defined authoritative communities, families are first.The second recognized authoritative communities are spiritual communities.Yes, our church families.(Learn more about this report at 

Wild Frontier has long been talking about how important the church family is to the youth ministry.In fact, we’ve added “Church Family Ideas” to our user-submitted idea site’t you find this curiously wonderful that social science studies have identified how important the church family is to a child’s and teen’s development? 

Also the experts agree that children are “hardwired” from birth to connect with others.Because they are hardwired this way, the more we focus our time, attention, energy, and resources on forming strong bonds with our youth, the more likely we will prevent problems from arising.

From the report, Hardwired to Connect, ten essential traits of an authoritative community were identified.Read this list and see how much a church family fulfills this need.

  • It is a social institution that includes children and youth.
  • It treats children as ends in themselves.
  • It is warm and nurturing.
  • It establishes clear limits and expectations.
  • The core of its work is performed largely by non-specialists.
  • It is multi-generational.
  • It has a long-term focus.
  • It reflects and transmits a shared understanding of what it means to be a good person.
  • It encourages spiritual and religious development.
  • It is philosophically oriented to the equal dignity of all persons and to the principle of love of neighbor.

Isn’t that curiously wonderful how all of these experts have described the work of the church family?

In light of this report, also consider this statement from Dr. Christian Smith from the Wave 2 of the National Study of Youth and Religion:“Given that part of attracting and maintaining young (church) members likely involves being a relevant and supportive social institution in the lives of adolescents, congregations should note that only about half of their adolescent members (on average) feel very good raising their problems in religious congregations.”(, February 2009)

Science has found that teens need authoritative communities to thrive through adolescence and the National Study of Youth and Religion has found that around half of adolescent members feel their church is an authoritative community.The questions now become, how many of those ten traits does your church family have?How can you use your church family more in the youth ministry program?Are you in the way of the church family being an authoritative community or are you helping them grow to be a better one?

Frankly, I’ve heard some whines from youth workers about the church family.One such whine is “The adults (they are often all lumped together into one antagonistic group) don’t understand the teens and don’t know how to let the teens be teens.”There is a lot of backstory missing on that one, and that backstory has many variations.However the core truth is you need to do what you need to do to bridge the adults to the teens and the teens to the adults.If there was a backstory of damages to the building, identify that history and encourage all to move on and grow.If there is a backstory of teens not acting respectful when with the “adult church,” work with your teens on better etiquette as well as understanding holiness.The bottom-line is your church set you apart as the youth leader because they believe in good ministry to their youth.The church family actually wants the teens there otherwise you wouldn’t be there.It is your role to bridge the two together.May I suggest that your best role is to bridge those two together?

Another whine I’ve heard is, “Some adults have a knack for connecting with teens and some don’t. I want my teens around those who have that knack.”So who decides who has that knack or does not have that knack?And meanwhile an entire church family of adults is turned away because they don’t have that perceived knack.Is this perceived knack often judged by you?

Another whine I hear (again too often) is how kids from non-church homes are left out when there are so many church adults, particularly parents, involved.I’ll quote Mark DeVries on this one:“One of the strangest objections to Family-Based Youth Ministry has been that it leaves out the kids who don't come from Christian homes. In reality, it's the traditional youth ministries that are most prone to orphan kids. They carry young people until they graduate from the youth group, then leave them with limited ties to the world of Christian adults. Family-Based Youth Ministry, on the other hand, seeks to provide an extended Christian family of other adults in the church (i.e., Christian parents on loan) for those kids who don't have Christian parents of their own.” ( this “Hardwired to Connect” report was released, DeVries described the authoritative community of the church family.

Back in 2005 I wrote another Pair of Cleats "The Not Abandoning Church" on sort of the same subject.I quoted a look at two churches from a book written back in 1991 entitled Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry: Two Congregations in America by William R. Myers.What I noted back then was how one church was an authoritative community (though I didn’t name it that) and how the youth of that church were not abandoned (this was written right around the time of Chap Clark’s great book about society’s abandonment of teens entitled Hurt).That church definitely made an impression on me and how I lead the youth ministry at my own church.There is something to all this research that has got to move us to including the authoritative community of the church family to our youth ministry plans.

And this is not a one-way process.Yes, teens need to interact with adults (volunteering in other life of the church activities is a great method), but the adults also need to reach out to the teens by recognizing them as individuals, not just as part of the group.Both sides need to see and recognize this as a joint goal and this is where your role comes in.You can do this.You can be this great chess master.You have one big chessboard with the prize being the faith and formation of teens.In this role you are moving all of the pieces of the church family to interact with the teens.Not just yourself and not just the adult volunteer staff and the Sunday School teachers.Every person from the widows to the nursery workers is your beloved pawn, rook, or queen to be a part of this authoritative community.

P.S.On a more positive note, the Wave 2 of the National Study of Youth and Religion found that 78 percent of teens found their church to be inspiring and 71 percent say their church is warm and welcoming.Only 13 percent say it is boring.Only 13 percent.This stat needs to be searched out more but we’ve all been caught off guard by the numerous studies that show that teens do want to hang with their parents.Perhaps this group also has a new respect for church?

P.S.SFrom the Hardwired to Connect report:“To help kids, authoritative communities must be strengthened by society in every way.That includes the simple things such as volunteering and knowing the name of the paper boy, talking to the boy who bags your groceries.”

You do this day in and day out as a lover of teens.You can also teach your church family to do this too.They can be an authoritative community to more than just the youth in the church.How hard is iSave & Closet to remember or look at the nametag of the boy who bags your groceries and say his name?Or cheer and encourage other team members on their daughter’s soccer team?Or one of many other simple ideas you can think of and teach your church family to do.