What Six Years of Church Family Based Youth Ministry Looks Like

Originally published June 2007.

Six years ago I led my church "hook, line and sinker" into the family-based youth ministry paradigm. Our decisions for doing it had a lot to do with our then situation which, of course, had some problems. The situation presented the pastors and I an opportunity to try out this new kind of youth ministry that all of us had stumbled onto individually. When we all started talking about what do to, we were tickled and surprised to find that all of us were on the same page with this new direction.

Now that we are six years into it, I can honestly say that the fruit of what we've created (and I continually stress we as this is on the entire pastoral staff) is not completely what I've envisioned but the fruit is good.

Coincidentally as the pastors and I reviewed the status of the youth ministry, the Center for Youth and Family Ministry (CYFM) came out with a study called "What Type of Students Are We Developing? The State of Our Seniors." The study looked at 162 high school seniors who are still involved in a youth ministry.

There are many variations of the family-based youth ministry style. In actuality there are as many variations as there are personalities in youth ministry because every ministry is different based on the leadership and the makeup of the church. For our particular variation we took two routes. One was to equip our parents to better pass on their own faith to their teen as well as the other teens. We did this directly. Moms & Pops Stuff was developed with this goal in mind. It is happenstance that you also can benefit from the availability of Moms & Pops Stuff, which is why it will always continue to be a free resource. Along with giving the parents that tool, I have also incorporated weekly e-mails that contain a variety of tips for parents. These e-mails may include an article link; a recommended movie review which can create a faith discussion; something (usually a blessing) I've observed about our youth; and lots of youth group information. My approach to these e- mails is I want the parents and teens to have more faith-discussions in any way possible. I want to leave the parents with no excuse to not more actively pass on their faith. And I want the parents on the same page with me when it comes to everything with the youth ministry. My theory is the more information they have, the more likely this will happen.

We also require (it's hard to require an adult to do anything in a free society but the concept is understood) parents to be at a monthly youth group event. My responsibility is to make sure that this event is worthy to be scheduled into a parent's busy life. I also need to make it fun (a tough word to define here) and interesting but it also must provide a transfer point for the parents to pass on their faith--in many forms. Those forms are always non-threatening and often surprising. Sometimes parents need that extra push of confidence that they really do have something to offer their teen as well as all of the other teens. We have had memorable times doing this and some precious stuff has been passed on. Stuff that a teaching from me could never accomplish.

From the Center of Youth and Family Ministry study, the number one source of support that the seniors noted was their parents. As noted above, we have definitely been supporting the parents so they can support their own teens. To quote from the CYFM study (which made the pastors and I feel pretty good about what we are doing): "Findings: According to our data, one of the most significant differences parents can make in the faith of their students is through the discussions they have with their own students. Kids who report talking to parents about both their own faith, and the faith of their parents, felt more supported by God. As we've already mentioned, kids who perceive a closer relationship with God are likely to have a more mature faith and to avoid risk behaviors.

Continuing, "Implications and Strategic Questions: Given our findings, youth ministries need to do more than offer rhetoric about ministering not just to students but to their whole families. Instead, we need to ask, What types of tools and resources are we giving families to talk about their faith? How can our youth ministry and church gatherings incorporate times for parents of kids of all ages to discuss their views and questions about God?" Check.

The second source of support that the seniors noted was youth group leaders. We don't necessarily have those since we have so many adults (as in parents) around all the time. Parents just naturally gravitate to helping with all those adult leader responsibilities (and they are always old enough to drive other youth in their cars!). A bonus that we have discovered is that as we have "set up" the parents to pass on their faith during the monthly events, all of the teens are benefitting from it. The youth are getting a chance to see a variety of adults who have "made it" with their faith on many different levels to inspire the teens. Traditional adult leaders provide that also but there just seems to be something special about that coming from other parents. Especially when it comes from the parent of those teens that all the youth group members admire or when it comes surprisingly from a parent a teen wrote off as "not getting it."

The other intentional route my church youth ministry took was to institute a Faith Foundations Sunday School course which is a 3-year program teaching the basics of the faith. Our course was mentioned in an issue of Group and more details can be found at www.familybasedyouthministry.org. Each unit is taught by different members of the congregation which fulfilled something else the pastors and I wanted to do which is to raise our youth in the entire church family--not just the youth ministry wing.

Beginning our sixth year, this has worked out beautifully. Our youth are literally a part of the life of the church. This was confirmed in a surprising testimony of a 9th grade boy at our February 4th family service. You can see it when the youth enter the church building. They know they are loved and accepted by the entire church. Most of the entire church knows them by name. The church knows who made honor roll and when mid-terms are. The youth are asked to participate or to help out with church stuff all the time (literally). And those who have taught the class regularly brag up how great the youth are. The class is based on dialogical-teaching so the youth have to speak and share what they believe. Time and time again the teachers are blown away at what comes out of them. The church knows this because the teachers talk about it. Our teens still act like teens so there are many squirrelly moments but the church knows them and recognizes them as teens.

I also have spent many hours intentionally setting up the congregation to interact with the youth. I'm not sure the congregation is even aware of that. Sneaky me. To do this takes up hours of preparation time but we are seeing the results.

Another finding from the CYFM study is the major theme of what these seniors would like to change about their youth group "is a desire for deeper responsibility and interaction; they want to express themselves and their faith through service and mission trips, and they want deeper interaction through conversation, accountability, and alone time with leaders. The vast majority do not want more games." Check on part of that. I would love to do more faith expression through service and mission trips but more on that coming up.

The third source of support that the seniors noted from the CYFM study was peers outside of their youth group. That means their circle of friends from school, a sport team, work, whatever. To the study author's surprise and mine, connections with friends at youth group is not a high priority for attending a youth group. Chew on that one for a while. So much effort is put into community building amongst the teens in a youth group but maybe that is not so important to teens. This was something that the pastors and I were talking about that needed to happen more amongst the teens but now we have tabled those thoughts and are filtering those thoughts through these findings before we proceed.

The final two areas of support that the seniors noted from the CYFM study were youth group friends (#4) and other adults in the church (#5). For my church youth ministry I believe we do have this support system in the right order with the exception of #4 and #5 being switched. I would bet that some of our youth feel more support from other adults in the church (i.e. Sunday school teachers, worship team members, other ministry leaders, ushers, etc.) than from each other. I can't say this is a bad thing. At least from our viewpoint.

It has been said by many, many youth ministry experts that faith sticks to people through relationships. When we're attached to someone, their opinions and values matter. When taught this youth ministry-proven theory, we automatically think that these relationships come from us, the youth worker. When our teens are attached to us, our opinions and values do seem to stick better. However since we've changed our youth ministry, I have found this same theory to be true and successful when the teens have relationships with others in the church. Those relationships are with the pastors, worship team members, ushers, Sunday school teachers, other parents, friends of their parents, etc. I am watching from my viewpoint and seeing teens soaking in whatever they can from these adults. Me too, but I'm not the only one.

I am finding this to also be true of the teen visitors we have in our youth ministry. These visitors tend to only stick around for a season (I believe that is normal) but while they are with us they never feel like visitors because they have come to us as a part of the family. Isn't that how new people join youth groups--when a friend brings a friend? These friends have already been over to the family's home so to come to church together is not a big next step. I have also seen time and time again that the other adults in the church treat the friends the same as the church teens. They are just absorbed in to all the attention that the teen receives week to week.

I truly believe that our fruit is good but six years into this a problem has developed. We are no longer doing those monthly youth group events with parents. Over the past two years attendance has slacked off and this year the parents agreed to not do anything. The weekly e-mails, Moms &Pops Stuff, faith foundation classes, and church life have continued. This is the one area that hasn't and I certainly can't force these events to continue. This is coming from the parents. So what does this mean? Have we done such a good job in equipping the parents in their role that they don't feel the priority of these events anymore? Even service and mission type of events? I don't know as of yet. I feel bad for the 6th and 7th graders who don't have these event memories but their parents aren't prioritizing these events either (they've had opportunity). So I can only assume from the growth in the youths' faith and the parents' clear message about these events that this is where we are now. However, I'm always on my toes for what change may be next so we don't lose ground. It may be in some other form or it may be a return to monthly events again.

One big question that has been raised in all this is what is the role of the youth minister now? The role of the youth ministry is sort of answered as it has morphed in this direction. But what is my role? Other than representing the youth to the pastors, coming up with all the ideas to help the church family interact with the teens (which is getting easier and easier) and dealing with the weekly family/teen crises. I'm busy but then again I'm not as busy as our youth ministry becomes less and less Brenda-centered. This probably sends fear to many youth workers who want to try a form of family-based youth ministry but fear their position could eventually be eliminated. From my point of view, there is still a position for me but the demands of that position are very different. Honestly, these demands make my life more livable overall. For me, the pressure of teaching and comprehension of faith issues for teens is what threw my life off-center. I stressed over doing everything so right and so cool while trying to represent the youth to the pastors and deal with the weekly family/teen crises. Not now.

Plus I get to enjoy the fruit of these decisions as I will watch our first senior graduate this spring. He won't be getting a signed Bible and presented before the church on one Sunday for his graduation. He will be getting a "manly" rite of passage weekend from several of the men and pastors from our church family. And I fully expect to see him transition from the youth ministry to the life of the church family with minor adjustments because he is already active in the church family and so many of the adults in the church family are already attached to him. I believe this makes me in my redefined role look pretty successful.

In Mark Yaconelli's book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, he shares how he himself never grew up in a youth ministry program. He wrote, "The church I attended as a young person was small and rural. It had neither a youth group nor Sunday school classes. What it did have, however, was a time during each worship service in which people were invited to stand and greet one another. This time of greeting was always (and still is) the longest period of the service, as people took the time to hug and converse with every other person in the room. Each Sunday, whether I was sulking in the back row, hiding in the kitchen, or immersed with friends, people found me, asked how I was, listened to my words, and hugged me to their chests. I know I'm a Christian today because those people were present to me during my adolescence." This reassures me at this juncture of what we are doing as a church.

I've read lots of internet discussion on family-based youth ministry and always someone will ask, "I hear a lot of theory but is anyone out there doing this?" Well, I am and this is what I've learned--so far. But I don't know if I would call it family-based youth ministry. I am naming ours church-based youth ministry or church family youth ministry.