A family-based approach to youth ministry

Where youth ministry is going - Part 2If you missed the past several days of this series, I’m sharing some of the trends I see taking place in youth ministry and the implications they hold for our future. There’s been a lot of great discussion so far! Catch up with the, “Where youth ministry is going,” series with these posts:

2. Moving toward a family-based approach to youth ministry

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, outsourcing is very prominent in our culture. It’s not always entirely bad. In fact, if people didn’t outsource different projects to me that are outside their skill set I wouldn’t have an income right now! But sometimes we become so used to outsourcing that we stop taking responsibility for the things we ought.

I mean, we outsource our kids’ athletics to a coach, their driving lessons to an instructor, education to a teacher, and in Hollywood some people make full-time jobs out of teaching celebrities’ kids how to ride a bike and go shopping!

We may all agree that that is too far, but where’s the line? What is acceptable to outsource and what isn’t? Is education too far? Is sports acceptable? Is giving youth pastors the responsibility of teenagers’ spiritual formation too far?

Most of us probably agree that the parents are supposed to be the primary spiritual developers of their kids’ faith — their faith should not be outsourced to the “paid professional” on staff at church. Yet, despite what we say, how we do youth ministry begs to differ with our words because we still enable parents to do otherwise.

Thankfully, it seems that there’s a trend of youth workers and church leaders saying, “No, we won’t enable parents to continue to place the responsibility of teenagers spiritual development on our shoulders!”

But something is missing

Most of us are probably familiar with the need to have parents be the primarily spiritual influence in a teenager’s life, but we have no idea where to start.

So we start at the wrong places. We start with doing more things:

  • Parent meetings
  • Parent newsletters
  • Provide discussion questions for parents based on our lessons

Doing more things is better than doing nothing, but ultimately it leads to superficial results because it fails to address the root issue.

We have to start with identity, not function. What we do should flow from who we are, never vice versa.

And that’s true for parents, too. It’s not just about what a parent does that influences their teen’s faith, it’s how a parent lives. And how they live flows out of who they are.

The invisible elements of their parents’ faith, like passion and sincerity, can’t be faked. They play such a critical role in the spiritual formation of children and teenagers, yet they flow from sharing life together more than adding another program or event for parents to our already full youth ministry calendar.

A new model of ministry to parents

We really have to care about what’s going on in the heart of the moms and dads in our churches. Not just say we care about it, but care enough to make the necessary radical shifts in our own families and ministries. If the parents in our churches are passionately sold out to the Lord, that is going to mess with their teenagers in huge ways! They’ll see it in their parents’ lives, not just hear it talked about as a compartment of their lives.

Thankfully, I hear churches talking about this shift more and more. No one quite seems to know what this looks like nor the implications it will have for their ministry if they make the vision shift on an “identity” level instead of on the “function” level, but we’re talking about it just the same. And I trust that our discussions will continue to formulate our thinking and perspectives, change our own hearts, and that conviction will give way to contagious passion. Soon we’ll become intolerant of enabling the very behavior we say we resist.


  • How are you starting to lead and model a family-based youth ministry in your home?
  • What does family-based ministry look like for your church right now?
  • How have you seen your personal spiritual growth affect your children and your family?

Posted on January 26, 2012

  • I agree with this article but you highlight a critical area without providing a real solution. How does a youth ministry help parents grow in their faith to the point where they assume the role as primary spiritual leader in their children’s lives? What do we do with teenagers who’s parents don’t value church or God? Thanks for the thoughts bro.

    • In my opinion, I don’t know if there IS anything we can DO with the parents who do not value church or God. They have to be open to it and want to make it a priority. Along with everything else, it is a personal CHOICE. Pray for them is the best thing we can DO.

    • Ahh, I did answer that in the post and you’re defaulting back to the same questions everyone naturally asks: what do we DO? How do we DO this? Those questions are okay, but I think it’s better to ask, “How do we become like this?” and ask questions that revolve deeper than function and address our identity as a ministry.

  • David

    We are begining to move toward a family based ministry starting in our children’s ministry. This isn’t an overnight move! We are begining by 1. teaching parents what their biblical role is as parent/discipler of their children 2. providing resources/info/ whatver to help them begin to change their home one sttep at a time. A good book to put in the hands of parents is God’s Grand Vision for the home by Dr Rob Reinow. its small and easy to read.

    there is a place for youth minsitry. Recently a new student asked “Who is Adam and Eve?” Obviosuly the parents probably don’t go to church and will not be the main source for discipleship. in a perfect world parents would take uptheir roles. but its not a perfect world.

    • I love hearing that you guys are thinking through this and that you even have a plan for going forward!

  • Jeff

    I agree with this article as well…I’ve just never been able to accomplish it. Whenever I tried doing a “parents” meeting I get maybe 5 sets of parents out of like 40 or so. And the 5 sets of parents are the ones already doing a good job at home. I’ve also tried giving resources, but a lot of parents in our church just see it as something else to do…sadly.

    The one thing that I do have that’s unique is that I’m actually in the preaching rotation on Sunday mornings once a month. And the pastor has given me his blessing to orient all my messages, if possible, with a kid/youth focus. The pastor has also been generous enough to give me 1 Sunday series a year that focuses on parenting that I get to preach. So, that’s one way I get to speak to the parents on this issue. But I’d love to be able to help on a more consistent basis.

    • What impact have you seen from being able to preach with a youth focus? Have you found it to be beneficial?

      • Jeff

        I’ve found that it starts a lot of great conversation with some of the parents. I’ve had parents come up to me afterwards and either compliment the message or question it, but it always ends up being good conversation. The best part is that I’ve had the opportunity to talk to parents of youth who aren’t involved in youth group.

        The only thing is I don’t do follow-up, so I don’t know if they actually change something at home. That’s something that I would like to improve. And like I said…I wish I could do something more on a consistent basis.

    • Yeah, it’s definitely an uphill battle, especially if the perspective is, “Well, it’s a lot easier for me to bring my kids to church for their spiritual development than it is for me to do it at home.” It’s gonna take a while and probably works best if the entire church leadership is on board.

      But ultimately, it has to be an identity shift more than a function shift. I should probably write more about that since it seems to be a reoccurring point of confusion for people. Granted, this post wasn’t about that, but maybe I should preceded this post with that topic first. Hmm…

  • How are you starting to lead and model a family-based youth ministry in your home?

    Specifically, but never done perfectly, while relying on the grace of God

    a. We are making our way through the back/extras section of the ESV children’s Bible each night except for Wednesday and Sunday. On those days we ask our kids to share with us what they learned that day at church and we talk about that. If we miss a night, we hear about it from our kids. There are even times my 9 year old and 6 year old ask to read their own bibles for the night time story or what have you.

    b. We got our now 9 year old son the Action Bible, and although it is not even close to a translation, the illustrations are A+ comic material and the Bible stories are accurate. He read it through in about a month and has continued to read it all the time. I recommend it, so long as it is explained to your son or daughter what type of genre the Bible falls into.

    c. Last year we decided that when we take our kids to school, on the car ride there we would pray for one classmate and his/her day at school, family life, and future salvation. This year we, mom and dad, would pray those prayers in the car, but after Christmas break we have started having the 2 kids pray on their own and they have taken that on. We have to change things up a bit so it is not useless repetition just throwing a different name in the blank every day, but it is getting them thinking outside themselves, hopefully. :) We also pray at the table and so do they. We also have a dinner discussion time that the kids really love called “Pow and Wow!!” A pow is the not so good thing that happened in the day that punched you in the gut so to speak. The Wow is the good thing you want others to share in your joy over. Soon we are going to add another component we are thinking of calling it “Pow, Wow and Holy Cow!!” Holy Cow will be how you saw God at work in your life today or this week.

    d. Once a month we take our kids, 4,7 and 9 into the main worship service to worship with us. We feel that for our kids and kids in general, sometimes more is caught than taught and we want our kids to see us, opening a Bible, singing to Jesus, praying for others, taking notes from the sermon, being prayed for etc…

    e. We, mom and dad, have really been challenged to challenge the heart of our kids in discipline situations and not just seek out simply behavioral change. We attempt to ask them why they do something instead of just punishing the action right away. Lots of times they have no clue so we have to tell them or lead them to the heart issue. It is tough to not only say to them what they did wrong, but point out their selfishness or greed. We feel horrible at times, but it usually brings a more understanding heart from our kids. In the same vein of thought, we try to use the “Who am I? Daddy. Does Daddy love you? Yes. Do you love daddy? Yes. The way you show daddy that you love him is not only saying that you love him but also obeying what he tells you to do. Can you obey daddy right now?” And we take that straight from God/Jesus who told us that we show we love him through obedience to him as a Father.

    f. We want to make our home now and in the future the place where our kids WANT to bring their friends and not the place they want to get away from.

    g. We volunteer in their school reading with kids, practicing math, and planning holiday parties and in their classes at church. No matter what age groups we like or don’t like, God has given us kids at that age and he will give us the grace to enjoy and work with kids that age.

    please hear me say that we fail miserably quite often and sometimes overdue things like trying to ask our kids why why why they do things, but we always try to come back to these things and ways of doing it. There are so many more for us, but those are a few specific ways.

    Lunch meeting. I really enjoy this discussion. Later.

    • Wow, you should totally turn this into a guest post for my other blog,, and help encourage other ministry families with these ideas! You up for that?

      • Absolutely Tim, I would enjoy doing that. Let me know what you are thinking and time frame.

        What does family-based ministry look like for your church right now?

        Oh how broad of a question. Maybe it was done on purpose but the question does not say what does family based student ministry look like, but it says what does family based ministry look like in your church.

        When I hear that question it is saying what does family based ministry look like in the entire church, well, maybe each local church but a huge task nonetheless.

        I have thought about it like this, imagine your typical church office space or hallway, but for our sake imagine the hallway because that is what we have at our church, where there are offices for 8 or so ministry directors/pastors, but the interesting design wrinkle is that there is another office upstairs in its own little spot and that would be the office of the youth pastor. Now don’t take this like I resent that or they purposely were getting rid of me, but they needed more space and that is where they built more office space and room space. It is actually really nice. That is neither here nor there.

        Now imagine offices on each side of the hallway all alive with ministry minded brains figuring out what to do next. Now imagine that hallway in your mind and morph it into what looks like the top section of a black canvas Chuck Taylor All-Star shoe…you know the type, just think short basketball shorts and Dr. J. Imagine that part of the shoe which has the white metal shoelace holes but there is no shoelace. In order for the shoe to function to its fullest it needs to have the shoelace to bring those holes together.

        Now back to the office idea, I have thought that we minister to in order down the hallway, children, small groups, visitors, womens, marriage,

        • I was actually thinking almost a copy/paste of your first comment with maybe more of an introduction, but this other stuff here in your previous comment is great, too! haha The first comment works better for because it’s focused on you and your family. It’s very practical for pastors and families to take and follow your example. The previous comment probably works better as a guest post here on LISM. If you wanna do both, that’d be great! :)

          The time-frame can be whatever you want it to be. Just email the guest posts to me and I’ll get ’em posted.

  • Excellent write up Tim! This hits the nail on the head of what is going on in my church currently, as we have discussed. Even though I am at the beginning of realization on this issue, I have given it significant thought.We have such a short amount of time with the youth when compared to the parents that it is not enough time to influence them. The parents, however, do have that time even if it’s not actively talking about the topic. They have the option to ACT it out in their lives. There is no better role model than a parent.

    The question arises, “How can we get parents excited about God?”. It sounds similar to the same question we have of the youth doesn’t it? I suggest that we leave that part up to God and work with the parents who are already excited about Him. Our job is to give the Good News and help to grow it. God will do the actual growing within them once they are open to Him.

    • I think part of this actually goes back to my post yesterday about how we structure our ministry. The kind of ministry I described yesterday will most likely reduce a lot of the spiritual apathy we currently see in our churches, don’t you think?

      • You mean the structure where the youth minister role is shifting into more of an organizational role of volunteer youth leaders?

  • I agree that family-based ministry is where youth ministries need to be heading. In fact, when I talked with Dr. Kenda Dean, author of Almost Christian, she said that most churches have the faulty premise that most youth ministry is done by the youth minister. In fact, it’s the parents who have the most impact on their kids’ spiritual formation. Children mirror their parents faith to an astounding degree (see the interview here:

    I have struggled with this myself. I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful group of parents who work within our youth ministry, and in some cases, act as surrogate parents for teens whose families are not spiritual. Still, there are many parents who simply drop their teens off and expect me to be in charge of their spiritual formation completely.

    I have come to the conclusion that this is a problem that in all likelihood can’t be solved by youth ministry or youth ministers. Solving this problem will require the entire church to teach all of its members what it means to live a life of faith and model that kind of life for their children. It will require a more encompassing approach where the staff doesn’t view the congregation as segmented, but as one whole body. In other words, senior ministers and other staff will have to realize their role in preparing the parents to lead their children. Without that, I’m not sure youth ministry will be able to be family oriented like you describe. Sadly, I don’t imagine most youth minsters are in a position to teach the parents to the degree that would be necessary. That’s just not how it works in most places.

    • Yeah, I totally agree that it’s not currently the way things are, but I do see that it’s starting to gain more and more momentum, which is great! Hopefully the mentality of hiring a youth pastor to be the sole spiritual influence on teenagers is phasing out.

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