Whatever happened to parents?

November 16th, 2015


Let me first stop and affirm that a number of youth workers—paid and nonpaid servants—highly appreciate and value the parents of their teens. But from my perspective, one of the most troubling issues in American youth ministry is our current approach of not partnering with and empowering the parents of youth. I believe this silent but enormous elephant in the room can no longer be ignored. We have to address this topic before we head down the road of no return.


We often exclude parents because of our own insecurities. My friend Paul Borthwick calls it “parent-noia,” a deep-seated fear and anxiety of parents. We in youth ministry have sometimes made parents our adversaries rather than allies. Why? We can be intimidated by parents, and some parents are a little scary! And yet parents are not the enemy; they’re on the same team with us, trying to influence teens for great impact.

We exclude parents because of the tradition of “payroll entitlement.” It’s easy for a church to say, “We will hire a person to care for our students. We will pay you to shepherd our sheep (teenagers) and provide you with two weeks’ vacation, a pension, continuing education, and a medical package. Your job is simple: evangelize and disciple teens and have a solid support system with good adult volunteers. Take care of our kids!” Initially that sounds fabulous, but two things are missing in that job description. First, there is no mention of parents; and second, the job seems ultimately dependent on the paid youth worker to “get the job done.”

Most of us were trained to work with students only. The title of youth director or youth pastor pretty much states the obvious: we are working with students, and that is our mission field. And if the sense of calling is primarily to teens, oftentimes youth workers think that partnering with parents is something for another person to take on and guide.

The past few decades have seen an escalation of activity in the youth program. I believe teens need their time and space with one another, but when we start establishing two or three weekly youth group meetings, plus retreats, camps, and conferences, perhaps it sends a message: “Parents, please stay away.” The youth program has become an island unto itself and a sacred cow.


Based on the authority of God’s written word, the scriptures, we see that God-fearing parents are the cornerstone of depositing faith in their children. I believe youth ministry has oftentimes unknowingly contributed to the breakdown of parents’ role in the discipleship of their children. In the book of Deuteronomy, we are introduced to what is known as the Shema. At the heart of the Judeo-Christian faith, the clarion call is to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength” (6:5 CEB). Moses spoke these words from God, and Jesus affirmed this text also to communicate one foundational truth: God-fearing parents are to be the primary nurturers of their children’s faith. Even today, the Shema is prayed three times a day in Orthodox Jewish homes and is central to the formation of a child’s purpose in life.


One youth worker whom I interviewed named William told me this:

“Our youth ministry started believing that parents didn’t think about spiritual nurture
for their children, so we took on the baton of leadership. It was a huge mistake. My team started taking on the role of ‘spiritual parenting.’ Parents will naturally abdicate their spiritual role if the church wants to run with it. In the long run, this is what started to burn me out.”

William is not alone.

We have some decisions to make as youth workers. Will we believe the Bible’s instructions for families to lead their children to know God deeply, or will we move the baton away from parents? God’s book is clear: spiritual training is directly driven and motivated first and foremost by faith-driven parents to their kids—not by the church or synagogue, not by the clergy or paid youth workers. Listen to the words of Moses that are often missed in Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (CEB):

“These words that I am commanding to you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.”

The words that jump out from the text for me are these: “recite them to your children”; “talk about them”; “around your house”; “when you are out and about”; “when you lying down”; and “when you are getting up.”

Spiritual formation is primarily transferred from parent to child; it is from generation to generation.

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