I recently saw a viral video in which a teenager gets off the bus on his last day of school. He arrives home and sees a group of dads outfitted in flashy 70s attire, rocking out to the classic song, School’s Out for the Summer. As the boy’s father and the ring leader of the group runs up to his son, we can see the embarrassment welling up on the teenage boy’s face. In response to his dad’s attempt at a hug, the teenager stiff-arms him. I can imagine the teenager’s mind racing through these thoughts: What will my friends think? Did anyone film this? I can’t believe my dad would do something like this!
Few parents are as audacious (or“cringy” as our students might say) in relating to their teenagers as the father in the video; however, we see a similar kind of distancing play out in the lives of many families. As teenagers grow in independence, they often find the most challenging relational difficulties at home. Our students begin to push away parents to whom they used to cling. Siblings who once had sleepovers in each other’s rooms now hardly speak. What was once a peaceful household with open lines of communication is now more reminiscent of the awkward silence between strangers meeting for the first time.
Despite their best efforts to disciple their kids at home, parents often share how difficult it is to relate to their children during these tumultuous teenage years. They may feel helpless as they try to parent children who now stiff-arm them emotionally, physically, psychologically, and even spiritually.
As youth ministers, we occupy a privileged position that straddles the worlds of our students and their parents. It’s not our responsibility to fill the gaps that parents and teenagers are faced with at home, but we are uniquely positioned to to draw these two worlds together around the hope of the gospel. As we seek to partner with parents, we get to point people to Jesus who is more than able to fill these spaces with his mercy, assurance, and presence.
The Limits of the Youth Minister
While youth pastors get to interface with students for a few hours each week, parents minister to their own kids through the everyday, ordinary rhythms of their lives. By virtue of being parents, their influence and areas of overlap with their children far exceeds that of any pastor. Rather than trying to be at all places at all times, we ought to look for opportunities to affirm and reinforce parents’ role. What could youth ministries look like if the scope of what we do with teenagers finds some more shared spaces with parents? If parents had increased opportunities to witness and share the very spaces that we are privileged to share with our youth, the seeds of the gospel can continue to be sown even after the goodbyes are said.
When youth pastors make it a priority to partner with parents in the work of the gospel, the vision of seeing God’s kingdom welcomed in the challenging spaces of life begins to bear fruit. These very difficult spaces of life are, oftentimes the mundane, everyday spaces where youth pastors normally do not get to frequent like the breakfast table as students get ready for school, car rides to and from practices, or students’ bedrooms as they get ready to sleep for the night. These quotidian places are the very spaces that need God’s presence the most. And these are the very places to which parents have front-row access.
Toolbox for Partnering with Parents
Over the years, I have grown in making a concerted effort to rub shoulders with parents in order to influence and encourage them, and by extension, their teenagers. Here are a few of the intentional practices we build into the ethos of our youth ministry.
Any time parents step into our youth spaces, I approach them in order to make some relational connections. I would do this with any new student in our youth group, so I try to relate to parents in a similar fashion. At the end of youth night, I also make it a point to walk students out when their rides show up. This gives me an opportunity to connect with parents and to help create shared spaces of overlap where parents and teenagers are finding common ground. Jesus often ministers in these places of overlap, and as youth pastors, we have an important role to play as bridge-builders.
I also work to involve parents in communication. For example, I’ll carbon-copy parents in an email as a way to normalize their involvement in simple matters such as coordinating meet-ups with students. I generally try to follow up with parents after the fact to share how the meet-up went. While I avoid sharing every detail of a conversation with a student, I seek to share candidly and transparently. This approach highlights the fact that I am supporting parents in their roles as the primary disciplers of their children.
For our last youth gathering of the school year, we hosted an open house. We structured the evening like any other youth group, except that we added about 100 parents to the mix. Our parents’ group organized a dinner to begin the evening. Then we transitioned into a large group activity where both students and parents could laugh and enjoy one another’s company. Parents were invited to join their teenagers’ small groups, giving them an opportunity to engage with the leaders who had journeyed with their students all year. We ended the evening in a time of prayer and worship. As parents and teenagers worshiped side by side, I was reminded that God often asks us as youth ministers to bring people together. Our God is the One who proves himself faithful as we seek to minister to our youth and their families.
As our students grow into their teenage years, they might not be able to express what they want or need from their families. Sometimes their choices may even place them in direct opposition to their parents. But youth ministers can help students lean into the truth that parents are their biggest allies. As we create more spaces in our youth ministries to engage parents around the common, ordinary stuff of life, we pray that whole families will be increasingly transformed by the gospel.
Rooted’s annual conference offers gospel equipping and encouragement for both youth ministers and parents alike. Consider inviting parents in your ministry to join you in Nashville November 2-4 by making use of our one-day ticket option.