Should the Youth Pastor Disciple Parents?

A Follow Up to Jonathan Mansur’s “Four Types of Involvement in Parent Ministry

Youth ministry has had a shaky relationship with parents. For far too long, the stereotype of youth ministry has consisted of zany young adults leading teenagers in a bunch of crazy activities that are then punctuated by a short Bible lesson at the end. In reality, youth ministers often emphasize the importance of parents in the lives of students; the problem lies in that there has been a huge disconnect between that affirmation and what the ministry actually looks like. Over the last few years, youth ministry has increasingly been flooded with fresh calls to remember the central role of parents.

We are now entering a period where thoughtful youth workers are trying to answer the question, “What does a youth ministry look like when parents are consistently affirmed as the primary spiritual leaders in their teenagers’ lives?”

Jonathan Mansur’s article recently sounded this alarm. Parents ought to be the primary disciple-makers in a teenager’s life. The reality, however, is that many parents neglect that responsibility and if someone else does not step in, the world will gladly take that role. As youth workers fill those voids, there is a tension where they struggle with question, “How can I pass this beautiful responsibility onto the parents who should be fulfilling it in the first place?”

Is the Youth Pastor the Best Person for the Job?

I am not convinced the youth pastor is the best person to disciple parents of teenagers. He or she may be, especially if they have grown children, but there is probably another pastor, elder, or ministry leader who is better equipped to disciple parents.

As a 35-year-old man with a seven-year-old and a four-year-old, I am well aware that much of my parenting advice has a ceiling. I can help parents understand youth culture and the psychology of adolescents. I can serve as a mediator between parents and teenager when conflict arises. But I cannot fully equip parents to disciple their teenagers. I can contribute, even in significant ways; but I am well aware that there are far better people for that job than me.

Instead, the youth worker should be the greatest advocate for parent discipleship. He or she must consistently remind parents that they are primary and we are secondary. Students should hear us talking positively about parents instead of trying to look cool by mocking parents with them. While the youth pastor may not be the best person to disciple the parents, he or she probably is the best person to reinforce what parents are (hopefully) teaching and modeling at home.

“Family Ministry” Requires a Bigger Family

There is absolutely no denying the reality that parents are the ones who are most accountable to disciple their teens. When Moses issued the command for family discipleship in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, it was in the immediate context of instructions given to all Israel (“Hear, O Israel…”). The command for discipling the next generation was given to parents, but it is important to remember it was given to parents who lived in a broader community.

The “nuclear family” has been the central way sociologists have measured families over the last few generations, but it is a relatively new social construct. The understanding that a family consists of a mom, dad and children living in a home together did not emerge until the early 20th century. Families throughout history have lived in something similar to a clan-grouping. Especially in biblical times, a family consisted of multiple generations all living in the same homestead.

In our individualistic American culture, we hear these commands through our personal filters. We need to remember that we need a bigger family: we need aunts, uncles, and neighbors… we need the church!

It Takes a Church

The entire church needs to be intentional about including family-discipleship in its adult-discipleship. Small groups, Sunday school classes, or other mentoring relationships are fantastic and fruitful places for parents to be discipled and asked, “How do you think this should impact your parenting? How could you teach and model this to your children?” A youth ministry with a vision for family-discipleship cannot form equipped parents if the church is not also intentionally pursuing that vision. The other pastors and elders must share this commitment or else the youth worker will quickly find himself or herself frustrated.

On the other hand, if the church is faithful in training parents for family worship and the youth pastor is negligent in his involvement with the parents, he or she will quickly be corrected by parents who are not content to be marginalized.

Youth ministry is youth ministry… and while that means youth workers give themselves primarily to ministering to teens, it doesn’t mean they should minister exclusively to teens. It means the other pastors, elders, and ministry leaders of the church need to be faithfully equipping parents to disciple their kids. Youth ministry is valuable and important, but it is not enough. It takes a whole church to raise up the next generation in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

As parents are discipled and equipped to disciple their children, the fabric of the church will change as generations are knit closer together around the gospel. Raising up the next generation is the work of the entire church. When the church makes a vow to support and assist parents as they dedicate or baptize their children, every member should be called upon to fulfill that vow. Not everyone should serve in the youth ministry, but every church member can serve a teenager by learning their name, praying faithfully for them, and ensuring that they know that you are praying for them.

Youth ministry is a bridge between the church and the home. And while bridges are important, people do not live on them. If we hope to see the next generation deeply rooted in Christ, then we need more than a youth pastor who wants to see parents disciple their teenagers. We need pastors, elders, deacons, and congregation members who are committed to families.

We invite you to check out Rooted Reservoir Family Discipleship, a series of gospel-centered parenting training courses, each of which includes a companion inductive Bible study. 

Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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