When I was a teenager, many of the students in the youth group I attended did not even go to church on Sunday mornings. Some students were Wednesday night-only attendees. The only role their parents played in their spiritual life was getting them to the church building.
A decade later, I am a youth pastor, and well-meaning parents are still dropping their kids off at church to do the same thing their parents did with them.
These parents hand off their responsibility to disciple their children in the gospel to the student pastor, who is expected to raise their children with a Christian worldview. These parents want the student ministry to serve as an incubator, so that when these students hatch, they will be ready to face the world.
For these parents, once their kids graduate out of the youth group, the parents also graduate out of the church. This is a common reality for student ministries in our country and this needs to change. This is not the case with all parents; many parents share Jesus with their teenagers in the home. However, it is common for parents to rely on the student minister and the church to raise their children in the faith. Yes, it takes a church to raise a kid, but discipling kids should not solely depend on the church.
Among youth ministers there is the saying that “if we win the students, we win the parents.” This is not the aim that we see in Scriptures. It is the reverse. In Acts 16:31, the Philippian jailer heard the gospel from Paul and Silas, and then this converted jailer shared the gospel with his whole household.
The gospel is not only for the students who get dropped off on Wednesday nights, but also for the parents who drop them off. Here are some thoughts to share with the parents of your youth.
Parents, our faith is in Christ, not in our kids.
I was involved in a medium sized youth group. It waned in numbers every time football season ended, and like clockwork it would pick back up when the football season started again. (It helped that we had our school’s two star running backs in our youth group.) I didn’t know too many kids my age who professed faith in Christ, but I knew a lot who enjoyed going to youth groups. We would have thought-provoking conversations, but we rarely got to the gospel.
As the youth group started growing, I noticed something odd. Most of the youth that came on Wednesday nights did not attend Sunday morning service. Also, these students’ parents were out of sight. Or these students’ parents were heavily involved, but after the students graduated, their parents would soon fall away.
Maybe this is true for people in your church. Parents join the church, get baptized, and leave after their kids graduate. You might have heard, “I’m just doing this for my kids” a lot if you’re a pastor or youth pastor. This isn’t helpful. It teaches students that they will only need the church during only certain seasons of life.
In a healthy student ministry, parents are the primary disciple makers, but too often youth pastors become the surrogate spiritual leader for kids. Having a “spiritual” kid can become part of the parents’ identity. When parents prioritize the church to satisfy a selfish desire, it causes confusion for the kids. Some parents feel they need some “me” time so they take their shot and drop their kids off for two hours. Others like the appearance of having their kids go to church functions. It makes them feel like they are the “cool” parent.
We can help parents avoid idolizing their kids or being passive in parenting by being intentional with the parents about the gospel.
One of the ways I do this is by meeting with the parents each semester. We meet for 30 minutes to ensure what we are doing within the student ministry is not going against what they are aiming for in the home. This also allows me to get a sense of where the parents are spiritually. Student pastors or ministers should not feel limited to shepherding only the students, but also to care for the souls of the parents as well.
Parents, your kids are your first ministry.
Parents, if God has given you a new heart, then your children ought to witness to a household that submits to the authority of the Lord (Eze. 36:26). When it comes to the gospel kids need to hear it from parents first and they need to see it actively practiced in our homes. Parents don’t need a Bible degree to tell our kids about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Parents are responsible to shepherd our kids to the Good Shepherd.
If we aren’t pointing our kids to Christ, they may eventually be pointed away from God. We grow impatient with our teenagers when they are impaired by their sinful nature, desiring that our kids be obedient to us, yet we do not lead them to the one who can replace their heart of stone with a new heart. We must be urgent in reaching our kids with the gospel. It’s not like this is a difficult, go-to-a-foreign-country task. By God’s kind providence He has given you kids who sit at your dining room table, or on your living room couch, waiting for you to lead them to Jesus. Take time to examine what is getting in the way of that goal.
Especially while they are young, there are few barriers between you and your kids. Take every opportunity to care and shepherd their souls to our Lord.
Parents, your kids are watching you.
Your kids catch on to things quicker than you think. They know your daily habits. Kids have front and center seats to witness how you make decisions, as well as how you react to those decisions if they don’t pan out how you think they should. What are you doing that they observe daily?
My wife and I have a two-year-old and she is spouting off all the words she knows. Her favorite right now is “mine!” One of my favorite things she does is mimic me. Lately, she has started making gorilla sounds while she bends her knees and curls her arms. She picked up on this when I would do the same thing to make her laugh. When her mother cooks in the kitchen she takes out her toy kitchenware and acts like she is cooking right alongside her. She’s watching us.
While we have our children’s attention, let’s show them the goodness of God’s love for sinners. Let’s practice repentance and forgiveness in front of our kids, and tell them that we do so because Jesus calls us to repent from our sins, and he offers us forgiveness through his work on the cross. We will never parent perfectly, but we can lead our families with humble, grateful hearts. As we parents allow the gospel to work in us personally, we can’t help but share the good news with our children.