You Are First, I Am Fifth: What Youth Pastors Would Like to Tell Parents

Dear parents of teenagers I have the privilege of knowing,

If you remember nothing of what I write here, please remember that I count it as a profound privilege to know your child and to be entrusted with helping them understand who God has created them to be. Even in those moments when they do some overwhelmingly mind-boggling things, like play volleyball in the youth room using a hanging light fixture as a “net”. Your child is one of a kind. Your child is a son or daughter of God. Your child has been fearfully and wonderfully made and is a treasure to the Creator of the universe. I am lucky to be in the same room.

While I count it as a privilege to know your child, I also have much to apologize for. I apologize for my arrogance when I think, “If they would just make youth group a priority…” I apologize for my pride when I think, “Wow, your kid loves hanging out with me.” I apologize for my frustration when I think, “They just don’t get it.” I apologize for my lack of empathy when I think, “If only they would (fill in the blank), SMH.” I apologize for being dumb and trying to be cool by using text short hand in IRL conversations and verbally “hashtagging” anything. Doh! Did it again. (SMH = shaking my head, IRL = in real life). Seriously…the next time I “hashtag” something in a face-to-face conversation with anyone of any age, please just fire me. I apologize for not taking seriously the privilege it is to partner with you in discipling your child.

When I am vague about how I speak about my role in your child’s life, please remember that I think, at best, my relationship with your son or daughter is a partnership with you. The reality is, and the research supports it, that you are the most important and significant voice in your child’s life in regards to their spiritual and identity formation! Whether your son or daughter chooses to verbally admit it to you, they are looking to you for advice and direction on what to do when it comes to their faith and the choices they make. I’d love to think (and often I do) that when it comes to the faith of teenagers I’m a powerful influence in your child’s life (but that’s really more about my insecurity than anything). According to the Search Institute, however, as parents you are at the top of the list, and as your child’s youth pastor I am 13th on the list, behind their grandparents, their weird uncles, siblings, and their favorite musicians. I’m even less of an influence than my boss, the pastor, according to the Search Institute!

My point is, whether your kids are willing to say it or not, they look to you first for direction in regards to their faith. You are the most formative influence on your son or daughter, and you profoundly shape who they are in the process of becoming. Please do not believe the lie that other people and other things are a more important voice in their lives. They are not. I am not. You are.

That you are the most significant influence on the faith and identity of your child should give you cause for hope. You have the ability to shape your child’s faith. They want your input, advice and direction. Your voice may not be louder than that of culture, media and other people, but it holds much more weight and value in the eyes of your child.

But if you’re anything like me (also the parent of teenagers), that you are the most significant influence on the faith and identity of your child should also scare you a little. I’m a smuck! I know how inconsistent I am. As Christian Smith said, “When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.” You are, for better or for worse, shaping the faith, identity and life of your child! No pressure. If you are not actively talking about your faith with your kids and not intentionally modeling your faith for them through your life and daily actions, then that is who your child will become. Your silence about your faith speaks as loudly as your words and your actions do.

The good news is, while you are the most significant influence in your child’s life, you don’t have to do it alone. You have people who love you and want to support you in that process. You have people who are praying for you and want to walk with you in this process. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we read how children are to be discipled. They are to be taught God’s commands day and night, when we sit and stand, come and go (and every time in between), and we are to make His commands the hallmarks of our homes (and lives). But we must remember that the command to disciple in this way was spoken to the nation of Israel, not just to individual families. You are not on your own.

I apologize if I act like you do not do what you’re doing and project the attitude that you just need to ‘try harder’. Parenting is hard work. It’s often thankless and exhausting and you may not see the fruit of your labor for years. But I want you to remember that I am on your team. I am your cheerleader. I am your advocate. I will do whatever I can to support you because, as Dr. Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

1 Holmen, Mark. Faith Begins at Home. (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 2005): 42-43.

2 Powell, Kara & Chap Clark. Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in your Kids (Grand Rapids, Zondervan)

Kris currently serves as Director of the Kansas City Fellows and has been a youth ministry practitioner for more than 20 years. In addition to loving Jesus and loving teenagers, he also has a deep appreciation for all things coffee, cycling and Djing. He recently completed his Doctor of Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a Sticky Faith certified coach. He's been married to his wife Heather for more than 20 years and has two daughters.

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