Early in my ministry, a young lady from an unchurched family accepted Christ. The family dynamic was unusually complicated by divorce and remarriage. However, after reaching this young lady, she in turn shared the gospel with her biological and step families. As a result, both her father and his new family, along with her mother and her new family, accepted Christ, found reconciliation with one another, and both families began attending and serving in the church together.
This isn’t a special case. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to see many families come to Christ and the church through student ministry that reaches out intentionally to parents. Each story is unique, but each has one thing in common – connecting with parents was a priority.
We often talk about the need to build strong, multi-generational connections in our churches. One of the most powerful ways to accomplish that is by fostering strong, multi-generational relationships in the families within our churches. Healthy family relationships make healthy families, and healthy families make healthy churches.
We face a challenge, though, when students in our church have parents who are disengaged or uninterested in Jesus or the church. In order for us to have the impact God wants us to have, we must find ways to connect whole families – not just students – to Christ.
Our urgent challenge
While it is important for parents and students to have a strong connection with Christ at every age, that connection is never more important than during the teenage years. During this final “stretch” of adolescence, students will be making some of the most important decisions of their lives, such as their career and future spouse.
Additionally, these years will often determine the trajectory of the parent-student relationship. Parents who successfully help their students navigate their way from dependence to independence are more likely to have healthy relationships with their adult children than parents who don’t.
Parents are the primary influence in a student’s life. For decades, studies have consistently reinforced this truth, even in cases of high familial dysfunction. It only makes sense, then, for student ministry to focus on equipping parents to disciple students as much as it does on the students themselves.
After 20 years of youth ministry, I am heartbroken when I think of the countless students I’ve watched stumble, falter or walk away from their faith altogether because there was no reinforcement at home. I don’t have to reference a scientific study to tell you the vast majority of students who grow up to be healthy, faithful Christ-followers came from homes where their faith was encouraged. If we are to successfully reach the next generation for Christ, we must make every effort to reach their parents (or parent figures).
Consider these guiding principles for student ministry aimed at reaching the whole family:
Define your purpose. What we say should be amplified by what we do. In order to reach both students and their families, we have to start with a clear and meaningful purpose for student ministry. Before you recite your mission or vision statement, first look at what you are actually doing as a ministry. Pause and ask yourself, “What would an outsider say our purpose is, judging by our programming, our teaching, our attitudes and our budget expenditures?”
Once we’ve determined our actual purpose, we can think about what our intended purpose should be. However we decide to articulate or pursue it, the sole purpose of any ministry should be developing mature followers of Jesus Christ. Figure out how God is calling you to do that in your context, and then own that purpose by working to align every aspect of your ministry with it.
This is important because in order to connect with the unchurched, de-churched and unsaved parents in our student ministry, there needs to be a compelling reason for them to make that connection. They need to hear and see that our student ministry is more than a social activity. They need to know we are working to make a positive and meaningful impact on their children’s lives.
Speak their language. Align ministry goals with their parenting goals. Not only must our ministry purpose be compelling, but we must articulate it in a way that is meaningful to the parents we are trying to reach. Imagine telling a parent who isn’t a Christ-follower that your purpose is to develop Christ-like character in their child. At best, they won’t understand what that means; at worst, they’ll think you’re trying to brainwash their child into a cult.
However, if you tell that same parent that your ministry is focused on developing honesty, patience, courage, compassion, self-control and leadership skills in their child, you’ve now aligned the goals of your ministry with their goals as a parent. You haven’t changed what you’re teaching, you’ve just communicated it in a way that is meaningful to them.
Families are stretched thin, with innumerable activities competing for their time. Aligning our ministry goals with their parenting goals helps move ministry from competitor to collaborator in the raising of their child, which increases our chances of reaching them for Christ.
Be their champion. Everybody wins when parents win. At one point or another, every parent feels like a failure. For some parents, that feeling is a constant state of being. There’s no end to the voices and influences feeding the insecurities of a parent, yet there are very few that are encouraging them in a meaningful way. As student ministry leaders, we have an incredible opportunity to position ourselves as their champion.
Be their champion in front of them. Every chance you get, find a way to brag about their kid in front of them. For some students, this may be difficult and require a significant amount of intentionality on your part, but I can’t overstate the power of this simple act of encouragement. Saying something like, “Cody showed incredible patience today at youth group. You must be teaching him well,” lets them know they’re doing something right amid their doubts and insecurities.
Be their champion behind their back. Inevitably, students are going to complain about their parents. Oftentimes the complaint may be valid because parents sometimes mess up. But unless it’s something that’s truly abusive, hurtful or illegal, we should do everything we can to paint their parents in a positive light. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Reinforce that their parents love them and are doing their best to raise them to be successful in life. Deep down, every kid wants their parent to be a hero – help them to see them as such. Remember, no matter how bad that parent may have messed up, you will never love their child as much as they do.
Be their champion beside them. In addition to equipping students and volunteers, make it a priority to equip parents as well. Conduct a survey about their concerns as a parent, and then host a speaker or seminar on their biggest concerns. (Pro tip: social media is one of them.) Look through all the books you’ve bought (or gotten as freebies at conferences) and see what might help a parent. Make a list of them and share them as a lending library. Find ways to put tools in their hands, encourage them and bless them. Involve them in youth and church events and create opportunities for them to do things with their student, not just for them. Help a parent build a healthy relationship with their child, and even the most ardent critic of Christianity will become your supporter.
Jesus leveraged His power, influence and resources for the good of others. When we leverage our power, influence and resources for the good of parents, we’re building a bridge between them and Christ.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jimmy Hammond is family life pastor at Living Faith Baptist Church in Sherman, Ill. This article appeared in the Illinois Baptist.)