I've read (and enjoyed) most books written on the subject of family-based youth ministry. In fact, I can still remember reading Mark DeVries' book, Family-Based Youth Ministry, the very week it was first published. I said at the time and still maintain today, Mark's book presents a most important paradigm for a holistic ministry. However, I'm still looking for a simple definition and practical handle on what family-based ministry really looks like.
Most of us in the ministry arena would say that we are trying to help families succeed—whether we can specifically define what this means—or not. Perhaps this is because we're more involved in the process than we realize.
Several years ago, I conducted a poll of key youth workers around America and Canada and asked them, "What are you doing to help families succeed?" The answers were almost all identical. "I know working with families and parents is very important, and it’s my top goal for next year." Most youth workers I know are still trying to get their hands and minds around this important but illusive part of youth ministry. We know families are vital to the spiritual growth and well being of our students, but we don’t have enough time in our already over-committed schedules to add ministry to families and parents to what we already do for our teens.
While I’m still looking for that simple and definite answer, a defining moment for me came at the Western Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as I stood with my family and a few friends. We were watching as several Bar Mitzvah celebrations took place. The young men were surrounded by family members who cheered as each teen read and quoted from memory the words of the Torah. It was an incredibly moving experience. These fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, siblings, and friends were all taking an active role in these young men’s spiritual lives.
To be honest, I’m a bit jealous that the Jewish faith has such important, communal ceremonies while we Christians have typically done so little with this special rite of passage. I remember an obscure lesson from way back in my seminary days. My professor explained what he called in Hebrew, the Shema. He told us that the Shema, found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, was the most quoted scripture in the entire Bible.
Every morning and evening of every day, Orthodox Jews recite this important section of the Torah. This Scripture is written on the doorframes of their homes. There isn’t a practicing Jew today who can’t quote it from memory. It’s the essence of the Old Testament summed up in a few sentences.
While there isn’t much discussion of this section of Scripture in the New Testament, I think that’s because it was so deeply ingrained in the mind and heart of every Jew that there wasn’t much need.
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."
My time at the Western Wailing Wall caused me to look into the Shema with fresh eyes and what I found surprised me. This Scripture is, in fact, the cornerstone of family-based youth ministry. In order to reach our students, part of our jobs as youth workers is to strengthen families by impressing the Word of God into their hearts and minds.
For the first time, I looked at ministry to parents not as one more program on the periphery of my ministry, but rather as central to my calling. Family-based ministry isn’t about adding a program. It’s a mindset.
In biblical days, the people of Israel had a much better understanding of their roles as parents and family members. They knew their most important calling was to "impress upon their children" the Word of God. They were to talk about it and live out their faith daily. Each child knew his or her place in the family and in their faith.
Today many families lack the understanding and tools necessary to raise children in the legacy of faith. We, as part of the church leadership, must shoulder a healthy measure of the blame, because we’ve let parents delegate their children’s spiritual training to us. Yet, I don’t see parents clamoring to take back this responsibility.
Despite this, can we who are in ministry begin to see the family, and not just the kids, as a priority? I think we can, and I believe we must.
There are no easy answers here—perhaps just more difficult decisions that may complicate our ministries. But we’re called to help families succeed. For now, a good place to start is with changing our mindset, raising the flag and making it known that parents and families—and not just kids—are valued in our ministries.
Here are four simple areas where ministries can implement a change of mindset:
Informing Parents. Parents want information and we should never assume their kids are filling them in. The easiest ways to communicate with parents include a parent’s newsletter/e-mail, parent informational nights or after-church meetings, a ministry information hotline, Facebook and Twitter, bulk texting, and a prominent message board at your church. Today, with people preferring to get their information in a variety of ways, the more places you distribute information, the greater your chances are that the information will be successfully communicated.
Assisting Parents. Assisting parents is a critical part of helping families succeed. You can provide in a variety of ways: building relationships with parents, hosting parent seminars, creating support groups, offering family counseling referrals, adding links to parenting content and resources on your website, and even creating a lending library filled with resources for parents.
Involving Parents. Not all parents will fit in all volunteer ministry positions, but there are so many different ways to involve parents that it's likely you can involve almost all parents in some aspect of your ministry: prayer team, advisory council, transportation, crowd control, food preparation, discipleship, fundraising, data management, administration, hospitality, and so on. When parents become part of your team, they sense ownership in your ministry. That's a great thing!
Encouraging Parents. I never understood how difficult it was to parent until I had three kids of my own. I found I needed all the encouragement I could find. Write affirming notes, texts, and emails. Make brief phone calls just to check in with parents. Sit with parents when you attend their child's events. Every time you offer a parent the gift of encouragement, you are doing family-based ministry!
I've always said doing something is better than doing nothing! So, get started, but take it slow. You don't have to make huge changes today. Remember, the big change is one of mindset, not of programming.
And, if you learn of a simple definition of family-based ministry, please send it to me right away!