Between Two Worlds: Ministering to Modern Parents and Postmodern Students

October 3rd, 2009

Do you feel tension from working with parents and students who think differently from each other? This isn’t the tension derived from differing expectations regarding communication, professionalism, and organization. This isn’t even the normal parent/child angst.

Have you come to the stark realization that most parents interpret their worlds and faiths through the lens of modernity while their children (your students) see the same landscape through postmodern lenses? Maybe you realized this fact and figured out that you must rethink some of your convictions and retool your methods in order to disciple today’s teens. Then, after experiencing a run of successes—seeing your group grow in intensity, depth, and power—you even started to dream of all God might do…only to run into a wave of unexpected criticism. We know how you feel.

The Tensions

One sunny winter day, I unsuspectingly headed out for a casual lunch with one of our parents but lost my appetite as this parent’s concerns were listed: “My children aren’t being fed;” “Your youth service is focused on experience and doesn’t have enough meat;” “It’s just social;” “The group just doesn’t know basic Christian doctrines.”

Some youth ministers are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place; they’re building a ministry that’s relevant to postmodern teenagers, but modern-thinking parents decry a lack of depth, fuzzy teaching, and even heresy.

It appears that youth workers who represent conservative evangelical churches are the ones most likely to experience these tensions, because these churches are the most likely to be populated by adults who can only conceive of faithfulness through the modern lens of their own Christian heritages. In the last 50 years, conservative evangelicals have elevated rational apologetics and the debate of the various orthodox beliefs to an art form. To many genuine believers this modern expression of Christianity has become the only true form of Christianity. Meanwhile, a group of younger evangelicals is sensing that this modern expression may not be relevant to the emerging generations and have adapted their ministries accordingly. But these youth workers are caught between two worldviews and are often frustrated by the obstacles erected by well-meaning parents.

Several years ago I joined the staff of a young church-plant to lead the birth and development of their student ministry. I tried to do everything right: I thought and prayed like a missionary, I studied the culture, and, most importantly, I built relationships with the students and their families. Over time, a strategy for ministry emerged with a post- modern feel to it.

I was excited to see students resonate with this approach…and startled to get pushback from parents. I tried to explain why we’d made some changes (such as canceling Sunday school and implementing ministry teams), but that only led to even more pronounced disagreements. As this whole situation was getting more heated, a mentor challenged me with this question: “Are you willing to patiently serve these parents, helping them understand and navigate the cultural shifts that are affecting their families, their church, and the ministry their kids are in?” I had to take a few days of solitude to do the heart check and see if I really wanted to lay down my life to serve these fellow believers.

My heart began to change when I realized that this wasn’t a me-versus-them issue (even if it felt like one). After all, this group of parents genuinely wanted to see students develop as life-long followers of Jesus Christ; they were just a little startled by the absence of elements that were key to their own Christian lives. From that moment on, I chose to view the complaints as a misunderstanding of my worldview rather than a criticism of my leadership.

Wes ran into a common problem in youth ministry, namely the generation gap between parents and younger youth workers. I experienced the same in the early 1980s. Yet today, the gap has been made a chasm by the change in prevailing worldviews from modernity to postmodernity. Just about the time that the church got really good at ministering in rational and linear terms, we peeked outside the front doors and found that the playing field had changed. Consider this—a primary value of modernity is knowing and communicating the right information. So, providing classes to youth on learning and communicating content is key. However, a primary value of post-modernity is belonging and involvement. Therefore, allowing youth to experience authentic community and opportunities to serve together through ministry teams is essential. Both worldviews promote needed aspects of Christian growth, but they approach them from different angles.

As I understood some of the implications of ministering to postmodern students, I had to unlearn some assumptions about church, spiritual formation, and evangelism. I assumed parents would appreciate it when I shared these revelations, but I soon discovered the word “postmodernism” brought out some strong reactions. One night, as Jim led a parents’ seminar, he began to talk about the way postmodernism was influencing how students perceive their worlds. “You may be wondering where postmodernism came from,” he rhetorically asked. One parent chimed in, “From Hell!” His comments on postmodernism were being interpreted as a new form of relativism.

Although separating institutional or cultural Christian expressions from genuine and authentic Christianity is necessary, to the modern (American) evangelical this process can seem like an attack on dearly held values. Consequently, to the conservative, modern thinking parent, the postmodern approaches to Christian growth are disconcerting at best and heretical at worst. To them, the postmodern youth worker appears to be taking the fast lane down a slippery slope. Youth workers need to show sensitivity when interacting with these parents.

I realized that I was needlessly provoking parents. Every time I said “postmodernism” I hit a hot-button that got a visceral reaction, as if I’d suggested we shave our heads and go down to the airport to hand out flowers. Actually, I must be honest; I realized that a lot of this tension sprouted from my desire to have a ministry that was innovative and pioneering. It was a particular kind of pride that kept me from seeking the middle ground where parents and I could agree.

I started talking with parents, not about postmodernism, but about what our students need; and with each point of contention, I asked myself, “Are there ways of talking about this subject to a generation that doesn’t understand it but has strong reactions to it?” From then on, our conversations started to be more fruitful. During this time, I was at breakfast with a parent, having a great conversation about how students receive, understand, and value information. The parent was tracking with me, listening intently until I accidentally said the word “postmodernism.” You could hear the screeching of mental tires. “Look,” the parent said. “I studied existentialism and philosophy in school. This neo-liberalism is just a fad and it’ll pass.” Any progress I’d hoped to make was over and I walked out of there thinking, “Why did I have to say the ‘P’ word?”

Discussions between youth workers and parents regarding ministry methodology aren’t worthwhile if both parties aren’t pursuing the same goals. Rather than inciting parents by using hot-button words, work on building a common understanding of what the ministry is attempting to accomplish. If these conversations can get at the deep issues of why we’re doing what we’re doing and if we can develop a common vocabulary, then we’ll achieve a huge victory. Over the next decade, while modernity wanes and postmoderity continues to develop, effective youth workers will see themselves as missionaries to two cultures: that of their students and that of the parents. A good missionary works to understand and relate to the worldview of the people group with whom they’re toiling. As youth workers, we don’t have to convert modern-thinking parents to postmodernism in order to get them to understand what we’re doing. We do need to be able to converse in their language in order to communicate successfully.

Building a Bridge Really Matters

My heart really changed when I developed a passion to be a minister of reconciliation. After all, if the Gospel welcomes the stranger, I should seek ways for our ministry to unite strangers separated by both a worldview and a generation gap. I prayed for God’s spirit to work in our congregation so that the adults’ hearts would be turned toward our students. One day a mother confessed that she had this inexplicable desire to begin an unlikely friendship with three high school girls. “I never saw this coming,” she began. “I don’t want to be involved in any of your programs. I just want to journey with these girls for the long haul.”

“Yes!” I thought. “She’s getting it.” I’ve never used any postmodern buzzwords when we talk about discipleship. We just talk about what these girls need to become authentic followers of Christ, and this mother and I are on the same page.

Whatever your worldview, modern or postmodern, at its core, Christianity is about reaching out to others, welcoming strangers, and inviting them to be an active participant in the community, which is the kingdom of God. As youth workers, we have the opportunity and privilege to introduce and foster community between the generations. Rather than seeing parents as obstacles (or worse), we ought to be role models of this kind of community and build bridges to them. This way we can truly demonstrate that we who have been united with Christ in baptism to become like him are in a community where there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, modern or postmodern. For we are all Christians. That kind of unity is a mark of the Gospel.

I’ve discovered, though, that many of my students would rather be isolated from the larger church than integrated into a multi-generational community. After all, they’re so used to being segregated by marketers and educators that they expect the church to do this as well. Because of this tendency, we must have great urgency. We face a time in history when cultural changes are having a huge impact on the generation gap in our churches. My home church continues to grow beyond the 2000+ mark but fails to attract those in the 18-35 age bracket. Whenever I go back to visit, I’m struck by their absence and wonder if this is reflected in other churches across the country. Will an entire generation not hear the Gospel because the churches haven’t decided to do what it takes to welcome this era? I’m committed to the long haul of seeing these generations brought together. The words of 1 Timothy 4:15-16 encourage me: “Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Getting Back Up and Trying Again

I’ve tasted failure in my attempts to build this bridge. It’s painful to recite the list of those who hired me, ran with me for awhile, and then dropped off, unable to support my leadership. I occasionally encounter the family that left our church and I see parents who still can’t go accept the changes that have taken place. They just can’t understand why we haven’t offered a class on the doctrine of God, why we don’t bring back Sunday school to teach core doctrines of our faith, or why there’s not a class for mature students who want “meat.” I’ve tried to find a middle ground, but at this point I’m not sure anything would satisfy them. Point is, I’ve lost these parents’ confidence and they’re withholding their investments as mature Christians into these young lives. I’ve alienated them.

You and I know that this happens— people leave and withdraw rather than change. However, the larger concern is what I see happening to some of their children; they’re becoming mules. Mules, the result of breeding a horse and a donkey, are quite useful for many tasks but are sterile—unable to reproduce. Some of my students have adopted their parents’ ideals and perpetuate their parents’ values by believing the right things and learning a rational defense of the faith. But they live out their faith in a way that doesn’t connect with their peers. I’m afraid these beliefs are the spiritual offspring of a modern faith with teens who are part of the postmodern generation. They’re good kids and they believe the right things (and they’re incredibly stubborn), but they’re becoming irrelevant to their own generation. They’re mules, and they’ve inherited a way of perceiving faith that’ll collapse when their assumptions are challenged later on in college or in life.

We must teach our kids to think missionally, call them out of isolation among their own kind, and free them from the eroding foundational structures of modernism. We must build a sense of unity with their parents so they can also be missionaries to their kids. If this doesn’t happen, the church may stall out in some sectors, and a generation will be missing from the next 60 years of church history.

As youth workers minister to this generation of adolescents, it’s imperative that we utilize strategies which produce authentic Christ followers who, in turn, will serve as missionaries to their own culture and will labor with us to determine how we can live out our faith under a new umbrella. Yet, we cannot go it alone in this process and expect to be successful. We need the partnership of parents. Helping them first to understand, then to own, and finally to promote this missional agenda with their own children will be a tremendous asset in seeing the dream become reality.

We have the vantage point from which we can see both sides. We know and understand the faith world of the parents—the emphasis on learning the right doctrines and the primacy of propositional teaching times. However, we also see the cultural landscape of a new generation that needs us to build a community that’ll provide a home for them. Wouldn’t it be incredible if our legacy was one of unity that navigated this uncertain time, brought generations together, and positioned the church to make a significant impact on the succeeding generations?

Here are some lessons Wes and I have learned along the way:

  • Commit to building authentic relationships of love with parents. It takes time and effort, but relationships help make weathering the storms of change an easier proposition.
  • Communicate effectively, which to a great extent means being a good listener. Learn the language of parents and converse using their language. Avoid using hot-button words that anger, frustrate, or alienate.
  • Educate slowly, building common understandings and consensus.Serve parents. Be long-suffering with those who don’t get it at first (or ever) and especially with those who reject your views.
  • Stay put. Change takes time.

Postmodernist thought is still developing. Similarly, paradigms for ministry to a postmodern world are also developing. Though the dialogue can be frustrating because of the fluidity involved, we need the conversation. Keep it going!


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.