Elephants, Testosterone, and Family-Based Youth Ministry

Shaun Sass
October 4th, 2009

A friend of mine was flipping the channels recently when she stumbled onto one of those animal shows—you know, those 21st century versions of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Anyway, this particular program was about a herd of young bull elephants that had, for some reason, been abandoned. Little by little, these young elephants became more and more aggressive and got increasingly out of control. They killed many of the other animals, and they especially seemed to enjoy ganging up on the rhinos.

Animal doctors were called in to observe this bad behavior, and after weeks of viewing and lots of testing, here’s what they found out: these young male elephants had exceptionally high testosterone levels. The doctors considered drug treatment and a number of other possibilities. But nothing worked until they relocated some mature bull elephants into the herd. That’s right; they captured, drugged, and dragged these older guys into the area, and their plan worked beautifully. The testosterone-driven spree of destruction came to an end and peace returned to Pride Rock.

Not a bad picture of youth ministry, actually.

If you take a quick summary of the youth ministry books from the last decade, what you’ll find is an almost across-the-board agreement that the primary challenge facing young people in this generation is their extensive isolation from the world of adults. Our youth are growing up in a world in which this extensive (if unintentional) abandonment has become normal. In this context, we need an approach to youth ministry that addresses head-on the dramatic isolation faced by today’s teenagers.

The notion of Family-Based Youth Ministry was born out of that passion. But over the years, a few basic misconceptions have kept some traditional youth leaders resistant to anything that smells “family-based.” Perhaps by exposing the nonsense of these misconceptions, these “resistant” youth workers may vastly expand the impact of their work with the next generation.

Misconception 1: Family-Based Youth Ministry puts all the responsibility for family ministry on youth pastors.

I’ve heard critics say, “It’s an unfair burden to add ministry to the family to the long list of things that overworked youth leaders need to take responsibility for.” I couldn’t agree more. There are few enough people sufficiently peculiar to invest in youth ministry as a vocation. But this criticism indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what Family-Based Youth Ministry is all about.

Family-Based Youth Ministry is not about turning youth pastors into family pastors (though in some places that metamorphosis seems to have worked nicely); it’s about intentionally accessing the most powerful resources available to lead young people to mature Christian adulthood.

Permit me a farcical example…

Suppose research conclusively demonstrated that kids who had youth leaders who wore flannel shirts and baggy pants were significantly more likely to continue living out a vibrant Christian faith as adults. What would we do? Every pre-frontal lobotomized youth leader would happily don the flannels and baggies, right?

We wouldn’t complain that this flannel and baggy approach to youth ministry imposed too much extra responsibility on us, would we? We would simply take the limited amount of time and creativity that we have and put our efforts into what brings the greatest long-term results.

The data is in, and (in strict statistical terms) it’s pretty dang conclusive. Nothing impacts the faith maturity of teenagers like the spiritual life of their parents. Family-Based Youth Ministry is about finding creative ways to partner with parents and leverage their immense influence.

There’s been an encouraging renewal of interest in family ministry, but let’s not be confused. “Family” ministers and family-based “youth” ministers are still very different animals. The passion of a family minister is to see families strengthened. The passion of a family-based youth minister is to see young people grow into maturity with Christ.

Misconception 2: Family Based Youth Ministry only works for kids who come from homes with Christian parents.

The Concern: “In an ideal world that’s the way it should be, but most of the kids I work with don’t come from homes where they have mature Christian adults for parents.”

The Response: Welcome to youth ministry.

As recently as a decade ago, the Search Institute documented that only 15% of “churched” men in their forties actually demonstrated an “integrated Christian faith.” Though Family-Based Youth Ministry takes seriously the immense power parents have over the faith formation of their children, it doesn’t depend on parents “having it all together” spiritually.

Mike Yorkey and Greg Johnson’s Faithful Parents/Faithful Kids offers some encouragement for parents who, like me, wonder if they’re doing enough of the right spiritual stuff for their kids. Yorkey and Johnson’s research documents that only 25 percent of parents whose children grew up to be godly adults had family devotions. They find that while some parents required their teenage children to attend church, the majority of parents did not. And a surprisingly high percentage—half—of Christian adults actually dropped out of Sunday school in high school, while only 15 percent surveyed report having prayed fairly often with their parents during the teenage years.

The study recognizes that even when parents are less than consistent in the spiritual nurturing of their children, one factor more than any other contributes to the future faith maturity of their children. The single faith-nurturing factor present in over 90 percent of the Christian adults surveyed is that those who “stuck with their faith” as adults had a “half-dozen ‘mentors’ present during their growing up years.”

So when I use the word “family” in Family-Based Youth Ministry, I am, of course, speaking of the nuclear family, but not exclusively. I’m also speaking of the extended Christian family of adults (mature elephants, if you will). It’s particularly when teenagers don’t come from Christian homes that the need for the influence of an alternative Christian family of adults is most crucial.

I’m convinced that Family-Based Youth Ministry is actually the only kind of youth ministry that ever works for the long haul, whether the youth leaders know they’re practicing family-based principles or not. The Young Life leader who builds a collection of godly adults into his campaigner group; the purpose-driven youth pastor who surrounds the kids in her Bible study with an intentional web of cross-generational relationships; the FCA coach who introduces his officers to godly athletes all over the city; they are all practicing the principles of Family-Based Youth Ministry.

Misconception 3: Family-Based Youth Ministry is just one among many models for youth ministry.

By far the biggest complaint I’ve heard about Family-Based Youth Ministry is that it doesn’t come with a clear program that can be implemented step by step. Some youth workers may implement these principles by doing away with youth group all together (not recommended for those not interested in relocation). Other family-based churches may have what looks on the surface very much like a traditional youth ministry.

Whether your church’s model is based on the Young Life model, the Purpose-Driven model, the Logos model, the Child in Our Hands model, or any of the dozens of other popular youth ministry models, family-based principles make up the essential foundation of each. I’m not promoting another model; I’m advocating the crucial foundation that must undergird every model of youth ministry.

These principles are, simply put, 1) empowering and partnering with parents who are seeking to provide for the Christian nurture of their teenage children, and 2) connecting teenagers to an extended family (a “cloud of witnesses”) of Christian adults.

Shaun Sass

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.