Family Ministry: What Are the Issues…and Is Anybody Really Doing It?

Tony Toth
October 4th, 2009

The Bible views people as whole people living their lives in relation to others; therefore family ministry must be integrated into all areas of a person’s life.
—Royce Money, Ministering to Families: A Positive Plan of Action

During a rather lively discussion on the merits of family-friendly methods of youth ministry, one influential speaker and author emphatically proclaimed, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…and youth ministry ain’t broke!”

That’s hard to argue with:

  • Most churches recognized youth ministry as a viable career option and are clamoring for trained, educated, and mature (read, older) youth and student ministry pastors.
  • Over the last decade nearly every Christian college and seminary has created some sort of youth ministry program.
  • Sales of youth ministry books and related products are at an all-time high, and every year sales records are broken.
  • Youth conventions such as DC/LA and Acquire and Fire—and parachurch organizations like Young Life and Youth for Christ—continue to draw staggering numbers at sponsored events.
  • Youth Specialties” National Youth Workers Conventions are drawing more people every year and are consistently experiencing greater ethnic and theological diversity.

But in spite of these facts, not everybody agrees they represent the state of how things really are in youth ministry. Many youth workers, pastors, parents and Christian leaders are wondering aloud whether youth ministry has become an independent, unruly, and institutionally disconnected program that’s missing the heart of its mission—namely, to bring kids into vibrant, community-based relationships with God.

Mark DeVries—author of Family Based Youth Ministry, the book that initiated the first broad salvo at traditional youth ministry—had this to say at a recent seminar: “Youth ministry is not working. I want it to work, and I’ve tried to make it work, but I’ve been doing it for more than 15 years—and have had the money, the time, and the organizational luxury to do it well—but I’m convinced that in the overall scheme of things…traditional youth ministry is not working.”

After several years of study and reflection, I have come to the conclusion that while youth ministry is doing well in many respects, it will always have a difficult time, no matter how popular the model or charismatic the leader, making a lasting, significant dent in the lives of the vast majority of kids. This is a lost, fragmented, and abandoned generation. Students need far more than a few youth workers and some snappy weekly programs that keep their interest. This has been the impetus of the family ministry movement.

What Is Family Ministry?
When most people talk about family ministry, comments generally fall into three schools of thought:

1. Family ministry as care ministry. This viewpoint says the church is primarily a helping community. But when classes, clinics, support groups, and lay counseling dominate a congregation’s view of family ministry, youth ministry programming is left out. Thus this view of family ministry makes little if any impact on traditional youth ministry thinking and practice.

2. Family ministry for the nuclear family. There are some who believe family ministry means transferring youth ministry discipleship “back into the family where it’s always belonged.” (This view tends to see youth ministry as ultimately usurping parental authority, and the church’s role as training and equipping parents to be better disciples of their own kids!) Some adherents of this view see youth ministry as necessary only when and if it’s a supporting entity for the sake of parents; they often push for youth ministry to take a far less active role in the students’ lives and become organizers of training events and fellowship activities where families can connect in a local church context.

In terms of traditional youth ministry, this view of family ministry is, needless to say, fairly radical. Taken to the extreme, the idea that families can replace youth groups ignores the developmental necessity for peer relationships and interaction—especially in high school, where today’s student is navigating the ever-changing landscape of midadolescence. If kids aren’t encouraged to connect with peers at church, then they will find other outlets, one way or another. Also, this concept implicitly denies the impact of nonparental mentors (i.e., youth workers).

Strengthening and encouraging the nuclear family wherever we can is something that youth ministry must take seriously. But to ask that families retreat to an isolated and independently focused mode of discipleship goes a bit too far.

3. Church as family ministry. In my view, the youth ministry world needs to pay attention to this perspective. It focuses on the idea that the church is called to be “a family of families” (Dennis Guernsey, New Design for Family Ministry), where it’s everybody’s responsibility to care foreverybody. Jesus calls those who follow him “all brothers” (Matthew 23:8), and Paul makes reference to the “family of believers” (Galatians 6:10) and that all believers are members of “God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19). Family ministry, it would appear, refers to a commitment of the entire church to be relationally and programmatically connect to the diverse people and ministries in the church.

The church-as-family ministry mindset most directly impacts traditional ways of thinking about youth ministry. For too long youth ministry has been seen as a separate, hands-off program—creating its own purpose statement and strategic plan, its own checkbook and lay leadership, and its own way of doing ministry. But what may have worked programmatically in the past may not be the best way for us to do things as we enter a new millennium.

Is Anybody Really Doing Church-as-Family Ministry?
Many churches and youth staffs are moving in this direction. Some are rethinking everything they do, and others are simply being more sensitive and open to parents and congregations. The biggest, most crucial step, though, is youth workers simply allowing the idea to seep into their hearts and minds—seeing parents as partners instead of nuisances, for example.

Here are other steps to consider:

1. Change the goal of youth ministry. The goal can no longer be limited to making individual disciples of Jesus Christ. Biblical discipleship is far more than just “me and Jesus.” How about making the goal that by the time students graduate from high school, they’ll smoothly transition into adult-member roles in the local church?

2. Question “traditional” programs. Ask how your programs will affect the rest of the church. This includes events that affect parents (e.g., Can the parents pay for this camp when they paid for the junior high retreat last month?) and decisions that affect other ministries (e.g., Does the choir need the van that weekend, too? Maybe we could help spruce up the preschoolers’ space instead of repainting ours?).

3. Leadership—lay and paid—should create a family atmosphere.We’re called to be people of God before we do the work of God (John 15). What’s a good barometer for this? When there’s conflict, competition, or calendar coordination, is your staff and lay leadership more for the other church ministry than they are for their own ministry area (Philippians 2:1-4)?

4. Be willing to drop some programs…if they move the youth ministry farther from the rest of the church. Family minister Tim Smith says, “Sometimes your eraser is your best programming tool.”

5. Communicate the idea that youth ministry is everybody’s calling.For youth ministry to move toward a more family-friendly stance with the church, youth workers must let go of the idea that they’re the only ones called to care for students. A family-oriented youth ministry program at the very least recognizes that it’s a servant of—and partner with—parents in reaching kids. And the church is ultimately responsible for seeing that youths—before they graduate from the group—are valued, esteemed, and integrated into church life.

Traditional youth ministry has a great deal going for it, especially when it’s carried out by caring, devoted, well-equipped youth workers who love Jesus and love students. But the family ministry revolution brings a healthy balance in that, (1) parents are the ultimate youth workers, and we must partner with them, and (2) kids need the entire church and the church needs all the kids. Family ministry is everybody’s ministry.

Tony Toth

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.