Part of the Village: The Kinship Model for Youth Ministry

October 3rd, 2009

When I taught high school, I attended seminars and read articles on how to cope with parents. It was the inservice topic of choice for many educators. There seemed to be an unavoidable tension between teachers and parents. While most of my interactions with parents were pleasant, I still cringed every time I got a message that a parent wanted to talk to me.

That same tension seems to exist between youth workers and parents. After all, if you put God first in your ministry and try to bring a child closer to God, parents will complain. I feel blessed that it’s only happened once to me, though, because of the way my congregation views the church. Rather than a corporate model (like the church in which I was raised), our church ascribes to what we call the kinship model.

The Corporate Church

This is one that functions something like this: Parents and kids come to church. As soon as they enter the doors, everybody goes to their corners. Teens head to the basement for youth group, little ones head upstairs for children’s church, and the adults head to the sanctuary. There’s a youth minister whose job it is to deal with everything youth-related. She, too, is disconnected from the adult population. When there’s adult worship, she’s in teen worship; when there’s adult Bible study, she’s teaching teen Bible study—two completely different worlds.

Certainly we want worship and study to be developmentally appropriate, but let’s look at what else we’re creating when teens and adults are always separated. The family—the most important unit for moral and spiritual development—is separated in worship and study. A parent, who’s the most influential person in a teen’s life, has his daughter being guided in conversations that he isn’t a part of by a person whom he doesn’t really know. Now this person wants to stretch the child’s spirituality. Is the parent supposed to trust simply because of one’s title? How can a parent trust someone with whom she’s not familiar? Do your parents wait outside the door if youth group isn’t over when they arrive?

None of us have time to invite all of the parents over for dinner so they can get to know us outside of our titles. We barely have time to do what we’re required to do. Quite frankly, it’s hard to do anything differently within the corporate church paradigm. I’m suggesting rethinking the corporate style of church. I’m suggesting not seeing youth group as a department of the church, but seeing it as a ministry within the church. Allow me to introduce a kinship model. It’s not a perfect model, but it’s something to think about.

The Kinship Church

This church model is typically seen in the African American Christian tradition. It stems from a people who were forced to exist within a different kind of family. Because slaves weren’t often allowed to stay with their biological families, the community assumed the role of family by necessity. The now clichéd “it takes a village to raise a child” was a reality. Everybody assumed responsibility for the youth of the congregation, so everyone was a youth minister. If you were a leader in the congregation, you worked with youth and other ministries. The head of the choir led the children’s choir, and the ushers were in charge of the junior ushers. Some ministries consisted of people of all ages.

This tradition continued post-reconstruction because many congregations couldn’t afford youth workers or children’s ministers. But the tradition continues for many African American congregations with youth ministers in order to maintain unity and teach the history of the subculture. While the roots of this model belong to the African American tributary, there’s nothing exclusive about this type of congregation.

The Differences

Unlike a corporate model in which the youth worker is seen as a manager of a particular department, the kinship model of youth ministry doesn’t view youth ministry as a different section but as a part of the church as a whole. What this means for youth ministry is that the youth minister isn’t seen as someone who only deals with youth matters. The youth worker is seen as a member of the village. Before one is a youth worker, one is a member of the congregation. Because teens aren’t always separated from adults, neither is the youth worker. Parents have the opportunity to worship, study, and participate in ministries with the youth worker and build trust with the person rather than the title.

So, how does a youth minister fit into a model where youth isn’t a department? Youth events still exist in these congregations; they augment the time the congregation spends together as a unit. The missionary to youth’s job is to make sure that the teens of the congregation continue to be seen as current members of the congregation, not just future members. The youth worker keeps teen and adult members of the community dependent on each other. The youth minister helps plan the bi-annual family retreat and the bi-annual teen retreat. The youth worker is involved in family mission trips as well as youth mission trips. This doesn’t mean more events; it’s an equal amount of events, but fewer that are purely youth.

The Mindset

Serving as a youth worker in a kinship church has made me think differently about parents. I recognize that they are not the enemy, nor are they advocates. If we serve their children, then we also serve them. We are the helpers of the parents. Instead of seeing ourselves as working against the parents or seeing them as obstacles, why not see ourselves as part of the village? We are part of the equation. And like any village, we support the family.

Imagine what our youth ministry would be like if we were seen as one of the family. The kids would be seen as our kids; our responsibility would be to the families; and there would be fewer issues because the parents would trust us. But it’s not about changing the parents’ and youth worker’s views about each other. It’s about changing the community’s view on how we see church.


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.