Worshipping at the Altar of Me: The Role of Parents in Kids’ Spiritual Formation

October 3rd, 2009

Most of us got into youth ministry for the same reason: We wanted to see students' hearts and lives aligned with the heart and purposes of God. It's what we sense as our calling to see lives changed and molded into the likeness of Christ. Yet in how we actually do ministry, we often seem to be about something completely different.

For most of us, youth ministry is about us, our volunteers, and students. Our passions and callings lead us to pour out our hearts and lives for students, doing all we can to make sure that they hear about the love of God and experience that love in an authentic and life-altering way. We realize that time is short; we may only have our students for a few years, so we need to make maximum investment and impact. If our students are going to encounter Christ, we feel the responsibility rests on our shoulders.

Subtly, we believe that we're the chosen ones. We worship at the altar of me. Somewhere along the line, we've bought into the idea that if our students are going to be changed, we have to make it happen. We do ministry as if God were saying, “Whew…I didn't know how I was going to reach that student. I'm so glad  is there. There's no way I could have done it alone.” We can say what we want, but by our actions we seem to believe ministry is all about us and what we do.

Redefining the Road

Effective ministry in the 21st century isn't about molding kids into our likenesses. Yet, sadly, that's what we're doing. If the truth be known, our students know more about us and our faith than they do about God. Youth ministry isn't about what we do, but what God does in their lives.

Are we leading students to worship at the altar of me?

We desperately need fresh thinkers in youth ministry today—ones who will define youth ministry in very different terms. No longer can we see ministry from the vantage point of something that centers on us as the chosen ones. If we're truly going to see life-change happen, it needs to happen in an arena greater than just the youth room.

The truth is that students are a part of a greater structure—the family. Whether we like it or not, parents will always have a greater impact—for good or bad—on the lives of their children than we ever will. How many students are in counseling due to a dysfunctional youth pastor? True ministry with students cannot be done in a vacuum apart from their parents. If we're to impact students for the long haul, we must influence the family unit as a whole as well. If we're to successfully navigate this shift in thinking, we'll need to embrace two realizations.

Parental Influence

For too long we've taken parents out of the equation in the faith formation of their own children—after all, we're the paid professionals. Effective youth ministry in the 21st century is about bringing parents back into the picture. No longer can the church act as the main dispenser of spiritual formation. We need to see ourselves as resources for parents in their roles as spiritual formation builders. It's not the job of the church to be the main force behind students' spiritual formation. It is, and always has been, the role of parents.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

Youth ministry is a rather recent invention in the life of the Church. For centuries the Church was involved in the spiritual formation of young people without what we currently know as “youth ministry.” Young people were nurtured in the faith through family and the community of believers. The Church was a community where Christ was exalted, worshipped, and pursued. It was in the context of the believing community as a whole that young people were nurtured in the faith, not in isolation. Young people were vibrant contributors. The cry we so often hear of “How can we get our students involved in the life of the church?” wasn't an issue even a hundred years ago.

The role of the church has remained the same, and our goal as youth workers is to stand alongside parents in helping them pass on the faith to their children. Youth ministry of the future mustn't be about adding more programming to help our students meet Jesus better. We need to be more holistic in our approach, not only in spiritual formation issues, but also in the factors and people that are brought in to influence the lives of students. It'll take more than just a youth group meeting to see students' experiences of God enriched. We must bring parents back into the circumstances and situations of their children and re-introduce parents into the spiritual formation equation. Parents are too valuable to leave out.

But what about students who come from non-believing homes?

The Extended Christian Family

Whenever the issue of family-based youth ministry or the influence of parents gets brought up, one question invariably arises: “What about those students whose parents aren't Christians?” We'd love to see all parents leaving a vibrant spiritual legacy, but that just isn't a reality. We need the body of Christ, the local community of believers, to act as an extended family for our students.

This isn't youth worker as chosen one or paid professional, but linking students with families within the church, families that have a vision and passion for the faith formation of students. How significant that the text of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 begins with “Hear O Israel.” These words were addressed to the entire nation, not just to parents. God's people have clearly been given oversight for their children, whether those children are born into their biological families or not.

The Church plays a vital role in the spiritual formation of believers. For families that are followers of Christ, it becomes a resource—a community—to assist in the spiritual formation of the family. For families that aren't Christian, it can draw them into community life, connecting them to an extended family. Often this healthy, extended family is incredibly attractive to those whose own families are hurting and broken. It provides a sanctuary and a hope of restoration for their families.

Developing a sense of the extended family of Christ must be a hallmark in youth ministry as we move further into the 21st century. With the widespread brokenness that we see in students' lives, there may be no other way to reach them. Just creating new programs won't rescue a soul, though it just might pacify a few on their road to destruction. We must engage parents, as well as the extended family of God, in the spiritual transformation and faith formation of our students.

The Way Ahead…the Way Backward

We end where we began. What we're in desperate need of today is a mindset shift in our approach to youth ministry. We cannot continue down the same road that we've traveled before and hope for better results. Most of our students have explored our programming. They've explored what we have to offer them spiritually. If we're to truly influence this generation, we must embrace a different way of looking at youth ministry. And it has everything to do with spiritual formation.

If we want to make the most lasting impact on the lives of students, it won't be by worshipping at the altar of me. It'll be through their parents and the extended family of Christ. The way ahead is, strangely, the way backward.

“Hear, O Israel….”


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