The Spectrum of Focus in Youth Ministry, Part 2

My previous article considered the role of parents in youth ministry. Direct Parental Discipleship is the responsibility of each parent. How should we apply that responsibility within a local church youth ministry?

654292_moods_4.jpgIn this series, I am presenting principles and ideas in pairs. Some principles specify approaches to ministry that are somewhat opposed to other approaches. Direct Parental Discipleship is such a principle. Any discipleship effort that isn’t directly performed by the teen’s own parents violates this principle to some extent. The principles in this article do not oppose each other. But they do compete with each other for time and resources.

Focus on Our Youth

The first principle is that we should focus our ministry resources on our youth. The parents we serve should strongly desire training for their children.

Proverbs 22:6, ESV

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

The simple message here is that good training will lead to a stable adulthood of following after God.

Obviously, this should be taken as a general principle. It should be read with the understanding that good training is relative. That is, we do not have only the two options of “train well” and “train poorly.” Many levels of training exist. Also, our children will neither hold the course perfectly nor become evil in every manner possible. But we can expect that the effort we put into good Christian training will be associated with faithful obedience on the part of our grown children. God has said it will be so.

1 Timothy 3:4, NIV

He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.

This verse describes a requirement for eldership. But we should also consider it to be generally a good thing.

We wish to promote the ability and effectiveness of parents in the discipleship of their teens. One way we can achieve this goal is by equipping them to disciple their own teens in their own homes. The other is by involving parents in the discipleship efforts we engage in as a group.

Cause or Effect

A tendency exists to make plans to deal with one’s current situation. Some churches have few or no teens whose parents are unbelievers. For them, planning ministry with such teens in mind might seem of little value. They might go on to suppose that since they don’t have these teens now, they never will. I suggest that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy and denies our Lord’s command to “go.” The lack of work to reach teens whose families are outside the church and train them well with biblical wisdom will result in few such teens in attendance.

Focus on Unbelieving Teens

Another requirement for eldership in 1 Timothy 3 is “hospitality.” The Greek word for “hospitality” is philoxenos. Xenos is the root from which we get the word xenophobia, which means fear of foreigners and foreign customs. Some have argued that hospitality is primarily, if not exclusively, love and caring shown to strangers to Christianity. However, 1 Peter 4:9 tells us to show philoxenos to “one another.” While I don’t believe that we should limit the word to unbelievers, I do think they are largely in view.

Matthew 9:10-13, NIV

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This exchange demonstrates the focus of Christ on those who were outside the kingdom. He was the Great Physician, and His desire was to find the sick and give them spiritual health. More than that, it demonstrates that Jesus considered the efforts at obedience of those inside the covenant community not to be more important than extension of mercy to those outside.

We should understand and apply these words of Christ. We also consider ourselves to be called, not just to those who are well (our teens), but also to the sick (the teens of our community). Grace and mercy are available in Christ, and we should desire to make this truth known to them. A focus on unbelieving teens is vital to obedience to Christ in youth ministry.

We have two good options before us: 1) Encouraging and helping our Christian parents to be excellent disciplers of their teens, 2) Bringing the healing gospel to unreached teens. These options are both good things. I do not believe we should attempt to choose one of these options as more important than the other. We should do both.

These principles, then, are in conflict only in that they compete for time, resources, and energy.

While salvation is theologically an instantaneous event, the reaching of such teens is not. We must review our call in the Great Commission.

Matthew 28:19-20, NIV

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Jesus does not call us to simply be engaged in evangelism, at least in the sense of simply giving the basic gospel. We are actually called to disciple, baptize, and teach “to obey everything.” Discipleship comes first. It is literally encouraging others to follow Jesus. Note that discipleship comes before baptism. We normally think in a different order: evangelism-belief-baptism-discipleship. But Jesus puts discipleship before baptism—not after. The line between discipleship and evangelism is blurred.

Baptism is the next step. It is an action of the church that allows the new believer to express his belief. Properly understood, baptism is a pictorial expression to the church and outsiders that the individual believes in his own sin, in God’s demand of perfection, in his status as condemned to death, in the washing from sins God gives through Jesus Christ, and in the new life God gives. Baptism allows a church to corporately agree with the individual in the gospel. This truth is also why we should closely link believer’s baptism to church membership.

“Teaching … to obey everything” is the last step. We always have more to learn, no matter how mature we might think we are. See Philippians 3:12-16.

We need to be concerned with much more than just salvation. Assurance of salvation and perseverance of the faith in the lives of teens we are reaching are true results of the Great Commission. We should view discipleship as a lifelong process that begins with gaining understanding of the attributes of God, of who the sinner is, of what Christ did, and of what it means to believe in Him and serve Him.

We must provide an environment where the unbelieving teen can trust our group enough to have a conversation so his journey can be fostered. Tim Keller said that a missional church “understands what it’s like not to believe.”[1] I believe we need to become familiar with this concept.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 gives us a look into a major motivating factor for Paul. His desire was to give the gospel and to “save some.” When Paul was with Jews, he used one behavior; when he was with gentiles he used another. Note that Paul’s motivating principle was reaching those who were lost. Paul’s focus was on unbelievers, and that focus changed his behavior. “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law.” Verse 21 shows us that sometimes Paul did the opposite: “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law … that I might win those outside the law.”

To learn from Paul, we must see that the difference in Paul’s behavior was influenced by practical considerations.

Colossians 4:5, ESV

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.


Direct Parental Discipleship strictly applied in youth ministry will limit the ability of the group to welcome teens of unbelieving families. Again Direct Parental Discipleship is the effort for each parent to be engaged in the discipleship of his own teen. Youth group events that follow the Direct Parental Discipleship model would offer little appeal to teens whose parents are outside the church. In my experience, teens of unbelieving families don’t attend events like a parent appreciation dinner. This tendency is true even when the teens have a strong connection to our group. If their parents won’t come, they don’t want to come either. Being there without their parents makes them feel different and uncomfortable. Practically, if we have strict Direct Parental Discipleship, we must be willing to focus minimally on unbelieving teens. But I do believe that in order to be obedient, we must have a focus on unbelieving teens. Therefore, when strictly applied, Direct Parental Discipleship in youth ministry is in conflict with our ability to obey Christ’s command to win and teach unbelievers.

It has been my joy to know teens who came from unbelieving families, accepted Christ, and went on to Bible college because they were hungry to learn more. If we accept the model of strict Direct Parental Discipleship, teens from unbelieving families are unlikely to be part of the ministry; their unbelieving parents may never participate in youth ministry, leaving their children “orphaned” and “different” in all the youth activities.

That truth helps us to refine our position on the spectrum of the last article. Reaching teens whose families are outside the church is a limit to Direct Parental Discipleship. It eliminates the most extreme position. We also eliminate the other extreme of no parental involvement because parents must be involved. This position still leaves us with a fairly broad range.

We should welcome parents as assistants in youth ministry. As such, they should take on the role of youth assistants. All youth workers are servants of the church and of parents. They understand and apply the church’s philosophy of ministry. They focus on all the teens in the group and not on a few in particular.


Everyone is in need of discipleship, including youth leaders and parents. Adolescence is a natural learning time. Teens ask questions about their faith, find answers, and come to new conclusions—at least new to them. They then passionately follow the ideas they have discovered. I am continually surprised at how quickly teens can change their values and sell out to Christ.

Adults, on the other hand, might not be in the habit of considering these tough questions. This fact might cause a rift between the teens and their parents. Parents might feel unprepared to have faith-based discussions with their teens. Perhaps they feel that their level of biblical knowledge is insufficient; they might feel intimidated by their own teen or even by youth leaders. Meanwhile, in youth group such discussions are commonplace and expected. Leaders prepare deliberately for those discussions. Youth ministry should strive to improve parents’ abilities to have faith-based discussions with their own teens.

Adults might have asked and answered these questions long ago, perhaps incompletely. Their lives are busy, and they may not be asking if their Christian service is all that it should be. They may even have taken their eyes off Jesus and are simply going through the motions of work, church, and family. So while their teens are being challenged to greater dedication and service, their lives might be stagnant.

Youth ministry has been enormously challenging to me. Over the last few years of working with teens, I have reexamined my own life and attitudes about service and the use of spiritual gifts. Parents should join their teens in accepting the challenge of life examination. Youth workers and parents should strive to model the desire for increasing obedience.

When we adults learn that we need to learn and grow in our faith, we become ready to have faith-based discussions because of our own neediness. This is true of discussions with our children and also with others. The parents of our teens are not all at the same place in their Christian walk. Some haven’t even chosen to follow Christ.

But we all have something in common: parenting. What an opportunity we have for the kingdom! Practically, I don’t believe that a ministry to parents should be part of our youth ministry. If my church had a full-time youth pastor, then it could be. I would love to see this ministry to parents organized in our church body. It needs oversight of its own as well as cooperation with youth ministry.

I close Part 2 with my church’s Vision Statement:

Desiring to reflect the glory of God in all things.

And here is our Vision/Mission Statement for youth ministry:

Desiring to reflect the glory of God in young people by relying on the grace of God and by using the gifts, abilities, and passions of the leaders and students, in order to bring teens into the body of Christ, to help them build up their faith, and to improve their Christian walk.


miller_small1.jpgDan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or SharperIron.

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