The Spectrum of Parental Involvement in Youth Ministry, Part 1

Scripture gives parents great responsibility for the discipleship of their children. Ephesians 6 and Deuteronomy 6 make this fact clear. But Christians are divided on how the parental role should impact the task of youth discipleship. Churches exhibit a range of parental involvement in youth groups. Some refuse to have a youth group altogether, believing the miller_shoes.jpgresponsibility and task of youth discipleship belong exclusively to parents. At a previous church, a friend of mine asked if he could be involved in youth group with his daughter. He was told that, as a parent, he was not allowed to attend youth group—youth group was for teens.

Principles

While those two examples might seem extreme, each can be seen as an expression of the philosophies of the leaders. The spectrum of philosophy generates the spectrum of application. Behind each of these applications we find good principles. The church that refuses youth group altogether desires to emphasize the family and the responsibility parents have for the discipleship of their own teens. The church that doesn’t welcome parents to youth group may be trying to make a group attractive to a variety of teens and to foster frank open discussion. I’m not judging these as right or wrong—yet. I’m simply saying that philosophy influences ministry choices.

It may seem obvious that these two examples are extreme, and perhaps my reader has already decided that one or both are wrong. Yet we should understand that good principles are at the base of each example. Teens enjoying discipleship? That’s a good thing. Teens having open and honest discussions? That’s good. Parents taking their responsibility for their teens seriously? That’s good, too. What we see with each example is the result of applying one or a few principles in a simplistic manner while disregarding other principles. The difficulty is that each principle is a good and biblical idea. By focusing on only one principle and not focusing on the other, we tend to extremes. This tendency results in an incomplete obedience. And more dangerous, it results in a false confidence that we are obedient.

Someone has well said that the ditch is deep on both sides of the road. This statement implies that we should avoid extremes. However, I argue that we should not be afraid of a conclusion just because it is extreme. We must be open to whatever pattern best fits biblical principles.

I want to examine principles in terms of application on a continuum or spectrum. I will describe a few such spectra in upcoming articles. In the end, I will arrive at a philosophy of youth ministry.

Principle 1—Direct Parental Responsibility in Discipleship

Parental responsibility to teach children is outlined in Deuteronomy 6. Included in this chapter are “fear the Lord your God” (v. 2, NIV), “keeping all His statutes and His commandments” (v. 2), and especially, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (vv. 4-5).

Deuteronomy 6:7-9 includes situations where that teaching should occur—when we lie down, when we sit in our houses, and when we rise. These domestic situations demonstrate the specific and direct parental responsibility in teaching and discipleship. I use the term “direct” deliberately. This principle does not simply make parents responsible for the discipleship of teens. It describes the responsibility of parents to disciple their own teens directly.

This principle causes some churches to prohibit youth group altogether. Placed on one end of a spectrum, it represents emphasis on parents’ authority and responsibility for their own children.

Principle 2—Delegation of Responsibility

Delegation offers practical benefits. It can increase the pool of experience and provide a continuity of teaching between parents and other adults, reinforcing the same message. It can provide for specialization, allowing some to develop programs and practices specifically geared for the discipleship of teens. Some questions and issues are peculiar to youth ministry. Those who deal with senior citizens or the nursery, for example, will not face the same issues. To the extent that these issues are difficult or require training, it is useful for the church to recognize a few people as possessing the gift and desire for youth ministry.

Most importantly, delegation can increase the number of different spiritual gifts applied to the discipleship effort. One set of parents will never possess the assortment of spiritual gifts found in the church body. Delegation, to one extent or another, is the purpose of spiritual gifts.

But delegation can also cause concern. Parents have the direct responsibility of youth discipleship, so do they have the right to delegate? Do others have the right to take on some of this responsibility?

Scripture gives us clues that the responsibility for children is not exclusive to parents. In 1 Samuel 1-3, we find that Hannah left Samuel to be raised by Eli, the temple priest. Even in this case, Hannah kept Samuel until he was weaned. Some tasks of parenting Eli simply could not have been expected to accomplish. Neither Hannah’s offer of her young son nor Eli’s acceptance of him is condemned by Scripture. Nor are these actions painted with a critical brush.

The delegation of responsibility, therefore, can be consistent with scriptural obedience. These two principles represent the ends of a philosophical spectrum:

Direct Parental Discipleship - - - - - - - - - - - - Delegation of Discipleship

1 - - - - 2 - - - - 3 - - - - 4 - - - - 5 - - - - 6 - - - - 7 - - - - 8 - - - - 9 - - - - 10

It might be tempting to graduate the spectrum with numbers like a thermometer. For instance, I might say that we want to be a “3” on the above scale. But that finding would be worthless. “3” means nothing when it comes to implementing a philosophy. Instead of representing a philosophy of ministry, that finding would only open the door for youth workers to do whatever they like at any given time. Instead, I want to describe the reasons for Direct Parental Discipleship and the limits to its application. Likewise, we should express the reasons for and limits to Delegation of Discipleship.

This will be the pattern in all of the spectra I wish to discuss. There are reasons for and limits to the application of each principle. Sometimes the spectra are interrelated so that the application of principle 8 alters the application of principle 1. Therefore, we would be nearsighted to fully discuss the application of principles 1 and 2 prior to illuminating 3 through 10. The practical application will be general in the first articles in this series and more specific as we go. I will not be able to fully describe the application of the first two principles. Instead, I will discuss the reasons for and limits to each principle.

Reasons for and Limits to

The primary reason for applying Direct Parental Discipleship is obedience to Deuteronomy 6. There we find that we should view all situations in the home as opportunities for discipleship.

Another reason for Direct Parental Discipleship is concern. Only parents have a special level of care for their children. This true, loving concern is the basis for one of Solomon’s famous applications of wisdom. In 1 Kings 3:16-28, two prostitutes came to him, each claiming a child was hers. His solution was to cut the baby in half. The true mother was revealed when, out of concern for her child, she insisted that the child’s life be spared even if she lost custody. Only by knowing that a level of loving concern is peculiar to parents could Solomon have made this discernment.

A good thing can become bad if it is taken too far. We can possibly play upon the genuine concern of parents. Parents can have significant fear that their children will turn out badly. By playing on that fear, teachers can persuade parents to fear delegation altogether. That fear opens the door to an oversimplified view of application. By that I refer to the practice of considering one principle (e.g., Direct Parental Discipleship) alone or to the exclusion of other legitimate principles in ministry application.

The main limit to Direct Parental Discipleship in the practice of a church’s youth ministry is difficulty of application. Direct Parental Discipleship would mean that parents disciple only their own teens. A parent in youth ministry who disciples a child who is not his own is not fulfilling Direct Parental Discipleship. He is fulfilling delegation by one parent to another. The only situation within a youth group setting that would actually fulfill Direct Parental Discipleship is if each teen was accompanied and attended to by his parent. Those who insist upon the absolute application of Direct Parental Discipleship would probably not have a youth ministry at all.

Other limits would be based on other principles. I will discuss some of those in upcoming articles.

What, then, are the reasons for and limits to delegation?

Some scriptural qualifications for effective teaching go beyond just being a biological parent. Titus 2:3-4 says, “Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children” (NASB). We should note two important truths in this passage.

First, “older women” in general are to teach younger women. Their experience makes them appropriate teachers. Second, even these older women must do some things “so that they may” subsequently have good discipleship ministries. They must be reverent, avoid gossip, shun alcoholism, and posses good doctrine. The degree to which women in the church fulfill these requirements will vary. In order to apply the best teaching according to Titus 2, the church must observe which women fulfill these requirements. Scripture says these women will be more effective in discipling young women.

Since these principles contrast with one another, one obvious limit is that parents bear a special responsibility for their kids. If they delegate too much, they will abdicate their responsibility.

Even in the extreme biblical example, Hannah did not abdicate. She didn’t leave her child by the side of the road to fend for himself. She cared for Samuel herself for at least a minimal time (until weaned), and she handed him over to a responsible person (Eli, the priest). Correspondingly, we can describe reasonable limits to delegation.

Oversight

In order for parents to delegate without failing their responsibility, they must assess available ministries. They must be able to understand, approve, and contribute to the philosophy of the youth ministries in which their teens participate.

According to a 2003 Barna Group survey, only “[o]ne out of every five parents of children under 13 (19%) has ever been personally contacted or spoken to by a church leader to discuss the parents’ involvement in the spiritual life and development of their children.” This statistic should not be the case for youth group.

We should strive to give parents the opportunity to have oversight over youth ministry. This oversight would include giving information, involvement, and influence over the philosophy and practice of youth ministry. It does not mean that each parent should view the ministry as beholden to him in particular. The ministry is a community effort and serves the church as a whole. Parents should be involved in oversight—along with pastors, elders, and deacons—according to the organization of the church.

Participation

By participating in youth ministry, parents can see how philosophy is put into action. With participation, parents can also help to guide the ministry, including its philosophy. This participation might include joining in parents’ meetings. These meetings are a good place to discuss parenting, to hear from youth workers about their philosophies and methods, and to discuss what changes should be considered. Meetings might include prayer for the teens and leaders. Parents might also feel called to work as youth assistants.

When parents take on the role of youth leaders or assistants, their ministry will follow one of two patterns. They will work toward the discipleship of either their own teens or many of the teens in the youth ministry. This important concept deals with the question of the focus of these youth workers. Are they at youth group to minister to their own teens or to all teens? I’ll defer that question until later articles. For now I’ll simply say that parental responsibility in the discipleship of their teens means they should be involved in ministry as much as possible.

Of course, the most basic type of participation is for parents to send their teens to youth group activities. This decision should be deliberate and informed.

Delegation to Whom?

As we recruit assistants for youth ministry and delegate discipleship to them, what qualifications should we seek? We want our workers to show a desire to glorify God. We should desire an attitude of biblical study and obedience.

Though the idea of young people working as youth assistants is traditional, I see no reason for their participation to be exclusive. I believe we should also recruit older church members for youth ministry.

Appreciation

Parents should appreciate their youth ministry workers. Simply asking for appreciation would be a reversal of order. Once parents have a system in place—once they view the ministry as their youth ministry—they will naturally appreciate the ministry and those who work in it. A lack of appreciation would suggest to ministry leaders that work needs to be done in informing, discussing, amending, and recruiting. Perhaps parents are uncomfortable with what is happening in youth group.

Service

The reciprocal attitude on the part of youth leaders and assistants should be service. They should understand that they are servants of the church—including and especially parents. Hopefully, these articles will serve as a guide for what that service should look like.

Though I am posting these articles one by one, readers should not consider each to be a stand-alone treatment of any one topic. In addition to publishing them at SharperIron, I’m going to discuss them in my church with my pastors, youth ministry team, deacon board, and parents. All comments are welcome, but those from my own local church will be most interesting to me. Also, it would not make sense for me to comment very much because upcoming articles will serve as my comments on the preceding ones. I will be expanding, explaining, and qualifying the positions that initially I only partly describe.

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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