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Family vs. Youth Group: either/or or both/and?

August 18, 2011

My friend and former colleague, Jon Nielson, offers some thoughtful reflections on the somewhat sticky relationship between family and youth ministries in the church, specifically in terms of the different roles each can or should play in the discipleship of students.

In his first post, he considers the increasing problem of evangelical young people leaving the church during or after college. He does so by offering three key observations about those who actually stay in the church in their young adulthood:

  1. They are converted.
  2. They have been equipped, not entertained.
  3. Their parents preached the gospel to them.

In his second post, he clarifies that “there is a primary sphere where evangelism and discipleship of young people must occur. It is the context of the family, the Christian home. Christian parents—not youth pastors—have the primary role, responsibility, and calling to evangelize and disciple their children.”

Nielson anchors this first in the biblical pattern (e.g. Deut. 6:6-7), and then offers some thoughts on the proper mindset for both parents and churches in thinking about the primary responsibilities for evangelizing and discipling children.

For the parents:

  1. Parents must be willing to prayerfully, humbly, and yet boldly, take responsibility for the spiritual growth of their children, as much as it depends on them.
  2. Parents should never presume that the church will do the work that is primarily theirs.

And then for churches:

  1. Churches must actively and openly place this responsibility on the parents of their congregation.
  2. Churches must not only call parents to their spiritual responsibility for their children, but also equip them for it and encourage them in it.

In his final post, he describes the kind of role that a youth ministry can and should play, provided that it is well done.  He begins by clarifying that though parents have the primary role in shaping their children, their children’s fundamental spiritual identity is found in the larger family of God, the church, of whom Christ is the head. He says:

One tendency for people who strongly agree with the family-focused idea is to begin seeing the family as the place for one’s fundamental spiritual identity, with the church existing merely to provide some “spiritual tools” as the real work gets done in the home. That is not a correct understanding of the family’s interaction with the church. The primary and most fundamental “family” for a believer in Jesus is the church family. My identity is as a child of God through Jesus, even more than as a child of my father and mother. Indeed, many people come to faith as children in homes where their parents do not know Christ. Their most fundamental “family” becomes the church, the family of God in Christ. The argument made in the previous article is for the primacy of the Christian family’s role in shaping, teaching, and training children, even as those children belong to the family of the church in a far more fundamental and eternal way.

It is my belief that even when wonderful, family-based discipleship and evangelism are happening in the context of the local church, there is still an important place and purpose for a youth ministry program. A church-based youth ministry—done well—can and should contribute to fulfilling the church’s goal to train up and send out life-long followers of Jesus Christ and servants of his church.

Nielson then explains what he means by youth “ministry done well”:

  1. Word-centered
  2. Church-focused
  3. Family-oriented

And he goes on to describe some of the key benefits that a healthy, word-centered youth ministry can bring in light of the following realities:

  1. Young people hear voices.
  2. Young people need to learn to minister the gospel to others.
  3. Young people encourage each other.
  4. Young people will grow up.
  5. Young people share the gospel.

All three articles are worth a read in full.



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