In the United States we’re already blessed with (what we consider) a relatively high parent involvement. Yet, if you’re like me, you also know that getting parents to chaperone activities or to volunteer for organizational roles is not satisfactory at all. This is just scratching the surface.
As youth ministers we know that we need the help of parents to organize faith activities for teens. We also know that we need to value the indispensable and primary role of parents in the education of their children. And we know we should help them, offering them orientation and practical tools. Lastly, we know our youth ministry should complement their family faith life. We know all of this already. Reading about it in books and articles seems like “been there, done that”.
Yet what we know from Scripture (and common sense!) about the parents’ role is by and large not happening! Why? What’s wrong? And why does it seem like we can’t do anything about it? In this article I can’t provide you with a complete solution. But I can offer you a few concrete steps in the right direction. After that, the journey and the adventure is necessarily yours!
My Experience with Intergenerational Activities
I’ve always intuited that parents should be involved in the formation of their children. For that reason I’ve always considered it a priority to also promote intergenerational activities. One such activity was the father and son campout: a Friday thru Sunday campout retreat experience for fathers and their boys to grow in their faith together and bond in a deeper way. All campers had the chance to attend a variety of formative and spiritual activities. One of the highlights of the camp was a list of questions they had to ask themselves during a 4 hour period set apart for father-son time.
So what about moms? This wasn’t the best of ideas, but I came up with an annual Mother-Son pilgrimage. Mothers and their sons drove up to a pre-selected Marian church to participate in Mass, spend some time asking each other pre-formulated questions (just like at the father-son campout), and then meet up at a restaurant for good food and fun. The only thing missing was some sort of mother-son sports. Still, it had a positive effect on the mother-son relationship.
And what about daughters? They could attend the annual Daddy-Daughter Dance. Fathers spent some time playing volleyball with their daughters, followed by some personal bonding and prayer time. The event finished with a dance where dads got a chance to dance with their daughters. This had a very positive effect on the father-daughter relationship.
Yet, I was never fully satisfied. Something was missing. And don’t get me wrong. Most parents and a good number of teens enjoyed these activities and got a lot out of them. But why did I get the sensation that these were but momentary spikes of faith experience in the life of these people? When they went home, did the force of mediocrity eventually take over? Did they go back to “business as usual”? Think about the consequences. Do families have to leave their home to grow in faith? The picture gets more scary. Did their family lifestyle actually tear down the ideals they had resolved to live? I felt like my father-son activities were seeds sown in rocky path. I kept sowing, and sowing, and then sowing some more. I did see fruit, of course! But the rocky paths never went away.
The Family Ministry Field Guide
Reading this book was eye opener. Here’s a book that provides a practical and proven method for narrowing the gap between the Biblical ideal and the actual practice of families today. The Family Ministry Field Guide written by Timothy Paul Jones is an introduction to how churches and other ministry organizations can equip parents to make disciples of their youth. The book walks you through a theological foundation for family ministry, the steps needed to transform the family ministry of a church, worksheets to help leaders walk through the process, practical tools to offer parents, plenty of practical advice and personal experience and anecdotes, and lastly, a list of other relevant family formation books. I highly recommend it. Place it on your must-read list of books!
The author is experienced in family ministry and down to earth. What faith practices have the families in your church or organization intentionally done at home during the past week? And praying before meals doesn’t count! What the author found among church-goers is that a majority of parents neither pray with their children nor pray together as a couple, much less read the Bible. In fact, here’s the real problem. Though the vast majority of parents believe they are the primary educators of their children’s faith, the vast majority has no idea how to engage their children’s faith formation.
The first step is to form a team that will assist the church develop and lead its family ministry. But, he notes Church leaders aren’t clear on “family ministry” to begin with. Is it a program to counsel troubled families? Is it preaching and small group studies on the value of the family? Is it about creating intergenerational activities, like I was doing? Or is it a “catchall” title to describe the many programs offered for each member of the family? Well…not exactly. Instead, the author proposes family ministry as a process, not a program, of intentionally coordinating a church so that parents are acknowledged, trained, and held accountable as primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives.
The author presents an interesting theological reflection. Parents today understand the aspect of creation and fall in the lives of their children. On the one hand, Creation theology shows that children are a blessing, gifts to treasure. On the other hand, the Fall shows that children are sinners themselves, and a burden on parents. Yet parents can’t make the leap to redemption and consummation (or what I prefer to call, “fullness”). The Redemption of Christ means that parents don’t just have children; they can have brothers and sisters in Christ. By Fullness is understood that through grace and the cooperation of their parents, children really have a calling to become disciples and apostles. Without this leap, parents simply form their kids to have successful lives and stay out of trouble. That’s it. And for the most part, it appears that parents have assumed that the task of discipleship belongs to church and ministry leaders.
Families have two main obstacles for implementing family ministry: churches don’t train parents for this, and parents aren’t making time. In a sense, this means churches need to do less so parents can do more! Certainly, many churches spend lots of money, resources and personnel in youth ministry and education. But how much is spent on equipping parents to engage their children spiritually? As youth ministers or church leaders, have we ever clearly shown parents what to do to form their children? Have I ever communicated what exactly I expect them to do at home? If we look at it this way, are parents the only ones to blame? What parents really need is telling, training and time.
3 Models of Family Ministry
There are various different approaches to family ministry, according to the author. I present you with a list of the main three models, along with how they respond to this problem. The three basic family ministry models are family-based, family-integrated, and family-equipping:
- Family-Based: Attempts to bridge the gap between church and family by adding family-based or intergenerational activities. These help different age-groups interact with each other. They set the stage for parents to disciple their children at church. In short, it adds more activities or merges them. For more information, read Mark DeVries’ Family-Based Youth Ministry.
- Family-Integrated: Removes all existing activities that segregate based on age. The congregation is reorganized so that parents, especially fathers, are required to disciple their children at home. No more nurseries, youth groups, and other age-segmented activities. In short, it subtracts age-segregated activities. For more information, read Voddie Baucham’s Family-Driven Faith.
- Family-Equipping: Existing activities and events are reoriented to equip parents to disciple their children. In short, existing activities become a launch pad to train parents! These set the stage for parents to disciple their children at home. In short, it transforms what churches are already doing. This is the model proposed by Timothy Paul Jones in his The Family Ministry Field Guide.
Which have you emphasized in your ministry? Which would you prefer? Do you see how these could be applied? In my opinion, the family-integrated model misses out on awesome intergenerational activities that parents can’t easily organize on their own, such as a father-son campout, mother-son pilgrimage, or daddy-daughter dance. Participating in these events with others makes a big difference. Yet I was implementing the family-based model quite often, and there was still something missing. I needed a family-equipping model. Going back to my experience, I think the missing puzzle was precisely a lack of family-equipping. Am I mistaken when I presume that you’ve also been missing the family-equipping model in your ministry?
Tools for Family-Equipping
According to the author, family equipping begins with you. That’s right. Ask yourself if you’re living this at home. That’s the first way to learn, by gaining personal experience. And don’t forget to do this when you visit families in their homes.
There are four tools the author provides, within a context he presents as defining parents as primary disciple-makers, developing parents by training and equipping them with these tools, and directing parents by providing a clear vision for their children’s spiritual development. I summarize these four tools below:
- FAITH TALKS: these are a designated time, at least once a week, for the household to gather for payer and to study a biblical truth together. Leaders can help parents by developing a faith talk guide for parents and making sure they know how to use it. By promoting these and by practicing something that can be replicated at home, current church activities can be catalysts for equipping parents to lead faith talks at home. For example, parents could use my mentoring guidesheets for this purpose, or make their own with these instructions.
- FAITH WALKS: these are simply conversations about God that unfold in the context of daily life. It’s about being attentive to opportunities that can be used to form a child’s faith. It requires training parents to see things from the eyes of faith, and then comment on them. For example, on a weekly basis the author takes each of his children out to a coffee shop to do a brief Bible study and to talk about life, God, truth, etc…
- FAITH PROCESSES: church ministries partner with parents to develop a faith process for each child, addressing their particular needs at each stage of life. This means the church helps parents prepare their children for important faith moments in their lives, and then celebrate them. For example, legacymilestones.com identified 7 important moments in the life of children, and then currently offers parents resources to make the most of these “milestones”.
- FAITH APOSTOLATE: The author actually means becoming a family for spiritual orphans. But I think the idea can be expanded to any apostolate the family adopts. It’s a way for the family to bond around sharing the Gospel and witnessing to the love of God. For example, some families adopt a poor child from another country and regularly write them and send them donations and supplies.
Remember, it’s not just about parents doing a few extra activities at home on a regular basis. It’s about changing the culture of a church, and then matching expectations with practical training. And changing the culture requires leaders willing to commit to this vision, communicate it well, and execute it with the conviction it comes from God’s plan for the family (as opposed to solely basing success on results). And the author is quite emphatic about not starting any new programs at church. It’s rather about shifting these so that they create a culture where parents are equipped for faith talks, faith walks, faith processes and faith apostolate. Keep in mind that making disciples of children and teens is quite a daunting task! So make sure you understand this vision for family ministry transcends short-term or long-term plans. It’s not a program or a series of steps to cure a church’s problems. Rather, it’s about returning to God’s plan for the family, and then allowing grace to do its job!
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