Teenager's hearts are in the hands of the adults in their lives. When teens show up for church one hour a week, we supplement what they are getting during the other 119 hours that they are awake. We are the vitamins, parents are the meal.
'Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people's religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.'1
A few years ago, I sat with a group of ministry friends and Christian Smith, a leading American sociologist who has spent years researching the faith development of teenagers. We were able to spend a time in dialogue on the findings of his research. The findings were astounding: they proved the faith importance of teenagers is directly related to the faith importance of their parents.
My silent question, as we talked about the ramifications on our goals in youth ministry, was how in the world did I end up with a high faith importance? My parents were holding on with everything that was in them just to keep our family together and to keep food on the table. The more I thought on this and the more I remembered I realized that it was the church. The adults in the church lived their Christian lives out loud in front of me, beside me, and behind me.
As much as it goes against youth pastor pride, I have to say that we aren't the most important influence when it comes to the faith development of teenagers. We rank a high second but there is a more influential group that we should be lifting up in the church.
What you don't know about teenagers is that they need their parents more than they let on.
No matter how incredible, how awful, how amazing, how absent, how abusive, how overbearing, how enabling, how encouraging, every teenager wants the unconditional love of a parent. My husband worked in foster care for a few years while in seminary and it always baffled us to hear teenagers from abusive family situations talk about going home. Going home was all they wanted; even if it was a difficult place for them to be, they would rather be home than anywhere else.
In our focus to enhance our youth ministries, we have forgotten that homes and parents need our support more than anything else. Teenager's hearts are in the hands of the adults in their lives. When teens show up for church one hour a week, we supplement what they are getting during the other 119 hours that they are awake. We are the vitamins, parents are the meal.
What does that mean for us, the church?
We can't ignore it.
If we continue to throw a cool youth leader at a group of teens without offering support to their parents and without offering opportunities for other Christian adults to interact with them in formative ways, we weaken the chances that the teens? faith will stick and be an important thing for them beyond youth ministry. If you want to reach out to teenagers in your church, start talking to parents and finding out their needs. Then communicate these needs with other adults in the church and come up with some creative ways to respond. They aren?t going to ask you for it, but teenagers will definitely thank you for it later.
We need to recruit and train our church body to be a 'spiritual family.'
When my family was struggling during my early teen years, I needed a spiritual family to help me. It's not something I asked for when I walked in the church doors. 'Hi, my name is Brooklyn, and I'm pretty sure I need a spiritual family; where can I sign up for one?' No teenager is ever going to do that. But it's what I needed.
I needed mentors to begin conversations with me, ask me questions, and walk with me through life stuff. This type of family existed at church and it's a big reason why I spend my life in the church today. We have the power to change how teenagers (future adults) respond to Jesus for the rest of their lives.
What are you doing to mentor and lead the next generation? What are you doing to lovingly support the parents, teachers, and coaches who shape them every day? Your answer matters. It was the difference between a life with Christ and a life without him for me; you could be that difference for a young person in your church.
1Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford Press, 2005), p. 56.
Brooklyn Lindsey is middle school pastor and Saturday Night campus pastor, with her husband, Coy, at Highland Park Church of the Nazarene in Lakeland, Florida.