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To: Parents, From: The Heart of a Youth Pastor

I rarely offer advice to parents because until recently, I was not one. Although I am now a father, I have barely got my feet wet in this whole parenting thing. I have no idea what it is like to parent a teenager. I have no idea what it is like to watch my sweet baby grow and develop into a young, independent adult. I have no idea what it is like to be talked to as if I was born yesterday. I have no idea what it is like to wrestle with the tension of trying to raise a child right while not burning the bridge of the relationship.

I do, however, know what it is like to pastor teens. I have not been a pastor for a long enough amount of time to be called a “veteran,” but I have pastored in the same church and in the same student ministry for longer than most. I was a youth pastor for five years, and I am still a staff pastor at the same church (it is said that the average stay of a youth pastor in one church is 18-24 months). To some degree I think this allows me a little bit of leeway to share some thoughts to parents that might be helpful to them.

I once asked some people how they disciple(d) their kids. Many said by example. Some shared some insights that influenced and affirmed the four things I am going to suggest. However, some basically said that they outsourced their kid’s discipleship to the “professionals,” or the church. In his book Think Orange, Reggie Joiner shares this startling statistic: “A church only has about forty hours in a given year to directly influence a child. An average parent has closer to 3,000 hours in the same year.” If you are a parent that means you have 75x the opportunity to influence your kids than I or any other pastor. Seventy-Five-Times!

Here are 4 things I would suggest you could do during that time that could help you in your effort to disciple your son or daughter:

  1. Strongly Encourage Church and Youth Group Participation.

Ok, I know, I know. Church participation and church attendance does not make someone a Christian or a good person. Hear me out though. Recent statistics suggest that young people are leaving the church in droves. In my five years of ministry experience I have seen that students who do not stay connected to the youth group generally fall away from the church in their college years. I have also seen some make heartbreaking decisions. Please understand that I am not standing in judgment of these students. I love them and hope for their good and I believe that God is nowhere near finished with their story. I have just noticed that students who stay connected to the youth group and who understand the value of Christian community stay connected through their college years.

The issue is not church “attendance.” The issue is their connection to a community of believers. In an article on Huffington Post titled 5 Surprising Ways Your Friends Influence You, Backed By Science, Psychotherapist Amy Morin writes about how friends create bonds by offering moral support for resisting temptation and pursuing personal goals. Friends also create bonds by collaborating in the pursuit of pleasure which sometimes leads to unhealthy behaviors. She writes,

“You’re likely to start acting like the people you surround yourself with. Pick friends who make poor choices, and you could get dragged down fast. But, if you choose friends who inspire and challenge you to become better, you’ll increase your chances of reaching your goals.”

The friends and community of people your teen surrounds himself or herself with will shape who they become. If you want your son or daughter to grow in their relationship with God, make healthy decisions, and stay connected to the church through their young adult years, then I would strongly encourage you to graciously but steadfastly enforce their involvement in the church now.

They long for a sense of belonging and they will find a social context to belong to one way or the other. The question is what kind of social group do you hope they will find belonging in? Unfortunately, some youth groups may not offer a safe and inviting environment for your teen. I would advocate that you prayerfully consider allowing them to attend another church’s group. Especially if they have friends there. One young adult who is pursuing ministry recently shared with me that one of the key things that drew her away from the party life in college was the sense of belonging she experienced among her Christian community.

  1. Model Your Faith and Share Your Story

One of the things I have found to be common is a misconception among kids that their Christian parents couldn’t possibly understand their struggle because they have always been “good” Christians. Some parents have a past that they are not proud of. It seems to me that some parents think it is best to simply hide the ugly parts of their life and only let their kids see their “godly” moments.

What is interesting is that God seems to have a different philosophy. The Scriptures are full of courageous stories of faith. The “heroes” of Scripture inspire us. But, have you noticed that their stories are also littered with mistakes? Abraham lied multiple times about his wife, Isaac had a favoritism issue with his sons, Jacob was liar, Joseph was presumptuous, Moses murdered a man, David committed adultery and murder, Samson had a lust issue, Peter was a hot-head and he denied Christ three times, and Paul persecuted Christians and allowed a dispute to break up his ministry team. Their stories inspire us because we can relate to their humanity.

Your teen needs to be able to relate to your humanity or else he or she will not be able to translate your faith to their own life. Share how and why you came to follow and love Jesus. Share about how your life has changed. Let them see you get angry at your spouse, but also let them see you ask for and extend forgiveness. Let them see you fear the future, but also let them see you pray hard as you cling to faith. Let them see you serve others, read your Bible, and make Christian community a priority in your own life. Model your faith and share your story. I would bet that your openness with them will pave the way for them to be open with you.

  1. Teach Them They are “Sent Ones”

Alan Hirsch once stated, “There is no such thing as an un-sent Christian.” As followers of Jesus we have been sent into the world. We are salt, we are light, we are witnesses, we are ambassadors, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, we are the Church. If your teen claims to be a follower of Christ then it is no less true of them as well. God wants more for them than for them to be good students and well-rounded human beings. They aren’t in school, on a sports team, and employed at the local fast-food joint just to pass time or work towards the American dream. They have been commissioned to reflect Jesus at school, on the team, and at their workplace. God has called them to participate with him in his redemptive mission of reconciling the world to himself. They have been called to live for something bigger than themselves and bigger than worldly-defined success.

  1. Teach Them to Love the “Least of These”

One of the things my mom always encouraged me to do was to include everybody—even the kids other kids made fun of. I was discouraged from making fun of other kids. After having my son, I know understand why she was so insistent about it. My heart breaks at the thought that he will one day learn that not everybody is nice. He will one day learn that there is a “cool” and an “uncool.” Shame on me if he is one of those kids that deals a dehumanizing blow to another kid. Shame on you if you have every joined with your kid in making fun of and dehumanizing other people. If you follow Jesus, then for Christ’s sake teach them to love other people whether they are socially awkward, in a lower economic “class,” of a different race, or even of a different religion.

Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36, 40).

By teaching your teen to love other people because God loves them will also teach them that the world does not revolve about them. Life is not all about them. Sometimes the right thing to do is to sacrifice your social reputation and sit by the kid who is wondering if life is worth living. Sometimes the right thing to do is invite that kid whose clothes do not fit (because his family can’t afford it) to your birthday party. Teach your teen to love other people like Jesus loves.

I know parenting is an extremely challenging endeavor. I also know a parent could be a perfect parent and their child can still choose to go their own way. But, I would humbly suggest that these four principles can help guide us as parents as we steward the precious lives and souls of the ones he has given us.

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