The most devoted youth leaders can actually be the parents of the youth. Why?  Because no one has a greater long-term interest in youth than their parents, and no one has the potential to impact the faith formation of youth as much as parents. Parents are an untapped resource for many youth ministry programs. Churches must learn to be as intentional about equipping parents as they are about developing programs for children and youth.  (Summary thoughts from Family-Based Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries.)

For a long time, I used to think of myself as the key player in the faith formation of the youth in my church–a view I think is still very common in our youth ministry programs. The result of this approach is that we end up compartmentalizing youths’ faith formation away from their families, from those who can have the greatest impact on their faith development.

I just got back from a trip to the Midwest.  As I sat on the plane waiting for take-off, the flight attendant went over the safety features. She closed by saying something like this:

In the unlikely event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will be released. First place the mask over yourself, then give assistance to those around you.

As I thought about those instructions, I realized an important principle for those in ministry to youth and families:  If parents are the primary nurturers of their children’s faith, and if the home is the first and best place for discipleship, then it is imperative to equip parents with the skills to deal with the “sudden loss of pressure” in their relationships with their children.

The longer I have been in ministry the more I realize that parents feel less and less equipped for their task.  My target for ministry has shifted toward addressing the spiritual and relational deficits in our teens’ families of origin. Youth workers still need to create a meaningful ministry directly to youth. However, I have discovered that planning creative events and investing heavily in the organizational structure of a youth program without a ministry that provides support, skills, and encouragement to parents is incomplete.

I’ve often used the image of a mobile to illustrate the significance of working with youth within their family systems (see illustration).  When one piece of the mobile is put into motion (for example, a dad loses his job), each other piece of the system is also set into motion.  The relationship between mom and dad may become strained because the mom may need to work outside the home; the children feel the stress of their parents and may cry out for help in a variety of ways.  For this family system to return to a balance, each member of the family must become a part of the solution.
A family centered youth ministry is based on the principle that our youth are more effectively impacted by significant interactions with adults than by mountain top youth-group experiences.  Everything we do in our youth ministries should be, first and foremost, about giving teens opportunities to build connections with Christian adults, especially their parents.Bob Fossum serves as a family minister for Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Aloha, Oregon.