Brenda-Based Youth Ministry vs. Church Family-Based Youth Ministry

Originally published January 15,2011. 

It is hard to see my name in the title but it is there on purpose.  Too many youth ministries are centered on the youth pastor.  No one would ever tout ourselves as so central to a ministry.  Yet whether from church expectation, our training, or our makeup, we have become too central.

Let me ask this test question.  When you first arrived at your church, did you feel that your number one priority was to hang out with the teens so they could get to know you?  And you felt this was important to be done before they would believe in the next youth ministry vision?  That simple and oft-used statement then leads to the next question.  Why do they need to believe in the new youth ministry plans you brought with you?  Why do you feel the need to change things as a way to show ownership of the youth ministry?  Why is the youth ministry changing when you arrive instead of you continuing what has been happening but what maybe tweaked under your leadership giftings?


This central relationship is such an assumption of ministry priority that a guy I won’t name but who is the director of student ministries for publishing company advised in a past Youth Worker Journal. “If you are a youth worker in a small church, you can have everyone over to your house for dinner or take the whole group out for milkshakes without robbing a bank. If you only have a handful of students in your group, you can get out to their high school football games or concerts.  You can remember everybody’s birthdays, and you can pray for each one specifically each day.  You can show them how to do their own personal Bible study and you can answer specific life- related questions.”  (May/June 2008) That is a lot of you to be doing so much.  What about the rest of the church family?

No wonder I was so tired before in my Brenda-based youth ministry.  And overwhelmed.  And stressed.  And physically ill.  No wonder my personal life used to be such a mess.

Another test question.  Have you ever voiced any of these complaints?

  • I pour myself (often sacrificing my personal time) into that one special youth. That one youth who I know will be the lead youth, that strong youth. That one youth who will actually make a difference among his friends. I pour myself into that one youth only to have this last for two years because once he gets his driver’s license and a job to support the car he no longer has the time for youth group responsibilities. And I’m left missing our relationship.
  • Even though I have millions of things going on, I am expected to remember a teen’s birthday or if a teen had a band concert even though I wasn’t asked to attend. It should be easy for me to keep track of 40 teen birthdays and the schedules of 9 different schools.
  • Very few people are concerned that I don’t have good relationships with people my own age.
  • I’m always trying to schedule more one-on-one times with individual youth because I see that their faith walk needs that individual attention. But I can never seem to find the time to get to all of these individuals. That frustrates me to no end because I know I can do more.
  • If I could schedule every moment I have out of the office, I can maybe get to all those one-on-one times but I have to be in the office for a certain amount of hours. I have to update the webpage, schedule the worship practice, edit the video, and arrange travel arrangements (total ugh!) for the next road trip. Or I have to work my regular job and still do all these other items.
  • I know that if I could just get a hold of this one youth, I can talk him out of making some big mistakes. But he’s not returning my phone calls or texts. I need to spend even more time in prayer.
  • If I want to do something because I want to be with my family or I just want to rest or do something with people my own age, I feel guilty about being selfish with my time.
  • I am supposed to look over every silly teenage thing a teen does even if the behavior is not socially acceptable. Or if it makes the church look bad. If I correct you, I’m the bad one.
  • I listen to teens and hear what they are going through. I hear all sorts of warning signs which I know from my experience are not good and will probably lead to bigger problems. But I am not allowed to share those concerns with any parent because I’m their friend.
  • Nor will they listen to me when I tell them from my aged experience what these behaviors may lead to. I’m their friend, but I still don’t know what it is like to be them.
  • Since I am their friend, I am not supposed to be surprised when she cancels on youth group to spend time with another friend.
  • My life is an open book to my teens. They have met my parents, heard all of my adolescent stories which I have honed to become great lessons, and some have spent time in my home. But if I ask a teen why his grades are slipping, I am trying to know too much.
  • A teen can talk bad about me, text things about me to others, glare at me, gossip about me, and tell her friends that I am intrusive, but my feelings aren’t supposed to get hurt.
  • When IMing a teen, it’s okay if she IMs ten other people while she’s talking to me but if I don’t respond back quick enough to her smiley face, I don’t care about her.
  • I remind teens of the next event by email, announcement, postcard, and phone call but many teens will still forget.
  • In scheduling that special retreat, I bend over backwards to make the schedule work for the most teens. But as soon as she has something better to do, she is not coming anyway.
  • In scheduling that special retreat, I bend over backwards to make the retreat special. But if so-and-so isn’t going, she isn’t going to go either. No matter what I have planned, hyped, and encouraged.
  • When a teen graduates, even though I had spent tons of time with him, he doesn’t say thanks, doesn’t call or doesn’t even send an e mail letting me know how college is going.
  • Then a year later I hear that this teen has now joined a fraternity and is doing things I taught him not to do. But my schedule is too busy scheduling in those one-on-one times and editing videos to even write him a letter.

These complaints are symptoms of a Brenda-based youth ministry where everything becomes centered on me not because I need it to be that way.  Not because of my ego or because I believe my relationship with that teen alone would change his/her life.  Not even to justify my salary.  It is this way because this is what youth ministry has become.  (And if you are honest with yourself, one of these reasons may be the truth for you.)

There is a better way to do things.  It’s not even a new concept.  The church family has always been there to be a part of youth ministry.  The new concept may be the youth worker recognizing the value of the church family and being the one to purposely bridge these important relationships.

At my own church, we’ve been doing our own style of Church Family-Based Youth Ministry for ten years now (documented in the Pair of Cleats archives).  This is a summary of what we’ve found so far.

Bringing parents into the youth ministry doubled our group size. But that is not why we do it.

Including as many church family members into various youth ministry plans widely expanded the adults I can call on.  It is so much easier to find help.  But that is not why we do it.

When I scheduled the youth group to prepare a meal for the homeless shelter, I didn’t get the expected hesitation of too many minors in the industrial kitchen without the appropriate number of adults. I got a chipper relief in her voice when I told her we do youth group with our parents required to be involved. But that is not why we do it.

When my Wild Frontier travels require me to be gone for extended periods of time, nothing falls apart.  Since nothing is centered on me, all of the adults know their roles and have been ministering freely in their roles while I’m around so this simply continues when I’m gone.

Since nothing is centered on me and in the event I ever leave my church, there won’t be that huge transition the youth will suffer through.  This youth ministry matches the personality of the church, not the youth minister, so the next youth minister should be able to step right in and continue with what has been the practice with his/her leadership giftings which will be different than mine.  I know I will be missed but I also know that there won’t be a rebuilding of the youth ministry in the year after I leave.

But the big reason why we do church family-based youth ministry is because we realize that teens take their spiritual cues from their parents. Even if they don’t have spiritual parents but spiritual longings, these teens attach themselves to other adults in our church family who do. Sometimes even fondly calling these other adults “mom” or “dad.” In all reality, a teen’s faith will only grow as far as the parents’ faith. So why not challenge the parents alongside the teens? Why not provide other spiritual “parents” for the teens (Second Family members)?  Ones who will still be at the church long after I have moved on.

I also realized what the National Study on Youth and Religion discovered.  “Most teenagers are quite positive about their relationship with their parents, and four out of five teenagers who attend church or synagogue willingly name adults in their congregations whom they enjoy talking to, and who give them lots of encouragement.  In the NSYR, three out of five youth names one or more adults in their congregations, other than their parents, to whom they can turn for support, advice, and help.  In fact, the number of adults available for such support rose proportionally to teenagers’ religious devotion.”  (Almost Christian, p. 152)  There is a direct correlation to a growing faith and church family involvement in the growth of that faith.  (Yes, this is the second time in three months in a row I’ve quoted this).  I’ve seen that direct correlation in our ten years of practice.

I can tell you why church-family based youth ministry doesn’t happen. Working with parents does present a whole new set of problems one could complain about. A parent could have soccer as a higher priority than youth group. A parent could have an immature faith that has been stuck for fifteen years. A parent could still expect me to do the spiritual training of their child despite me telling her for three years that it is her responsibility. I remind parents of the event by email, announcement, postcard, and phone call but many parents will still forget.

And bringing in as many church family members does take extra work to inspire, challenge, and ask for their participation.  This type of work is not hanging with teens which is often where we prefer to spend our time.

Then there are our own personal egos.  Honestly, I don’t get to teach as much and I am not “the hero” to teenagers anymore.  These are ego issues and you know it.

This I know though. It takes both–family and church family–to grow a child’s/teen’s faith and I’m in the position to help both do their roles. This is my rightful role.  Plus I feel alive and healthy again.