Time to open up a can of worms. Got your thinking cap on?
Personal experience in youth ministry shows me that the #1 indicator of a teen's spiritual longevity and commitment is the degree to which parents are involved in their kid's spiritual development. The #2 indicator is the degree in which a teen connects with an older spiritual mentor outside the youth group.
Got it? #1 is parents. #2 is mentors. That's the starting point for the reasoning that follows. (By the way, this concept falls completely in line with scripture...see Deut. 6:6-9, Ephesians 6:4, and Titus 2:1-8 for some examples)
Now, what do most churches with "effective" youth ministries do? They hire a youth pastor.
I've come to believe that this is one of the biggest barriers to #1 and #2 happening! That's right. In most places, the presence of a youth pastor is the biggest barrier to overcome.
Several of you are about to stop reading. A few have already labeled me a heretic. But before you delete me from your "favorites", hear me out. If you've been in youth ministry (paid or not) in a church big enough to have a formal youth program, you've probably seen this happen.
Parents are busy. They "don't have time" for the spiritual stuff. Or maybe they feel unqualified. Or maybe the church programs have conditioned them not to do it. Whatever the case, most parents look for someone they trust to farm out their role of spiritual leader. They're more than happy to trust the youth leader with the spiritual development of their kids (see my last two posts on the Piano Teacher). As I mentioned in a previous post, I've had a parent tell their kid point blank, "It's not my job to teach you to serve others. That's Tracy's job." While most parents won't be this forward about it, their attitudes (and behaviors) reveal they're OK with you taking over their God-given role of spiritual leader.
I received this in an email from a prominent youth leader from a national ministry: "Over the last 12 years, I too have been asked to do EVERYTHING for the kids by some parents."
So the very presence of a youth pastor eliminates indicator #1 (parent spiritual leadership) from ever happening (OK, I admit, there are exceptions).
And we're not much better off with indicator #2 (spiritual mentors). Unfortunately, the minute a youth pastor is hired is the very minute that most church people withdraw from connecting with teens in a real way. At best, they put it on cruise control. At their worst, they completely withdraw.
It's very subtle, yet powerful. It comes in a statement as seemingly benign as, "We're so glad your here to do all you do for those teens. Keep up the good work. We appreciate you."
So, ironically, here's where I (and other youth pastors) found myself. My very presence as a youth pastor causes those who should be engaging with our teens - the very people who will give our teens the most spiritual "staying power" - to step back.
So, as youth pastor I get in my own way of making long-term committed disciples.
This has nothing to do with lack of passion. In fact, the most passionate youth pastors probably face this problem in a bigger way. The more effective you are as a youth pastor, the less likely parents and mentors are to engage. Why should they? You're paid to do it, right? That's the expectation. And expectations often dictate reality.
Are you rubbed the wrong way yet? I sense some of you already arguing with the screen. My intent is not to question the existence of a youth pastor (we'll do that later - HA!). I just want to point this subtle force inherent in this youth ministry system we inherited. Acknowledging a weakness (especially one this big) is a good starting point.
Do you see this happening? If so, how do you address it? How do you push parents and mentors into the role when the expectation is that you (as youth pastor/leader) do it for them?