When I entered youth ministry, I naively thought that if I effectively ministered to the youth in my care than I would have done my job well. Yet, the longer I’ve been in youth ministry, the more convinced I’ve become that for better or worse, that simply isn’t the case.
More and more research (including that from the recent 2003-2005 National Study of Youth & Religion) points to the important role that parents play in the faith formation of teenagers. Lots of people that I know even make a compelling argument that parents are, in fact, the primary spiritual influence in a teen’s life.
This means that if I’m going to be effective in my ministry to teens, I must focus not just on reaching them, but also on reaching their parents. At the very least, this seems daunting, especially considering that I am not yet a parent.
Yesterday, amidst an event that otherwise embodied missed opportunities to me, I caught a glimmer of why this type of ministry to parents is so important.
At our church, one of the strengths of our faith formation is the fact that we recognize several spiritual milestones through a ministry called “Stepping Stones.” Each stepping stone includes an educational component involving the entire family, a blessing (again involving the entire family), and a gift.
Yesterday, we held the last of our Stepping Stones, the one for High School Graduates and their families. For the first part of our time together, I met with the high school students alone. Of the 8 students who attended, I knew four well. Two were very connected to our church, but only marginally connected to me and not at all connected to our youth ministry. The last two, I did not know at all despite the fact that their families are active in our church.
As I facilitated our conversations about this group’s high school experiences, familial relationships, & faith journeys, I was struck by a sense of loss; By a feeling of missed opportunity with regard to the four students I didn’t know well. My heart broke for these remarkable youth whom our youth ministry had failed to engage and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why?”
Knowing how intelligent this particular group of students is, perhaps church activities simply couldn’t compete with academics, competitive sports teams, music, and the like. Perhaps my own personality or my approach to ministry failed to engage these students. Or perhaps this particular group is still suffering from the whiplash they’ve experienced as a result of having four different youth workers in as many years.
Whatever the case, this sense of a missed opportunity was acute.
But then I realized: These kids were still there; Still present at this Stepping Stone despite the fact that they were disengaged from our youth ministry. They came – not because I used my relational capital to get them there – but because their entire family was connected to our community of Faith in a powerful way.
Having realized that, the Holy Moment that ensued shouldn’t have surprised me. Yet, it still caught me off guard.
After meeting separately with the youth and parents, we combined them and gave them the space to talk, as a family unit, about their hopes and expectations for their relationship with one another in the coming year. We gave them a time to remember, together. And finally, we walked them through a process where they each wrote a blessing that expressed something about the other person they were grateful for; Asked for God’s protection on other person; And articulated a prayer about their future relationship as a family. Students wrote a blessing for their parents. Parents wrote one for their child. Then, each person laid hands on the other & spoke that blessing directly to them, aloud and in front of everyone else.
The moment that ensued can only be described as sacred; The presence of God, palpable.
As I listened to parents and children speak words that might otherwise never be spoken and saw the affection they had for each other even in the midst of their tears, I realized that the sacredness of that moment came not from something that I did; But from what God did – not just in that moment but in his grand design for families and for the passing on of faith from one generation to the next.
Deuteronomy 6:4-8: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”