Envisioning a More Biblical Model for Youth Ministry

The 21st-century has seen a marked loss of spiritual enthusiasm and maturity among American youths.  The segregation of generations in American culture has led to growing immaturity and increased generational divide among Americans of the last seventy years.  Americans have increasingly come to view the teenage lifestyle as the developmental ideal such that responsibility is put off and ultimate autonomy embraced for as long as possible. [1]  Sadly, in the latter half of the twentieth century, the church made a wholesale embrace of secular views of evolving American culture, and youth ministry likewise followed the popular culture’s pragmatic approach and changing outlook toward adolescents.  This pragmatism led the church to implement age-segregated youth ministry for the purpose of appealing to young people and ministering to them separately from the context of their families.  In hindsight, studying retention rates and examining the spiritual development of Christian youths, the evidence demonstrates that these years were not an exemplary model for sewing into Christian youths.

American parents have resultantly grown comfortable with a practice of farming out children’s intellectual development to the education system, and spiritual development to guidance counselors and youth ministry professionals.  “For many parents, the thought of discipling their teenagers seems daunting.  Not only does society encourage parents to leave education to the professionals, but the church unknowingly does the same by neglecting to teach scriptural mentoring principles to parents.” [2]  These parents have relinquished primary influence in the development of their children’s personhood, and have then resorted to questioning why, in the years when children are growing toward autonomy, they come to possess ideals discordant to that of the parents.  Further, youths fail to understand why they should be expected to carry forward the views of their parents.  This relinquishing of influence is partially responsible for college-age youths’ ready connection with ideologies of university professors.   Secular academicians, rather than parents, have been given primacy in the intellectual and ethical development of American youths.  American parents, as well as church leaders, have lost both the hearts and the minds of the children placed under their care.  Likewise, in many cases, the church has failed to instill faith in youths to the extent that it can retain them.  This paradigm is clearly missing the biblical target in both approach and result.  The church, by promoting the divide with segregated youth ministry, has served to exacerbate these issues.  Rather than seeking to affirm parents, to incorporate them in ministry to their children, and working to bolster the child-parent relationship; the average youth ministry prefers to serve as a drop-off service that operates free of the ‘burden’ of dealing with parents.  “Parents are often seen as a hindrance to ministry, as a source of endless opinion and criticism, and in extreme cases as a necessary evil.” [3] Steve Wright exhorts church leaders to reevaluate saying, “It’s time for us to be honest about our struggles and frantic lifestyles.  It’s time to admit that the current student ministry model isn’t aligned with a biblical framework. It’s time to be honest about what today’s research is telling us.  It’s time to rethink student ministry.” [4]

Family Ministry Models

Before examining family ministry models a definition should be provided for the term family ministry.  More than just a more incorporative exchange for the term ‘youth ministry,’ family ministry is “the process of intentionally and persistently coordinating a ministry’s proclamation and practices so that parents are acknowledged, trained, and held accountable as primary disciple-makers in their children’s lives.” [5]  Family ministry is a shift of responsibility in the development of our youths.  What is clear on the biblical account is that the home is to be the place of primary spiritual development for children (Deut 6:7).  The Jewish home was the primary locus of children’s spiritual training. [6]  In the first century AD, while Jewish children attended synagogue for schooling, Jewish leaders expected that homes should be, “viewed much like the tabernacle, as a private sanctuary for religious observances, including the worship of God, . . . the instruction in the Torah, . . . and meeting needs found in the community.” [7]  Family ministry is not merely an organizational subcategory in the local church’s ministry structure (like youth ministry), but a movement that is pushing for a more biblical and familial approach to raising Christian children.

In traditional youth ministry, “parents are not perceived as having the primary responsibility for the spiritual growth of their offspring.  Age-specific ministries in the church have increasingly embraced the primary responsibility for discipling students and children.” [8]  The family ministry movement recognizes that traditional youth ministry is not biblical, and its fruits are spoiled.  “After decades of departmentalizing and compartmentalizing members of the family, the church is realizing that maybe it’s time to start putting the family back together again.” [9]  Three models of family ministry have arisen to answer the need for more healthy and biblical approaches to ministering to both youths and families.

The Family-Based Model

“The two core values undergirding [the] philosophy [of family-based ministry] are flexibility and balance.” [10]  Acknowledging the shortcomings of the traditional youth ministry model, the family-based model attempts to keep family first while still acknowledging that most children do not live in intact Christian families.  Answering these concerns, a family-based church makes no radical changes to the church’s internal structure; and retains age-graded services, groups, events, and ministry structures while attempting to equip families with the tools necessary to engage their children in the home.  The divergence from the traditional segregated (youth ministry) model lies in each ministry’s sponsorship of events intentionally designed to gather and bond the segregated generations.

Proponents of the family-based approach reject the notion that generational segregation is a problem, and argue that segregated ministry is actually the most effective platform for missiology.  Brandon Shields concedes the point of his objectors saying, “I agree that, in an intact Christian family, parents are the persons primarily responsible to disciple their own children,” but (noting that the majority of youths do not live in intact Christian homes) retorts, “Age-organized programs function as vital missiological tools to touch the hearts of lost students who would not otherwise have a chance to respond in faith to the gospel.” [11] Where the desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled is commendable, the family-based approach still stops short of the necessary reform and instead throws more activities and training on top of existing commitments.  This approach quickly creates bulky, cumbersome, and inefficient ministry by increasing demands on pastors, parents, and youths while simultaneously failing to desegregate the congregation, to offer markedly new opportunities for development of youths, and to unite the homes of church members.

The Family-Integrated Model

At the other end of the spectrum is the family-integrated model.  The most radically different model (from the traditional youth ministry paradigm), family-integrated churches reject what they call ‘modern individualism’ by eliminating age-graded classes and events.  “Family-integrated ministry subtracts age-segregated activities.” [12]  This means no nursery, no children’s ministry, and no youth pastor.  The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches envisions family units operating as building blocks comprising the greater church structure. [13]  The family-integrated church is a collection of families, each doing the work of ministry within their homes.

Despite interest in intergenerational church ministries, the evangelical trend of the past decades remains toward age-graded ministry that divides the generations.  Sociologist Holly Allen notes, “In the past, spending family time and going to church were the same thing. . . . Now, family time and church time are not compatible ideas, because families are rarely together when they are at church.” [14]  The family-integrated church seeks to put the family back together again in the most literal sense.  Proponents of this approach find divisive age-segregation ministry structures wholly unacceptable.

This model is helpful in rejecting the extra-biblical and artificial period of immaturity between childhood and adulthood, and instead treating teens as responsible young adults endowed with responsibility, empowered and expected to contribute, and affirmed and valued according to their ideas and contributions.  Paul Renfro points out that “the more experiences a family shares together, the closer that family becomes.” [15]  Among these shared experiences should certainly be worship services and church activities.  The common criticism facing family-integrated churches is a shortcoming in answering the needs of broken families, and in finding ways to connect with youths who lack Christian parents.

The Family-Equipping Model

The family-equipping model seeks to strike a middle ground suggesting that segregation (whether based on age, gender, ethnicity, first language, or any other mark of difference), as a core principle of a church’s ministry structure, is divisive in the body of Christ and drives fragmentation in the home.  Breaking out in groups by shared commonalities for events and for mission programs can be natural and beneficial, but leading with segregation as the core of the church’s ministry structure is wrongheaded.  “When students are separated from the life of the church for most of its services activities and ministries, we are setting them up for failure.” [16]  The family-equipping model attempts to navigate the Scylla of alienating non-traditional families and developing youth that struggle to connect in outreach to their unchurched counterparts, and the Charybdis of conversely employing a pragmatic structure based on a worldly social ideology that further exacerbates the immaturity of American youths and creates further distance between the generations.

The path is narrow and ditches lie on both sides, but the 21st-century church must find the balance for walking the knife’s edge between failing to reach lost youths and failing to effectively minister to intact families.  In family-equipping ministry, age-organized ministry remains intact, but ministry leaders promote the biblical vision of parents as the primary spiritual influencers in their children’s development, co-championing the church and home.  “Family-equipping ministry multiplies the impact of what churches are already doing by transforming age-organized activities into partnerships that span the generations.” [17]  The family-equipping model is both the most biblical and most missionally effective model.  By providing parents with the equipment and sophistication necessary to be the faith leaders of their own children, the faith competency and unity of the entire family is elevated.  In those homes where parents are not present, the family-equipping church must step in and rear youths, recognizing the biblical family is one that extends beyond blood relationships and beyond the walls of the home.  The family-equipping church must also provide safe entry points and comfortable environments for non-traditional families to be full participants in the life of the church.


Implementation of a more biblical family ministry requires a full-scale rejection of the unbiblical notion that adolescence is a time for shirking responsibility and behaving in a less than adult capacity.  More than a list of bullet points for implementation to the youth ministry program, family ministry demands a reorientation of the ethos of the entire local church.  A successful family ministry demands the congregation at large be taught the value and worth of youths, the potential and benefit of youth inclusion in the mission and work of the church, the necessity of entrusting youths with responsibility, empowering youths to participate in church and society, and expecting them to contribute in significant ways.  The Bible does not lack for examples of young people, boys and girls, whom God has called and entrusted with tremendous responsibility.  Nor does the Bible depict ‘teenagers’ as freewheelers and freeloaders, rather as significant contributors to the family and place of worship.  Much of the implementation of such a ministry depends on re-education and a change of heart among parents and elders toward the congregation’s children.  These parents and elders must first own the development of these children as their personal responsibility.

While “training a child spiritually seems frightening and foreign to the average parent,” [18] the Westminster Confession gives clear indication of how far the church’s expectations for Christian parenting have fallen.  The Westminster Confession states, “After . . . reproof, if [the Christian] be found still to neglect Family-worship, let him be . . . debarred from the Lord’s supper, as being justly esteemed unworthy to communicate therein, till he amend.” [19]  In other words, if parents fail to lead in worship in the home (teaching the Bible to their children, praying, and discipling, etc.) they are to be barred from communion.  Where some Bible teachers have seen fit to raise hell over select portions of the Westminster Confession, it is doubtful many elder boards and pastors would move a finger on this issue.  The present situation demands that ministers seeking more biblical family ministry be prepared to take the entirety of the confession (and biblical doctrine at large) seriously, rather than cherry-picking matters of import.  Pastors must be prepared to hold parents to accountability in ministering to the next generation.

The successful implementation of a family ministry paradigm requires Scripture as the standard.  Family ministry starts and ends in the Word, and takes place primarily in the home.  Thus, the Word must be read and discussed in the home.  All successful endeavors require prayer.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalms 127:1).  Pastors and church members must operate with intentionality and patience.  The proposed ministry framework to be implemented will need to be taught in its biblical context from the pulpit.  Parents must be informed that it is their God commanded duty to train children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).  Older men and women must be exhorted that they are particularly called to teach the younger men and women, and to encourage household unity (Titus 2:2-6), so “that the next generation might know [God’s ways and works]” (Psalm 78:6).

We must reset the expectations of all involved for youth ministry.  We must stress the biblical emphasis that youth ministry is not for purposes of entertainment or gathering crowds, but for the developing of mature followers of Christ.  It is on the church to provide a path that “allows the next generation to experience a congruent growth and development pattern at church and home,” that can be “traveled one small step at a time.” [20]  Construct a Family Ministry Leadership Team incorporating all Pastors, elders and deacons, key parents, and key representatives from the congregation’s youth.  Win the parents.  Preach commitment and unity.  Provide “equipping opportunities for adults offering parents the chance to acquire practical parenting skills, biblical depth for effective faith transformation, and stellar resources in support of each milestone along the path.” [21]  Celebrate the importance, competence, and contribution of the congregation’s youth.  These are among key initiatives that will captivate the hearts and promote the understanding of the family-equipping congregation.


With all change comes initial resistance and continued growing pains.  Entering any such endeavor requires all involved to count the cost.  After putting a hand to the plow successful change requires the courage and resolve not to turn back (Luke 9:62).  Pastors will have to be leaders rather than managers.  This will require motivation to do what is right, rather than what simply keeps the peace.

Church Resistance to Family-Equipping Ministry

Many student ministers, while claiming to be cutting edge and innovative, continue in a 50-year-old youth ministry model.  In many cases, objections to change simply stem from “the way we’ve always done things,” a lack of awareness of deficiencies in the present model, the presence of potentially better alternatives, and sheer laziness or lack of courage to strive for better.  Whatever the cause for resistance, the fact remains that the present model is indeed deficient and fails to reach the heart and mind of the average American family.  Dr. Tim Kimmel aptly states, “There is no doubt that home is where life is making up its mind.”  Kimmel further prompts, “Think of the key points of influence within our culture, and you’ll realize that [a home’s] capacity for good or for ill is determined by the quality of the people within them.” [22]  Kimmel’s suggestion is that what happens in the home has far greater influence over members of a family than what happens outside of the home (even in those few hours family members spend with pastors).  Good, strong families bring out the best in each of their members.  Unhealthy home environments perpetuate the worst. Hence, it is vital that the church develop an active concern for the homes of those she shepherds.  This is crucial not just for the spiritual health of individuals, or for the vitality of churchgoers’ homes; but “the health and strength of the family determines:  the integrity of our business community; the morality of our arts and entertainment; the health of our churches and synagogues; the conscience of our political leaders; the character of our military and police force; the heart of our educational system; the ethics of our scientific community; [and] the compassion of our social welfare services.” [23]  In many cases, the failure to minister to the home can be overcome by education (beginning in the Bible) coming from the pulpit.  People are more willing to accept change and motivated to see it carried through when they choose a new direction of their own accord.  Any ministry shift that comes across as something ‘done to the people’ rather than ‘done by the people’ holds the potential to breed resentment.  Necessarily, such drastic ministry shifts must come with the preparation of the congregation’s heart for such change.

Parental Misconceptions

G. K. Chesterton noted, “The trend of our epoch up to this time has been consistently towards specialism and professionalism.” [24] Where the Bible teaches that God uses ordinary people and His glory is shown in weakness, many parents have grown a false conception that spiritual and ethical development of their children is better left to professionals. These parents hope the youth minister will be their child’s hero, his first confidant, and the first person he goes to in times of crisis.  This, however, is either a naïve handing over of their most precious roles in parenthood or a heinous abdication of parental duty.  The youth minister should reinforce the biblical assertion that this is the parent’s role.  Youth ministers should exhort parents to fill these functions, and should likewise encourage children to look to their parents to fulfill these roles.  A youth minister should be prepared to train and develop parents to perform these functions while remaining a teacher, counselor, and spiritual guide complementary to the family.  Likewise, the local church is an extended family, complementing the functions of the immediate family.  Where parents are present, the youth pastor must not affirm parents in their abandonment of the crucial responsibilities of parenthood.  Where individual believers are part of a family in which Christian faith is not practiced, the church can serve as the primary point of contact for discipleship and faith counsel, but this is the exception rather than the ideal.  It is of paramount necessity that parents are provided an expanded blueprint to “teach their children how to love God by loving God in front of them.” [25]  Providing this blueprint is the primary contribution of pastors to family ministry.

Disengaged Parents

There is simply no reason to continue defending an unbiblical ministry model that statistics and countless examples prove fails in overcoming the very concerns the model claims to be answering.  It remains, regardless of ministry format, that children are most influenced by those people who dedicate the most intentional influence to their lives.  “Family life is our first school of emotions. . . . All [emotional development] is learned not just through the things parents say directly to their children, but also in how parents handle their own feelings between each other.  That’s why we need to be careful students of ourselves as we become better students of our children.” [26]  The reality is that youth ministers have limited exposure to youths, and despite any extent of access granted to school teachers and ball coaches, the most influential factor on children is the behavior modeled by their parents.  The idea of ignoring (rather than leveraging) parents’ great ability to positively or negatively influence youths is a misappropriation of resources, an ongoing collection of missed opportunities, and a great disservice to the kingdom of God at large.  “The traditional model is failing our teens and families; it is not biblical, and in my opinion, it is not a viable option to reaching to disengaged families.”  Given the persistence of Christian divorce, the current family ministry paradigm has failed not just the children but the entire family.  A ministry model that pushes family members to press into one another is needed, rather than a model that draws them apart.   It remains that there will be parents who are ‘missing-in-action’, but the church should not contribute to the problem by encouraging the persistence of this national epidemic.  Parents must be encouraged to embrace the education and equipping necessary to raise solid children to become mature Christians.  Dr. Tim Kimmel warns parents that “When we as parents do our part well, we set our kids up to live meaningful lives.  But . . . loving them doesn’t automatically ensure a strong connection to their hearts.  There is a level of sophistication we need to develop . . . to turn that love into a potent influence for good in every dimension of their lives.” [27]  While it might seem an insurmountable endeavor to become an equipped parent, Kimmel assures that “becoming a sophisticated parent is actually the easier path to take.  The tough one is choosing to stay ‘unsophisticated’ and then dealing with all of the negative damage that choice [to remain unequipped] guarantees.” [28]  Being a proactive, prepared, and intentional parent, armed with knowledge and a relationship with one’s child, should make parenting simpler and more successful than a lack of preparation, withdrawal, and reactionary approach.  Development of parents in this ‘sophistication’ is the task of family ministry.

In situations that concern divorce and non-traditional family, the family-equipping model outperforms other models by seeking to equip children’s care providers to rear children in faith while also providing a designated youth ministry.  Family-equipping ministry can provide all children with equipped family members, youth ministers, church leaders, and program sponsors to step into the void created by missing parents.

Overemphasis on Numbers

For too many years the church has measured the effectiveness of youth ministry by its ability to entertain the largest number of teens while providing the greatest freedom for adults to enjoy unencumbered worship.  Youth ministry has become a consumer service marked by “extreme” events, games, and pizza parties aimed at drawing crowds while undermining the intellect of teens and failing to connect with them at a depth that demonstrates the long-term value of church.  The fruit of this approach is overworked youth pastors and painfully poor retention rates among college-age people and twenty-somethings.  Mark Devries suggests, “It might be more of a sin to suggest to young people that the Christian life is always fun and never boring.  Keeping teenagers from ever being bored in their faith can actually deprive them of opportunities to develop the discipline and perseverance needed to live the Christian life.  It is precisely in those experiences that teenagers might describe as ‘boring’ that Christian character is often formed.” [29]  What is needed is a shift from event planning to people development.  For too long the church has been enamored with a vision that measures success by the ability to draw crowds rather than produce committed and mobilized disciples of Christ.  The concern for numbers might be overcome by real, hard confrontation with the metrics.  However, if the facts of the matter alone are not enough to convince those concerned with drawing crowds, the tradeoff of giving up a crowd a mile wide and an inch deep in exchange for developing a smaller community of life-long believers is certainly a pastoral hill to die on.


In her acclaimed study of American adolescence, Patricia Hersch summarizes the present condition when she states, “A clear picture of adolescents, of even our own children, eludes us . . . not necessarily because they are rebelling, or avoiding or evading us.  It is because we aren’t there.  Not just parents, but any adults.  American society has left its children behind.”[30]  The twenty-first-century culture highlights the marked loss of spiritual enthusiasm and maturity among American youths.  The segregating of generations in American culture has led to growing immaturity and increased generational divide amongst Americans at large, and members of American homes.  The time is past due for the church to throw off the past mistakes of embracing secular views toward child development and following popular culture’s pragmatic approach toward raising adolescents.  The time is dire for youth pastors to be tasked with leading rather than managing, and people-developing rather than event planning.  To better serve the families of the American church it is necessary that local churches investigate and implement a more biblical family-equipping ministry model that develops parents to be the spiritual leaders of their homes, places the onus of youth spiritual development properly on the family, continues outreach to unchurched youths and adults alike, and works to unite the segregated generations.

family photo 2017 high res

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.




[1]Timothy Paul Jones, “Why Every Church Needs Family Ministry” in Perspectives of Family Ministry:  Three Views, ed. Timothy Paul Jones (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2009), 32.

[2]Steve Wright and Chris Graves, reThink:  Decide for Yourself – Is Student Ministry Working?  (Wake Forest, NC:  InQuest Ministries, 2014), 87.

[3]Ibid., 30.

[4]Ibid., 7.

[5]Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide:  How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis, IN:  Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011), 33.

[6]K. Lawson, “Historical Foundations of Christian Education,” in Introducing Christian Education, ed. M. Anthony (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Publishing, 2001), 18.

[7]M. Anthony and W. Benson, Exploring the History and Philosophy of Christian Education (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel, 2003), 27.

[8]T. P. Jones, Perspectives, 12.

[9]M. Penner, Youth Worker’s Guide to Parent Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan, 2003), 1.

[10]Brandon Shields, “”Family-Based Ministry:  Separated Contexts, Shared Focus,” in Perspectives on Family Ministry:  Three Views, ed. Timothy Paul Jones (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2009), 98.

[11]Ibid., 107.

[12]T. P. Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide, 134.

[13]Paul Renfro, “Family-Integrated Ministry:  Family Driven Faith” in Perspectives on Family Ministry: Three Views, ed. Timothy Paul Jones (Nashville, TN:  B&H Academic, 2009), 55.

[14]Holly Allen at John Brown University, in Albert Mohler, “’The New Family Trump Card’ – Family Time vs. Church Time” (March 14, 2007), http://www.albertmohler.com/2007/03/14/the-new-family-trump-card-family-time-vs-church-time-2/, Accessed July 16, 2016.

[15]P. Renfro, Perspectives, 63.

[16]Wright and Graves, reThink, 41-42.

[17]T. P. Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide, 134.

[18]Brian Haynes, SHIFT:  What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today (Loveland, CO:  Group, 2009), 36.

[19]The Directory for Family Worship annotated ed. (Greenville, SC:  Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1994), 2.

[20]B. Haynes, SHIFT, 47.

[21]Ibid., 114.

[22]Tim Kimmel, Discover Your Child’s Heart with the Kids’ Flag Page (Green Bay, WI:  Laugh Your Way America, 2011), 16.

[23]T. Kimmel, Discover Your Child’s Heart, 16-17.

[24]T. P. Jones, Perspectives, 47.

[25]B. Haynes, SHIFT, 34.

[26]T. Kimmel, Discover Your Child’s Heart, 27.

[27]Ibid., 18.

[28]Ibid., 19.

[29]Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[30]Patricia Hersch, A Tribe Apart:  A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence (New York:  Random House, 1999). 19.

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