There’s a dirty little secret that your local youth minister probably isn’t telling you. But you really need to know about it.
No, it has nothing to do with the correlation of youth minister beard size to successful student ministry growth … Or finding the proper place to buy the perfect flannel shirt to match your skinny jeans … Or that youth ministers actually work more than one hour per week!
When youth ministers huddle in their hipster coffee bars, our discussions always seem to turn the issue of family busyness. And we’re not talking trash about busy families. To the contrary, our struggle is that we genuinely want to fulfill our calling to teach the next generation of believers how to follow Christ … But we’ve got less of a piece of the pie for teaching. Kids are involved in multiple extracurricular activities and sporting seasons. Marching band and show choir have turned into year long activities. Baseball season has now drifted into travel ball, summer league, all-star season and extra-super-special secret bonus season. The parking lots of kids sports parks are now overflowing with soccer mom vans on Wednesday nights and even Sunday mornings. While we once had three hours per week with kids and students, we now have about three hours a month. We genuinely care about your kids’ spiritual development, but there’s simply less time to impact your kids with the Gospel.
Research bears out this common frustration. In 2016, the Barna Group conducted a study of youth ministers on behalf of Youth Specialties and YouthWorks. The study simply asked youth ministers what was the most common struggle that they had with youth ministry. The resounding answer given was not difficult parents, lack of volunteers, lack of pizza money or selecting the right Starbucks drink. To the contrary, 86% of youth ministers said that busyness of students was their top struggle in youth ministry.
If you’re a pastor who’s following overall church trends, this finding really isn’t that shocking. The number one reason why overall church attendance is flagging is actually frequency of attendance. In layman’s terms, church attendance is generally down because families simply aren’t attending church as often as they used to. During my distant Generation X childhood, most families in Southern Baptist life attended church at least three times per week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night. If you really wanted to earn brownie points with the pastor, you also showed up for Tuesday night visitation too. Today, the average family attends church several times per month.
Here’s the thing: Most of our ministerial families struggle with busyness too. We totally get it. As youth ministers with growing families, we’re not immune. This year, my daughter signed up for school soccer, and my wife and I became sports parents. When the schedule came out, we cringed. Half of the games were on Wednesdays. Coincidentally, our church’s family ministry program is on Wednesday nights. While my daughter wound up missing most of the Wednesday night games, we suddenly found our other evenings increasingly more complicated with practices, sports store shopping and a post-game pizza party. It was a new level of crazy for our family. Even on the average day outside of soccer season, I do feel slightly imbalanced trying to pick up my kid from school while juggling a visit with a sick church member, discipleship times with students or volunteers, and buying supplies for the next family ministry event. So many youth ministers feel quite uncomfortable – and possibly hypocritical – talking to parents about busyness, because a rat-race in which we’re currently mired.
But here’s why the issue of family busyness is really important: Statistics bear out that our kids’ faith in largely determined by their parents’ faith. In 2014, Lifeway Research found that four factors that were the most predictive in determining whether teenagers stayed in church (instead of dropping out):
- I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life (prior to 18).
- My parents were still married to each other and both attended church (prior to 18).
- The pastor’s sermons were relevant to my life (prior to 18).
- At least one adult from church made a significant investment in me personally and spiritually (between 15 and 18).
For youth ministers, this data means we need to make sure that our programs aren’t just a “holding tank with pizza,” and we need to actively seek to form discipleship relationships between kids and adults in the church. For parents, this data affirms the old youth ministry adage: Committed Christian families are far more likely to produce (but not guaranteed to produce) committed Christian kids. Time in a local church with our kids is the wisest spiritual investment that a family can make.
Unfortunately, many youth ministers and parents treat the family busyness problem as an attractional issue. In other words, the solution often proposed is that churches need to do bigger and shinier programs – especially in comparison to the other church on the block – to attract more young people to church: Hold a lock-in at the local Skyzone trampoline park … Have an twinkie chugging competition … Give away a Xbox One X … Hire a new younger, “relatable” and handsome youth minister. Gimmicks. If we can just “wow” families with our delightful programs, maybe they’ll pay more attention to Jesus. Don’t me wrong: I thoroughly believe student ministry should be fun, relevant, interactive and engaging to be successful … But if we’re struggling to make Christ more attractive than peewee flag football then we’ve already lost.
Instead of an attractional issue, the problem is a treasure issue. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells an extremely short – but critically important – parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Simply put, our times and our schedules are driven by what Christ is really worth to us. Is Christ really worth more than a $6 plastic participation trophy? I know that most vaguely church-going Christians would confess: “Of course Jesus is worth more!” But what happens when the choices that we make with our time and our money don’t match that confession? And if we’re really honest, what if the “other stuff” actually makes us happier and more content than Christ? Is Christ really worth more?
Yes … I’m really asking. Is Christ really worth more? Honestly, I struggle here too.
This semester, I had a middle schooler talk to me about a conflict that he had between our Wednesday night church activities and football practice. He had been struggling with what to do. His coach told him that he couldn’t miss practices to be on the team … But he felt that God was calling him to attend church more faithfully. His parents encouraged him to pray about the situation, make the godly decision and talk with the coach. Nervously, he told his coach that he’d decided to attend church on Wednesday instead of practice. Surprisingly, the coach didn’t have a negative reaction. It turns out the coach was a believer and supported his decision to skip Wednesday evening practices. I’m proud of the decision that this young man made. But I also recognize that solid Christian parents have taught and encouraged him, too.
Think about it this way: If there are 168 hours in a week, we simply aren’t going to produce lifelong faith in our kids with 1 hour a week (optimistically) sitting in a worship service. In comparison to the 20.1 hours per week that the average teenager spends in front of a screen, 1 hour per week is laughable. Compared to the the 5.3 hours per week that the average teenager spends in sports, 1 hour per week is negligible. More importantly, does one hour out of 168 really demonstrate that Christ is our treasure?
So am I saying that your family should attend church more? Absolutely yes. A million times over. Please attend church more. Make Sundays sacrosanct. Start regularly attending Sunday School. Join a small group. Participate and lead in your church’s family ministry program. Engage in one-on-one discipleship. Volunteer and serve as a family in service project or missions opportunity.
Drop some activity from your life that has no eternal significance. Limit your kids to one or two extracurricular activities. Don’t do exhausting, never-ending sports seasons. Don’t let programs dictate your calendar. Push back on pushy, picky or punitive band leaders, coaches and choir directors. Remember it’s just a hobby and not a career.
Bring your faith into the home too. Do a family devotion time. Talk to your kids about your faith. Ask follow up questions about Sunday sermons and youth group teaching. Volunteer and serve as a family in your community on behalf of Christ.
Just use your time to genuinely demonstrate that Christ is really your treasure. If our kids’ faith hinges on the commitment of our faith, then we owe it to our kids to make our faith a priority.
And that’s a great resolution to ring in 2018.