...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Unparenting & the future of youth ministry

I read an article yesterday while in the waiting room at a hospital. A boy in my youth group punched a wall after someone dropped a pass in a flag-football game and broke a bone in his hand, requiring a plate and 4 screws to repair. The article was about the conflict between parents & teachers, and it interested me because I work with youth and because my mom has taught elementary school for over 20 years. She's taught 5th grade for the last 10 years or so (correct me if I'm wrong, ma) and taught a couple of other grades prior to that. I spoke with her on the phone last night and I asked her about her experience in dealing with parents. Basically, she said, when she first started teaching elementary school, she had 1 or 2 parents per class that sided with their kids on everything and were lax in supervising their children's progress and school work. The rest of the parents were attentive and responsive, and she knew that if a child got in trouble at school, that child would also get in trouble at home. In short, the threat of calling a kid's parents was real for the majority of the children in her classroom. Today, it is the exact opposite. She has only 1 or 2 parents whom she can call and be confident that they will deal with poor performance or behavior. The rest of the parents just don't want to be bothered - as long as the kid isn't complaining or doing too poorly, they don't really care what's going on. They just want their kids to be "happy", not challenged. They don't want their kids to learn any hard lessons or to experience any significant consequences for their actions. The kids have caught on to this fact and use it to their advantage. Recently, my mom took a day off and when she came back, the sub had left the names of a couple of students who consistenly misbehaved when my mom is gone. For the cumulative effect of their misbehavior, my mom wrote them up and the principal gave them in-school suspension. One student immediately protested and told the principal to call his/her mom, that she should know about this and seemed to think that his/her mom would be able to keep the student out of trouble. I commented to my mom that this almost seems coordinated, almost as if parents nationwide were required to take some class in how to unparent their kids. My mom thinks that parents are simply too tired from work, the extracurricular activities of their kids, etc, to really get involved or care. They don't want the responsibility of actual parenting - they are focused on themelves. Its easier to turn on the tv then to look over homework or eat dinner together as a family.

Back to my context, I see the same thing pretty consistently, though from a different angle. Our Sunday school (for lack of a better term) consists mostly of discussion. I sometimes throw other elements in, but its mostly a question & answer kind of thing with me giving some short homily-like talks. Sometimes when I ask a question, I get some hands raised, but many times I don't. In those times, I have never hesitated to call on someone. I put them on the spot and don't think twice about it. On Sunday morning, a dad came up to me and said that his daughter gets uncomfortable when I call on her and thinks that I put her on the spot. I explained to the dad that I put everyone on the spot at some point, but that I do call on his daughter because she is one of the few kids who will actually offer a substantive answer. She thinks. She responds and dang if that isn't exactly what I'm looking for and trying to encourage in these kids. The dad said he told her this was a growth opportunity and would pass my words on to her, and I said I would try to make sure I don't call on her any more often than any other kid. He just wanted me to be aware of this so I don't alienate his daughter. Other parents, though, when they have a problem with something I've said or done, or rather, when their child has had a problem, have come at me with both barrels. Or sat in sullen resentment waiting for the opportunity to undermine me with other parents or the pastoral staff.

In education, this is bad. Disinterested parents result in disinterested kids, who know more about gaming the system than anything taught in schools. However, school is at least required, both legally and pragmatically. A child knows that he won't be able to get any kind of halfway decent job when he grows up if he doesn't at least graduate from high school and the majority of high school students say they plan on going on to college. One can hope, perhaps somewhat unrealistically, that just being in school will cause something to "stick." These kids will learn something about life and academics through their time in the classroom. Like I said, in education, this attitude by parents is bad; in ministry, it is downright disastrous. The family is the primary spiritual training ground - if faith is not modeled and lived out at home, then most students will think that being a Christian entails showing up at church on Sundays and little else. A parent that won't take 10 minutes to look over elementary math homework (which can literally be "2+2=_"), certainly isn't going to take 10 minutes to pray with their kids or really talk to them about their day. Faith then becomes an abstraction or a duty; you sing along on Sunday morning, stand at the appropriate times, listen to a sermon you will promptly forget and then go home to do exactly what everybody else is doing. Unparenting is killing the faith of our youth and making youth ministry all but obsolete. Youth ministry used to be about providing extra instruction, social activities, a chance for kids to make the necessary separation from their parents while maintaining strong contacts with other adults and opportunities for kids to live out the faith they learned at home. It was simply an extension and amplification of the ministry of the family.

This is no longer the case - youth ministry has largely become a stand-alone endeavor, meant to evangelize, convert, disciple and grow students in the faith. And its impossible. For the majority of students, youth ministry cannot do all of that, especially when you consider the counter-example that is being lived out at home. Its really only when the whole family gets involved, when parents take the primary role they were meant to play in the spiritual leadership and instruction of their family, is any realy progress made in the lives of the youth. This means the larger church has to do more to equip parents to assume that role - it has to provide the tools, the knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, the challenge to see themselves as pastoral leaders in their own homes. I don't think many churches are actually doing this for a very simple reason: marketing. If parents are mostly focused on themselves, on satisfying their own desires and needs, and view kids as something to be juggled or managed, then they are going to go to the church that is the easiest and most comfortable. They will be drawn to the church that supports that mission of self-fulfillment because no one really likes to be challenged or be told to engage in some self-denial. These churches will focus on that mission to the neglect of equipping parents to be parents, because this precisely what they seem to want to avoid, thus putting more butts in the seats. And you can quickly see how the church is encouraging unparenting and putting a heavier and heavier burden on the youth ministry. It is a burden that it, quite simply, cannot bear much longer. Youth ministry is already becoming ineffective - soon, it may be die altogether.


Karl Thienes said...

St. John Chrysostom calls the home "the Little Church" and for good reason. The daily prayer rule, the family altar/icon corner, the family preparation for Feasts and Fasts, the celebration of Name Days, etc make the home of an Orthodox family itself an extension of the Church.

I'm always amazed at the stamina, attention span, and spiritual depth of Orthodox children. They stand through long services, they pay attention (mostly!) and shine with the love of God. Why? Because the Church's way of life is the same that they experience in the home--obviously in content, but also in experience: The incense, the icons, the prayers, the cycle of feasts and fasts....everything forms one congruous whole.

Those children that are immature usually a) don't have a home life that mirrors that of the Church and b) attend government schools (but that's a whole 'nother topic!)

Anyway, I think you've hit on a huge issue: modern Christendom's "youth ministry movement" is a good idea that has *already* failed. The fruit of the failure is there for those who have eyes to see.

Doug said...

Thanks for this post, Nathan. You've got some great, thoughtful analysis here.