Rachel Gerber is denominational minister for youth and young adults for Mennonite Church USA
Even though my title is Denominational Minister of Youth and Young Adults, I wholeheartedly believe that youth ministry CANNOT be done in a vacuum. As we consider forming faith in our young people, we cannot think that the process of discipleship begins in ninth grade.
Hear me out—youth sponsors and youth ministers are STILL very important. Tending to our youth is an important and unique ministry. There are so many life changes that take place in those high school years: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Just think about it. Ninth grade boys come in scrawny and rambunctious and they depart hairy, tall, with a car and a girl. Walking alongside so many transitions and milestones is an honor.
But all this said, youth ministry is only part of the process. It has to always been seen as part of the whole life-cycle of faith formation. It must always be couched within a multi-faceted approach between home and church.
Yet all too often it is often turns into a push-pull battle between church and home. Congregations see their own limitations regarding faith formation (only 1-2 hours per week on average) and reach out to partner with families. Parents often feel ill-equipped and generally too busy to even know when or how to fit faith development in. I’m a parent, and I get it. Where is the time? Between friends, sports, music, and homework, even eating dinner together is a challenge.
Yet research shows that those youth who go off to college and beyond are more likely to hold onto their faith and become involved in church as adults based on the commitment and priority that church and spiritual matters played for their parents.
Research is clear. Parents are the number one influence on a child’s faith development. Christian Smith, author of Souls in Transition writes, “If formation in faith does not happen in the family—it will, with rare exceptions, not happen anywhere.”
If this is true, if parents have the greatest influence on faith formation, what can we, as parents, do?
I offer six concrete steps for parents (as suggested by Kenda Creasy Dean):
- Invest in your own faith—There simply is no substitute.
- Share what you LOVE (not what you know). Sharing what you love engages you with your kids on a different level. As you tap into your passions and share it with your children, light and joy come out of you, and your relationship begins to function out of a different framework. (How often do we as parents get caught in the cruise-ship director mode with our kids? We direct, we preach, we nag.) Consider your loves in life and ask yourself, “Is Jesus on my list of loves?” If not, see number one.
- Share your faith story. Why is following Jesus important to you? Hearing parents share their faith stories is one of the most important influences on the faith of children and youth today. Sharing this in conjunction with our family history, traditions and rituals gives a greater sense that we are connected, and a part of God’s greater story in life.
- Emphasize “Good news” over “Good behavior.” We need to communicate to our youth that Jesus cares more about who you are, not what you do. Do we as parents use Christianity as a behavior modification?
- Speak “Christian” at home. Don’t cringe. Do our kids hear us talking TO God or only ABOUT God? There is a big distinction here. When appropriate, share doubts or questions you have about your own faith. Let them see you engage in spiritual practices. Invite their participation. Be authentic. Again, it goes back to number one.
- Do one radical thing. Do one radical thing for your faith. Do it in front of your kids, and explain that you are doing it because you love Jesus. Engaging in the community and world around you, as a direct result of your faith, shows youth that what you believe actually makes a difference. Our youth want to see this connection between faith and life. It matters.
As for congregations, what are ways that we can work together to bring families together in this day and age when our families are tired, when our youth are stressed, and everyone is being pushed and pulled in so many directions? How can we as a church bring families back together, to help connect, equip, restore, and provide Sabbath?
There are no easy answers. We often wonder how we are going to get everyone on board – parents, congregation, and youth. We wonder how to present the Gospel in meaningful ways that connect with youth today. We wonder if our relationships are honest enough, transparent enough, going deep enough. More so, we are tired. We wonder where the strength and energy is going to come from. But the mystery of enough, the mystery of provision, comes not in what we have, but in what we offer. It doesn’t matter how much or how little, because it is Jesus who takes our offering.
In the story of the feeding of the 5,000, it was Jesus who blessed the offering. It was Jesus who broke it. It was Jesus who took those five small loaves and two smelly fish and multiplied the offering, feeding the crowds. And at the end of the meal, long after the crowds dispersed, the disciples went out to gather the scraps. To their amazement, there were 12 baskets of leftovers – 12 baskets for 12 disciples. Those 12 disciples were hungry and tired, overworked and underpaid. And they ate until they were satisfied. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
As I continue to grow into my role of parenting, I’m realizing more and more that the care and love and energy I put forth into nurturing my own children is ultimately not about me and my schedule. Ultimately, it is not really even about my children. It is about the One who created them. It is about the One calling out to me that even in the busyness, in the fatigue, in the sometimes tedious work of being a parent: this is not the end. Rather it is the means: the means of loving and serving the Holy One. Parenting is holy work. Mostly, it is work. And hard work at that. Yet in the midst of our effort God meets us, partnering with us to form and shape disciples of Christ. May God continue to meet you, surprise you, and sustain you in the holy work you do.
And rest assured, there is plenty of grace to go around.