The Family Equipping Model is Right. It's Biblical. It Just Doesn't Market Well for the Church Consumer.
For the past three years, I have been preaching and teaching on a better way to connect with and reach families in our church than we have done in the past. It's a challenging subject, because we are a church that has been in the community for 98 years. Over those decades the community has changed dramatically, not to mention our church.
I have been at our church for twenty-five years. Initially, I served as the youth pastor. When our senior pastor retired, I was called to take on that role. That shift occurred almost fifteen years ago. Needless to say, I have been around a while. I have learned much and have discovered some things in my own ministry strategies that, if I could, I would do differently.
As a youth pastor, I inherited a great group of students. Each week we would have anywhere from 100 to 150 attending one or more of our events or services. Not unlike other churches at the time, I was building a structure around Sunday morning Bible study classes, Sunday evening classes, choirs, bands, and Wednesday evening worship services. In addition, I sought to ensure that no student was left without something to do weekly at or with the church. We were calendar heavy, as that was expected. This meant numerous mission trips, ski trips, beach trips, camps, DiscipleNow Weekends, lock-ins (the one youth ministry event I believe was created by Satan for the sole purpose of causing youth pastors to leave the ministry), concerts, conferences, and more. If LifeWay, Youth Specialties, Reach Out Youth Solutions, StudentLife, Baptist conventions, or any of a dozen or more youth ministry groups promoted an event, curriculum, or conference, we were in.
The Great Thing About Youth Ministry Then...
Our church was not unlike others. We hired a youth pastor (for that I was thankful) and parents and volunteers served in youth ministry. We loved God and teenagers and wanted as many students as possible to know Him and experience a great season of life through what could be a tumultuous time. It was about five years into our ministry that I began to regret some of the things we were doing as a ministry. Many of these things I inherited from and most were expected by the church leaders and especially parents. Yet, I knew that something was missing.
We had a number of students surrender their lives to Christ. This was and is great!
We had some who surrendered their lives to full-time ministry. This became a wonderful legacy.
We had a large youth group in a town with only a handful of churches and fewer schools compared to what we have today. We saw God do some incredible things, despite some very bad chapters in the story of our church and community.
We were promoting the model known as the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" that encouraged teenagers to join the youth group, but not the church.
In truth, our youth ministry actually was functioning as a parachurch group. I have written about this issue here...
Students were active. They did much together. We had the required matching mission trip shirts, we took photos at Christian concerts, we attended camps, retreats, and a host of other things that made youth group great. The only problem was we primarily made youth group members and not disciples.
I cringe when I hear of youth pastors speaking of their former students. In many cases, it is a statement related to a by-gone day of youth ministry. Sometimes these former students remain faithful members of their local churches, raising and impacting the next generation for God. Yet, in far too many situations, these former students have graduated from church and faith and have no more spiritual legacy today than they did prior to moving the tassel on their mortar board from one side to another.
Once the youth ministry developed in this way, it was not long that others followed suit. We had other extended "ears" that grew over time. These were children's ministry, women's ministry, men's ministry, senior adult ministry, single adult ministry, music ministry, etc.
Once we began strategically removing the extended "Mickey Mouse ears," not by eliminating the ministries in question, but by ensuring they were within the church, not simply orbiting around it as a moon, we lost church attenders and members. Most of these (adults) were never active members of the church. They simply hid out in their chosen sub-ministry for years, under the leadership of volunteer or associate pastor. They would speak how they did not fit in with the church as a whole, and it was clear...they were never really part of the church with no covenant relationship with fellow members. They had settled for something less. Something God had not ordained. Something that could not replace the Bride of Christ.
It is sad, but I have talked with other pastors, and this is not unique to our local body. In fact, this is why so many people in the community have been members of numerous churches over the years.
While personal responsibility is required from those who abandon their faith family, the church (and pastors like me) need to acknowledge when our well-intentioned models of ministry have not fulfilled what Scripture requires. We have to confess that sometimes our ministries have been designed to simply draw a crowd for a season and not make disciples of Christ for eternity.
The Family-Equipping Model
Our church has been making the shift from an programmatic model (that which we have had for decades, built upon individualized ministries, separated from other ministries with adult leaders tasked with growing their groups) to a family-equipping model. This is no easy task.
The family-equipping model focuses as much or more on the parents/guardians of children and teenagers than it does on the young people themselves.
The family-equipping church does more than just invite parents to specific ministry events. Every aspect of ministry with children or teenagers focuses upon training, involving or equipping parents as their respective children’s primary disciple-makers.1 Opportunities for service traditionally held for the professional church leaders or ministry directors now strategically involved parents.
There is much to be said about equipping parents to be the lead disciple-makers for their children. In fact, I have said it in writing, in emails, in text messages, and from the pulpit on numerous occasions. The responses have been positive. This is because we all know this is correct. We all know this is right. We, parents and church leaders, know this is the biblical model (Deuteronomy 6 and elsewhere.) We know we cannot argue against the biblical reality that disciple-making of our children is the goal and that parents are the primary ones responsible for doing this. But...
It Is A Hard Sell
Why is it so difficult for churches to make this shift?
Why do families leave the church when they see what it truly means to disciple their own children?
Why, when we KNOW the One-Eared Mickey Mouse is wrong, do so many seek churches that not only have that, but perpetuate it in all other ministry groups as well (children's, music, senior adults, college, single adults, etc.)?
I believe it is because the family-equipping model is difficult. I believe it is because well-intentioned, busy parents are afraid of what this means for themselves and their children.
I also believe that everything else in our culture focuses on the consumer mindset we all are susceptible to have. We want our kids in the best schools, to have the sweetest friends, to have the right haircuts, best clothes, latest shoes, to make the team (and if they don't we'll put them in another school or just live as a travel-ball, cheer, or dance parent), earn trophies, get trophies, be popular, have fun, experience big events, etc.
Just because you desire these things for your children does not make you a sinner. What makes you a sinner is the fact you're human (see Genesis 3).
Joining a church with a smaller youth ministry (or children's or whatever sub-ministry is the most attractional at the time) is not something most parents desire, especially if those parents are now in their thirties and have memories of ski trips, camps, D-Nows, and other big 90s and 2000s youth groups. For many parents, those were great memories and they desire their children to have the same, or better.
But, at what cost?
As I reflect and repent over the model of ministry I led and perpetuated, I am convinced that God is honored not by the gathering of big crowds so much as the growing of disciples. This is biblical truth.
While I would love for our church to have hundreds and hundreds of students gathered weekly in our facilities and extended campuses, I would much rather see us equip families biblically (and step in when family members cannot or will not) to see disciples made. That is a legacy the One-Eared Mickey Mouse does not offer.
1Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011), 166.