The Gospel Coalition

As a high school pastor, I am constantly thinking, praying, and talking with others about how we can teach young people the Bible and encourage them to be disciples of Jesus Christ. I look back with thankfulness on my high school years and the men who contributed in significant ways to my spiritual growth through discipleship, coaching, and pastoring. There is a place for a well-run youth ministry in the context of the local church, as I will seek to articulate in part two of this article, coming soon. But there is a primary sphere where evangelism and discipleship of young people must occur. It is the context of the family, the Christian home. Christian parents—not youth pastors—have the primary role, responsibility, and calling to evangelize and disciple their children.

The Biblical Pattern


Throughout biblical history, the family unit is the primary mechanism used by God to spread the saving knowledge of him. God’s servant Moses, after instructing God’s people concerning the God's identity and the people's call to love him and keep his Word, turned immediately to instruct the parents of the community regarding their responsibility to their children:
And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deut. 6:6-7).

Moses describes a relationship of evangelism and discipleship, grounded in the Word of God, that takes place in the context of the God-centered home between parents and children. It was the parents (not early Israelite “youth pastors”) on whom Moses laid the primary responsibility for passing on and applying God’s Word to the next generation. Here was a call to teach God’s Word diligently (evangelize), and then to train children in God’s Word, even when walking “by the way” in work and leisure (discipleship). It was a call—first and foremost—to parents.

This theme is picked up in the New Testament as well, especially as we read in the book of Acts about the church of Jesus Christ beginning to grow and flourish during the age of the apostles. A striking example is the Philippian jailer who, in Acts 16:32, asked Paul and Silas: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Almost immediately, the scene shifts to Paul and Silas, as “they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house." As we read, then, that the jailer and all his family have been baptized, we see that this man has—even in the moments surrounding his conversion—identified his home as the most immediate sphere of personal evangelism. What a beautiful account! One can only imagine the transformation that took place in the now-Christian home, as an entire family began the journey of following Christ together.

Proper Mindset for Parents


If the primary place for evangelism and discipleship of children is in the home under the leadership of parents, then how should that affect the mindset of Christian parents as they interact with their local church?

First, parents must be willing to prayerfully, humbly, and yet boldly, take responsibility for the spiritual growth of their children, as much as it depends on them. I don’t mean to heap blame on faithful Christian parents whose children have turned away from Christ despite their best efforts to speak the truth of the gospel into their lives and live as godly examples to them. Rather, I want to challenge parents who perhaps fail to feel the full weight of their responsibility for praying, teaching, sweating, and even weeping for the sake of their children's eternal destiny.

Parents must commit themselves to the evangelism of their kids—seeing themselves as the primary ”missionaries” in their lives. This involves a commitment to speaking verbally, clearly, and often the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and all of its implications. It means actively and intentionally making the Bible the central voice in the home, reading it to the family and explaining it as clearly as possible. Parents must commit themselves, also, to the discipleship of their kids. This activity moves into the area of relationship and application. It is involving our children in our lives, pursuing a genuine relationship, and teaching them with words and example how to actively apply the truths of the gospel in everyday life. Christian parents, do you view your home as the first wave of evangelistic and discipleship ministry in the lives of your children?

Second, parents should never presume that the church will do the work that is primarily theirs. Relying on a youth pastor or church mentor to serve as the primary gospel-shaping force in the lives of our children will actually almost guarantee the failure in that task for even the most gifted and godly youth leader. How can a youth pastor realistically encourage a high school boy to read and study the Bible if that boy has never seen his Christian father doing the same? In the context of the local church, the effective youth pastor seeking gospel growth in the lives of students reinforces, strengthens, and bolsters a gospel work that has sprung out of—and been nourished already within—the context of a Christ-centered home. While parents should see their evangelism and discipleship of their children as primary, they should not be hesitant to involve other mature Christians in these activities in the lives of their children in order to further the work they have started (more on this in part two).

Proper Mindset for Churches


How, then, can churches support the primary work of parents who truly desire to evangelize and disciple their children?

First, churches must actively and openly place this responsibility on the parents of their congregation. They must remind them of it, and call them to it! Silence on this issue for pastors and other church leaders is not neutral. Failure to call parents to serve as the primary spiritual leaders in the lives of their children, all the while going about ministry and providing great youth programs for church kids, actually can implicitly say to parents concerning the spiritual development of their children, “We’ve got this; just leave it to us.”

Every church must sort out exactly what this means in its own context. Does it mean cutting a certain youth activity? Maybe. Does it mean calling parents to account from the pulpit? Probably. Church leaders, are we supporting and encouraging our parents to take primary responsibility for the souls of their children, or subtly sending the message—even through dynamic programming—that we are better equipped to do the work for them?

Second, churches must not only call parents to their spiritual responsibility for their children, but also equip them for it and encourage them in it. We must become more creative at training our congregation to be ministry leaders—preachers, teachers, and spiritual mentors—in the context of their own homes. Many churches with vibrant ministries have many venues in which Christian adults can be ministered to by church leaders. But if all of our ministries are geared toward feeding, and none toward training and equipping, then we are not preparing parents to do the gospel work that only they can—and must—do.

When the primacy of the family in evangelism and discipleship of children is both embraced by parents and affirmed by the church, a biblically grounded and church-based youth ministry can then be incredibly valuable. That will be the topic of my next article.


Comments:

Latest Links | blog of dan

September 9, 2011 at 05:31 AM

[...] Family First in Youth Discipleship and Evangelism [...]

Lance

June 11, 2012 at 08:16 PM

Jon - Do you have any suggestions for solid discipleship tools to use in the family? I'm looking for something to use as I begin formally discipling my 9 yr old son.

[...] 2. Family First in Youth Ministry and Discipleship [...]

[...] my last article, I argued that the family—not youth pastors—must come first as the church seeks to disciple and [...]

[...] http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/08/11/family-first-in-youth-discipleship-and-evangelism... [...]

Alvin Lau

August 17, 2011 at 07:51 AM

I would agree that if the Christian parents took on the primary responsibility to disciple their kids, that's the ideal. (I also know that parents need support and a youth pastor can help in that regard, but not take over.) There are also times when there are appropriate times for gatherings that fulfill common purposes Christian parents have for their children. So a youth pastor's role then becomes to help move students with non-Christian parents, to assist and encourage all parents (Christian or not) to take up their God-given role as the primary teacher in their kids' lives and to be a resource for the church in helping intergenerational connections to happen.

Alvin Lau

August 17, 2011 at 07:35 AM

I believe we all agree that God's ideal is to have the parents be the primary spiritual teachers of a child. However, given our brokenness (and sometimes corporate hard-heartedness), that standard is going take several steps to reach, and some measures to ensure that those not protected are somehow cared for. e.g. like divorce: while God gave a mechanism for divorce to protect the wife, it wasn't ideal and wasn't meant to be the standard. Similarly, having a youth ministry professional isn't meant to replace the parent but rather to supplement and assist what the parent should be doing; however in cases where that is not done (e.g. non-Christian parents, neglected kids, etc.), that's where the church with a youth leader help to fill in, but with the aim to help parents fulfill that role.

BTW, salvation was never meant to be God's ideal. However, because we messed up and sinned, God afforded us salvation to help return to his ideal.

Big Ben

August 17, 2011 at 01:56 AM

So... we have moved from the ideal and God is supposed to lower His standards to cater to us?

Jerry

August 15, 2011 at 12:54 AM

Those who truly believe that parent discipling is the best model, then yes, it is, but how many parents are doing so. It like saying everyone so eat a well balance diet, but how often do we do so. Not often apparently.

Idealism is fine, but God knows the people couldn't even follow the laws handed down in the OT. So we now have the NT, so we are free from the OT, but not to say we are free completely. No, we are just forgiven.

I just would like to know those who support this idealism if they are just serving full time in the ministry and have older children (mid-teens or older). Did they disciple their children, and if so, are they service full time in ministry?

Its ok to say what is the ideal, but we really need to get realistic. The average Christian family will not be discipling their kids.

Joe

August 15, 2011 at 05:36 PM

Ok so first off I'm a youth pastor working in the UK - so I claim no working knowledge of this subject in the US. Secondly, I hold a degree in Christian Youth Ministry but am a youngish guy without kids of his own. - I think the latter more relevent!!

My working experience and bible study leads me to totally agree with the principles this article suggests. To suggest it is not "realistic" is simply foolishness.

It is a parent's job to bring their children up in the faith - this is so clear from scripture that to enter into debate over it is only to atempt to abdecate responcibilty.

Why? Because your youth pastor shouldn't know your kids better than you do. Because your youth pastor shouldn't be better at teaching the bible to them than you. Because your youth pastor shouldn't have more time for your kids than you do. And your youth pastor shouldn't be more concerned about their eternal life than you!

Its not that the youth pastor is a wrong model per say, it is that it is designed to reach kids with non-christian parents - not be a baby-sitting service for parents who want to believe that some 20 something who has known their kid for 2 years will do a better job than them!

If I might be so bold, and please know I speak from a heart desperate to see youth come to salvation through Christ... Christian parent - how DARE you be so absent as to burden a youth pastor with your responcibilty? Think of the kids without Christian parents that your youth pastor could be reaching instead of doing your job for you? Think how you could enable the proclammation of the gospel by simply freeing up your youth pastor to father those with spiritually dead parents.

Jerry

August 14, 2011 at 10:37 AM

Interesting comments, but I have to agree with Alvin. The "ideal" responsibility lies with the parents, but truthfully, parent and child relationship in America is quite different from other Countries. Generally by the time a child reaches his/her mid-teen, the family unit is separating. Parents can't understand their children, Kid's can't relate to their parents, so asking Parents to disciple their kids at home, that only wishful thinking. I am not saying all families unit are that way, but most are. Unless you're a PK, how many of the youth chose to study with the purpose of serving in full time ministry right out of high school? I would say less than half a percent. I've seen church with and without youth minister and those that have youth ministers are not only growing, but also have a higher percentage of the youth consider ministry as their first choice. Sorry I have not studies to prove this. Maybe someone should look into this. But I can say that it is more than likely that I am right.

Rob Beecher III

August 14, 2011 at 05:31 PM

I would agree. Our family has stood in the gap for numerous young people. Not because the pastoral staff asked us or even cared; but because we are committed to the cause of Christ. Example is the best teacher, new believers from non-christian homes need to see the Gospel at work in Christian homes if they are going to take it on to the next generation (thier kids). After 20 years of lay-ministry it is my opinion that this form of 'adoption' is the only really effective form of youth discipleship outside of youth discipled by thier own parents. Unless committed parents are working along with the 'youth minister' and his wife there will be a limited number of young people (a handfull) that he can possibly reach.

Rob Beecher III

August 14, 2011 at 05:06 PM

Parents that commit to discipling thier kids at home generally are successfull in doing so.

Bucket Drops 8/13/11 | Voice of Truth

August 13, 2011 at 11:08 AM

[...] Family First in Youth Discipleship and Evangelism  [...]

[...] Family First in Youth Discipleship and Evangelism by Jon Nielson [...]

Andrew Faris

August 13, 2011 at 06:16 PM

Justin,

Thanks for your detailed response. You have some genuinely helpful critiques here, but I wonder if reading my comment a little more charitably (I never said the blood family is altogether nullified in the NT, nor did I say that youth programs are necessary means of disciple-making) might have helped more.

In any case, I won't have time to respond more until tomorrow, which I'd like to do because it is an important conversation.

In the mean time, let me ask one simple question: does the NT put most of the onus of disciple-making on the church or on the blood family?

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Doug

August 12, 2011 at 09:18 AM

I have often had the same question asked of me when bringing up this topic and my response to them is, "Well, what a wonderful opportunity for the parents of our congregation to reach out to a known non-believer and show them the gospel".

Alvin Lau

August 12, 2011 at 08:55 PM

I think this is where the role of professional youth ministry might change from the "spiritual pastor" to youth into a youth culture specialist who assists (not overtakes) parents and the church as a whole in helping that generation.

Alvin Lau

August 12, 2011 at 08:51 PM

I would agree that the parent is the primary spiritual leader of their child. Contrary to what some people might say, that doesn't mean that "youth ministry" needs to be disbanded. Rather, it is the role of the youth ministry to provide that support to parents and to help galvanize resources to many common outcomes parents usually have together. This is to supplement the parent, not to overtake (but not to just abandon as well). This also has implications for the church as a whole because does the church actually allow/free parents to carry out their responsibilities especially when the church (like jobs, etc.) demand their time. Perhaps we need to relook at our church structures and ask some deep questions of what will be sacrifice on all fronts to make it happen.

Arlene Rice

August 12, 2011 at 07:07 PM

Fabulous article! However being involved with youth ministry in the past, what I found was that several parents were not believers, which leaves us, the church as a basis for a spiritual heritage. I am so thankful for a church that gave me a spiritual heritage as a child b/c my parents were not believers. Thank you church!

Justin

August 12, 2011 at 02:57 PM

Hi Andrew,

Some of your assertions here seem to lack biblical evidence and in fact seems to be contradicted by the biblical evidence.

Take, for example, your comment that "in the NT, your blood family isn't your family anymore: your church is." Please give a Bible verse to support this claim. You haven't done that. I can think of several that contradict this claim:

-In 1 Timothy 5:8 Paul clearly lays the responsibility of caring for widows first at the feet of her family. It is clear this "family" is referring primarily to blood relatives, since verse 4 calls out the various familial relationships specifically. They were to support the widows BEFORE they became a burden on the church. Paul first legitimizes the blood family, and then distinguishes it from the church.
-In Ephesians 6:4, Paul clearly exhorts blood fathers to "bring up" their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. We know this is a blood relationship because he puts it in the context of husbands/wives, children/parents. In theory this could include an orphaned child who the family has brought in, but even then it's still distinguished from the church as an institution, and clearly within the context of a traditional family.

There are actually a bunch more, but for the interest of space and time, I will stop here. I am anticipating that you're going to quote the passages of Jesus where he declares his brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, are those who do the will of God. But I do not see how this would nullify the traditional understanding of the family, but it would rather extend the traditional family to include the church as a whole, but certainly not void/nullify the traditional family. But you clearly seem to think the basic/traditional understanding of the family was erased in the NT but this is clearly not the case as per above. It's just not limited there; it extends to the church. They are not meshed into one, since Paul makes it clear that there is a difference between the blood family, and the family of the institutional church.

Based on this, your assertion that Jon's post "utterly fails" to take that seminal truth into consideration is nullified. It is not a seminal truth in and of itself, and therefore needs not be taken into consideration.

Regarding your comment about the command to "be fruitful and multiply": You seem to think it's absent from the NT. This is clearly not the case. Paul on several occasions commanded and expected that married women would bear children:

-1 Timothy 5:10
-1 Timothy 5:14
-1 Timothy 2:15

We clearly see it's not absent, but rather assumed and affirmed by the NT.

Next, you seem to say the gospel moves forward with complete disregard to the blood relationships between parents and children. The Scriptures would seem to contradict this assertion as well:

-Acts 2:39 says the promise is to the children of those who believe
-Several other places in Acts, the promise of salvation was not only to heads of households, but to their entire households as well

Regarding your comment about evangelism to youth who are not from Christian families...you seem to imply a youth program is necessary for this to take place. How so? The Bible constantly talks about serving the fatherless. Why is a youth program needed, instead of bringing them into our homes and our blood families? Why is a youth program needed to reach them? Why can't we just include them in our evangelism efforts as a whole? I don't understand the logic you've employed.

Your last comment, "But again, it is significant to me that the NT says so little directly about family discipleship in the blood family." appears to be significantly lacking in NT knowledge. I hope you can address the Biblical evidence I've provided that 1) clearly promotes and affirms the blood family and their various contexts, and 2) that parents are to disciple their children.

Thanks,
Justin

Justin

August 12, 2011 at 02:27 PM

If the Biblical model is for parents to disciple there own children, why even have a "High School Pastor"?

Mark

August 11, 2011 at 11:09 AM

Much better post than the previous one on youth ministry which implicity placed the role of a parent as supporting the teaching going on in youth ministry. It's almost surprising to me that the same person could have writen both articles, but granted that this is a blog, posts generally don't represent complete thoughts filtered through layers of editorial review and Biblical cross-examination.

Overall, good thoughts, though I still question the role of traditional youth ministry as an assumed necessity in church life. I think we can do better.

John S

August 11, 2011 at 10:37 AM

Yes good stuff. I am thankful for my parents and the church I grew up in, love them both. But the church assisted my parents in abdicating their responsibility by saying - not verbally but in practically - we'll take care of the training, instruction and fun for your kids.
Just drop them off to us every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, Saturdays for outreach and gym time, youth retreats, summer camps, etc. And it's understood that we don't really need you around during any of these things. At most just watch from the sidelines.

Don

August 11, 2011 at 09:40 AM

Good article; and i completely agree! Although in many youth ministries there are significant numbers of young Christians from non-Christian homes...how do you go about filling in the gap for those young people without that becoming a crutch for Christian parents in developing spiritual maturity in their kids?

Incognito

August 11, 2011 at 09:04 AM

I agree with most of this article. It is mainly the responsibility of parents to evangelize their children, however, I have a bit of an issue with the statement "Throughout biblical history, the family unit is the primary mechanism used by God to spread the saving knowledge of him". Sometimes when God saves a family member, either a father, mother or a child, the consequence is more of disunity than unity. Talking by my experience. I would say the primary mechanism has always been the Gospel. Either by saving whole families or by only saving a little child in a big family. Any comments?

Andrew Faris

August 11, 2011 at 02:31 PM

Jon,

Yes and no.

The obvious "yes" is that families are necessary for the proper raising of children. Kids who grow up being discipled well by their parents tend to grow in Christ.

But the "no" is stronger in some ways for me for a few reasons.

First, your biblical evidence, especially in the NT, is really weak. The family-first types tend to underplay this, but it's significant. The fact that the Philippian jailer wanted his family to hear the gospel is not all that helpful for this case because it says so little about actual discipleship. Of course he wanted his family to hear the gospel, right? But that says very little about what is normative for where churches should focus their ministry.

What a lot of this fails to take into account is the shift in "family" from OT to NT. In the OT, family discipleship makes extra sense because God's people were a national entity. The "Be fruitful and multiply" command is for Israel because Israel as a national group were God's people. The "family" was the home unit within that group.

But in the NT, your blood family isn't your family anymore: the church is. Frankly, your post utterly fails to take that seminal truth into consideration. Suddenly we are called to leave our families and follow Jesus, in whom a new family forms. The "be fruitful and multiply" command is conspicuously absent, and instead, Col. 1:6ff uses the same language to refer to the forward movement of the gospel among an international people. Suddenly a strong spiritual nation comprised of strong spiritual families is gone in favor of one big international family.

And thus it makes sense that people will know we are Jesus's disciples when we love one another (i.e. other members of our new spiritual family; Jn. 13). I'd also suggest that the pictures of the churches in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 reflect family life under the surface, though the term "family" isn't used there.

So I agree that family should be first in all aspects of youth ministry. I just disagree about what the family is in the NT.

One more thing: your post also leaves out any mention of evangelism to youth who are not from Christian families. If Christian families are the ones who are primarily responsible for discipling kids, then what of kids who come to Christ who have non-Christian parents? Are they simply not able to be discipled? Of course not, as you know. But then, where are they discipled? In the church, which becomes their new family.

The meeting place of all this is that hopefully what would happen for kids like that would be that some godly Christian parents, supported by the youth pastor and others, will bring the new Christian whose parents aren't believers into their home regularly, incorporating them into their family life, effectively becoming a living part of the church-as-family. So it's not to say that you're all wrong here.

But again, it is significant to me that the NT says so little directly about family discipleship in the blood family.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Jeff

August 11, 2011 at 02:18 PM

While I certainly would reinforce these ideas to the Christian parents in my church, the article almost comes across as "if children/teens don't have godly parents, they doomed." My experience would say otherwise. We need to hold Christian parents to the expectations set for them in the Scriptures (something this post does well), BUT we need to encourage those children/students without such godly relationships in their lives to seek out "god parents" who can fill in the gap that may be lacking at home.

@Mark, I wrote an article (published in Youth Worker Journal) about 5 years ago on moving beyond "youth ministry." If you have the time and inclination, check it out at http://www.meredisciple.com/Future%20of%20an%20Illusion.pdf