Darren Whitehead on Parent Conflicts
By Doug Fields
Editor’s Note: Darren Whitehead is a teaching pastor and leader of Next Gen Ministries at Willow Creek Community Church. He’s from Australia, where he was a DJ for a Christian music station. That led to a chance meeting with fellow Aussie Rebecca St. James, who invited him to live with her family in Nashville white he pursued youth ministry possibilities. Darren landed at The People’s Church in Nashville, where he served for six years before joining the Willow staff. Darren is a featured speaker at the D6 Conference—it’s a reference to Deuteronomy 6:5-7, where God tells parents to teach the faith to their kids (it’s in Dallas, September 23 through 25, and you can go to D6conference.com for more information).
Fields: Darren, a top complaint I hear from youth workers is about parent conflicts. You know, “How do I get them involved?” or “They’re always on my case.” What’s the source of these conflicts?
Whitehead: First, youth ministry is not very old. And the longer we’ve been in this, the more data we’ve got to reflect on. Decades ago it was cool to not involve parents because we thought youth ministers relate well to kids, but parents don’t. So we became anti-parent—we’re the cool ones who will tell teenagers about Jesus. After decades of trying that approach, we’re discovering that that doesn’t work for the long term. And the best thing that we can do is elevate the authority of parents and encourage them to be a strong spiritual voice to their kids. If we want effective youth ministry, we have to move more and more toward being family-based—to have a particular emphasis on helping parents disciple their own kids.
Fields: What causes friction with parents?
Whitehead: My experience is that parents will love you or hate you based on their child’s experience in your ministry. You could have a disorganized ministry, and yet if their kid is connected and they’re enjoying it, they think that you’re the best youth minister ever. On the other side, you could be well-run, have fabulous strategies, innovative thinking, and very effective ministry techniques, but if their child isn’t connecting, then you’re a complete idiot. I have two kids, and I know how much I love them. I want my kids to be connected well, and to be growing and to be nourished spiritually as well.
Fields: I think we’ve had a sort of “us vs. them” mind-set among youth workers—how do we change that to an “us together” mind-set?
Whitehead: Well, I think you’d better get back to why you got into youth ministry in the first place – it’s because you really want to impact the lives of students. We only get them for a few years. And if we want to have a genuine impact on their lives, then we’ve got to think about the environment they’re growing up in. How do I influence the probability of their environment being conducive for spiritual growth? Our move to really being a lot more parent-focused came down to pragmatics. Every year we graduate another group of seniors, and we don’t see many of them ever again. But their parents are going to have an ongoing involvement in their lives.
Fields: You used the words parent-focused. Give me some examples of what a parent-focused student ministry might look like.
Whitehead: We try to look at it from the standpoint that our whole church is family-focused. In the Western church we drop our kids off at school to get an education and we drop our kids off to the youth ministry to get God. When the kids aren’t doing well spiritually, the first finger is pointed at the youth ministry. We’ve tried to say that God’s Plan A is for kids growing up in a Christian home where the parents feel the full responsibility to be discipling their kids. That’s what Deuteronomy 6 talks about. Plan B would be when kids don’t grow up in a Christian home, then the church family actually plays a larger role.
Fields: At Willow, how do you live that out?
Whitehead: Well, it makes sense that during the year all our ministries sync up and teach the same content—contextualized for the age groups. Then we create tools that help families interact on a spiritual level – helping kids talk to their parents about their walk with Jesus. We’re doing that right now.
Fields: What’s been the end result of that? Are families thankful that they can talk about the same thing at the dinner table?
Whitehead: Well, we’ve found that we can’t do it year-round. I mean, there are some things that you need to teach in a high school or a junior high ministry that are very specific for that age group—a series on sex, for instance. It’s early on, but we’ve certainly had a lot of feedback where parents have said: “Because I knew the content of what he was taught today, on the ride home I could ask him specific questions and we had the most engaged, fruitful spiritual conversation that we’ve ever had.”
Fields: For the youth worker who’s reading this, thinking there’s no way her church will “sync up” that way, what are ideas and tools she can use?
Whitehead: There are several things that we’ve tried. In both our high school and junior high ministries we do a monthly parent e-newsletter. We describe what we’re going to be teaching and some resources that they could access in preparation for that. Parents have been really grateful for that. When we’re coming home from a camp, we ask parents to come an hour before the buses arrive. Then myself or someone else shows the camp highlight video and we walk them through the content. We talk about powerful moments, and we share how kids were challenged. It gives them so much content to talk to their kids. It’s one of the most fruitful things we’ve done to connect parents to their kids.
Fields: That idea is insightful in its simplicity. I think a lot of times youth workers feel like they have to do double-duty. If they’re going to have a family-friendly ministry, they’ve gotta have a ministry to teenagers and a similar ministry with parents. But some of this is just the simplicity of preparing them to have conversations. Parents need those coaching moments. I don’t need my youth worker to take me out to lunch and ask me how my parenting’s going when he’s 22 and has never parented anything. What I need is exactly what you’re saying—give me the newsletter, show me what he’s teaching about, give me three questions to ask around a dinner table, and help me understand what happened at camp.
Whitehead: Well, we’ve learned that parents have many different relational dynamics with their kids when it comes to their faith. So we try to give resources, suggestions, and ideas that cater to the lowest common denominator all the way up to the highest. Our mantra is: You are not partnering with us, we are partnering with you.
Fields: I have three teenagers in junior high, high school, and college. You’re a decade or so younger in terms of your parenting. What’s your philosophy of how you talk to parents about parenting?
Whitehead: Well, I’m certainly not an expert parent—I have a 2 1/2-year-old and a 4-week-old. But I do spend a lot of time with students and I can reflect back to parents what I hear. It’s very insightful to share what students say about their parents. One year we did a survey of our kids pertaining to their family life and the spiritual fervor of their home. Then we invited the parents in and showed them our findings. We reminded them that they’ll reproduce who they are—what they believe is how they live, everything else is just talk.
Fields: What about kids who don’t come from Christ-following families or even church families?
Whitehead: Well, it’s imperative that kids have some sort of small group experience where they can develop a level of trust and vulnerability. There needs to be some sense that they belong to a small group of people who are doing their best to follow Jesus—especially if they don’t come from a Christian environment. We also want to be very careful with our language so that it doesn’t ostracize the kids who do not come from Christian homes. We give a lot of caveats when we’re talking about, you know, whether your parents can encourage you in these things.
Fields: Okay, last question. You’ve been quoted as saying that Australians are better Christ-followers than Americans. Still believe that? (Laughs)
Whitehead: (Laughs) Well, I wouldn’t say necessarily better—I’d just say that in God’s eyes we’re holier. There is Israel, and then there’s Australia, and then there’s everywhere else.
This article “Darren Whitehead on Parent Conflicts” by Doug Fields is excerpted from Group Magazine, Mar/Apr 2009.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”