Maintaining a Heart for Parents
By Josh Mcdowell
“For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well” (2 Timothy 1:5).
“And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6).
September 22, 1972, will remain etched in my mind until the day I die. I’ve never been more nervous in all my life. A gathering of some fifty parents crowded into the rather small room, their first bona fide look at the new youth pastor. All of twenty years old, I was woefully inexperienced in youth ministry, or any other ministry for that matter.
As I entered the room, things seemed cordial enough. Most parents smiled, though some gave a few disconcerting stares. At precisely 7 P.M. I called the meeting to order. My hands shook and my voice quivered as I attempted to explain the reasons for my calling the parents together.
I was just beginning to feel comfortable when suddenly, at the back of the room, the door flew open and in walked Mrs. Jacobs. I couldn’t miss her. No one could. She wasn’t particularly obese, but certainly big enough to create a stir. She ambled over to a chair in the front row, in front of my podium, and captured the attention of everyone in the room. She leaned back, gave a sigh that unmistakably communicated boredom, and mockingly called out at the top of her voice, “OK, Dewey, tell me how to raise my kids.” My very first parent meeting had begun.
No, I’m definitely not masochistic. So why subject myself to such abuse? Because the most effective youth ministry you and I will ever do will flow out of a ministry to parents. Parent ministry constitutes a major youth ministry nonnegotiable. Nothing has proven as important in my fifteen years of experience as an ongoing ministry to parents.
Why Minister to Parents?
First, God has given the primary authority over children to their parents (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:1-4). He did not place the church or the youth worker in this position.
I can anticipate an immediate response to that statement. Some would ask, “But what if the parents fail to fulfill their God-ordained role? Shouldn’t we then step in as youth workers and become a sort of surrogate parent?” Absolutely not! God can accomplish His purposes even through an imperfect parent. Understanding the proper place of parental authority will free us to fulfill our role properly as youth workers.
Last Sunday morning, a mother came to church to hear me preach. As she greeted me at the door, she suddenly burst into tears and hugged me for a rather prolonged period of time. As people stopped and stared, I tried to smile through my embarrassment, but could only think, “Why me?” I felt like I had to say something, so I asked, “How’s Gloria [her daughter]? I haven’t seen her in a while.” Through her tears she said, “That’s why I came to see you this morning. When I heard you were speaking here today, I just had to come and tell you how well she’s doing.” Then she stopped crying and looked me right in the eyes as she said, “Dewey, thank you for always being there for her, and thank you most of all for being there for my husband and me.” Two thoughts flashed through my mind: (1) This family has sure experienced their share of struggles. (2) The results could have been disastrous had I violated the proper role of a youth worker in relation to parental authority. What is a youth worker’s proper role? Keep reading.
Second, the local church exists as a support to the family, never as a replacement. Youth workers enjoy a privileged position – we can offer our assistance in enabling the parents to become the best possible. Kellie Coleman, one of my students, coined the perfect label when she said, “Youth workers are to function as `paraparents.'” From the Greek preposition para, paraparents defines our role as that of literally “coming alongside” the parents, offering the best source of support they will find anywhere. “Even at twenty years of age and lacking in experience?” you might ask. Absolutely. I’ll tell you how in a moment.
Finally, with all of the destructive forces aimed at the youth of our day, a united front has become an essential ingredient. Our ultimate effectiveness, as youth workers or parents may depend upon our concerted effort to gain an influence in the homes of our youth. We have no choice but to try.
Establishing a Ministry to Parents
Where do we begin? What if we have no experience in the rearing of children, let alone teenagers? What if our limited time has already been stretched to the limits? What if we cannot get the parents to respond?
Surprisingly enough, as difficult as these questions may seem, the establishment and maintenance of a ministry to parents need not be difficult. Several important guidelines show us the overall picture and help us get a handle on what to do and why.
1. Carefully assess your priorities and time commitment.
“Will the real Superman please stand up?” Don’t hold your breath. No one is standing. Neither you nor I will ever fill his shoes. You cannot possibly do everything people suggest, and neither can I. There comes a breaking point in ministry, a moment of truth, at rich we must acknowledge the fact that some things, some very good things, may have to remain undone.
We can get along with fewer social activities. A visitation program would be nice, but perhaps the penetration of school campuses will fulfill this dimension of ministry. Not every church needs a youth choir or basketball team. We would all love to offer these programs and many others. At some point, however, we will either choose to operate within a very carefully defined system of priorities or we will burn out. A ministry to parents must be classified as one of these priorities.
Like so many things in ministry, a parent ministry can be very simple or extremely complex. Let me suggest that you begin with the basics and allow the ministry to evolve gradually. I can assure you that the ideas presented in this chapter will not require excessive amounts of time, preparation, or administrative skill.
2. Set the proper goal.
What do we wish to accomplish? Here is the goal I have set: “A ministry to parents exists in order to provide the best forum in which I can communicate my sincere loyalty and love to each parent presented in my youth ministry.” As we work toward this goal, we will encounter at least three common pitfalls.
We may experience frustration over the lack of parental response. Generally speaking, in spite of my best efforts, only one third to one half of the parents will come to any given event to which they are invited. Many parents simply don’t care. Others have misplaced priorities. Some believe that they do not need our input or support. While we may feel an intense disappointment over those who do not respond, our efforts must focus on our opportunities to influence those who do respond.
We may be tempted to give up. Hard or indifferent hearts will not soften overnight. One individual told me in no uncertain terms that he was not interested. Even though his two daughters received Christ and experienced dramatic changes in their lives, he would not budge. Four years later, at the age of fifty-two, he discovered that he had terminal cancer and less than one year to live. He fought and resisted, refusing to believe his doctor’s diagnosis. Finally, while in his hospital bed, two days before he died, he prayed to receive Christ. How tragic it would have been if we had given up on him too soon.
We may place ourselves under unnecessary pressure. Remember, we are not presenting ourselves to the parents as God’s all time answer to the family dilemma. I expend enough energy in the rearing of my two children without taking on the responsibility of telling other people how to raise theirs. Our goal is on the building of relationships through which our care and support can be expressed. Parents can get the answers they need from a book. But a book will hardly qualify as a substitute for a caring heart – something you and I can certainly provide.
3. Begin to formulate some functional ideas.
Let’s get practical. What does a ministry to parents look like? Exactly what should we do? I can suggest several ideas based upon my ministry to parents. Evaluate them in light of your own unique situation. Allow these thoughts to spark your thinking as you determine the best way to meet the needs of the parents with whom you work.
* Send a personal letter. Every parent represented in my ministry receives a personal letter from me every year. I express my sincere appreciation to the parents for the privilege they have granted me by allowing their son or daughter to be a part of my ministry. I assure them that I do not take this privilege lightly.
Next, I remind them that our church desires to support their family in any way possible as they seek to instill character and convictions in the lives of their children. I never use the word help. I do not want to imply or assume that they have a problem. The word support creates a positive perception, conveying my ongoing commitment to care for the well-being of their family.
I also renew my pledge to recognize and honor their authority in the lives of their children. I want them to know that I will never purposely contradict anything they may decide for their children. I am assuming the best here. I believe that most parents, including nonbelievers, want their children to grow up with a semblance of character and to live productive lives. I will certainly not support a parent’s decision to have his son or daughter violate a clear command of Scripture. Since this situation rarely occurs, I need not address it in this letter.
If you choose to implement this idea, please make certain that you personally address each letter. Never use a mailing label and do not send the letter “To the parents of. …” Continually update your information. Often the parents do not carry the same last name as their children, or you may be dealing with a broken home, a foster home, or guardianship.
* Offer regular parent meetings. If I had time to incorporate only one idea from this chapter, I would select this one. Hold them monthly or quarterly, depending on your own time constraints. Follow a flexible format, tailor-made to suit your particular situation. One year we met at the church on the first Monday of every month in a large group of 150 parents. One year we divided the parents into three groups and met with one group each month in the intimacy of a home. I prefer a smaller group meeting in the warmth of a living room.
To illustrate the possible structure of a parent meeting, let me suggest a typical schedule: From 7:00-7:15 P.M., give information concerning upcoming events and your teaching plan for the month. From 7:15-7:45, teach some aspect of youth culture. Keep in mind that parents usually do not understand the teenage world or the characteristics of teenagers in general. They have been exposed only to their own son or daughter. From 7:45-8:00, pray together. And from 8:00-8:30, throw it open for questions and answers. Serve refreshments at 8:30 and enjoy an informal time of talking.
Goals for a Parent Meeting
* To meet personally with each parent for the purpose of building a relationship;
* To provide information concerning the philosophy and direction of the youth ministry;
* To communicate the details of upcoming Bible studies and activities;
* To reinforce support for their role in the rearing of their children;
* To create a sense of accountability as they share feedback concerning the strengths and weaknesses of the youth ministry;
* To generate an atmosphere in which the parents can begin to support one another;
* To pray together as a group of people striving for the same goals;
* To form a resource pool for equipment, homes for Bible studies or activities, and helpers for certain upcoming events;
* To expose the parents to various aspects and trends in contemporary youth culture that may impact their teenagers;
* To silence the critics. Invariably, those who criticize us will come from the ranks of people who do not bother to attend the parent meetings. Naturally, they will not understand our philosophy or direction. If they should attack, we can simply but respectfully point out that they have not been in attendance and, therefore, cannot properly evaluate the ministry.
* Make available all lesson plans and youth meeting outlines. Tape-record all messages and sermons. Parents have the right to monitor their teenagers’ spiritual input. This kind of openness maintains a sense of accountability to the parents concerning our teaching. Whenever a question or concern arises over something we have said, a review of the tape will always settle the issue.
You may be surprised to learn that some students will enthusiastically share the tapes with their friends, extending your influence even further. I even discovered a cure for insomnia! One dear, well-meaning mother was beside herself with excitement when she called me on the phone. “I haven’t been able to sleep for weeks,” she explained. “Last night my daughter gave me one of your tapes saying, `Mom, you’ve just got to hear him.’ Well, I turned it on and lay down to listen. By your second point, I was sound asleep!” So, you never know!
* Teach on the topic of authority. Questions concerning parental authority abound in the minds of today’s teenagers. “Why did God place me under parental authority? When does that authority end? Does submission imply blind obedience? Am I ever right in disobeying my parents? How do I handle it when I just don’t agree with them?” We must tackle these and similar questions in our teaching ministry. We must also be careful to model what we teach by our own proper responses to those in authority over us. As the young people learn from our exposition and example, the resulting changes at home will do more to validate our influence than anything else we do.
Would you like to hear a classic example of this principle in action? Jackie’s father exploded when he found out I wanted to meet him. “I don’t want that man to ever come around this house again!” he called me on the phone, feeling frantic over her father’s anger. He couldn’t accept his daughter’s newfound faith in Christ and chose to take his frustration out on me. I calmly told her to consistently display an attitude of respect toward her father. I demonstrated the same respect by backing way off. Jackie’s attitude in the home did more to soften her father’s heart than anything I could have said or done. In time, he and I built a fairly close friendship. When a young man from our church sought permission to marry Jackie, her father asked me what I thought. I’ll never forget what he said: “I cannot allow my daughter to marry someone you do not approve of.”
* Accurately communicate the details of all activities and stick to them. Trust must be earned, and this takes time. A friend of mine had to learn the hard way. Summer camp had ended and the young people anticipated a seven-hour drive. Halfway home, an engine hose burst, and fifty students found themselves stranded. Sound familiar? The driver left the bus, hitchhiked to the nearest gas station, and bought the part he needed. By the time they got the bus back on the road, they had been delayed four hours. The parents expected the bus to arrive at 7 P.M. Several sat in the church parking lot and waited. By 9:00, many were extremely worried. By 10:00, a few became hysterical. A couple of families vowed never to let their young people attend any more outings with the church again.
My friend’s response sounded painfully pathetic. Place yourself in the position of a parent and tell me if his words sound hollow. “Well, I couldn’t help it if the bus blew a hose.” True enough. But why didn’t he just telephone a responsible adult and have him meet the parents in order to explain the cause of the delay and give the location of the bus and an approximate time of arrival? Such an action would have built trust. His neglect and insensitivity to the feelings of the parents struck an enormous blow to his credibility.
* Invite parents to a regular youth meeting. Try to keep the flow of the evening as close to a typical meeting as possible. You might want to include in the program two or three young people who have compelling testimonies. Has your ministry been a particular encouragement to any families in your church? Have a parent tell about it.
Showcase your staff. Introduce each one and briefly explain his or her particular role within the overall ministry. Have the parents wear name tags in order to encourage interaction. Select three or four couples to welcome new parents. And, of course, provide refreshments. Have you noticed the direct correlation between the quality of the food and the numbers in attendance?
What do you hope to accomplish? The parents will get an accurate picture of a typical youth meeting. A nonthreatening environment will have been provided for the unchurched parents. They will hear firsthand of the youth ministry’s impact both in the lives of individual young people and in families as a whole. An opportunity can be given for people to receive Christ. Parents who may be on the fringe will be exposed to the ministries of the church. And parents who formerly did not know one another will meet each other. Not too bad for one night’s work!
* Plan occasional parent/teen outings. Anytime we can create an opportunity to deepen the relationship between a parent and a teenager, we witness a momentous achievement. These activities can take the place of a regular social so as to not add significantly to our already overworked schedule.
The ideas abound. We recently hosted a “Downhill Derby.” We found the longest and steepest hill available and sponsored a soapbox derby. You wouldn’t believe some of the vehicles these families came up with! We posted only three guidelines: the vehicles must have at least three wheels, a braking system, but no power source. The event ended with a family picnic and softball game.
You will want to exercise sensitivity to those young people who do not live with both parents. No one should ever feel left out or second-class because of his family situation. Obviously, stepparents or guardians should be included. When a teenager has no one to ring, perhaps an older man or woman in church could adopt the young person for the day. He or she may want to become a genuine friend and prayer partner with the student throughout the year.
Benefits of Parent Ministry
For a small investment of time, you will find that:
* The parents will give you your greatest source of encouragement and support;
* You will experience a minimum of criticism;
* You will enjoy a healthy rapport with the parents;
* The young people receive a greater freedom to participate in the ministry.
4. Start small and allow the ministry to expand naturally.
I have given a wealth of information in this chapter; don’t feel overwhelmed or intimidated. You don’t need to incorporate these ideas all at once. Assess your time commitments and the needs of your group and design the parent ministry accordingly. Do what you can when you can. Feel your way along. If something works, do it again. If something bombs, at least you tried. But don’t give up. Over time, you will begin to sense what works with your group and what doesn’t. You will see progress. And no matter how you define it, progress constitutes success.
Let me summarize this chapter. Many youth pastors have said to me, “I’m so busy I cannot afford to begin a parent ministry.” You can anticipate my response: I’m so busy I cannot afford not to. I desperately need their support, trust, and encouragement; and they need mine. Think it through and begin the adventure. As a youth pastor friend of mine shared with me not long ago, “Setting up a monthly meeting with the parents is by far the smartest thing I’ve ever done!”
Checking Your Heart: A Personal EKG
1. Realistically assess your current time commitments. Do you have time to undertake this dimension of ministry? If not, keep a written record of everything you do this next week. List each activity and assign a number to each based on its importance in light of your overall ministry. Where on your list does a ministry to parents fit in terms of its relative importance? Which of the lesser priority items can you eliminate in order to make time for this one?
2. Have you become convinced of the importance of a parent ministry? Are you ministering to parents now? If so, what positive benefits have resulted? What changes do you need to make in order to increase your effectiveness?
If you do not currently have a ministry to parents, ask yourself, “Why not?” Can you give a valid reason? Objectively list the pros and cons of starting such a ministry. After weighing the two sides, can you put off a ministry to parents any longer?
3. Don’t try to do it alone. You can easily distribute the administration of parent meetings or the writing of personal letters among the youth ministry team. If you are the only youth worker in your church, can you think of someone in the congregation who might have a heart for these kinds of projects?
4. Parents can form another pool of potential ministry support. Think about the parents represented in your ministry. Can you think of any with particular strengths beneficial to your ministry? Can you identify tasks a parent could accomplish? Be prepared to utilize them. The more individuals who “own” the youth ministry, the more effective it will become.
5. From the ideas listed in this chapter, select two or three you might implement this year. Take out a sheet of paper and write down every conceivable task that must be accomplished in order for the idea to become reality. For example, if you chose to have a parent meeting, you will need a place to meet, a date, refreshments, publicity, perhaps certain equipment, handouts, etc. Ask for volunteers to fulfill each task. In the beginning, keep the project simple. In time, as the benefits of the ministry grow, people will offer their assistance with enthusiasm.
6. I cannot overemphasize the importance of updated records. Evaluate the present condition of your records. Do you sense the need for some overhauling? If so, what steps will you take to make your records accurate? The most important entries include the first and last names of each parent along with their addresses and phone numbers.
7. If you try and fail, don’t become discouraged. Remember, if something doesn’t work, evaluate what went wrong and try again. Failure occurs only when we give up. Remember Thomas Edison, who made 5,000 unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb? He was asked, “Aren’t you getting discouraged?” He replied, “Are you kidding? Not for one second. I’ve just discovered 5,000 ways it won’t work.” We shall indeed “in due time reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).
Article “Maintaining a Heart for Parents” excerpted from “Back to the Heart of Youth Work”. Written by Josh McDowell.
“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.”