Leveraging Your Ministry to Equip Parents as Spiritual Leaders in the Home

August 14, 2023

It’s a little uncomfortable to say, and maybe a little uncomfortable to hear, but God never created youth or kids’ ministries. 

God’s design and continued desire is for parents to walk confidently in their role as the primary spiritual leaders in the lives of their children. We can see from the beginning of the early church that God intended for the spiritual growth of young people to be cultivated and developed primarily by their parents, not by the pastor down the road. 

Now, I’m not at all downplaying the importance of the local church. I have served in vocational ministry in the local church my entire adult life and will continue to do so as long as God wants me to.  But I do believe we need a shift in the local church to begin to think differently about the way we organize our ministries.

The president of Barna, David Kinnaman, published a book in 2011, called You Lost Me, that revealed 59% of young adults with a Christian background were dropping out of church at some point during their 20s – many for just a time, but some for good.

Then, in 2019, he released another book called Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in a Digital Babylon, in which he shared that the church dropout problem has not only remained an issue, but has increased over time from 59% to 64%. Nearly two-thirds of 18 to 29-year-olds in the U.S. who have grown up in church have withdrawn from church involvement.

How is it that churches over the last decade or so have grown substantially in numerical size, yet we are still seeing a greater “dropout” rate from the next generation? 

How is it that churches over the last decade or so have grown substantially in numerical size, yet we are still seeing a greater “dropout” rate from the next generation? 

I believe that one of the greatest reasons for these discouraging statistics is that over the years, the Church has positioned itself to be the main source of spiritual discipleship in the lives of students. Our response to parents becoming more and more dormant in their spiritual leadership role has been to take over the responsibility completely. A change must take place. I would love to help, and you can, too!

Within this article, you will find a few easy tools and suggestions to help accomplish this mission. Let’s dive in!

1. Don’t change what you do, just include parents strategically.

When I coach Next Gen leaders, I often hear them mention that they don’t have enough time to do “more.” So it’s hard for them to wrap their minds around including parents as a part of their ministry. I also hear, “Adults/parents are supposed to be discipled by my lead pastor.” 

I want to share a strategy that helps translate what you’re already doing into a parent-equipping strategy, not necessarily taking on the discipleship role of the parent. I bet what you’re already doing is remarkable! I would just propose to you that while it’s effective for the student, it could also be effective for the reconciliation of the family unit, and God’s design for it. Let me give some examples:

A. Create small group questions for your leaders AND your parents.

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you do small groups in your ministry. More often than not, kids and youth pastors create questions for the leaders that lead their groups. While doing this, create another simple document that sets parents up to have their own “small group” time with their child. In one of my previous ministry seasons, we did something called “BIGS.” This “BIGS” document had:

1. BIG Idea

2. BIG Scripture

3. BIG Questions

Each of our small group leaders were sent this document days leading up to our service to prepare for their small group. In addition to this, we would create a “BIGS at Home” document to send to our parents. They had the same BIG Idea and BIG Scripture, but slightly different BIG Questions. Here’s a quick example:

SG Leader Question: “How can you take a step daily to follow Christ and stay far from darkness?”

Parent Question: “How can we as a family take a step daily to follow Christ and be a light to the people that live in our neighborhood?”

Parents have an internal yearning to lead, but they don’t know how. Equip them with tools like this and you’ll begin to see an increase in parent engagement in the lives of your students.

B. Include parents on significant “milestone” moments.

As a father, I often think about my kids growing up in their faith. While being led by their mother and I, we recognize they will also be led by leaders within our local church. This is a wonderful and important thing. 

I do, however, play around with different ideas like how I’d feel if one of my kids went away to a youth camp and ended up getting baptized without me there. Truthfully, I would be sitting in their youth pastor’s office the day after they return from their day off to have a serious conversation. 

For many years, Next Gen leaders have been leaving parents out of the most impactful and formative milestones of their child’s faith journey… when the parents were supposed to be an integral part of them from the beginning.

Whether you are hosting baptisms on a Sunday or Wednesday youth service OR at a local park after a weekend retreat, ensure parents not only know the time and place but ALSO how important it is for them to be there! This is the idea of “cuing” the parent. Don’t assume they know what’s right and wrong. Lead them to lead their child.

Maybe you’re taking a group of students on a mission trip within the next year. If you only have 25 spots, consider taking 12 students and 12 parents instead of only students. You and I would agree that mission trips are transformational in the life of a young person. If that is truly the case, why would we exclude parents from sharing that transformational moment AND having their own alongside their child? I bet if you give it a try, you’ll never do it another way. 

It’s exciting when you’re seeing incredible God moments happen within your ministry. I am proposing to you that it may be even more incredible when God moments happen within the family unit. God knew what he was doing when he created the family, so why not leverage what we do to support parents in their spiritual leadership roles?

2. Communicate WITH parents, not just TO parents

Over my 11 years of youth ministry experience, I’ve asked a specific question to as many youth pastors as possible. This question is simple: “How are you partnering with parents?” Out of hundreds of youth pastors over a decade, I have only heard of a handful of pastors with a focused and functioning plan. What I mean by a “handful,” by the way, is about five leaders. Yes… a handful. The majority of leaders believe that sending regular emails and a nice parent letter once a month is enough, but it isn’t. Our role as kids and youth pastors should be way more than discipling students and letting parents know about it. I say it in my book this way: “When we send out emails and letters as our only form of parent partnership, we are informing parents about what is going on instead of inviting them into it.” This only reinforces the belief within parents that we, as the pastor, have the primary spiritual leadership, not them. 

I want to quickly share some basic thoughts to introduce the subject.

A. Just because you have a parent’s email or phone number doesn’t mean you have a “say” in their life.

You all know the famous statement said by Theodore Roosevelt, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This rings true when it comes to parents. The quickest way to gain a voice in the lives of your student’s parents is to build a relationship with them. Talk to them, meet them for coffee or lunch, and get to know them personally. Become familiar with them so they know your heart and notice the amount of care you have for their child AND their family. When you have a voice, you can begin to lead them as they lead their children!

B. Give out your cell phone number. (Yes, I said it.)

For years I have discussed this subject with countless Next Gen leaders and I remain surprised at how many are hesitant or downright against giving their personal number to parents. Nothing says “My care for your family is limited to my office hours” like parents being unable to reach you in times of need when you’re out of the office. If you want to connect with parents on a new level, begin to normalize the greater access that parents can have with you. In my book, I dive in-depth into how to set up healthy boundaries so parents don’t go overboard in contacting you. But I will say this: In all my years as a youth pastor, I’ve only had two parents get a little heavy on their communication with me. Boundaries are key. In my most recent youth ministry season, we had a group of 450+ parents in our Facebook group and every one of them had my number. Never had issues and the same can be true for you! 

C. Go out of your way to engage parents when you see them.

An easy tweak Next Gen leaders can make to reinforce parents in their primary spiritual leader role is to be just as excited to see them as they are about seeing their students. Don’t just walk across the church lobby to see that student who slayed the lead role in Beauty and the Beast over the weekend at their school performance. Walk up to that parent you see showing up for their kid all the time and tell them how much you admire and respect them. Your pursuit as their child’s pastor goes a LONG way!

Communicating WITH parents makes the discipleship journey of a young person feel collaborative, even to a distant or disengaged parent. If you have a large population of parents who are not functioning as the primary spiritual leader, start here. It will take you a long way in your parent-equipping pursuit!

3. Believe that parents can be the hero in their child’s story.

As a Next Gen leader, I have rarely found a parent who had ZERO heroism in them. God designed and wired parents to be the heroes in their child’s story. Are there many parents dropping this ball? Of course. I find it quite interesting though, that many leaders will pull back from investing in parents as a whole because they see a group that is flopping at being a model for their children. Don’t fall into this trap. 

One of the things I teach in my book is that seeing parents as heroes takes time and is a shift in perspective. Instead of seeing all the ways a parent is failing, you choose to pay close attention to where the parent is succeeding. 

I think about the girl in my previous ministry whose dad was in prison and whose mom had to work multiple jobs to keep their family afloat. When our youth ministry did parent events, her mom never showed up. I remember having conversations with her about how hurtful it was that while other parents made it a priority, her mother didn’t. I asked her one time if she believed her mom wanted to be at our parent nights, or if she just didn’t care. She responded by saying that she thinks her mom wants to but she can’t because of work. I then asked her if she ever thought about how her mom is loving her and showing up for her by having three jobs. I began to see her wheels turning. This mom did care about her daughter, but due to her husband’s absence and financial strain, she couldn’t be as present as she would prefer. Her daughter just needed a slight tweak in perspective to see that her mom was showing up for her, just not in the way that she was hoping.

As leaders, we cannot assume that absent parents aren’t giving it their all and trying to make a way for their children. If we don’t see the best in parents, our students will pick that up from our language and non-verbals and it’ll only reinforce what they naturally believe about mom or dad. Fight to see the best, believe the best, and mine out in every parent what you can… their God-given potential. Why does this matter? It matters because while God desires to use you as a leader in this season of a child or teen’s life, he designed parents to be there for the long haul. Support them, equip them, and use the heroism students see in you to highlight the heroism in their mom and dad.

This article only scratches the surface of what it means to leverage your ministry to support the family. Next Gen ministry is so important in our world today and parents need leaders like you to get behind them and support their role as primary spiritual leader. I believe that what you will find as you venture into this parent-equipping world is that it’s remarkably rewarding and impactful. 

A Note From Sam – 

Below I have included my email, website, and cell phone number. I would love to connect with you if this is something you are passionate about, or if you’re looking to learn how to become better at supporting parents. The website link will take you directly to the first three chapters of my book. Create a quick account to gain access and begin your ParentEquip journey! 

– Sam McDowell


Cell Phone: 239-691-0039

Website: sammcdowell.com 

ParentEquip Early Access: https://sammcdowell.com/parentequip-book/

Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell is a pastor, speaker, and author who has spent the past 12 years dedicated to Next Generation ministry. He is a firm believer in the biblical design for the family unit and has made it his mission to equip parents and Next Generation leaders with the tools they need to support and promote this design. Through his ParentEquip strategy, he has been able to restore many broken parent/child relationships and grow multiple ministries by engaging, supporting, and equipping parents. Sam is a passionate advocate for the family unit and has coached many Next Generation leaders on how to utilize their ministries to promote God's design for the family. His vast experience in this field has made him an invaluable resource for ministry leaders who are seeking to strengthen family units and promote the biblical design for the family.
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