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Family ministry

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FamilyIs there a Chris in your group? Chris arrives at the church youth cell-group after having had a blazing row at home. Her wound up state means you’ll be spending the next hour going through the fires of hell.

Working in a church setting what’s your average session like? What challenges do you face? Is there a ‘Sam’ who comes to your open youth group but never gets involved with things: he just sits on the edge, morose and uninspired. Sam and his friend Jo sometimes talk about how they hate living at home and can’t wait until they’re both 16 so they can get a life.

Or is there a JJ whose parents make her go to church against her will. She’s always very negative when you do a ‘God slot’ session in the classroom or an assembly at your local comprehensive.

What have these three got in common? They all have family issues to deal with alongside a certain attitude to the notion of ‘family’. This raises a key question. To what extent will the future of successful church-based youth ministry be determined by it’s ability to understand and minister to the changing needs of contemporary families and communities – and not just the needs of the young people who come from them?

The Contemporary Family

Many will probably be upbeat about how this generation are getting on with older people. Perhaps they would be encouraged that the church is beginning to make inroads in getting young and old to work together for God. However statistics and articles in the media which relate to the notion of family highlight the disintegration of society as it has been conventionally known, and in particular the traditional family.

These sources of information point towards a model of family that will fit all in our contemporary society. New inclusive definitions have to be used (birth parents, present parent figures, partners etc) in an attempt to cope with complexity of family structure in the 21st century. With divorce now normative and ‘alternatives’ to the traditional more common, only a quarter of the UK fit the parents and 2.4 children mode. It is therefore inevitable that the definition of the term ‘family’ is up for grabs.

Our response?

Family meltdown is having a huge impact on the lives of the young people that many of us are working with. How are we coping in ministering to those young people who are ravaged by the pain of parental divorce? How can we begin to empathise with the pain of those who feel no adult really understands what’s going on for them in the areas of school, bullying, homelessness, sexual peer pressures, eating disorders, addictions, and abuse?

In our often-hectic consumer driven society, where is the space to listen love and care? The job of handling all this is beginning to seem a step too far for even the most dedicated church based youth work team.

My belief is that we can’t aid young people mentioned earlier - Chris, Sam or JJ – without looking at A I D – attitudes, issues, decision – in relation to how we see the notion of family and its interrelation with our youth work.



Attitude - What is our attitude to family? Do we think it to be a wonderful institution made by God, the primary tool to nurture, develop, care and love people? A spiritual seed-bed, particularly for young people (Deuteronomy 6)? Or have contemporary values and popular culture made us cynical and hostile towards the notion of family?

Our position on these two polar extremes will significantly affect our opinion on how keen we are to engage in family related issues in our work. To a greater extent it will determine the outcome of our involvement in the families of the young people who affect our work with those young people so significantly.

Issues - As already pointed out, issues related to family are immense. The key issue which I believe affects us as workers with young people is how our own identity has been shaped by our family ties.

At the heart of our being is our identity. Questions like ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Why am I here?’ are bread and butter to the seasoned youth worker. The test is how have we answered them in our own lives? Psalm 139 gives us a clue here. It fits together our relationship with God and our past, present, and future with the intimacy of the maternal bond. Similar intimate images are conjured up in Malachi 4:6 where it says that Elijah (John the Baptist/Jesus) will restore the hearts of parents to children and children to parents.

Decisions - How will you as a youth worker address the notion of family? You could respond to the ideas raised here in two ways:
1. Get some inspiration from this article and add ‘family’ on to your ministry as a bolt on.  

Tagging some sessions on family on and making a few extra home visits may however be stopping short of tackling the real issues. 

2. Re-evaluate the whole of your youth ministry from a ‘family’ perspective. Agree that the future of youth ministry must have an intergenerational family face.

Re-evaluating the whole

So lets explore how the scenarios involving the three young people - Chris, Sam and JJ - might have looked different if the youth ministry had a more family intergenerational focus: 

Chris – Calming the inferno

In the opening scenario Chris had had a blazing row at home. In the intergenerational approach several things happened. Firstly, prior to Sunday Chris may have contacted an adult member of the church and talked it through with them (not necessarily one of the youth work team). Also, perhaps her parents would have talked this through with someone else from the church. Sunday comes and Chris is still not happy, but isn’t raging. As she enters the church building one of the adults notices this unease in her and chats and prays about the issue with her. By the time Chris is ready to be involved with youth cell activities, she is prepared to talk about the issues more clearly. In the mean time her parents are similarly being supported in their struggles and being helped to see resolutions to the issues.

Sam – Adding home to the jigsaw

So what about Sam? In the opening scenario Sam sits on the edge of your open youth group morose, bored and negative about home. With his friend Jo they plot about a post- 16 real life.

It’s with these young people that intergenerational work comes into its own. Youth work team members or other adults visit Sam either at home or on his own turf. They try to get an idea of what home means to Sam on a one-to-one and begin to piece together a picture of his life when not at the youth group. As a team they begin to work out what makes him who he is and dream with him about what he could be.

If Sam’s life at home is truly difficult, then we’ll need to reflect on the words from Borgman’s excellent book ‘When Kumbaya is not Enough’. He writes, Understanding and accepting the full reality of family life, we will be able to help youth grow as the people they are, as members of a particular family heritage they can never change. We are called to affirm inadequate parents, to listen to alcoholics, to encourage those who are weak in discipline. We can only change those we love.’ (p113)

I believe that, with help from God, Sam can shift opinions - and perhaps so can whoever is at home with him.

And finally JJ who barracks you about Christianity when you mention God in her lessons or in assemblies. What do you do intergenerationally?

This is where the church needs mobilising at all levels. You as a youth/schools volunteer listen and check whether JJ wants to be released from church attendance and see if it’s fair. You action the church leader to explore the issue via their contacts and hopefully find a link with JJ’s church and family. You offer to meet with her parents, either by yourself or with some other adult volunteers. What happens will depend on the reaction of JJ and her parents. Perhaps they will back off and allow her to reconsider church attendance versus spiritual growth. Perhaps a dialogue occurs about spiritual health and development, hopefully supported by your church leaders.

So, does this all seem idealistic? Perhaps, but no more so than the biblical notion of loving your enemies or the actions of the early church in Acts 2.

Realistic or Idealistic?

So is working intergenerationally with families realistic or merely problematic and will relationships with young people be compromised by engaging in discussion with parents about their children's development?

Undoubtedly, any change of working practices will present problems. However, the issue in most church youth situations is that things need to change to take account of the family meltdown that has occured over the last 30 years.

I would argue that youth workers will not be compromised by engaging in discussion with parents any more than school teachers are. Do we as church based youth workers need help in seeing that we are not sole guardians of the spiritual development of young people? This may however cause us problems in terms of role conflicts with young people and their parents if they are in the church.

Beyond Isolationism

We as youth workers need to realise that perhaps the church needs help in understanding it’s responsibility to reach whole families for God and to love and support them as they grow in maturity. The hope is that church could be the place to attract them via loving and caring relationships to encounter the living God.

Mark De Vries in his book ‘Family Based Youth Ministry’ argues that young people’s work in church need not be seen as separating off from the adult ministry. As with most church services on a Sunday, it ends up with adults up the front, youth at the back and children off to Junior Church. 

What I’m arguing is that all Christians should work together with young people and each other. Many older people need to realise that the church may disappear unless this happens. Many younger people need to realise that we’ve been duped into thinking that ‘wrinklies have no useful contribution to youth work’. As Borgmon goes on to say, ‘In traditional life a variety of complementary supports – the extended family, neighbours, clan and community – aided the family in raising its children.’

My point is that the Church in our contemporary, technological society should be the key agent in the gap left. In short we all need to help each other in this process.

Shared responsibility

If statistics of falling numbers in churches are correct, then we all have to do a rethink on our priorities. The worst represented groupings in churches all features the under 40’s, with the 11-15’s the worst represented. What are the older folks doing to redress this? The burden must not only fall on the youth workers, but on the whole church.

One start may be for the Church leadership to draw up a strategy document on how it sees the findings of this article. Parents and guardians – in fact, all the church, in my opinion – need to be involved in each other’s lives and particularly the lives of young people. By that I mean beyond a ‘baby sitting’ service which seems to be how some parents view this essential ministry.

CASE STUDY: The Family Church, Christchurch, Dorset, UK
At my home church we’ve tried to go family/intergenerational in all we do. Here are some of our ideas:
  • Have a large number of adults involved with young people and children. (Out of a church of 150 adults approximately 50 in our church needed to be police checked because of their substantial involvement with young people and children.)
  • Encourage children and young people to engage in discussion and prayer with all adults.
  • Involve all parents with the young people and children’s programmes.
  • Have a dedicated team of non-youth work specialists (called adult friends) who work once a year on a five-week programme of study and prayer with young people in small group settings. They can present their findings with the young people as a Sunday morning sermon.
  • Have various mixed age teams working and ministering in the local community.
  • Run parenting classes and mentoring programmes in conjunction with schools and the Local Health Authority.
  • Have detached workers from the church working the Local Authority workers to engage with young people on the streets. These detached workers need not be youth work specialists, just ordinary adult believers.

A more extensive list of possibilities are listed in Mark De Vries’ book already mentioned.



We as Christians are called to be reconcilers across all boundaries including age and generational ones.Therefore church based youth workers may need to encourage and support church leaders as they think strategically about intergenerational ministry. This will probably mean mobilising parents and the rest of the church to action, not just expecting this to come from the youth workers (or children’s workers). Many churches may see it is the youth and children’s workers job to mobilise parents to be involved in youth and children’s ministry.

Many churches may see it is the youth and children’s workers job to work with families to be involved in the church. It is not longer sufficient to allow or expect youth ministry to operate in this way. Being divorced from ‘adult church’ issues and compartmentalised is not the way forward if we are going to begin to really grapple with issue of ministry to families. A big shift is required from all in church to fulfil God’s purposes in the lives of young people today.

Colin Bennett is director of the Youth Ministry course and the Youth and Community work degree at Moorlands College, Dorset.