Working Together for the Gospel: A Conversation Between a Mom and a Youth Pastor

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In this conversation, new friends Dawson (a mother of three young sons in Birmingham, Alabama) and Chelsea (a youth pastor in Hamilton, Massachusetts) discuss how parents and youth pastors can work together toward gospel-centered youth ministry.

Chelsea: What is it like to be a mom of three boys? And how are you feeling about your oldest launching into these teenage years?

Dawson: The first word that comes to mind is “wild.” They are so physical and so boisterous. The best advice I have heard (and take as often as I can) about raising boys was to lock them outside until dinnertime.

The teenage years have such capability to fear-monger, it seems. I know I have fallen prey to it more than I did when my oldest son was in elementary school. Whether it is technology, friends, or schoolwork, I can see how I parent out of fear because the stakes seem so much higher as he gets older. And I wont even mention the rollercoaster of seemingly irrational emotions. I wonder sometimes if these middle school years are meant to just be survived? Do you think that is too cynical?

Chelsea: Middle school is tough! So many up and down emotions. What we as adults see on the outside of a middle schooler—what they project verbally or through body language—often doesn’tmatch whatever is going on internally. It can be crazy-making!

Several years ago I lived with a sweet family who had middle and high schoolers in the ministry where I was serving. It was such a revelation because the kids I knew at youth group were quite different in their unguarded moments at home! It hit me that as the youth pastor, I often get to see students when theyre having fun, sharing vulnerably, and growing in faith. But at home parents are doing really hard work surrounding sibling rivalry, grumpy morning routines, back-talking, and sometimes even outright rebellion. We know that to a certain extent, these things are a healthy part of adolescence—but I can only imagine how exhausting it is for parents. So keep going, friend!

Does your church have a youth minister? What do you find that you need most from this person?

Dawson: Our church has just hired a new pastor who will be in charge of the student ministry. We also have three other staff members who serve the youth—two for the girls and another for the boys. I think that one thing I need from this person, or perhaps hope to have from this person, is the willingness to be another voice in my sons life that will point him to Jesus. I know that my voice, while still heard, wont be as loud as those of his peers. It seems this is a place where a trusted, godly adult can speak truth into our childrens lives. It feels a bit like a team, another pair of eyes who is aware of what is going on in the childs life. I also think it is helpful when the youth staff is able to encourage the parents of the youth—whether that is through honest discussions of trends, speakers, or written resources.

What do you find that you need most from parents?

Chelsea: I love what you said about being a team! Thats an image I often use when describing my role to parents. I tell them I want to be on “Team Luke” or “Team Ellie” with them, reinforcing the things theyre saying and modeling at home.

I think what I need most from parents is for that teamwork to be reciprocated. When parents keep me in the loop about what they see and experience going on with their student, I am in a better position to back up what those parents are saying—and I love being able to pray with them as we trust God to work in their teenager’s life. It is so humbling when a parent pulls back the curtain and allows me to see their struggles. And its hard to imagine greater joy than rejoicing with a parent in the little victories of faith when prayers have been answered.

Dawson: How many youth do yall minister to at your church?

Chelsea: We are a medium-sized church (by New England standards!) of about 450 weekly attenders, including youth and children. We have about 100 students on our rosters and we minister to about 70% of those on a weekly basis. Were always asking the Lord to increase this percentage to see every student meaningfully connected to our church, whether they attend our youth ministry programing or not. One of the great joys of serving this local body has been the desire our leadership and congregation have to see students participating in the life of our church as a whole—something I believe in so much. And its been hugely edifying to see students increasingly love our church family!

Dawson: That is great insight to the method behind the youth group madness! I love the desire of your church to see students involved in the life of the whole church. It is so easy for the youth to be relegated to the basement and just retreat there instead of participating in the other parts of the church body. Speaking of participation, what is your advice when a child does not want to attend a church youth large group meeting, small group, or retreat? Along the same lines, where do parachurch activities fit into the equation?

Chelsea: This is such a good question, and so personal to the individual student and his or her family—but in general, I encourage parents to treat church participation the same way they do other healthy habits. I think saying something like, “Were the Sawyer family, and this is what we do…” is a way to calibrate expectations of the whole family, rather than singling out a student who doesnt want to participate.

With that said, I know theres usually something going on beneath the surface when a student doesnt want to come: Maybe hes questioning faith and worries hell be ridiculed for his doubt. Maybe she had a bad experience at small group and fears feeling left out again. Whenever possible, I try to work with parents to arrange a time for a student to hang out with a leader and a peer or two in a more casual setting. Sometimes this can break down whatever barriers are preventing participation. I find that most students wont say no to this kind of invitation.As far as retreats go, I encourage parents to appeal to their students to give it a try, knowing that extended time away together is the quickest way for students to feel connected to the group.

We also work at helping our student leaders learn how the gospel provides a unique welcome such that everyone feels included. Without students leading the way in welcoming newcomers, theres only so much leaders can do to foster warmth in the group.

Dawson: Do you find that parents ask too much of youth pastors/directors?

Chelsea: I think one of the hardest things about youth ministry is that no one quite knows what the youth pastor does from day to day. I was explaining to someone recently how its very entrepreneurial. You listen to the dreams the church has for students and you try to prayerfully determine where those dreams align with the heart of God, with the gospel. Then you set goals and determine priorities—things youre going to do every week, month, year, etc. But in many church environments, leadership may not know exactly what those things are; theyre trusting that the youth pastor knows what to do. So that can be a little lonely! (Kind of like being a parent?!) There can certainly be a sense of pressure—usually self-inflicted—to keep doing more, to show up for more things. Thankfully I have the sense that parents in our ministry have my back, that they dont want me to burn out. Someone is always reminding me to take a vacation!

One thing Ive been thinking about a lot lately is how to articulate and teach the gospel in such a way that it encourages parents in their important work of discipleship at home. Is there anything that your church does or teaches that is especially helpful in equipping you with the gospel?

Dawson: I think the most obvious thing that comes to mind is that our church preaches the gospel every single week. Each sermon, preschool lesson, elementary lesson, and youth large or small group lesson points to the gospel. Repetition is key.

Practically speaking, I think it is helpful to hear explicitly, or to explore together, how the gospel speaks into the variety of actual situations parents and youth experience. We hear the theological explanation of the gospel frequently (thankfully!). But when a parenting situation arises, I dont always know exactly how to apply the gospel in my response—it doesnt always come naturally.

An aspect of discipleship seems to be learning to be more Christlike as we process life and all the many facets of it. Cameron Cole published a piece on the Rooted blog that includes a “Gospel Benefits Chart” as well as a “Contextual Application of Gospel Benefits” chart. I have it pinned to my bulletin board because its so practical in showing how the gospel applies not only to our eternal life but also to our earthly life. For example, it gives the definition of a gospel benefit, like “justification,” along with Scripture references. It continues by pointing out that this would be a benefit that would speak to a child who is performance oriented and is about to take a final exam or the ACT.

Please point parents (me!) again and again to the Good News that Jesus (not Mom) came to rescue sinners (all of us!) by dying on the cross and rising on the third day. Bring me again and again to a place of rest founded not on your efforts or mine, but in Christs gospel of grace.

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