Justice Hits Close to Home

A Roundtable Panel on Inviting Parents into Our Service

Photo by Lana Isabella

I was midway through my Wednesday night youth group clean up routine.  Working with a team of student leaders and adult volunteers, we were stowing away our sound system, stacking up chairs, and scooping up the candy wrappers and smashed paper cups that littered our youth room floor.

But then came a not-so-routine conversation, one that forever altered the way I involve parents in justice and service.  Two mothers walked up to me, both of whom were concerned about their fourteen year-old sons.

The mother who reached me first shared her anxiety:  “Ever since the series that you taught on missions, my son keeps saying he wants to go to Guatemala on a short-term mission trip this summer.  I lay awake at night, worried that something bad will happen to him.  He’s only fourteen and I’m afraid he’ll get hurt.”

The second mother, having overheard the first mom, sighed and shared one of the more convicting statements I’ve ever heard one parent share with another.  “I wish that was my problem.  My son doesn’t want anything to do with church or God anymore, and I think his friends are into drugs.  I’d give anything to have a son who wants to serve the Lord in Guatemala this summer.”

Was the first mother wrong to be concerned about her son’s safety?  Of course not, but seeking to right wrongs through acts of justice and service are always risky on some level.  Perhaps the deeper issue was her hesitation about justice work in the first place.  God was inviting her son to participate in the kingdom through acts of justice, but allowing her son to RSVP to that invitation felt way too uncomfortable.

As youth workers, the justice invitation we extend doesn’t stop at the in-box of the fourteen year-old.  Like pretty much everything else we do in youth ministry, our impact on both the fourteen year-old and our planet will be magnified when we do the hard work of adding parents’ names to our invitation list.

Why Parents Matter:  What MTV Has to Say

In 2006, MTV conducted a nationwide survey in order to understand how and why youth in America are already active in social causes. 1 Here’s what that study found:

  • Of the kids they surveyed, 70 percent say it’s important to help others in need. Only 19 percent are “very involved” in doing so.
  • 62 percent say the issues that matter most to them are those that have touched them or someone they know.
  • 70 percent of kids involved in activism report that their parents’ encouragement played a major factor in their choice to get involved. 2

In the midst of these findings, one theme emerges: Justice needs to hit kids close to home. It needs to hit close to home thematically ¾ as we help kids understand how particular injustices relate to their lives.  But it also needs to hit home literally ¾ as we invite parents both to exemplify and to encourage their own kids to right wrongs around them.

Getting Answers from the Experts

In order to better understand how to invite parents to walk with their students in the justice journey, the Fuller Youth Institute (formerly the Center for Youth and Family Ministry) at Fuller Theological Seminary invited a handful of youth pastors and short-term missions experts to wrestle with some tough questions about parents in an attempt to pin down some answers.

Noel Becchetti is the president of Center for Student Missions, a ministry devoted to providing an effective urban ministry experience that transforms lives, influences local churches, and honors Christ.

A veteran youth worker with 25 years of experience, Hal Hamilton is currently the Youth and College Team Leader at First United Methodist in Tulsa, Oklahoma and teaches youth ministry classes at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

Having recently completed her work with Amor Ministries, Cari Jenkins is applying her fifteen years of youth work to launching the 11:29 Project, a ministry that connects individuals, groups, and organizations with the true rest found in the person of Jesus.

Terry Linhart, PhD, is the Dean of the School of Religion and Philosophy of Bethel College in Indiana, where he maintains an active involvement in short-term missions research.

Dave Livermore is the Executive Director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and the author of Serving with Eyes Wide Open:  Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence.

Sandy Moy Liu, the Pastor of Youth and Children at Chinese Bible Church of Greater Boston for the last eighteen years, has developed a deep missions philosophy and program that involves over 50 students annually.

As Associate Pastor of Children and Students at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, Jeff Mattesich and his team invest in 1000 children and teenagers on a weekly basis.

FYI: Why should youth workers try to engage their kids’ parents in the justice and service work that their youth ministry is doing?

Hal Hamilton:  I think youth pastors must involve parents in ANY ministry that is intended to be meaningful, purposeful, and life-impacting.  Justice is no exception.  Parents are the primary mediator of their children’s values.  If justice and service work is left to teenagers, we run the danger of teaching that it is only for this season of life.  Not only that, but teens and adults need each other in this arena.  Teens have the passion and the fire for change.  Adults have the networks and the resources to bring it about.

Sandy Liu:  Justice and service work are often located in places of high risk.  Sadly, most parents go to great lengths to provide a safe, secure, insulated “cocoon” for their kids, away from the “big bad world”.  When God calls young people to help and reach the “least of these”, parents who share the same vision and passion can bless and enable their kid to answer God’s call.

Dave Livermore:  Involving parents makes sense on a number of levels. For one thing, what a rich way to allow parents to share firsthand in the formational experience of these kinds of opportunities with their kids. Furthermore, the more parents are involved, the less fearful they’ll be about potential risks and dangers.  Best of all, parents will be personally shaped by doing it.

Cari Jenkins: The more parents are modeling, growing, and learning with their kids, the more lasting the imprint on the entire family.  If a parent begins to wrestle with social issues and starts managing their checkbook differently, kids are more likely to change their own lifestyles.

Jeff Mattesich:  The potential of the family adopting these values and lifestyle will better ensure that service and justice work is not merely seen as a “program” that students “did” while they were in the youth ministry.  When the entire family is involved, it’s more likely that students will live out justice priorities beyond youth group.

FYI:  In your experience, what keeps teenagers’ parents from being involved in a youth ministry’s justice work?

Terry Linhart:  I think there is, unfortunately, still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding the word “justice.”  I find that many parents, even youth workers, see the word and associate it as lying at the other end of the theological spectrum from evangelism.  This is still a leftover issue from the conservative/liberal battles of the 1960’s and it’s an artificial dIrene Chotomy we need to correct.  From a kingdom perspective, the two go hand-in-hand.

Sandy:  Parents are often too busy with their own life priorities (job stress, over-scheduled family activities, etc.).  They let themselves be tyrannized by the urgent and end up forgetting what’s important.

Dave:  For one thing, I’m not sure they’re invited to do so. Either the students or their leaders may not take the initiative and many parents will either be intimidated or not feel free to invite themselves. I’ve found that simply taking the initiative to get parents involved is met by far more enthusiasm than resistance. This often requires some good conversations with our students ahead of time, too, as some of them may be horrified at the thought of Mom and Dad tagging along next Saturday afternoon.

Jeff:  The main obstacles are fear, politics, and comfort.  Many parents have successfully learned how to live out their Christianity without having to face the issue of justice.  Their own personal theology does not require them to do so.  Many times our justice efforts are towards those who are on the fringe of society and that comes with a large amount of fear based on stereotypes and a lack of real experience with “those kinds” of people.

Hal:  There are lots of reasons, but I think a primary one is our desire for short-term gratification.  We are trained by our culture to consume and achieve quickly, but those are difficult goals in justice and service work.  In addition, I think we as youth pastors are often poor communicators.  Parents are not confident that their youth pastor is organized enough, prepared enough, and oriented enough to comfort their fears and keep their kid safe.

FYI:  Many youth workers have found that while some parents are supportive of their kids’ justice work, other parents seem fearful or threatened.  What causes parents to feel afraid or threatened?

Dave:  For the most part, I think it’s ignorance. I don’t mean that in a condescending way, but I think parents have been socialized to think that many of the places our social justice projects happen are high-risk locations for both parents and kids. Positive experiences by others, and strong communication about the details that demonstrate we aren’t carelessly exposing kids to unnecessary risk, go a long way in helping parents feel less afraid.

Noel Becchetti:  I think adults are usually more afraid of safety and crime issues than kids.  Plus I think that deep down, adults better understand the potential implications for themselves, their faith, their world, and their lives.

Cari:  I think many parents are afraid that their kids are going to get too radical in their faith and give up the “American Dream” of prosperity.

FYI:  What has your ministry done to help overcome these obstacles?

Dave:  Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Be on top of details. Anticipate the questions before they ask them. Give a few trusted parents good experiences and make them advocates for future opportunities. Seek their input ahead of time and allow them to shape how and what we do rather than just “filling them in”.

Noel:  We supply material written specifically to parents to address the safety/crime dynamics of the trip as well as their concerns for their kids and themselves.  We also affirm the heck out of parents when they do attend.

Hal:  Our greatest success in involving parents in justice and service has not come from selling them on the idea.  The success has come when we give parents who are coming alongside students a specific job in a specific project.  As the adults facilitated the students’ involvement, many caught the vision of how they could get involved on their own.  At that point, they are encouraged to find like-minded adults and go for it.

Cari:  Even if parents aren’t joining us for the actual service work, we include them in our preparation beforehand and our debrief afterwards. 3 Many students are not prone to talk to Mom and Dad about what they have experienced, so we give many opportunities for storytelling that includes kids’ parents.

We also have seen the importance of having the whole church get on board by having justice be part of the church’s ethos and make up.  This takes a long time if it involves an entire paradigm shift, but it is a shift worth the time.

FYI:  What have you done to try to involve parents that didn’t work?  Why do you think it failed?

Noel:  We’ve learned the hard way that you cannot force someone who is afraid or reluctant.  In our earlier years, we pushed on such adults harder and it was a disaster.  Nowadays, we allow folks to self-select either in or out, and that works much better.

Cari:  I used to assume parents could only serve in one role on our service trips:  as leaders.  I’ve come to understand that parents are also learners, and that they are processing and changing just as much as their kids.  Because of that, I’ve tried to bring one parent who had the primary role as a shepherd for the other parents, to be a source of support, encouragement, and coaching primarily for the other parents.

FYI:  Please think of a parent or two who has really encouraged their own kid, and maybe your entire youth ministry, to be involved in service.  How did they catch the vision for kingdom justice?

Sandy:  One single mom and her kids used to be homeless for a short time.  Based on what she shared about her experience being homeless, our church started an annual “Operation Mittens” where we collect and distribute warm mittens, hats, scarves and coats to the street homeless.  Having such special people within your community makes the kingdom needs more real and visible to an insulated church.

Cari:  Through experience.  One parent served on a high school house-building trip in Mexico and actually came to know the Lord that year on the trip. The next year, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi and that parent was one of the first to initiate a plan to build homes and get involved there.

Jeff:  They are learners—they are always asking, seeking, and changing in their pursuit of a Christ-centered life.  Many times, they have a history of being involved in justice issues and they also want their kids to understand the connection between justice and maturity in Christ.

As this roundtable makes clear, fears don’t need to be the driving force behind parents’ responses to our missions and justice endeavors.  When we begin to invite parents to be key partners and advocates, justice can start hitting students even closer to home.

To read more about wrestling with issues of justice in youth ministry, check out Deep Justice in a Broken World by Chap Clark and Kara E. Powell (Zondervan, January 2008).

Action Points:

  • Think about a handful of students currently involved in your ministry.  What would happen if their parents joined in their kids’ justice and service work?  What would be the challenges?  What would be the opportunities?
  • The leaders surveyed for this article gave a number of reasons that parents aren’t involved, including:  they are not invited by the youth worker, they are afraid, and their theology does not embrace justice work.  Which of these obstacles is most problematic in the parents connected with your ministry?  What might you do to overcome that obstacle?
  • Of the many ideas contained in this article that can help you improve parents’ engagement with their kids’ justice experiences, which one or two would you like to try in the midst of your next service opportunity?