Something is not right

Revisiting our definition of family

David Fraze Image David Fraze | Jan 5, 2009

“David, I need some advice!”

The call came on the first day of my 2008 research with the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). After almost 20 years of experience in youth ministry practice and education, I came to study with FYI because I can’t shake this feeling that something is not right about how we teach and practice youth ministry. The evidence suggesting that 40-50% of our students leave Christianity after high school graduation heightens my concerns. [[Though various studies have approached this issue from different angles, nailing down a “hard statistic” is a challenge. For further reading on this estimate, please see the “Deep Impact: Faith Beyond High School” onramp in the FYI book Deep Leadership: Training Onramps for Your Youth Ministry Team, available through Youth Specialties/Zondervan in 2009.]] So my wife and I loaded up our family, packed them into a Pasadena apartment and spent two months thinking deeply about youth ministry. Specifically, I was at Fuller to research intergenerational strategies for youth ministry (i.e., youth ministry practices designed to create opportunities for spiritual growth across generational lines).

The youth leader seeking advice on the other end of the phone call was a dear friend, a veteran youth worker, and a youth ministry professor whose experience eclipses mine by at least ten years (he’s old!). Our conversation went something like this:

“I am not sure it is working,” my friend volunteered.

“What’s not working?” I asked.

“The way we are programming and teaching youth ministry.”

He continued to explain how the kids he knew that were part of the 50% that “made it” would probably have been okay with or without the youth ministry programming that had been offered them. Sure, the youth ministry had strengthened the faith of those students and provided them with valuable learning opportunities and great relationships. But in his opinion, the students who developed into and remained committed disciples ended up that way because they had come from strong, intact and engaged families who were themselves connected to strong, intact and engaged communities of faith. His concern was with the other 50% and the way youth ministry education must change in order to equip future youth workers to reach the students whose faith is not nurtured by strong, intact and engaged adult relationships.

Does any part of this conversation sound familiar?

Has your experience with youth ministry led you to the same line of questioning?

If so, “Welcome!”

Many of us, if we step back from the youth ministry carnival of activity for a moment, might come to a similar conclusion. Ask yourself this question: Out of all the programming teenagers have participated in through the years, what has worked to build long term, committed followers of Jesus? (Go ahead, ask yourself the question).

Follow up with a second question: In all that programming, how many times was the “real ministry” moment a conversation on the van ride back from an activity?

The crazy thing about discipling teenagers is we don’t always know when those “real ministry” moments are going to occur. We expect them to occur after the emotional youth conference appeal, but they are just as likely to occur after the annual baby oil/shampoo slip and slide contest (I’m not making this up; this really happened to me). Perhaps the best programming is that which creates moments for meaningful experience and conversation. If your experience is anything like mine, your favorite “real ministry” moments may have been facilitated by a certain programmatic event but are ultimately memorable because of the parents, adults and other members of the community of faith who shared the moment with you. Try this exercise:

Make two lists:

1. First, write down all of the sermons, lessons and devotionals you remember that had a deep spiritual impact on you as a teenager.

2. Second, write down the names of all the people you remember who had a deep impact on your spiritual journey as a teenager.

Question: Which list is longer and/or do you consider more influential in your present spiritual journey?

More than likely, the answer to this question illustrated the value of intergenerational relationships in youth ministry.

I suggest that an evaluation of traditional youth ministry practice reveals our unintentional tendency to undervalue the role of parents and adult volunteers as well as support the separation of age groups at church.

To be fair, many parents and adult leaders seem to prefer and support this type of segregated youth ministry practice. They prefer opportunities to participate in classes and worship services specifically targeted to their own adult interests while someone else is “watching” the kids. However, if my friend on the phone call is right and the teenagers who continue in a long-term, committed discipleship journey are those who come from strong, intact and engaged families and/or are connected to adults who provide supportive, familial relationships, then youth ministry teaching and practice may need some major retooling in order to support and foster more vibrant teen/adult relationships. [[A key study that highlights the importance of parent/teen and adult/teen relationships in a teenager’s spiritual development is described in Soul Searching by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton. FYI’s College Transition Project is looking at the connection between parents and other adults’ involvement during high school and its impact on lasting faith, and these variables will be explored as the project continues.]]

A clarification of terms

It is important that youth workers understand what is meant by the term intergenerational youth ministry. An intergenerational youth ministry approach views the roles of parents and the surrounding adult community as the primary influence in a student’s spiritual formation. As a result, intergenerational youth ministry programming is designed to create opportunities for spiritual growth across generational lines. 

Intergenerational ministry should not be confused with family based youth ministry. The family-based approach, while closely related (and valuable), focuses primarily on the nuclear family unit. An intergenerational approach, while honoring and working with nuclear family units, focuses on employing the entire adult faith community in youth ministry strategies.

Intergenerational youth ministry should likewise not be confused with inclusive youth ministry programming. Inclusive strategies work towards eliminating age-specific ministry programs altogether. Intergenerational strategies work to bring the generations together in meaningful ways while still offering programs that meet the specific age-appropriate needs of adolescent believers.

How do you define “family?”

“Finally, someone is championing the role and responsibility of families in youth ministry!” is the response most often received when we bring up the topic of intergenerational youth ministry strategies.

“It depends how you define family” is my typical response.

As you can imagine, the follow-up conversation is usually lively and lots of fun. Why? Because we have elevated the nuclear family to perhaps an unhealthy (even idolatrous) status and ignored those who don’t seem to fit that paradigm. For instance, what do you assume about a man or woman who chooses to remain single after age 30? Is the definition of family broad enough to include this group in our church community? Could people from this group be employed as intergenerational “family figures” in youth ministry programming? How we define family influences our answers to those and a host of other questions.

A definition that is too narrow places all responsibility for the spiritual formation of children solely upon the shoulders of legally related family members. This extreme view is dismissive of any role played by the surrounding community of faith. [[While there is tremendous responsibility placed on parents in scripture, there is no biblical support for this narrow definition of family.]]

A definition that is too broad may place the responsibility for the formation of children on shoulders of people unqualified to offer any meaningful spiritual direction. This extreme view allows unhindered access to anyone willing to work with children, without examining a “family” member’s moral or spiritual qualification.

In the midst of these two extremes, can we find a healthy middle ground? Sociologist and family ministry specialist Diana Garland’s Family Ministry provides a helpful framework for defining family that invites youth ministries to re-examine how to best love and serve kids and their families.

Garland starts her Family Ministry text by acknowledging the turbulent debate around the definition of family in our current cultural context. While describing the importance of caring for and supporting the traditional nuclear family unit, Garland encourages her readers to expand their definition of family so that the diversity found in today’s family culture is acknowledged and brought into family ministry discussions. She does this through a discussion of two sociological views commonly used to define “family.” [[Unless otherwise noted, the information on the structural and functional definitions of “family” is adapted from Diana Garland, Family Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 21-51.]]

View #1: A structural definition. This definition views family through the structural relationships assumed through marriage, birth and/or adoption, divorce and remarriage, or any of the variants formed through these primary structures (single parents, step-parent/children, elderly parents living with an adult child, etc.). The structural definition even allows for “fictive kin” [[“Persons who relate to a family as if they were nuclear or extended family members, when in fact they are not related by either blood or marriage.” Ibid., 36-37.]] relationships. This structural definition seems to represent the most often employed and understood use of the term “family” in ministry programming.

Garland certainly honors and accepts the scriptural support of the structural definition of family. Jesus himself was set in an adoptive structural family! However, as will be discussed below, the functional definition of family not only honors structural relationships but allows for a more inclusive use of the word family that better describes relationships within the body of believers.

View #2: A functional definition. This definition views family through the unique functions certain relationships have in a person’s life experience. Therefore, “family” is defined as the “organization of relationships that endure over time and contexts through which persons attempt to meet their needs for belonging and attachment and to share life purposes, help and resources.” [[Ibid., 39.]] This definition of family includes both structural relationships and those relationships that make a functional attempt [[Attempt is a key word for Garland in that it denotes an effort is being made to operate as family.]] at being family.

Garland explains why she employs the functional definition of family:

Most family ministries have been based on a structural definition of family. Thus we have ministry with married couples, with parents, with single parents, with single adults, with empty-nest families and so on. No doubt these ministries have been helpful to families dealing with the various life-stage issues. On the other hand, this approach tends to cut up a congregation into homogeneous groups, so that all the married couples are grouped for ministry, and all the singles, and so on. It also has the tendency toward congregational specialization, so that one congregation may become known as the congregation for young families, another the church for single adults, or for senior adults. Inevitably some types of families do not find a specialized ministry for them, because most congregations do not have enough specialized staff and other resources to maintain a host of specialized ministries for the diversity of family types included in the community…The functional definition seems to better fit Jesus’ teachings about family. For followers of Christ are not to be bound by the structures of legally recognized or biologically based relationships. Rather, family relationships are defined by relationship process—loving one another, being faithful to the same Lord, and adopting one another as brothers and sisters in the household of faith. [[Ibid., 50.]]

In a more thorough exploration of family in scripture, we find it shift beyond “flesh” relation (Genesis 3:23-24) to the radical expansion of the term seen in Jesus’ words, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). Jesus reformed the idea of family simply in the way God brought Jesus into the life of Mary and Joseph. The adoption of Jesus by Joseph “points to the good news that Jesus will develop later in his teachings (Matthew 12:46-50): from this point forward, no one must be without family because wombs are barren, marriages are broken or never formed, or loved ones die.” [[Ibid., 307.]] For those who therefore lack a structural family, a functional family fulfills the human need for connection and support. Even the experience of Jesus’ conception and birth is evidence that “God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5-6).

The functional definition of family honors and values the significance of the traditional family unit while acknowledging the place for single parents, divorced individuals, singles and others within the faith community. This calls the community of faith to offer hope for those hurt by structural family relationships by providing a family in which healing and acceptance are found.

Beyond definitions

“That’s exactly what we need!”

This was the response given by one of my volunteers (who used to be a paid youth worker) when discussing the need for more intergenerational youth ministry programming. The volunteer came alive when discussing this functional definition of family.

“Let me show you my Bible,” came the enthusiastic offer from my volunteer.

As the volunteer brought forth his tattered and worn Bible, he told the story of how it was given to him by two of his campers at a summer camp almost twenty years previous to our conversation. He described their relationship in family-like terms (i.e. Paul and Timothy, father and son language). He is still in contact with those two young men. Both are committed disciples and one is involved in full-time ministry.

As this intergenerational research and article series continues, we will focus on the theological and psychological support for intergenerational youth ministry strategies. Subsequent articles will offer more “How-to” application ideas designed to give you the tools to start and/or strengthen intergenerational youth ministry in your own context.

Action points for youth workers

1. Spend time with your team evaluating the need for and effectiveness of intergenerational youth ministry programming within your ministry context. If you do not have a team, find a trusted colleague or friend who would be willing to assist in the evaluation.

  • Introduce the topic by using the “make two lists” exercise to start a discussion on the importance of intergenerational relationships in the life of a teenager. What does this exercise say about the way youth ministry might ideally be done? How does that ideal match our current reality?
  • Have your team define “family.” Follow up by discussing the difference between structural and functional definitions. Which of the two does your team feel most comfortable with and why? How does the definition of “family” affect the way you view intergenerational programming?
  • Have your team react to this statement:

An evaluation of traditional youth ministry practice reveals a tendency to undervalue the role of parents and adult volunteers as well as support separation of families and age groups at church. To be fair, many parents and adult leaders prefer and support this type of segregated youth ministry practice.

  • Does your team feel this is a fair assessment of today’s youth ministry programming? Why or why not? Is it a fair assessment of your own ministry? How do the parents in your youth ministry view their role and responsibility in their children’s spiritual formation? How do most adults in your congregation view their role? What does your ministry do to promote and support intergenerational relationships?

2. Begin to dream about how current youth ministry practice can be changed and/or adapted so that more teenagers have the opportunity to develop strong, intact and engaged family and/or family-like relationships with adult believers.

Note: This article also appears in the January/February edition of The Journal of Student Ministries.

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David Fraze Image
David Fraze

David Fraze holds a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Seminary, currently works as the director of Student Ministries at the Richland Hills (Texas) Church of Christ and is a presenter for ParenTeen Seminars. In the summer of 2008 David served as a post-doctoral fellow with the Fuller Youth Institute. He also served as the director of the Youth and Family Ministry program at Lubbock Christian University for five years, and continues teaching as a graduate adjunct professor of Youth Ministry and related studies. David and his wife Lisa have two children, Braeden and Shelbee.

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