This article appeared in the Sep/Oct issue of Group Magazine and was adapted from Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition.
“Kara, I need to ask for your forgiveness.”
I couldn’t think of anything that Linda, a single mom of two teenagers in our youth ministry, had done that might require my forgiveness. The last year had been a roller coaster for Linda, full of the highs of watching her son sprint forward spiritually, as well as the lows of her daughter’s spiritual stumbles. Seventeen year-old Kimberly had become pregnant and quickly made the choice to have an abortion. This double-blow left Linda reeling.
Linda began to cry as she confessed, “For over a year, I have been mad at you for what happened to Kimberly. I have blamed you and held you responsible.”
I had no idea that Linda blamed me for her daughter’s choices.
In response to Linda’s tearful confession, I hugged her and told her that I forgave her and that I understood. I told her that it is normal for parents navigating storms with their kids to wish that their youth leader could be some sort of all-powerful shelter. When we can’t, parents’ disappointment can turn to frustration and even blame.
Yet as I thought about Linda over the next few days, I got angry. Not at Linda, but at a church culture that had allowed parents to outsource the development of their own kids to me as the youth leader.
I saw Kimberly three hours per week for four years of her life—at most. During those same three hours, I saw a few hundred other teenagers too. How did I, in those three hours, somehow end up being more responsible for Kimberly than her mom, who saw her every day for the first seventeen years of her life?
“Why We Can’t Afford Not To Talk About Faith at Home”
Through our College Transition Project research we explored all kinds of factors that may be related to faith formation in students' lives. In the midst of a host of factors that do seem to help develop Sticky Faith, some of our most intriguing findings point to the role of parents and family conversations about faith.
Reason #1: Parents are usually the most important spiritual influence in their kids’ lives.
While we believe in the power of adult mentoring (we are both youth ministry volunteers at our respective churches), it’s challenging to point to a Sticky Faith factor that is more significant than students’ parents.
Following his nationwide telephone survey of 3,290 teens and their parents, as well as 250 in-depth interviews, sociologist Dr. Christian Smith concluded, “Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.” 1
As Smith more simply summarized at a panel at Fuller Seminary, “When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.” 2
Of course there are exceptions. Your own faith might be vastly different than your parents’. Plus we’ve met plenty of parents whose kids end up all over the faith spectrum. But parents are more than an initial launch pad for their kids’ journeys; they continue to shape them as ongoing companions and guides.
Reason #2: Most parents miss out on opportunities to talk about faith with their kids.
At Fuller Seminary, we have great respect and affection for the Search Institute, a research center devoted to helping make communities a better place for kids. According to Search’s nationwide study,12% of youth have a regular dialog with their mom on faith/life issues. 3 In other words, one out of eight kids talks with their mom about their faith.
It’s far lower for dads. One out of twenty, or 5%, of kids have regular faith/life conversations with their dad.
One more interesting statistic: Approximately 9% of teenagers engage in regular Bible reading and devotions with their families. So not even one out of ten teenagers looks at Scripture with their parents. When it comes to matters of faith, mum’s usually the word at home.
Reason #3: The best discussions about faith happen not just when parents ask questions but when parents share their own experiences too.
That relatively small group of parents who do talk with their kids about faith tend to default to asking their kids questions.
What did you talk about in church today?
How was youth group?
What did you think of the sermon?
Depending on the personality and mood of the kid, responses usually range from grunts to “the usual”. Not very satisfying for the parent or the kid.
Our research shows that asking these questions can pay off. But as vital to Sticky Faith is that parents also share about their own faith.
In other words, parents shouldn’t merely interview their kids; they need to discuss their own faith journey and all of its ups and downs too.
How Can I Help Parents Talk About Faith in the Midst of Normal Life?
While the average age of youth leaders is on the rise, many of you are likely not yet parents. Or if you are parents, your kids are not yet teenagers, which is true of both of us.
Like you, one of the great benefits of our experience in youth ministry is the hundreds of families that we have closely observed. Regardless of your age or life stage, one of the best ways to cast a vision in your ministry for family faith discussions is to share stories of other innovative parents—either stories of parents in your ministry or stories of parents like those below. During the course of our research, our FYI team has been continually impressed with parents’ creativity in planting that same DNA in their own families. In most cases, parents are simply weaving faith conversations through the everyday events of life (i.e., you’re going to have breakfast anyway, right?).
One member of our team, Dr. Cheryl Crawford, talked with one dad of four daughters who took each of them out for a one-on-one breakfast date every week. Yes, that’s four breakfast dates every week. And he did that with them throughout middle school and high school.
On nights our (Kara’s) family has dinner together, we have a tradition of sharing our “highs” and “lows” of the day. Because of what we’ve learned about Sticky Faith, we’ve added a third question: how did you see God at work today?
The first time we added that question to our conversation, our seven year-old said quickly, “But I can’t answer that question.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I don’t have a job.”
Once we explained that we meant, “How did you see God working today?” she realized she could be part of the discussion.
Often our kids don’t have an answer to that question, and that’s OK. In fact, more important than the kids answering that question is that they hear Dave and me answer that question every day.
TV as a Catalyst
A year ago we met Eileen, a mother of two teenagers who decided that when her kids have the TV on, she will sit and watch it with them, but she’s the one holding the remote. During or after scenes that show something sexual or related to drugs or alcohol—or anything controversial or provocative for that matter—Eileen will hit the remote’s pause button, ask her kids questions, and share her own thoughts. At times Eileen finds the best question to ask her kids is simply, “What should that character have done?”
We asked Eileen if her kids ever roll their eyes at her questions and commentary. “Sure, at times they do. But sometimes we get into good conversations. Like all parenting, I’m planting seeds.”
The intentional effort, time, and thought parents have to pour into conversations with their kids doesn’t end when they graduate from high school. Recently we spoke with Rowena, whose college freshman son lives on campus at a university thirty minutes from their home. When Rowena calls his cell phone, he’s often headed into class or on his way to lunch so he never seems to have much time to talk. His occasional moodiness doesn’t help.
But he does need regular haircuts. He likes the barber who cut his hair through high school but he doesn’t have a car at school so he can’t drive himself 30 minutes back home. So this busy mom of three makes an effort every month to pick up her son at school, take him for a haircut, and then drive him back.
At first her husband objected, “This is silly. He’s a college student. He can get his own haircut.”
But then Rowena explained that it wasn’t about the haircut. It was about the thirty minute car rides to and from the barber they had together – just the two of them.
It is during the car rides that she gets the best glimpse of how her son is doing. It was during a car ride that he mentioned that he had started attending Campus Crusade for Christ on his campus. The thirty minute car rides give her son time to unpack his life.
If the parents of your teenagers haven’t already been talking about their faith, trying to ask specific questions will likely feel awkward and forced. Encourage parents just getting started to try a simple question that a host of parents have found helpful: How can I be praying for you? Whether it’s by text, e-mail, phone, or in person, many parents find their kids’ answers to that question have helped them learn more about their lives than anything else.
How Can I Set Up Parents to Succeed in Their Conversations?
Throughout our Sticky Faith research, we’ve gleaned a host of practical ideas you can leverage to help parents and kids talk about faith together.
Give Parents Regular Updates on Youth Culture. Parents are eager for resources that can help them better understand and relate to their kids. For parents confused by their kids’ behavior, monthly tips or resources you e-mail can both alleviate their anxiety and help them know how to better talk with their kids.
Debrief big events with parents in person. Tim Nielson, the youth pastor at Grace Chapel in Denver, decided he wanted to help his parents better debrief the annual winter retreat with their kids. So he left the retreat one hour early to meet parents at his church an hour before the kids arrived. He took this hour to share the spiritual highlights of the weekend and give parents questions they could ask their kids related to the Scriptures covered during the retreat. As a bonus, since parents showed up an hour early, Tim and his team didn’t have to wait around for parents who were late to pick up their kids.
E-mail debriefs as the second best option. Often it’s not feasible for you to leave a major event early to debrief with parents (if you’re driving the church bus, it’s best not to delegate that to one of the kids). If you don’t have a chance to meet with parents, send them a simple debrief sheet the day you get back with a summary of what God seems to be doing and a few questions they can try asking their kids.
Encourage parents to check in with you. The more parents know what’s happening in their kids’ lives, the better their conversations. Without betraying any kids’ confidences, welcome parents to touch base with you periodically so you can share how you see God working in their kid, as well as any concerns you might have. Some youth ministries are even encouraging parents to schedule “Parent/Teacher Conferences” with the youth pastor just like they do at their kids’ school.
Take initiative with parents yourself. Often the only time parents hear from us is when their kid is causing problems. Build time into your calendar to call parents or send them e-mails letting them know what is happening with their own kids, empowering them to ask better questions as they try talking with their kids.
Have parents share their testimonies with your ministry. One urban youth leader regularly invites parents of her kids to share their testimonies with the entire youth ministry. Not only does that make it more likely for that parent to have deeper conversations with their own kid afterwards, it also motivates other kids to go a bit deeper with their own parents.
What’s my role with parents who don’t yet know the Lord?
The good news is that your kids can be a catalyst for their parents’ faith. While you don’t want to pressure them or guilt them into feeling like it’s up to them to “convert” their parents, you can help your kids be involved in their parents’ journey by asking questions like: What’s God doing with your mom? What signs of openness are you seeing in your step-dad? Just today I (Kara) had coffee with a youth leader whose mom became a Christian after she did in eighth grade. We never know what or who the Lord will use to draw people to himself.
In the meantime, kids who don’t come from Christian families should be at the top of your list of kids who need intentional mentoring and other intergenerational relationships. Caring adults can help provide the spiritual scaffolding those kids need to grow. In most cases, non-Christian parents also still very much want to know about the other adults involved in their kids’ lives too, so don’t skimp on communicating with them.
How do I help parents whose kid doesn’t want to talk to them?
When we share with parents the importance of having good conversations with their kids, often one of them will sheepishly raise their hand and ask, “What do you do if your kid doesn’t want to talk to you?”
Every teenager goes through seasons when they don’t want to talk to their parents. What varies is the length and intensity of the season. The longer and more intense the season, the more creative the parents in your ministry need to be.
One mom desperately wanted to have meaningful conversations with her sixteen year-old son but he was completely uninterested. The last thing he wanted to do was spend time talking with her.
But he did love movies. So she began scanning movie trailers, seeing which ones might be the most interesting for her to see with her son and hopefully talk about afterwards. When those movies hit the theaters, she would offer to take her son. He almost always accepted and they would usually have pretty good conversations on the drive home.
Plus we can’t assume that just because kids say they don’t want to talk to their parents, they really mean it. We’ll never forget hearing the story of Jin, a pretty rough seventeen year-old whose single dad sent her to a Christian school in hopes that it would “straighten her out”. Whether it was because her friends were going or because Jin started warming up, she signed up for the school’s spring break mission trip to Guatemala.
Jin ended up sitting on the flight down next to Joe, the school’s campus pastor. For the first few hours, Jin was her normal tough self. She put on her earphones and mostly ignored Joe. He tried to ask her questions about her family but Jin summarized her relationship with her dad by saying, “I asked him to leave me alone. And he has.”
Throughout the mission trip, the Lord worked in Jin and she softened. By the end of the trip, she confessed to Joe through her tears, “I wish my dad had not done what I asked. I wish he hadn’t left me alone.”
Jin, so do we.
- Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford Press, 2005), 56. ↩
- Listen to the “Soul Searching” panel discussion from March 2008. ↩
- Search describes their study of 11,000 teenagers from 561 congregations across 6 denominations in the Search Institute research report, Effective Christian Education: A National Study of Protestant Congregations, 1990. ↩