Talk about your own faith journey.

Dear Parents:

You have a hard job. You are the people chosen by God to be the primary nurturers of faith in the lives of your children. When your child is baptized, you promise to instruct your children in the Christian faith and to set an example of Christian discipleship.

Youth workers, along with the rest of the church, also make a promise when a child is baptized.  They promise to love, encourage, and support parents and their children as they raise them in the Christian faith. It is with the spirit of love, encouragement, and support that I offer the following answers to the question “What do youth leaders wish parents knew?”

It’s important to make church a priority and talk about your faith with your children if you want them to follow Jesus. Children whose parents make it a priority to participate in the life of the church are far more likely to attend church as adults (Sticky Faith, Dean and Clark). The opposite is also true. If parents don’t consider church important, their children probably won’t consider it important either.

It’s essential for parents to talk about their own faith journey with their children. This helps them see the ways God is at work in this world. It also helps children learn to find the words they need to express their own faith.

You really need to know what your kids are looking at online. The world of social media and 24/7 Internet access is new and overwhelming territory for many parents. The digital realm can improve our lives, but it can also cause great harm. It’s important to set clear boundaries when it comes to the digital world. Every family is unique, and you know your situation best, but I encourage parents not to let their kids use their devices during meal times, homework time, or after bedtime when they should be sleeping.

Know that much of the social life of today’s teenagers has migrated to the digital world. They are using those devices to connect with their friends. Consider this an opportunity to talk to them about how to honor God with the things they say to their friends online.

Young people need to hear more encouragement and less criticism. If you let your children know you are frustrated when they forget to do their chores, do you also let them know you are thankful when they remember to do chores without being asked? The things we say to our children shape the way they think about themselves. As Ephesians 6:4 says, “Parents, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

Allow your children to make mistakes. In her New York Times best selling book The Gift of Failure, Jessica Lahey describes what she calls “overparenting.” This happens when we try to protect our children from anything that might frustrate them. They forget their homework, so you drive across town and bring it to them. It can go against every instinct in your body, but you need to let your children fail so that they can learn from their mistakes.

Parents and youth workers are on the same team. We might not see eye to eye on everything, but it’s important to remember that both of us want your kid to know and follow Jesus Christ.  If you are facing a difficult parenting situation, I can be your biggest ally. I can also connect you with resources that will help you navigate a challenging situation.

Being a parent is a difficult job, but God is with you every step of the way as you seek to raise your child in the Christian faith.

—RV

Dear Youth Ministry Leader:

My wife and I have thought about youth ministry a lot. Back when we had all the answers—before we had kids—we were energetic youth group leaders. You name it, we did it: all-nighters, ski trips, cold-call evangelism, go-cart races, week-long bicycle trips, and any number of games that required balloons, string, and shaving cream.

Then we had kids of our own and things got serious. We found we knew much less about raising kids than we thought. Somehow our three survived the early years—to my wife’s credit—and now that they’re college age, with one foot out of the door, we seem to be yelling less—but praying more.

We wonder often about their faith. We know we have the most influence on their faith  development. What should we have done differently? Why did we encourage them to be so independent? Were we fussy enough about their friends? Should we have let them do this—or not do that? And what about church?

I’m starting to think that the expectations of each of our roles in the growth of a child’s faith are too often too simple. Child development—every square inch of it—is a complicated business. And the parts are too interwoven to be easily segregated. It will take a village.

Youth leader, know who the students are and what they’re up to at church. A 19-year-old changes her work schedule so she can be a leader at a midweek girls’ club at church, on top of a busy schedule of college classes and two jobs. How did that happen? One of the girls’ club leaders, a young mom, took a chance and didn’t hold a much younger woman’s age or inexperience against her.

Get to know the parents. An elder makes it a habit to take his young son with him on elder visits. Are the topics discussed sometimes over the son’s head? Yes. Is it always appropriate? No. Is this practice given as a suggestion in our handbook for elders? Definitely not. Did this young son see his dad being the church? Absolutely. And his dad didn’t have to be young and hip to have influence.

Hand out reminder notes. A council member has a large note taped to the inside cover of his notepad, “How can a young person get involved with ______?” as a constant reminder when teams are being put together.

Be involved enough with the rest of the church to be able to suggest other advocates for youth. One member of the worship planning team is assigned to coordinate the regular and significant participation of young people in worship.

Know when to push young people to accept responsibilities they don’t think they can handle. A pastor comes across some nice photos on a high-schooler’s Instagram account and asks if she’s available to take pictures at a community picnic coming up.

The church isn’t always for our benefit alone—sometimes you are called to give back. And it can actually be quite fun, this working together. Giving up a catechism class period, the 11th-graders are asked to help corral the elementary-age kids to their positions in the Christmas program.

Dear underpaid and perhaps sleep-deprived youth leader, we know this ministry is beyond you. Do your part, but do it with joy knowing it’s not all up to you. We’ll try to do the same.

—DH

About the Author

Dean Heetderks is co-director of Ministry Support Services of the Christian Reformed Church. He attends Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.