“Doing youth ministry without parents is like driving a car without the engine.”
– Mark Devries
It’s no secret anymore, youth ministry is in a state of crisis. Polls of recent years report over and over the dire percentages of youth who leave the church after high school. Whatever the exact percentage actually is, what seems clear enough is that more young people are choosing to leave the church than choosing to stay.  The million dollar question is, of course, “Why is this happening?” And while there are certainly multiple factors involved in this mass exodus, I believe that a primary contributing factor is the loss of emphasis on the central role of the parent in the spiritual nurture of their children. Much of the youth ministry done in recent decades seems to have forgotten that parents are commanded to be, and by God’s design will necessarily be, the primary youth pastors for their children—for better or for worse. And when the central role of the parents is neglected, a major deviation from God’s design for youth ministry has taken place that can only be harmful for youth in the long term.
In order to start righting the ship, churches must first of all re-embrace the responsibility given to parents by God to be the front line “youth pastor” for their children. In the Old Testament, the priests had the general responsibility to teach all of the people the Word of God, but parents were given a special responsibility to teach their children. Moses commanded the people of Israel “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9). The same principal is in the New Testament. Pastors have the general responsibility to preach and teach God’s word to God’s people (including the youth), but the only command regarding the training and discipling of children is given directly to parents: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). This does not necessarily mean that there is no place for a church to have a “youth ministry” apart from parents, but it does mean that youth ministry must be built on this central foundation. Proverbs 22:6 states “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This proverb is not a universal promise that every child who is trained by his parents will grow up to be a Christian, but it is a general principal that God has given for us to live by. Generally speaking, God uses the means of Godly parents who prayerfully and diligently seek to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” to convert them. God has designed the home, not the youth group, to be the spiritual nursery where the Christian faith is taught and modeled to children from their earliest years.
Secondarily, parents and churches must embrace a more sober estimation of what youth ministry actually accomplishes. Part of what has created the current crisis in youth ministry is that churches have assumed that the youth pastor and youth programs are more important than they really are. Again, this is not to say that there is no place for a youth pastor, youth group, or youth programs. When these things are Biblically grounded they can be a real blessing to youth. The reality is, however, that in most cases the overall influence of a youth pastor and youth group on a child will be insignificant when compared to that of the parents. “It’s time for a reality check,” says Mark Devries, “Youth ministries, in and of themselves, have limited power to produce lasting change in young people’s lives.”  As case in point, let me use myself as an example. As a youth pastor, one of my priorities is to spend as much time as I can with the youth. On a good week, a week that I am able to see a specific youth in several different venues, I may be able to spend 6-8 hours with him or her, although most of that time is in a group setting. On other weeks, the only personal interaction I may have with them is at Church on Sunday morning and a text or facebook message during the week. I pray that God will bless the time that I have with them, but I know that it is not enough.
Parents, by contrast, spend every day with their children. For 18 years they live life with them: waking, eating, sleeping, praying, playing, laughing, crying, arguing, and the list goes on. As a result, parents know their children like no other adult will ever know them, and they will have more influence on them for spiritual good or ill than any other adult ever can. Thomas Manton, writing in the 17th century, called on the “Heads of Families” to recognize this special influence:
How much the serious endeavors of godly parents and masters might contribute to an early seasoning the tender years of such as are under their inspection, is abundantly evident, not only from their special influence upon them, in respect of their authority over them, interest in them, continual presence with them, and frequent opportunities of being helpful to them; but also from the sad effects which, by woeful experience, we find to be the fruit of the omission of this duty.” 
If a child has a negligent youth pastor, Godly parents will easily counter his influence. But if a child has negligent parents, very rarely will a youth pastor be able to overturn the “sad effects” of which Manton speaks. Jonathan Edwards put it boldly: “…Family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all other means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful.” 
Thus, if we are going to stem the tide of youth leaving the church, I believe a key component is a fresh awareness of the centrality of the parents for youth ministry. Parents are the church’s primary youth pastors, and a central place in youth ministry today must be given to helping parents embrace that privilege and responsibility, and equipping them to do it. Youth ministry has a valid and important supporting role to the parents, but it must never become a substitute. Our youth are too important to allow that to happen.
Scott Korljan is an assistant pastor at North City Presbyterian Church in Poway, CA.
1. Mark Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1994), 85.[Back]
2. www.christianitytoday.com/le/2009/summer/istheeraofagesegmentationover.html?start=1 This is not an isolated report, the Southern Baptist convention in a 2002 Report on Family Life reported that 88% of children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of eighteen. [Back]
3. Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 78. [Back]
5. As quoted in Devries, Family Based Youth Ministry, 85. [Back]