Want an effective youth ministry? Invest in parents.

Here’s a counter-intuitive conjecture: if you want your congregation to have a life-long impact on youth—an impact that will encourage them to participate in a religious community for all of their lives—make sure you are teaching…the parents.

Maybe it’s not all that counter-intuitive. After all, on a good week, a youth minister will see the youth of the church for what? Two, three hours? And that’s not one-on-one; that’s with however many other kids are part of the program. But if parents are being formed and transformed by faith, they are far better placed to share that faith with their children.

I’m not just making this up. A number of reports sponsored by the Lilly Foundation make the same suggestion. Lilly’s annual report, in a section calledRevitalizing Ministry with Youth and Young Adults, tracks several studies they have funded. Among the many findings,

• The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) notes that youth “tend to reflect the religious beliefs and traditions of their parents and are not particularly interested in rebelling or seeking alternate paths.”
• The NSYR describes a religious attitude that Kenda Creasy Dean calls moralistic therapeutic deism, a version of Christianity that “places few demands on individuals and is a diluted version of Christian faith that seems more comfortable for youth as well as for their parents.”
• The Sticky Faith Project notes that young people praying with their parents and talking with them about their faith is one of the key factors that provides a foundation for a lasting faith.
• The Exemplary Youth Ministry (EYM) study which “uncovered the characteristics of effective congregational youth ministries” found that “The effective congregations also educate parents in the faith.”

Sooo…it would seem that ensuring that parents have a deep and grounded faith may pay dividends down the road.

Obviously, this is not an either/or situation. You’ll want to have compelling youth programs as well. But what this does suggest is that if what you’re doing isn’t drawing and keeping youth involved in your parish, rather than double-down on another youth program, you might want to consider a completely different tack: reaching out to the adults.

Find out more about CnC for Adults here.