Why youth ministry can’t just become family ministry

There’s a growing movement within the American church that puts youth ministry under the umbrella of family ministry. There are youth ministry organizations, publishers, conferences, and lots and lots of people highly interested in this model.

To over-simplify: The idea is that youth ministry should be an extension of the over all family ministry of the church. So, youth ministry is really just another part of the organizational chart which fits nicely between kids ministry and young adult ministry.

I think we need to push back from this organizational simplification. There’s a very good reason why youth ministry is the way it is. Namely, modern youth ministry emerged in the 1940’s to reach lost students the church didn’t care about. (The church, as a whole, was late to minister to adolescents. This gave birth to parachurch movements like YoungLife and Youth for Christ.)

Youth ministry sprang up to meet the need of teenagers who wouldn’t naturally go to church. Or who didn’t fit in because their parents don’t go to church. Or those who will never fit into the stiff collars of a traditional church. Youth ministry has always been the organizational oddity that helps those students experience Christ.

Any attempt to fold youth ministry into a church that isn’t currently reaching those kinds of kids and adults… is destined to make youth ministry sterile. 

Putting youth ministry into the box of family ministry is misunderstanding that it’s historical place in the church is missiological. Historically, we are more tied to evangelism than we are discipleship.

Don’t Misunderstand the 1-eared Mickey Mouse

Chap Clark, very poignantly and famously pointed out that youth ministry too easily becomes an organizational island, what he called “the 1-eared Mickey Mouse” in the church. In other words, many youth groups have their own mini-culture, their own goals, values, and norms.

I love Chap’s observation. It’s true. But I would argue that it’s not altogether bad. Further, I would argue that maybe the church needs a few more 1-eared Mickey’s to start reaching some more types of people. (But that’s another rant for another day.) The problem is that when you let the business people run your church– having a 1-eared Mickey Mouse is a bad thing. And so some of these emerging models of family ministry have at their core a desire to kill the 1-eared Mickey, folding youth ministry in.

But don’t forget– if that 1-eared Mickey Mouse is reaching people the rest of the church organization fails to minister to, that’s a very good thing. And some of what you get when you fold it in is backfiring.

Sanitizing Youth Ministry is a Bad Idea

As I read the books, listen to the speakers, and read between a few lines… I think that the motivation for some people is to make youth ministry tidy. Some of these folks who say that youth ministry is really just a step in the family ministry food chain attend/work/consult with churches who reach a very sterile, homogeneous group of people. It looks like they are reaching a lot of people but they are really good at reaching a certain kind of person while excluding large, growing portions of the population.

Bottom line: If you make youth ministry revolve around the family you automatically exclude students who don’t have families who go to church. Sure, you don’t exclude them by name or even intentionally. But when you start having father/son trips and retreats for the whole family– if you lived in a home with your grandma who didn’t come to church, how welcome would you feel?

If you make youth ministry fit around the vibe and rhythm of your church instead of the local school system you’re automatically limiting who you reach.

On and on. Youth ministry can be very powerful as an organizational island.

Moreover, youth ministry was created to take some risks. To do things that got the Jones Memorial Carpet ruined. To reach the lost kids instead of the right ones. To connect the unconnected to the most important family they could ever have.

The answer isn’t a sanitized family ministry. The answer is a realistic integration strategy that gets people of all ages and backgrounds out of programs and into community.

This rant has exceptions: Let me point out, and cut off some of the negative feedback I get when I post things like this, that while I’m making generalities there are exceptions. The church we attend is one of them. They head this off because top to bottom they are reaching “the wrong people.”





40 responses to “Why youth ministry can’t just become family ministry”

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I don’t know if one person can do both. A person who is good at ministering to Christian families is likely not that great at working with “the wrong kids.” That’s been my experience anyway. 

  1. Chad Avatar


    This makes sense…but we need to take into account the way the church is failing to transform youth who have grown up into the church into life-long followers of Christ.,, Maybe the answer is that youth ministry serves two functions.  Equipping parents to be a part of their youth’s faith formation and reaching out to the unengaged youth in the community.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I would argue that one reason people raised in the church leave is that the church is leading them to a boring faith completely absent when they read the Bible. They aren’t often rejecting Christ… 

      1. Chad Avatar

        Adam, I would agree that is one reason…but I would argue that the mother crying on the other end of the phone crying about her 6th grade daughter’s problems, who despite teaching Sunday school (as does her husband), freely admits that NOTHING is done in their home Monday-Saturday to encourage a deepening relationship with with Christ, is another BIG reason.  (Sorry about the run-on sentance…)

      2. Lisa Grant Avatar
        Lisa Grant

        Adam, I agree.  I think the church is leading the PARENTS to a boring faith, which in turn translates to the youth.  In that sense, family ministry only makes sense if the parents are fully engaged in their faith, in addition to be equipped to passing that on to their kids.  

        1. Adam McLane Avatar

          Totally with you. My assumption is that if your life with Jesus is boring you probably aren’t actually following Jesus. No one sniffs that out faster than your kids!

  2. Lem Usita Avatar

    I love it.  Great post Adam.  I’m going to use this in my Philosophy of Youth Ministry class this week.  Thank you for sharing it. 
    I wonder how many people won’t make it to your disclaimer paragraph before responding.  I almost didn’t.  

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Lem, I’d be interested in the feedback you get from students. 

  3. Ray Hausler Avatar

    This is great and needed push back for the conversation. It’s not a one or the other philosophy. It is a both/and. We help equip parents to disciple their own children within the church and actively seek out ways to reach young people outside the church. It’s possible Mickey’s ears need to be fitted with gloves that can reach out and bring the “wrong students” into community with Christ’s family.

  4. Daniel Dlugos Avatar
    Daniel Dlugos

    It seems like the modern YM model in churches stems from the YL and YFC movements that sprung up during the 50’s.  As they became quite popular in local towns and neighborhoods, churches began to take notice and started to form their youth ministry models around what the para-church organizations were doing (heavy outreach, big events, etc).

    If churches are going to start ‘rolling back’ to a family ministry model with their youth programs, it only further emphasizes the missions of YL, YFC, FCA and other para-church orgs.  These churches should take notice, and make effort to partner with and build up these organizations so that the gaps they will create in their outreach ministries do not get left open.

    A strong partnership with these ministries will BUILD your church.  As teens come to Christ, they will want to go to church, and most often when a teenager starts going to church, the WHOLE FAMILY will join them.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I’ve seen the same to be true. But to see it I’ve seen the church have to be intentional about their team volunteering with YFC & YL. Otherwise, they are two different orgs completely and rarely compliment one another. 

  5. Pastormichael Avatar

    My only argument is that the “island” model is not at all scriptural. A blended congregation seems to have always been the goal of the early church. Where I’ve seen the benefits of the island model I’ve also seen how shallow those benefits are. We build a powerful evangelistic ministry at the cost of any long-standing, life changing Discipleship. Balance is the key. We can’t let the pendulum swing too far either direction. There’s my two cents. If it’s worth that. 🙂

    1. Daniel Dlugos Avatar
      Daniel Dlugos

      Not every corporate ministry structure can encompass the entirety of ministry. Together, these institutions we’ve created represent the entirety of the Body of Christ. Just because a para like focus on the family provides better resources for families than most churches doesn’t mean that church isn’t fulfilling its role in the great commission. They work together for the Kingdom.

      Its the same in YM. If a church partners with a para, that doesn’t mean that church isn’t doing its job.

  6. John Mulholland Avatar


    Good stuff.  As a family ministry proponent (and soon to be Pastor of Family Ministries in a new church), I have to remember that a) an unexplained and misunderstood family ministry model might leave kids on the wayside (as you mention) b) family ministry and the family unit must not be allowed to become an idol and c) that the church as Body is what real family is.  To c)….what if the “families” in our churches welcomed in kids whose families did not attend services and “spiritually adopted” them?  

    To be clear, it’s not about taking authority away from their real parents, rather, it is about community.    Your bottom line is right on.  From my experience it is the churched families that need to be convinced of their necessary role of spiritually adopting kids.  They are often too worried about the carpet in their van or home, their food bill, and the influence of “those” kids on their own children.  Just think what it would look like if a “father/son retreat” included kids that did not have present fathers because a caring male took that child under his wing and just discipled him!  

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I once wrote a post called, “My kids aren’t your target audience” for Christian parents. I think it probably accurately reflects God’s heart. The ministries of the church shouldn’t be  to replace a Christian parents role. If anything… they should be kicked out so that the staff can focus on the lost. 

  7. Neal Watkins Avatar

    Thanks for the thoughts, Adam.

    I think it’s VERY important to remember how important relationships are in Youth Ministry, and really, “ministry” in general. I’m not sure that our teens are willing to follow or lead until they trust us as youth leaders. In my experience, becoming friends with the parents of a few of my students has been more of a barrier than help.

    From a personal ministry standpoint, I think it becomes very muddy when teens and parents look to the same person as mentor, confidant, and shepherd. Especially for teens, if the message we want to portray is that we are in all ways here for them, I think it’s almost impossible (in their eyes) for them to trust us with the same intensity when they also see us as being there for their parents as well.

    Structurally speaking, I think the right personalities are needed in order to pull off a Family Ministry, Youth Ministry, Children’s Ministry team of professionals. It always bothers me when churches create a hierarchy that has a Family Minister as the “boss” or “supervisor.” I understand that often times, Family Ministers have more education, experience, and in the right setting, with the right personalities (egos) I’ve seen it work. I get concerned though, when it seems like the Youth Ministry is a byproduct or a “subset of” (read: less important than) Family Ministry.

    Faith can be a powerful and rewarding conversation for families to have with each other – parents with their kids and vice versa. But in terms of being able to teach them the language and tools and giving teens the freedom to question and grow, I think it’s important to give them the space and freedom they need. Let’s not underestimate that one major way to minister to parents is to spiritually provide for, feed, and challenge their teenagers!

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I think that for churches that are like 500-1000 people they tend to create the hierarchy that way… or more often, they combo the position from birth-college as a “family pastor.” 

  8. Jeremy Zach Avatar

    This is a great post because it points out the fundamental tension between outreach and discipleship.  I never really found a healthy balance on how to reach the unchurched while ministering to the families.  In certain seasons, I was able to effectively do one well. 

    The coolest thing I saw is when parents embrace the “missional” thinking.  Essentially families were able to reach their student’s unchurch friends by love them.  I called this missional parenting.  Healthy-church parents loved and cared for other unchurch kids in the community.  To me this is the practice of Deut 6, the great commission and great commandment.  

    I think Chap’s mickey mouse ear observation is more aiming at a holistic approach to assimulating students into the church body.  Yes that mickey mouse ear will reach that target audience but how are we assimulating them into the church body as full functional Jesus followers?  The deconstruction of the 1-eared mickey mouse upholds a high very of ecclesiology in relation to the mission, values and aim of youth ministry.  Plus how sustainable is the faith of these students who are being reached by the mickey mouse ear?  For me assimulation is key. 

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Excellent comment. I think what happens with the overuse of the illustration is that people use it  for organizational purposes that I don’t think it was originally intended. 

  9. Luke MacDonald Avatar
    Luke MacDonald

    Love this post….. feels like if we push things to far the family direction, we will end up right back where we started.

  10. […] Adam Mclane is at it again. He can’t help being provocative. What may surprise you is that I agree with the main thrust […]

  11. Leland Avatar

    You seem to ask some tough questions – truthfully some of the same questions I’m asking. How does partnering with parents minister to the students who don’t have families engaged in God? How does youth ministry to “the outsiders” integrate them into the Church body (BIG “C”) in a way that it grows as they grow up? The problem I have is you ask these questions aggressively, as if the two are at war; against one another. The general assumption seems to be that the two can’t be accomplished together, or in fact shouldn’t be accomplished together. Maybe it is the tone I read into the article, but it comes across almost combative AGAINST equipping parents to disciple their kids.

    I believe you are asking worthwhile questions (at least I hope they are worthwhile, because I ask them myself) and that the pendulum of ministry cannot swing away from evangelism. I just don’t think you can look at the impact church AND youth ministry has had and is having on the long-term spiritual lives of students and be satisfied or call it “success.” Something in this system is broken.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      That’s exactly my point. There isn’t an “answer.” But I’m pretty sure swinging the pendulum fully to either side to the point of an extreme isn’t helpful. 

      In reality, we need LOTS of solutions to many problems. 

  12. Carter Shuman Avatar
    Carter Shuman

    Stuart Bond was the one who originaly recognized the One-Eared Mickey Mouse in the Fall 1989 Youth Worker Journal. Love Dr. Clarke but he gets too much credit for this one…  And this needs to be presented to the church, I think this model was never intended to be a reality and youth ministry was supposed to be a proponent of integration from youth ministry into the larger church, otherwise most faith won’t stick.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Duly noted, thanks. 

  13. Jordan Hubbard Avatar
    Jordan Hubbard

    I respect your passion for discipling students!I think you have completely set up a straw man argument here. You have contrasted sanitary family ministry v. youth ministry. We all reject that. HOWEVER…The alarming truth is that the youth ministry that you are defending is not producing the fruit Christ wants. Are you satisfied with a 10-20% rate of faith retention as adults? It might have worked for you (as it worked for me), but how can we be satisfied with that for the next generation of students? What if there is another way of discipling students to be lifelong followers of Christ that predates the youth ministry revolution? If we have culturally changed in America since the 1940’s should we not embrace those changes? About the straw man…I have never seen this sanitary family you are describing. The families I am around are desperate. They are floundering. They are searching for meaning against a tidal wave of consumerism and individualism. They want more but don’t know what that looks like. The students reflect this in their lives as well. No matter how awesome youth group is or how life-changing the missions trips are, I find myself sending these students back into passionless homes where the students “calm down” and adapt to the internal dissonance between the Christ of the Bible and the Christ of the home. I believe that healthy youth ministry leverages the “church time” to affect what happens at home. I would also like to argue the point about evangelism as well. What is more natural to you? A lost student coming to a barn or a retreat or a camp to hear a gospel presentation to which they intellectually assent, or to be accepted by a disciplemaking family that walks and talks Jesus? I believe that evangelism and discipleship are more natural in a healthy family environment.

    Thanks again for sparking this conversation. God bless.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Sorry, couldn’t get past you’re saying I had a “straw man” argument. 

      1. Jordan Hubbard Avatar
        Jordan Hubbard

        Fair enough. I hardly got through your argument either.

    2. Brandon Avatar

      Great thoughts, Jordan. I think there is a caricature of church and family ministry that is easy to adopt when you are immersed in youth ministry.  

  14. Phil S Avatar
    Phil S

    “The answer isn’t a sanitized family ministry. The answer is a realistic integration strategy that gets people of all ages and backgrounds out of programs and into community.”

    I think Chap would agree with that.  He always talks a TON about assimilation!

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      This post isn’t anti-Chap, at all. It’s not even “ant-family ministry.” But I am saying a couple of things.
      1. Youth ministry can’t thrive if the primary aim is to minister to nuclear families. 
      2. We need to think more about our integration strategy, including the youth workers co-dependency on the program, to get real about folding adolescents into the full church body. 
      3. To reach more than the 5-10% of the student population we are currently reaching we will need lots and lots of different types of youth ministry strategies. If a church is serious about making an impact, they need probably 10-15 full-blown youth ministries. 

  15. toddh Avatar

    Adam, I like what you have written here because it names the necessary tension in youth between being a part of their families and developing independence.  I don’t think family ministry is about being safe, or just focusing on a certain type of family though.  I think it’s about taking seriously the idea that, for better or for worse, the faith of students is largely going to resemble the faith of their parents.  It doesn’t always end up that way, but most of the students in my ministry end up going that direction, and research has shown that to be the case as well.  This doesn’t mean that certain types of families are privileged over others, but it does mean that we have to take seriously the faith of whoever is caring for our teens and realize that we can mostly just supplement the faith formation that is already being done in the family.  That can be done in whatever family situation the teen is in.  So I think a healthy balance is needed – a focus on the needs of students to develop as individuals, while also realizing that shaping the faith of families will help our youth the most.

  16. Phil S. Avatar
    Phil S.

    Thank you for your observations, there is much truth to your perspective.  As a former youth pastor, both in the church and parachurch, and currently a Jr. High teacher in a public school, it is apparent that the church is nearly completely disconnected from non-churched youth.  To sever the connections to these disconnected kids by shifting to a family-based model is nothing short of the ark’s door being closed when it began to rain. 

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Great comment. There’s a lot of dualism in church leadership. Lip service for reaching the lost while being satisfied by reaching the found and ignoring the lost. 

  17. […] Why Youth Ministry Can’t Just Become Family Ministry […]

  18. […] Why youth ministry can’t just become family ministry – Adam McLane […]

  19. […] asked Kara Powell what she thought about Adam Mclane’s blog post  “Why Youth Ministry Can’t Just Become Family Ministry” where he said, “I would argue that maybe the church needs a few more 1-eared Mickey’s to […]

  20. […] become popular to organizationally fold youth ministry into an umbrella called family ministry. As I’ve said before, my hope for the future of youth ministry is something far better than […]

  21. Elijah Moise Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this great youth ministry article! This is an excellent resource for church members and I can use it to improve my youth Sunday School lessons in the future. This serves as a great, God-focused reminder.

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