Parents Engaging Gen Z

Youth pastors often complain that the biggest hindrance to raising the bar in youth ministry is parents. Many parents don’t think of the long-term implications of a youth ministry that’s based on silliness, yet it is the parents who cry the loudest when their children aren’t having “fun.” American youth have parents who grew up when being a parent too often meant being a “buddy” to children. The failure of parenting, and of marriages for that matter, has had a serious, negative impact on millions of youth. But if many of the problems facing youth begin with parents, the solution can begin there as well. And many children want their parents to make that change.

The members of Generation Z show a more conservative approach to their behavior than their parents’ generations. They are less likely to drink alcohol than their parents. They are also less likely to have premarital sex. Youth who belong to Generation Z are also less likely to get into a fight at school than their parents’ generation. Finally, they are less likely to argue with their parents than the Millennials or Generation X.[1]

Parents, how do you see youth ministry? Do you think that youth ministry primarily should provide activities for your children? If so, please take a day off work and take your child to a theme park. Over the past several years my work with youth and youth ministers has led me to a clear conviction: parents of youth need to rediscover the biblical teaching of Deuteronomy 6:4–9. According to God’s Word, the primary place of spiritual training is not the church but the home! It is true that youth ministry can have a strong role in helping youth from lost families connect with both the church and other adults. But the very best youth ministry should be nothing more for Christian families than an aid, supporting, not leading. 

The good news is that over the past decade parents as a group have increasingly shown a growing interest in getting it right with their children. And increasingly youth pastors focus on the long-term impact of the church’s ministry to teens. Youth pastor Mark DeVries decided to take a radical approach: “I was, and still am, committed to taking whatever steps are necessary to accomplish the intended purpose of the student ministry of our church: to lead young people toward Christian adulthood.” He adds, “In a youth culture undergirded by stable families and many available adults, the old model of youth ministries (isolating youth from the world of adults for an hour or two) worked fine. But in the current environment . . . the old model for youth ministry is no longer capable of carrying young people to Christian maturity.”[2]

Often, once families arrive on the church campus, churches separate family members who are already not spending much time together. Timothy Paul Jones reveals some shocking statistics regarding churched families:

  • More than half of parents said that their families never or rarely engaged in any sort of family devotional time. Of the minority that did practice some sort of family devotions, one-fourth admitted that these devotional times were sporadic.
  • Approximately 40 percent of parents never, rarely, or only occasionally discussed spiritual matters with their children.
  • Nearly one-fourth of parents never or rarely prayed with their children; another one-fourth only prayed with their children occasionally.
  • More than one-third of parents with school-aged children had never engaged in any form of family devotional or worship times at any time in the past couple of months. For an additional three out of ten parents, such practices occurred once a month or less.
  • Among two-thirds of fathers and mothers, biblical discussions or readings with their children happened less than once each week. 
  • One in five parents never read, studied, or discussed God’s Word with their children.[3]

In the midst of this disengagement regarding parents discipling their youth, teens want strong relationships with their parents. Members of Generation Z are less likely to fight with their parents or run away from home.[4] Mark Devries writes, “With one in four young people now indicating that they have never had a meaningful conversation with their father, is it any wonder that 76 percent of the 1,200 teens surveyed in USA Today actually want their parents to spend more time with them.”[5]

Devries’s observations parallel my research. As a youth pastor, pastor, and someone who speaks to youth groups on a regular basis, I’ve spoken to numerous teens and their families over the past few years. I have never encountered a parent who wanted to be a terrible parent. I have spoken with countless parents who want to do the right thing. Deuteronomy 6:4–9 offers timeless guidance for parents, but the way most Christian parents try to raise their children diverges radically from this biblical passage. Today, even the best-intentioned parents spend their time dealing with behavior, when what they should focus on is belief.

Deuteronomy 6:4–5, one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, begins with a statement of belief: God is one.Period. End of discussion. Are we teaching this fact to our children—that everything in life comes under the authority of the one, great, awesome, loving, holy God? The passage goes on to say that parents are to teach truth to their children. How? By saying it and by living it—when you walk in the way, when you sit in your house, when you rise. In other words, Christianity lived only on Sundays will never change the world for your children or others. We as parents must raise the bar in our Christian living!

(This post is an excerpt from Tim McKnight’s book Engaging Generation Z. You can read more about how parents can engage Generation Z here. For more posts from Tim McKnight, click here.)

[1] Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood* and What That Means for the Rest of Us (New York: Atria, 2017), 22, 36–37, 43–44, 150.

[2] Mark DeVries, “What is Youth Ministry’s Relationship to the Family?,” in Reaching a Generation for Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 480.

[3] Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 2011), 27–29.

[4] Twenge, iGen, 44.

[5] Mark Devries, Family-Based Youth Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 41.