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Where youth ministry begins

September 10, 2010 No Comment

by President Robert Bugbee

For some 25 years I had the privilege of teaching confirmation classes in churches I served as a pastor. If you ask what the single most potent “ingredient” was in the students who seemed successful in those classes and went on to be fruitful young members of the body of Christ, the answer might surprise you. A high IQ wasn’t it. Neither was it a matter of fancy teaching materials or a well-equipped, pleasant classroom, although these things had their place. As I reflect on it, the most decisive factor in students’ strong participation and subsequent faithfulness in the congregation was the influence of their parents.

The secular world recognizes this. We’ve all seen public-service advertisements on TV where parents are encouraged to talk to their sons and daughters about smoking, drinking, illegal drugs, and abusive behaviour. While exasperated mothers and fathers sometimes feel their children turn a deaf ear to everything they say, the record seems to show that parents’ attitudes and words do make a difference. That’s encouraging and points to a vital responsibility!

My experiences as a confirmation teacher line up with this. Where parents stood behind what we were doing, where they committed their children to regular attendance, took an interest in their homework, and let their youngsters know they took it seriously, it made a real difference … even if the son or daughter struggled with the academic part of our classes.

Strategic Direction #2, published last fall by our Lutheran Church–Canada Board of Directors, is to “engage children, youth and young adults with intentional mission and ministry.” Everybody understands why our leaders are concerned about this. In many communities, children and youth have countless events and activities distracting them from following Christ. In many congregations, there’s a noticeable absence of young people. “The church should really do something about that,” people will say. They usually mean the local congregation and pastor ought to do more, or that the Synod and its leaders should do more.

Perhaps one of the things the Synod and its congregations could do involves emphasizing the crucial role of fathers and mothers as the first-line teachers of the faith to their children, and equipping those parents for that task. Pastors (including the ones who were very effective confirmation instructors) come and go. So do youth counsellors, programs, and particular strategies and materials. Committed parents, however, remain. They have far more influence in the lives of their children than they may imagine.

Luther understood this when he published his Small Catechism. Right off the bat, in the first chief part on the Ten Commandments and their meanings, he added the caption, “as the head of the household should teach them in a simple way to his family.” He wasn’t expecting fathers and mothers to enrol at a seminary and become professional theologians. He did realize, however, that a lot of potent teaching goes on in the home when parents talk about the faith, when they find examples of God’s truth in everyday life and point them out to their children, and when the children see how grateful dad and mum are for the forgiveness of sins purchased and won on the cross by Jesus, our Saviour.

Years ago I read an article in The Lutheran Witness about a pastor who had done away with the usual confirmation classes, and instead had regular training sessions with the parents of confirmation-age boys and girls. The pastor instructed parents in the primary points of Christian teaching, and then prepared them to impart this teaching at home to their children. I’m sure there were some snags in that approach, people being what they are. I’m not saying it’s time to duplicate that sort of structure in our Synod. But the pastor was attempting to tap into a potent resource the Lord has put into the lives of children and youth: their parents!

This is why Synod’s leaders, in publishing this strategic direction about children, youth and young adults, mentioned as a first goal to “encourage and equip parents for the role of primary faith influence.” I’m glad they were not satisfied merely to mention this, but to place it at the top of the list! When fathers and mothers take a committed personal interest in the faith of their baptized children, pray for them devotedly, set an example themselves of faithful worship and time in God’s Word, and speak the Word of Christ in their homes, this is obviously not some magical guarantee. It will not solve every problem, nor transform every son or daughter into a strong, lifelong follower of Jesus Christ.

But, dear parents, you have far more influence than you realize! That is a refreshing encouragement. It also points to a solemn responsibility. I want to encourage pastors, leaders, fathers and mothers across our land to talk with each other—soon—about how to take that blessed influence and put it to work, for the sake of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of those precious children and young people for whom He gave His life.

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