When Parents Ask the Wrong Questions

“I can’t believe she disappointed us like this. She’s only fifteen! What was she thinking? What are we going to do now?”

I may not be the most intuitive person around, but even I could tell that he was angry—body tense, jaw clenched, voice shaking. But it was a special kind of anger, the kind driven by love and fear, lashing out from a frustrated desire to protect. The anger of a parent.

Barely pausing for breath, he continued to vent, “How am I supposed to explain this to her mother? This is going to be my fault. I just know it!”

I was at a loss. Four years at a Bible college hadn’t prepared me to face the wrath of a frustrated father. But I still should have seen the next one coming.

“Where have you been through all this? Why didn’t you see this coming? What do we pay you for?”

Why do they always blame the youth pastor?

Parents have a lot to worry about: drugs, sex, crime, grades, attitudes, bad influences, music, movies…on and on the list goes. Is there a harder job on the planet? So I understand the fear that nestles in the back of every parent’s mind. And when fears are realized, they quickly turn into anger. I get that. I don’t like it when the anger turns in my direction, but I still understand.

After many years in youth ministry, I think I’ve talked with parents about every one of these issues. We’ve spent hours agonizing and strategizing over how to help their kids navigate these hazards and sail successfully into a hard-earned adulthood.

In all these years, I’ve heard a lot of question. But, even more important than the questions I have heard are the ones that I haven’t. In all my time in youth ministry, I never once had a parent say, “I’m concerned that my child doesn’t really understand the Gospel. Can you help make sure she really understands the power of God’s love and grace?” And I’ve never had a concerned mother or father come up to me wanting to know “Do you think my son/daughter is really growing in his love for God?”

Not once.

I faced countless questions about who they were dating, what they were doing with their bodies, and how they were performing in school, but no questions about the Gospel or their heart for God.


If you’re a parent, that should scare you.

The enraged father I mentioned above was upset because his daughter had gotten a tattoo. A tattoo. He’d never once approached me to talk about his daughter’s spiritual well-being. Apparently that wasn’t worth an office visit. But a tattoo? That’s something else entirely.

The Gospel should change the way that we approach our families, our children. We don’t need to ignore the important issues that I mentioned above, but they shouldn’t be our only, or even our primary, concern. Instead, we should be ultimately concerned about whether we are doing everything that we can to make sure that our children understand the Gospel.

What gets your attention? Do you spend as much time talking about the story of God’s faithfulness as you do on math? Are you as concerned about your child’s heart for God as their newly discovered love for the opposite sex?

Does the Gospel matter at home?

[This is an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about the gospel, Good News for the Living Dead: A Fresh Take on the Gospel Story. You can read the other excerpts and keep track of new ones as they become available on my blog.]

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

5 thoughts on “When Parents Ask the Wrong Questions

  1. I have had the whole gamut of parents and I definitely know that how parents view faith is the foundation for the child’s faith in the future. That is why in our confirmation class at our church (as young people are coming into our youth ministry), we have a Parent Breakfast and talk about the importance of family faith, telling stories, and we give them a resource do use and read during Confirmation. We also emphasize that the spiritual journey is a lifelong process, so it doesn’t end after Confirmation.

    That is good for our core kids, but we also have community kids, and I’ve found that retreats can light a kid on fire, and that fire is something that can get conversations going with parents that lead them to consider their own faith more deeply. I’m an optimist, so I’m sorry that you’re parents haven’t seemed concerned, but I wonder how many were actually concerned but didn’t know how to talk about it with the youth pastor.

    Why is it that only in crisis were the parents talking with you? Why were the parents expectations of the youth pastor so behavioral? Sounds like this may have been a youth group in an early stage of growth where parents are bringing kids they feel need fixing, rather than one that has been growing for a good while, and has developed and attracted youth who are ministering to each other.

    Just some thoughts, and I may be completely off, but I wonder what the big picture is.

  2. There’s no question that one of the biggest mistakes that I made in youth ministry was not doing enough to disciple parents. I often made the mistake of assuming that “churched” parents were doing more at home than was generally the case. And they, in turn, often assumed that their kids were getting everything they needed from church. Better communication was definitely in order.

    But I definitely talked with parents at times that didn’t involve crises. I focused on crisis times in the posts because those are the times that parents were mostly like to initiate contact. So it still think it’s revealing to see what kinds of issues get a parent’s attention enough to make them come in and ask questions even if it might be somewhat uncomfortable. To me, that says something about what’s really important.

    And I’ll say that I had a very different experience with parents from the community. Around my church, at least, the parents seemed very satisfied with the idea that their kids were being “spiritual,” and had little concern for what that spirituality looked like as long as it didn’t interfere with life too much (esp. sports and career plans).

  3. Oh, and you’ve asked some great questions at the end of your comment. Those are definitely questions worth exploring. I do think, though, that if you ask around, you’ll find that parents having largely “behavioral” expectations of a youth ministry is very common. That’s what I’ve heard from a majority of the youth pastors I’ve talked with anyway. And I think it reflects a pragmatic approach to church that runs much deeper than my own youth group.

  4. I love this Post! Our thinking as parents is very backwards when it comes to the things of the Lord. The first questions about our children should be the ones you mentioned. Is my child growing in the Lord? How do I help them grow in their love for God?

    The answer to the surface questions of tattoos, dating and drugs are normally unnecessary if we would always ask the right question first.

    Is my child growing in the Love of the Lord and how can I help them do that one thing better? The rest the Lord will help with. And the right question brings with it a cadence of being involved in your child’s life.

    It is the Parents responsibility to help their children grow in the Lord first. Parents have to own the spiritual health of their children and father’s the spiritual health of the family. It’s how God designed it. And if we do that as parents I believe we will already know the answer to any surface questions because we are so engaged in our children’s lives.

    Thank you for this great Post!

  5. Slightly tangential, too contemporary, and obviously on the lighter side, but it was amusing to read:
    http://steamtunnelpilot.blogspot.com/ (Pennsylvania Youth Pastor Alarms Congregation with “Unconscionable Stunt” ; no, it’s not the one that’s been in the news).

    The church I attend isn’t as bad as this, but I empathize with the thrust of your article. It came home when one day we asked our oldest son (mostly raised in our previous church), “what is the meaning of life?”
    “I don’t know. Nobody does,” he replied. And this from a weekly attender, active in the youth group and leading worship. We had a talk about it there, citing at least the Westminster Shorter, and he got it pretty quickly, but it was disturbing to see the spirit of the age so easily absorbed by somebody we thought we were doing well with.
    Couldn’t agree more with the observation that youth ministry is only partly about youth, and at least partly (sometimes mostly) about parents. When I read Christian Smith’s “Soul Searching”, the most disturbing finding was that most teens grow up believing not what their pastor teaches them, or even necessarily what their school teaches them, but what their parents teach them. There are youth who attend who wind up believing in a markedly different way of life than their parents (I was one of these happy exceptions), but they are, alas, exceptions.

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