In the late 1980s, one student minister depicted the relationship between his ministry and the rest of his congregation as a “one-eared Mickey Mouse.” To understand this analogy, imagine with me the most basic depiction of Mickey Mouse in three circles—the two smaller circles represent his ears, while the larger circle is his head. Now, in your mental image, lop off one of those ears.
Suppose that the head of the cartoon mouse represents the church as a whole, and the one remaining ear represents the church’s student ministry.
That’s the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” that this youth minister described.
The minister’s point was simply this: Like the ear of the renowned rodent on Walt Disney’s drawing board, student ministry in his church was barely connected to the rest of the body. Although the student ministry and the larger congregation were technically parts of one organization, the two operated on separate tracks, with each one pursuing its own purposes and passions.
From a One-Eared Mickey Mouse to an Octopus without a Brain
His church wasn’t alone, and it still isn’t. Somehow in the past century this approach has prevailed in many churches as the dominant model for student ministry. The model has become so popular that, in some instances, it has turned into the predominant paradigm not only for youth ministry but also for preschool, children’s, and singles ministries. The one-eared Mickey Mouse has metamorphosed into a multi-eared mutant—or, to use another youth leader’s memorable image, something like “an octopus without a brain, a collection of arms acting independently with no central processing unit coordinating their actions.”
As this ministry model has developed, here’s what has tended to happen: the church has not perceived parents as having a primary responsibility for the spiritual growth of their offspring. Age-specific ministers in the church have increasingly embraced the responsibility to disciple students and children. In some congregations, children and youth experience their activities and worship in virtual isolation from the remainder of the church, and parents need only drop off their progeny at the appropriate times.
Several years ago, Richard Ross, a pioneer in the field of family ministry, predicted that, at some point in the near future, churches would begin to
build buildings to support segregation—and they will do it with excellence. . . . Both the natural appeal of such buildings and the programming centered there will guarantee teenagers will only experience church life with people almost precisely their own age. Adults will find no ways to bless children, much less even see them. Young people will be cut off from the richness of almost all adult relationships. And, most importantly, they will not see members of their own families until it is time to meet at their cars to go home.
In many churches, particularly in the United States, Ross’s predictions have proven true.
Why Has this Model Survived So Long?
When such a model dominates a church’s ministries, students’ and children’s ministers may see parents in passing, but they do little to partner with parents or to deepen parents’ relationships with their offspring. (Why should they? After all, don’t Sunday school, children’s church, and youth group provide the principal contexts for the discipleship of the church’s students?) “Success” is defined in terms of high-energy events that students experience in isolation from other generations. Such youth and children’s ministries seem to expect students to become integrated with their families at home even as they model the disintegration of their families at church.
So why has this model survived so long?
The problem is not that parents are unaware of their responsibility; the problem is that parents have not been called and equipped to fulfill their responsibility. In a research study I completed in 2010, well over 90 percent of parents rejected the notion that professional ministers are the people primarily responsible for their children’s discipleship. The reason parents do not disciple their children is primarily because they lack the training and can’t seem to find the time to do so. As a result, the task of discipleship is handed over to age-organized programs in churches. In some cases, organizational structures, staffing, and congregational expectations have also helped to maintain the mutant mouse’s vigor long after it should have become clear that his nose was twitching in the wrong direction.
Please don’t misread my point: I am not contending that age-focused ministers in such churches have unbiblical intentions. As an associate pastor, senior pastor, and now as a professor, I’ve worked with thousands of ministers and would-be ministers to children and youth. As I reflect on my conversations with these men and women, I can say with complete confidence that, with few exceptions, they possess a sincere and passionate desire to devise ministries that conform completely to God’s Word. I am also not claiming that every church with a youth or children’s minister is pursuing the maladapted model of ministry I have described in this chapter.
Here is what I am suggesting: The ministry models that many ministers have inherited in local churches are fundamentally flawed. As a result, well-intended ministers have attempted to pursue tasks in the sole context of the church that God designed to occur in partnership with another context.
That other context is the family.
From Perspectives on Family Ministry, written by Timothy Paul Jones, edited by Isabella Wu.