By Youth Specialties and Youthworks
Church youth ministry is a young practice, and one that is often conducted in relative isolation from the church body and broader community. It can be hard to know if what you are doing is similar to or totally different from other leaders around the country. Perhaps you have wondered, Are we all struggling with the same issue or am I the only one?
The reality is, you are not alone. Across the country, thousands of student ministry leaders are seeking to effectively reach a new generation of teenagers. Shifts in youth culture are only part of the equation. Changes over the last decade have disrupted the status quo of institutions throughout America and across the globe. Not surprisingly, these changes have impacted churches and youth ministries as well. It’s our job to ask How? and Why? and What now?
But none of us can adequately answer these questions on our own.
Regardless of your level of experience, operating based only on your own perspective—or even on the perspectives of a handful of practitioners—can leave you with a narrow narrative. It’s important not to limit your knowledge to anecdotal evidence.
For years various organizations (including Youth Specialties and YouthWorks) have brought together youth pastors to learn, share and create, but we’ve been missing objective research on how churches actually do youth ministry and whether what they’re doing is effective—and why. We need a wider view of what’s happening in youth ministry in America; not a peephole, but a picture window into what is working and what is not.
In 2013, Youth Specialties and YouthWorks partnered with Barna to launch a study of several areas of youth ministry. We asked questions to understand how youth pastors and senior pastors view their student ministry. We wondered if senior pastors’ views differ from those of youth pastors, and in what ways. Surprisingly, we found a more optimistic outlook than what we’d been hearing at our conferences and events.
In 2016, we commissioned Barna to conduct a second wave of research to see if perspectives had changed. In addition to tracking the questions asked of pastors three years ago, we also wanted to gather data on parents’ perspectives and on attitudes about student service and mission. Collecting this second set of data would allow Barna researchers and our teams to track change over time and come away with new insights on the state of youth ministry in America.
What you’ll find in the following pages is a wider view of the youth ministry landscape—our numbers, our values and our hopes, as well as the challenges we face now and believe are coming in the near future. We hope this report offers not only information but also wisdom that will spark conversations and lead to more effective student ministries, healthier youth workers and, ultimately, stronger churches and sturdier teen faith.
Most of all, we hope you gain an overwhelming sense that you are not alone in your ministry to teenagers. Although we each serve in our own context, we are pursuing, pastoring and pointing a new generation toward Jesus together.
It could be said that the first youth group was formed when Jesus called his disciples to follow him. And from that youth group, the Church was born.
Youth ministry has certainly changed since the first century. The Church and society have changed, and the young embrace those changes most readily. When we consider that, for many of us, the older we get the less we look forward to change, it’s no surprise youth ministers often feel it more acutely than others in ministry. They can’t escape it. The youth hunger for it, instigate it, always ask why—and our youth leaders have the shepherd calling to do as Jesus did with his first recruits: help them follow his way as the world changes around them.
Youth pastors, more often than most other ministry positions, deal with diverse people in the church, each of whom has their own set of expectations. There is the senior pastor to please, parents to please and the teenagers themselves (who aren’t, as a rule, known for being easy to please). Meeting the expectations of all three groups—and of other folks we didn’t mention, like the church custodian, who in some cases has more clout and influence than the youth minister—can be a daunting challenge.
This report is a side-by-side snapshot of how well senior pastors’ and parents’ expectations and perceptions of the youth program line up with their youth pastor’s. (We left out the custodian.)
Some leaders picking up this report will crack it open with trepidation. I can’t take any more bad news, they might think—and their fear would be understandable. Over the past decade, youth ministry has been relentlessly critiqued both from within its ranks and from without. That kind of persistent criticism can be demoralizing and exhausting.
But this report is not another critique. It’s simply a survey of the state of youth ministry in churches across the America—and the sheer volume of good news may surprise you.
For one thing, parents and youth pastors are on a similar wavelength when it comes to assessing the health and effectiveness of their youth ministry. The vast majority of youth pastors says their program is healthy (56%) or somewhat healthy (38%), and more than nine out of 10 parents say their church’s youth ministry is very (53%) or somewhat effective (40%).
And that’s not all. Youth leaders’ goals and priorities for their ministry are closely aligned with their senior pastor’s, as you’ll see in Part One. And both groups of leaders are hopeful about the future. For example, a significant majority of senior pastors say they do not anticipate replacing their paid youth pastor with a volunteer—a trend some feared would gain ground—and many say they plan to transition the current volunteer position to paid ministry staff.
In Part Two you’ll find data on what youth groups are actually doing: discipleship strategies, small vs. large group formats, use of curriculum and outside resources, and outreach (or lack thereof ) to teens outside the church.
Part Three examines how leaders and parents think about service and mission trips as an aspect of the youth program: their purpose, effectiveness and significance for the goals of youth ministry and for the mission of the Church.
The subtitle of this report is “How Churches Reach Today’s Teens—and What Parents Think About It.” One reading of this might indicate a potentially adversarial relationship between church leaders and parents. But we believe the data in The State of Youth Ministry can actually help parents and pastors get on the same page when it comes to helping teens follow the way of Jesus. If we understand each other’s hopes and expectations, we can work better together to make young disciples who will lead the Church into an uncertain future.
Our teenagers are counting on us.