2. Strengths & Challenges
Setting goals and working toward hoped-for outcomes in teens’ lives is well and good, but how do you know if you’ve hit the mark? Assessing the program’s strengths and challenges is just as important as setting benchmarks of success.
Barna asked senior pastors to rate the strengths of their church’s youth program on a sliding scale, from very strong on “reaching teens outside the church” to very strong on “discipling teens already in the church,” and from very strong on “large group activities” to very strong on “small group activities.” Most senior pastors place their church on the “discipling teens” and “small group” ends of the strengths scale.
Compared to non-mainline pastors (15%), mainline senior leaders (25%) tend to see outreach as a strength of their youth program (this belief is at odds with mainline youth pastors’ self-assessments). Senior pastors of churches with at least one paid youth ministry staff member also consider outreach a strength (21% vs. 9% no paid staff ). These same leaders are more likely than churches without paid youth staff to rate large group activities as a strength (31% vs. 18%), while senior pastors in urban churches (30%), on the other hand, have a greater tendency than pastors in other communities (11%) to say their program is strong when it comes to small group activities.
In some ways, senior pastors are outside the youth program looking in. So how do their assessments of the program’s strengths align with youth pastors’, who are on the inside looking around?
Pretty closely, it turns out. Barna asked youth pastors to assess their own strengths on a sliding scale from very strong on “reaching teens outside the church” to very strong on “discipleship / mentoring programs,” and their ministry preference from “large group” to “small group.” Their self-reporting scale looks fairly similar to the senior pastors’ strengths assessment.
Compared to male leaders (26%), female youth pastors (46%) are more likely to rate themselves as very strong on discipleship / mentoring. And when it comes to ministry preference, youth leaders over the age of 36 (23% vs. 14% younger leaders) and black youth pastors (30% vs. 17% all others) more strongly prefer small groups.
Overall, senior pastors’ and youth ministers’ assessments of the program match up. Most churches are more focused on discipling teens inside the church than on reaching teens outside the church, and tend to emphasize small group interactions over large group activities. Given that both types of leaders overwhelmingly see discipling and spiritual instruction as the goal of youth ministry, these findings are in line with expectations.
Meeting Parent Expectations
Parents were also given an opportunity to rate the strength of their church’s youth program; researchers then overlaid parents’ strength ratings with their self-reported priorities for the program. The resulting comparison looks like this:
A majority of parents rate their church’s program as “very strong” on only the top three priorities, and on a few of the priorities there is a substantial gap between parent expectations and their strength assessment. For example, the gap between “very important” and “very strong” for positive peer relationships and guidance for career / direction in life is 16 percentage points, and is 16 points for safe space to explore faith.
Still, more than two-thirds of parents say their program is at least somewhat strong in each of the priorities—a proportion that is on par with parents’ overall satisfaction. Given an opportunity to rate their satisfaction with their church’s youth ministry, more than nine out of 10 parents whose teen attends regularly report they are “very” (57%) or “somewhat satisfied” (39%). And similar proportions say their teen is “very” (58%) or “somewhat satisfied” (39%).
Parents are also overwhelmingly satisfied with their youth leader: More than nine out of 10 say they are “very” (59%) or “somewhat satisfied” (36%) with her or him. Interestingly, a high level of satisfaction with the youth leader correlates to more interaction between the parent and the leader. Nearly half of parents report “a lot” of interaction with the youth pastor (45%), and these highly involved parents are more likely to be “very satisfied” with their youth ministry leader (62% vs. 39% with less interaction). So, if parents in your program seem dissatisfied, consider asking them to volunteer!
Among parents whose teens regularly attend youth group, a majority says they are “very satisfied” with their youth pastor’s performance in all but one area (47% administration / organization). Generally speaking, youth pastors are rated most highly on personal / character measures and lower on operations. (The exception in this category is “keeps kids safe”; three-quarters of parents are very satisfied with their youth pastor in this area.)
Roughly seven in 10 parents say they are very satisfied with their youth pastor as a “role model” (75%), with his or her knowledge of the Bible (65%) and with his or her spiritual maturity (61%). Protestant parents (77%) tend to be more satisfied than Catholic parents (40%) with their youth pastor’s Bible knowledge.
When it comes to the teen interaction and operational categories, Protestants are also more prone than Catholics to be very satisfied on “knows how to have fun,” and to express the highest level of satisfaction on “keeps kids engaged.” Likewise, they tend to be more satisfied than Catholics when it comes to “program planning.” Lower income parents are more inclined to be very satisfied with how their youth pastor “helps teens’ spiritual maturity” and “keeps kids safe,” while the high-income cohort expresses satisfaction that he or she is a “good speaker.”
Assessing the Challenges
When youth pastors consider major challenges to the effectiveness of their program, three-quarters agree that teens’ busyness tops the list (74%). No other potential obstacle comes close.
Yet parents do not agree. Only one out of nine U.S. parents says their child is “way too busy” (11%). About six in 10 say the balance of activities “is good” (58%), and three in 10 say their teen “needs more to do” (31%).
It may be that at least some parents are concerned about college admissions in their evaluation of their child’s activity level. If this is the case, they are likely biased in favor of more activities over more downtime. Perhaps supporting this thesis, high-income parents (whose children are most likely to attend college) are likelier than others to say their teen “needs more to do.”
What do U.S. teens spend their time doing? According to their parents, more than half are involved in sports of some kind (48%) and about two in five are in school band or another musical discipline (37%). One-quarter of teens has a job (19%) or is involved in art, photography or filmmaking (20%), while somewhat fewer are in drama, theater or dance (17%) or an academic club (16%).
Parents whose teen has a job are less likely to say that their child attends youth group weekly or more often, which suggests that working, more than other activities, detracts from youth group involvement. Outside of that, there is not a strong negative correlation between activities and youth group attendance. In fact, the opposite is true: Most parents who say their teen does any activity other than “working for pay” tend to report more regular youth group attendance than those who do not engage in extracurricular activities.
Consistent youth-group involvement alongside other commitments may be a credit to the persistence and flexibility of youth pastors; 46 percent of parents feel youth pastors “definitely” accommodate activities around the schedules of teens, and 45 percent say they “sometimes” do.
In the constellation of non-school activities, Christian parents generally consider involvement in youth group to be of equal importance with extracurricular activities (55%), while three in 10 say it is more important (8% much more, 22% somewhat more). In general, higher education levels correlate to a higher value on youth-group involvement.
It’s a good bet that youth pastors agree with parents who put a premium on youth group. Yet, in addition to teens’ busyness, these leaders see a host of other challenges to their ministry success—including “lack of interest from parents” (34%) and a “lack of adult volunteers” (29%). One-quarter of youth pastors says the “breakdown of families”—such as absentee parents, divorce or other dysfunctions in the home—is a challenge (24%). These hurdles are all related in some way to adult involvement. So even though parents generally see value in their child’s youth-group attendance, youth pastors would like more of them to be directly and meaningfully engaged in the program.
Some youth pastors also feel pressure from a lack of interest among youth (24%), and one in five mentions that not enough teens are taking on leadership roles in the group (20%). This leadership gap may be related to teens’ overbooked lives and reluctance on their part to commit at a more demanding level.
Challenges related to financial or material resources—such as a lack of appropriate facilities (12%), church resources (11%) or youth resources (8%)—are mentioned less frequently. A lack of support from church leadership (6%) and a need for quality curricula (4%) fall near the bottom of the list.
Naturally, a lack of appropriate facilities is more often cited as a pain point by youth pastors in smaller churches. In larger congregations, however, leaders are more focused on challenges posed by the breakdown of teens’ family structures. White youth pastors are less likely to be worried about a lack of financial resources, but are very concerned about the busyness of teens. Younger youth pastors are more likely to feel impaired by a lack of parental interest in the program.
Comparing responses of youth pastors in the 2013 study with today’s research, Barna found that major ministry challenges haven’t dramatically changed in three years. Although kids’ busy schedules remain the top concern, slightly fewer leaders mention it today (74%) than in 2013 (86%). Lack of interest from parents (34% vs. 41% 2013) and the breakdown of families (24% vs. 31% 2013) are also a bit less pressing than three years ago. However, the percentage of youth pastors who say they are taxed by a need for adult volunteers has increased; in 2013, about one in five youth pastors expressed that the lack of adult volunteers was the main challenge facing their ministry (22%), compared to about three in 10 today (29%).
The data in Part One reveals that the primary drivers—and hurdles—of a youth program are relational in nature, centered on how ministries connect with parents and teens. In Part Two, we’ll discuss the activities and approaches that youth ministries use to steward these connections.