01 The Why of Youth Ministry

The Why of Youth Ministry


We could think about the conversation concerning youth ministry that is taking place across the Church in North America as a macrocosm of the personal, everyday conversations in each local church: between senior pastor and youth pastor, youth pastor and parent, parent and student and so on. Each party holds their own assumptions and expectations about what youth ministry should be and why, as well as their own metrics for determining its success.

Part One examines how pastors, youth leaders and parents understand the goals and priorities, strengths and challenges of their church’s ministry to youth—and what the differences mean for the overall health of the youth program.

1. Goals & Priorities

There is a persistent notion that senior pastors and youth ministers often don’t see eye to eye on aims and outcomes of their youth department. Barna researchers, however, found evidence to the contrary: Senior pastors and youth leaders are generally aligned when it comes to their thinking about what youth ministry should accomplish.

When they are asked to identify the top two goals of youth ministry, a substantial majority of church leaders choose “discipleship and spiritual instruction” as one of their highest priorities. Seven in 10 senior pastors (71%) and three-quarters of youth pastors (75%) say this is one of their top goals.

“Building relationships with students” is a primary objective for about half of youth pastors (48%) and two in five senior pastors (40%), while “evangelism and outreach to youth” is selected by roughly one-quarter of each group (29% senior pastors, 24% youth pastors). “Evangelism to the parents of teens,” on the other hand, does not appear to be as important (7% senior pastors, 4% among youth pastors).
Even if most church leaders don’t prioritize reaching out to parents, many express a hope that parents will reach in. One in six senior pastors believe “getting parents involved with spiritual formation” is a top goal of youth ministry (18%). And youth pastors are even more likely to say so: One-quarter identifies this as a priority for their ministry (23%).

Similar percentages of senior pastors (12%) and youth pastors (10%) feel that providing a “safe and nurturing environment” is an important goal. (As we will see, this is a much higher priority among parents.)

Senior pastors (17%) are more likely than youth pastors (10%) to emphasize “serving the community”—but “serving the church body” is at the bottom of both groups’ lists (6% senior pastors and 4% youth pastors).

Overall, senior pastors and youth pastors are in sync when it comes to the goals of youth ministry, but there are notable differences when researchers segment these groups by church location, size and denomination, and by the pastor’s ethnicity.

For example, discipleship—chosen by a significant majority of all senior and youth pastors—is not as important to youth ministers in urban churches (59%) as it is to those in small towns (84%) or the suburbs (76%). Similarly, senior pastors of mainline congregations (58% vs. 75% non-mainline) are less likely to list discipleship as one of their top goals. On the other hand, white youth leaders (78%) are more inclined than those of other ethnicities (51%) to say discipleship is a driving force of their youth ministry.

Elsewhere, serving the community and the church proves to be of higher importance. Pastors of urban churches (31% vs. 13% of those in other communities), Hispanic (25%) and black (34%) youth pastors (vs. 11% white), and youth leaders in mainline congregations (18% vs. 12% non-mainline) are more likely to list one or both of the service-oriented goals as a top priority.

Senior pastors of mainline churches (61%) are more likely than non-mainline pastors (32%) to say building relationships with students is a top goal, and female youth pastors (63%) are likewise more inclined than their male counterparts (44%) to choose this option. (Mainline congregations are more likely to have a female youth pastor, so sometimes it’s unclear whether denomination or gender is a determining factor.)

Prioritizing Discipleship & Outreach

Discipleship is a primary goal for three out of four youth pastors— but not all of them define discipleship the same way.

Offered a list of options, youth leaders could choose one or more phrases they believe accurately describe the goal of discipleship. Barna found that, generally speaking, youth pastors tend to favor definitions that are somewhat nebulous and difficult to quantify, and rank lower the options that can be measured with some level of accuracy. For example, “being transformed to become more like Jesus,” preferred by nearly eight out of 10 youth leaders (78%), certainly has robust biblical support but, at the same time, is hard to measure. On the other hand, it seems comparatively easy to assess more concrete goals such as “being mentored in Christian maturity” (56%) or “winning new believers to follow Christ” (32%)—both of which, it might be argued, are components of becoming “more like Jesus.” (The chart highlights the discipleship goals that might be fairly easy to quantify—all three are at or near the bottom of the preference list.)

Given the difficulty of quantifying success, youth pastors might consider how to think strategically, not only aspirationally, about their discipleship goals—or at least about how to assess whether they are reaching those goals.

Discipleship is high on most youth pastors’ priority list, but a small majority also says that reaching teens outside the church is a significant focus of their ministry. About one in seven reports their church places “a lot” of emphasis on outreach to teens (13%), while two in five report “some” emphasis on reaching out (41%). The remaining 46 percent say outreach to teens outside the church is “a little” (37%) or “not at all” (9%) an emphasis for their congregation.

Female youth pastors (42%) are less likely than their male colleagues (56%) to say outreach is a significant emphasis of their ministry (perhaps because, as we saw in their top two goals, they are more focused on building strong relationships within the existing youth group). On the other hand, leaders whose youth groups are on the larger side (21% vs. 9% leaders of fewer than 50 students) and pastors of non-mainline churches (62% vs. 38% mainline) are more likely to say reaching teens outside the church is highly significant for their church.

Outlining Parent Expectations

Parents have their own set of priorities when it comes to their kids’ youth-ministry experience. And, as the chart shows, most parents have a hard time narrowing them down! A majority of parents whose teens regularly attend youth group rate each and every feature as either “very” or “somewhat important.”

Safety is of paramount importance to virtually all parents (96% very + somewhat important). Presumably this would include their kids being kept safe from physical harm, but many parents may also think of safety in emotional terms, especially since the phrase “safe space” is common jargon today for a group in which a person feels emotionally secure.

Essentially, parents want a supportive community for their kids where they have positive friendships with peers who are also exploring faith.

Notably, while “outreach to teens who do not attend church” ranks low on the list of parent priorities, nine out of 10 say it is very (51%) or somewhat important (39%) to them. Like youth pastors, parents acknowledge that outreach and evangelism are important—but not as important as their other priorities.

Youth pastors significantly shape the group experience, and parents’ expectations of their leaders reflect that reality. Seven in 10 parents whose teen regularly attends youth group say they have a “major expectation” that their youth pastor is “discipling teens” (72%). This majority expectation appears to align with church leaders’ goals for youth ministry (yet it’s an open question whether parents and pastors share a definition of discipleship). About six in 10 parents say youth leaders should be “helping [teens] navigate friend relationships” (62%) and “helping them navigate family relationships” (60%), which may point to the relational volatility so many teens—and, by virtue of proximity, their parents!—experience as they proceed through adolescence.

White (47% vs. 30% other ethnicities) and high-income parents (52% vs. 36% less than $100K per year) are more likely than others to say “talking about sexuality and dating” is a major expectation, while lower-income parents are inclined to say they expect youth pastors to help their teen navigate family relationships (71% vs. 56% more than $50K per year) and warn them about drugs and alcohol (72% vs. 50%).

Q&A with Terry Linhart

Educator, speaker and author

Terry Linhart, PhD, is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. A speaker and consultant, he is the author of seven books. Terry directs the Academic Support Network for Youth Specialties. He is the founder of the Arbor Research Group, a consulting firm that provides unique research and support to national and international Christian organizations.


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.

Q&A with Kara Powell

Pastor, speaker, writer

Kara Powell, PhD, is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange, and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Essential Leadership, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum.


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The How of Youth Ministry

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