02 The How of Youth Ministry

The How of Youth Ministry


Having a vision for youth ministry is one thing; executing an effective youth program is another entirely. Now that we’ve examined the expressed goals of student ministries, it’s helpful to look at the logistics of accomplishing those goals. In short, what do modern youth groups actually do?

Part Two covers the practices of youth ministries, as well as the teams that carry them out. What are the methods and curricula employed by youth pastors? How many teens are reached by these efforts? And who are the people behind the scenes making youth ministry happen?

3. Ministry Practices


There are some differences in how senior pastors and youth pastors report the regular activities of their youth ministries. But, across the board, they point to plenty of chances for teens to gather, suggesting that youth programs are addressing the social concerns of parents, as well as acting on the ministry’s relational goals.

If a teen goes to youth services, there is a pretty good chance they also have an opportunity to attend adult services. More than eight in 10 pastors (87% senior pastors, 84% youth pastors) mention that youth attendance in the main worship service is an activity regularly offered by their youth ministry.

Social activities are a common aspect of youth ministry, as well (85% youth pastors, 84% senior pastors). When the social and spiritual overlap, the result often takes the form of small discipleship or Bible study groups (80% all pastors). This is a key way in which leaders pursue their goal of providing spiritual instruction. However, small groups designated specifically for prayer aren’t quite as common; 29 percent of senior pastors and 23 percent of youth pastors list prayer groups as a regular activity.

Youth pastors are more likely than senior pastors to mention offering activities such as large group teaching (71% vs. 49%) and large group worship (48% vs. 30%). However, more than half of all pastors (56% youth pastors, 54% senior pastors) say their church takes teens to youth conferences, which are often another opportunity to experience teaching and worship in a large group setting.

While it’s clear that youth ministries encourage teens to frequently come together with peers and in groups, valuable one-on-one time with adults is not always an option. One-quarter of pastors (25% senior pastors, 23% youth pastors) say they offer adult-teen mentoring programs.

Senior pastors of large churches—which may have greater resources to facilitate activities that range in size and function— are more likely than leaders of smaller congregations to say they offer large group teaching and worship, small prayer groups and adult-teen mentoring. Youth pastors who are white, young or in a non-mainline church also tend to offer large group activities. On the other hand, urban churches seem to favor intimacy; their senior pastors are more likely than suburban and rural pastors to say they offer small prayer groups and adult-teen mentoring programs, and less likely to list youth attendance in the main service or large group teaching as regular activities.

These are the activities that pastors say are available; are parents aware of the same program offerings?

Parents whose teen regularly attends youth group are less likely than pastors to say attendance in the main worship service is a youth group activity: Just over half say this is an aspect of the youth program (45%), about 40 points below pastors’ reports. This disparity may reflect how differently pastors and parents think about youth ministry; parents may see teens as more separate from the church body than pastors do.

Six in 10 parents mention social activities (61%), which is in line with their social priorities for the program. Small groups for discipleship (47%) or prayer (45%) are listed by just under half of parents, followed by youth conferences (38%). Large group offerings are recognized in slightly smaller percentages: Worship (33%) and teaching (30%) are activities parents say the youth ministry offers. And when it comes to adult-teen mentoring, parents are in sync with the one-quarter of pastors who say their program offers this activity (28%).


Generally, youth pastors use a hybrid of internal and external curricula to conduct their ministry. Seven in 10 report building their curriculum resources in-house (71%) and about the same percentage say they purchase teaching tools from outside the church (70%)—meaning there are a sizable number who use both approaches (46%).

Youth pastors over 35 and those in large or rural churches are less likely to purchase curriculum. Also, there is some correlation between the number of paid youth ministry staff and the in-house production of curriculum—that is, the more paid staff, the more likely someone is available to develop custom resources. Seventy-six percent of churches with two or more youth ministry staff members develop their own curriculum, compared to 54 percent of those with no paid staff.

The widespread impulse of youth pastors to create their own curriculum, regardless of whether they also use an outside resources package, may in some cases indicate what might be called “terminal uniqueness”—that is, a view that their ministry context is unlike any other and only they know what is needed in order to be effective. To some extent, this is true. Yet such a mindset may also make it difficult for some leaders to adopt proven best practices or to accept input and insights from ministry veterans. There’s not a thing wrong with creating customized resources to meet the needs of kids in a unique context—but it’s also good idea to keep learning from the wider community of pastors, mentors and educators.

How are resources, whether internal or external, applied to a youth ministry’s regularly offered activities?

Youth pastors report using both in-house materials (68%) and outside resources (75%) for small discipleship and Bible study groups. Elsewhere, youth pastors favor their customized curricula over a purchased version: In-house programs have a lead over outside curricula for large group teaching (65% vs. 50%), social activities (46% vs. 20%), large group worship (39% vs. 22%), youth attendance in main service (29% vs. 9%) and small prayer groups (18% vs. 10%). The only other area in which outside resources are preferred is for youth conferences (30%), where a ministry is less likely to personally handle the teaching and activities. Both forms of curricula prove useful for adult-teen mentoring programs (14%).


Although every church budget and financial context is—like each youth ministry—unique, the findings reveal broad commonalities among pastors and youth pastors when it comes to operational budgets. According to senior pastors, a majority of churches allocates 10 percent or less of the church budget to youth ministry, with an average of 8 percent. Youth pastors report their churches spend an average of 3 percent of the overall budget on youth ministry, excluding salaries for paid staff positions.

Nearly half of senior pastors (46%) and two in five youth pastors (38%) report that their youth ministry budget increased over the past three years. Similar percentages (43% senior pastors, 41% youth pastors) say there has been no change, while a minority of both senior pastors (11%) and youth pastors (21%) says the youth ministry budget has decreased since three years ago.

Senior pastors of medium churches (with 200 to 499 regular attenders) and pastors of urban churches are more likely than others to report a budget increase in the past three years, while those in smaller churches and in majority white churches are less likely to say their youth ministry budget has grown. Youth pastors at large churches tend to report a budget increase. In the Midwest and South, youth pastors are marginally more likely than leaders in other regions to report a decrease.

Tracking the data over time, researchers found that one-third of youth pastors surveyed in 2013 reported an increase (32%) and one-quarter reported a decrease (26%) in their ministry budgets between 2010 and 2013. Today, fewer youth pastors report a decrease (21%), and more say their budget has increased (38%) from 2013 to 2016.

When asked to look ahead to 2019, the vast majority of pas- tors do not foresee a decrease in the budget for youth ministry. (Later in this report, we take a closer look at the changes pastors predict for the next three years in youth ministry.)

Q&A with Sharon Galgay Ketcham

Educator, speaker and author

Sharon Galgay Ketcham is associate professor of theology and Christian ministries at Gordon College in Massachusetts. She earned her PhD in theology and education from Boston College. Sharon’s two decades of experience in ministry include serving in full-time ministry, researching, writing, teaching and mentoring. As a practical theologian, she is a scholar for the Church and invites people to reflect theologically on lived Christian faith. She is currently writing a book that examines the community-forming practices essential for a maturing faith among teenagers and adults. Sharon lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children.

4. Attendance

To better grasp the reach and effectiveness of youth ministry practices, it’s helpful to look at who is actually attending and involved in youth programs. Teens who attend a youth group seem to be consistent about it; more than two-thirds of Christian parents say their child goes to a youth ministry at least once a week (69%). Roughly one-quarter reports less frequent attendance (23%) and about one in 12 says their teen never attends (8%).

The vast majority of teens attend the same church as their parents (88%). And in fact, they are more likely not to attend church at all (8%) than they are to attend a different church (4%). This corresponds with parent expectations: Three-quarters of churchgoing parents feel it’s important for their child to be in the same church (48% “extremely,” 30% “very”), while just one in four says it’s either “somewhat” important (14%) or “not too / not at all” important (9%). Youth group attendance is high in families who all attend the same church: Two-thirds of these parents say their teen goes to youth group at least once a week (69%).

Even so, a majority of parents would be open to their teen exploring other options. Nearly half would “probably” allow their teen to attend elsewhere (40%), and 26 percent “definitely” would allow it. Likewise, if a youth program in another church were appealing to their teen, nearly two-thirds of parents would switch churches for it (38% “probably,” 24% “definitely”). The bottom line for most parents is for their child to enjoy their church youth group: 78 percent say this is at least “very important.” So, while parents prefer the ideal scenario of attending the church of their choice alongside their teen, they ultimately will do what they can to see their child attend a ministry that meets their needs, wherever it may be.

Parents with higher incomes are especially adaptable in this regard. Although they are more likely than other parents to appreciate their child’s attendance at the same church, they are also more likely to allow their child to attend elsewhere and to follow them to a church with a better youth ministry. Half say they would switch (49%), compared to about one in five middle-income parents (22%) and one in 11 lower income families (9%).

Very few parents in this study say their teen actively attends another church, so it’s difficult for researchers to draw broad conclusions as to the reasons some teens break out on their own. But there are notable responses in this small sample. The most common reason their teen attends another church, according to parents, is “My teen prefers a youth program at another church.” But there are also social drivers at work, such as “There are not many kids my teenager’s age at my church” and “My teen’s friends go to another church.” For some it’s just a matter of diverging preferences: “I prefer a different church than the one my teen prefers” or “My teen does not like the youth program at my church.” A few teens like the Young Life program or, for a few, the parent does not attend church regularly. Which poses the question: What do these teens most like about their other church? Parents indicate a preference for the worship style (71%), social activities (71%), friends who go to the church (59%) or the pastor of the youth ministry (59%). Smaller percentages also say the general feel (45%) or the teaching (45%) play a part.

To get a more complete picture of youth group attendance, researchers turned to estimates among church leaders. Based on pastors’ responses, the average (median) youth group reaches 30 teens a week. Attendance is highly correlated with church size, as one might expect: Each week, there is an average of 20 teens in small churches, 48 in medium churches and 136 in large churches, according to youth pastors. Senior pastors report similar weekly estimates: 20 teens in small churches, 35 in medium churches and 136 in large churches on average.

Most pastors and youth pastors are upbeat about attendance growth. Most church leaders say their youth group has grown over the past three years; half of senior pastors (51%) and youth pastors (52%) report an attendance increase since 2013. About one-quarter of ministers estimate the youth ministry numbers have either held steady (25% senior pastors, 22% youth pastors) or seen a decrease (24% senior pastors, 26% youth pastors).

5. Staffing & Volunteers

As we examined in the section on ministry strengths, a majority of churches trend more strongly toward discipleship than toward outreach. However, churches with at least one paid youth ministry staff tend to be more focused on reaching teens than churches with no ministry staff. This suggests that having a paid employee could contribute to a sense of mission or urgency when it comes to reaching teens outside the church. Most churches have one youth ministry staff member, according to senior pastors. More than half have one paid staff member dedicated to youth (55%) and 17 percent have two or more; the remaining 28 percent do not have a paid staff member. The number of paid staff is weakly correlated with youth group size, with the largest groups having an average of two paid staff members.

Most churches with paid, designated youth ministry staff plan to continue with this approach. Eight out of 10 senior pastors say they do not anticipate replacing paid staff with a volunteer in the next year (81%). However, leaders of urban churches are twice as likely as the average to say yes, they plan to replace paid youth ministry staff with a volunteer (21% vs. 6% all pastors). On the other hand, white senior leaders are much more likely to say they do not anticipate replacing a youth pastor with a volunteer (87% vs. 55% all others).

Churches without a paid youth minister are not always content with their current strategy. Senior leaders of these congregations are more likely to say they expect to increase staffing (41% vs. 28% churches with paid youth staff ). Likewise, a majority of youth pastors in rural churches expects their staffing to increase somewhat in the next three years (54%).

The average youth leader spends about half a decade—five-and-a-half years—as youth leader in their church. Most go through more than one position during their tenure in youth ministry; on average, youth leaders hold between two and three separate roles in youth ministry and spend just over three years in one position.

Who are today’s youth pastors? The data sketch a general profile: young, educated, married and male.

The majority of youth pastors—four out of five—are male (81%). In non-mainline churches, an overwhelming 90 percent of youth pastors are men, while there is a smaller gender gap in mainline churches: Among these congregations, two out of five youth pastors are female (42%). Like non-mainline youth groups, larger churches have a higher proportion of male youth ministers.

Youth pastors are typically married (84%); just 16 percent have either never been or are no longer married. Three out of five have children under 18 years old in their household (60%).

Most youth pastors in this study are under the age of 40. The largest age group is between 30 and 39 years old (49%), followed by the 26–29 (18%) and 40–49 (16%) age groups. Parents tend to list their youth pastor as slightly older than their actual age (and also perceive a slightly higher proportion of female youth pastors than is actually the case).

Generally, youth pastors are an educated group, many with focused ministry training. Nearly half are college graduates (47%). One-third attended seminary (34%), and 7 percent have “some” seminary training. Those with only some college (8%), a high school education (2%) or trade school training (2%) are in the minority. This reflects the high regard senior pastors have for specific youth ministry training. The majority of senior leaders say this kind of education is important (24% “extremely,” 43% “very”) and just 5 percent say it is either not that important or not at all important. Urban pastors and pastors of large churches generally rate specific training more highly than others, and white pastors are more likely to list it as “extremely important.”

Eight in 10 youth ministers hold a full-time position at their current church (49%). In addition to full-time youth leadership, three in 10 are also in charge of another ministry area (30%).

A plurality moves on within three years: 39 percent of youth pastors in this study are in their first three years of ministry in their congregation. The numbers significantly taper off after 10 years, with only 12 percent reporting they have been in ministry at their church for more than a decade.

Beyond paid youth leaders, volunteers play a significant and sometimes lead role in youth groups. And, as we’ve seen, a lack of adult volunteers and parent interest is a pivotal concern for many ministry leaders. Overall, youth groups have an average of 12 adults who volunteer on a regular basis, with an average of seven who are not parents of students. The average number of volunteers is correlated with both youth group size and church size. Of parents whose teens attend a youth group consistently, a plurality reports volunteering regularly (42%). One-third occasionally volunteers (33%) and one-quarter reports they do not volunteer (25%).

One important function of youth group volunteers is to help youth volunteer themselves in acts of service to their church, community and other places. Part Three focuses on how youth ministries incorporate service opportunities and the impact of these endeavors.

Tracking Changes:
The Next Three Years

A significant goal of this research is to track expectations of leaders over time to better understand the successes and growing pains of youth groups. As the data visualization on the previous pages shows, reality doesn’t always unfold according to pastors’ expectations: In 2016, leaders discovered that the changes they predicted in 2013 for the coming three years didn’t pan out exactly to plan.

Which is okay! Spot-on future-casting isn’t the point. Rather, leaders’ predictions can serve as a helpful proxy for their hopes and prayers for their youth ministry. So here, for the record, are pastors’ 2016 predictions for the next three years. Researchers hope to check back with them again in 2019 to find out how leaders’ overall optimism for the near future helped them engage in effective ministry.

Major Changes

Nearly three in 10 youth pastors predict that, in three years, they will have more families involved in their youth group (28%). About one-quarter expects more student leaders (23%), and one in five plans to rethink their overall strategy (22%). Other shifts include managing growth (14%), implementing major changes to programs (7%) and doing more with less (4%). These responses show confidence despite some of the challenges pastors name, such as a lack of adult volunteers, parent interest or youth in leadership roles.


About seven in 10 among both senior pastors (74%) and youth pastors (71%) anticipate an increase in youth attendance. Seventeen percent of both groups of leaders predict there will be no change. About one in 10 (11% youth pastors, 9% senior pastors) says their attendance will likely decrease over the next few years.

Young youth pastors, youth ministers in large churches, leaders in the Northeast and those in non-mainline churches are more likely to expect significant increases in youth group attendance. Black youth pastors and female leaders, however, are more pessimistic overall about youth group growth. When it comes to senior pastors, those in majority black churches and in churches with more than 500 regular attenders are much more assured about the growth of their ministry programs.


Although senior pastors are more enthusiastic, both senior pastors (62%) and youth pastors (46%) are likely to predict that the number of youth group activities will increase. A greater percentage of youth pastors (44% vs. 34% senior pastors) predict no change to current offerings. Ten percent of youth pastors think activities may decrease, while just a small proportion of senior pastors feel this way (3%).

Youth pastors who are non-white, or are in the West or Northeast, are more likely to predict they will offer more activities. Among senior pastors, those in urban churches are more likely to expect some increase, but 10 percent of those in suburban churches hope for “significant growth” in their activities, larger than any other group.


A majority of senior pastors (65%) and a plurality of youth leaders (47%) plan on a budget increase for the youth ministry over the next three years. Two out of five youth pastors (41%) assume no change, while three in 10 senior pastors make this prediction (29%). Twelve percent of youth pastors and 5 percent of senior pastors say their youth ministry will experience budget cuts by 2019.

Younger youth ministers and those in the West are more likely to expect a significant increase in budget, even as leaders in churches with no full-time youth ministry staff are much more likely to anticipate a significant decrease. Senior pastors in large and urban churches especially expect an expanded budget in the next three years.


Staffing is one area in which a majority of both senior and youth pastors do not expect growth. More than half say their youth ministry staff will remain the same (59% senior pastors, 52% youth pastors). If they don’t expect to hold steady staffing levels, most other senior (38%) and youth pastors (37%) foresee an increase in employees, while smaller percentages are preparing for their team to diminish (3% senior pastors, 11% youth pastors).

A majority of youth pastors in rural areas expects their staffing to increase somewhat. Senior pastors in churches that do not have a paid youth minister (41%) are more likely to say they expect to add to their youth ministry staff than churches that already have a dedicated youth minister (28%).

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