04 What’s Next for Youth Ministry

What's Next for Youth Ministry


By David Kannaman, President of Barna Group

What is the state of youth ministry? For the most part, youth ministry in the U.S. is stable and functioning effectively. As our team analyzed the results of more than 2,000 interviews, it became clear that ministry to teenagers in today’s local churches is mostly humming along; no dramatic spikes or significant dips are showing up in the data. If youth ministry were a category of stocks in a securities exchange (for the sake of analogy), our recommendation would be to “hold.” It’s stable, stable, stable.

Even so, the relative health of youth ministry is a point we should not quickly gloss over. Despite all the changes, pressures and expectations heaped onto this area of ministry, the vast majority of paid and volunteer youth workers are doing just fine, thank you. Not that they’re on autopilot; our findings indicate most pour their heart and soul into serving young people even as they face frustrations. And despite rumors to the contrary, senior pastors and youth pastors have a reasonably shared view of the purpose and effectiveness of their church’s youth ministry. Moreover, both groups of leaders remain hopeful and confident.

In addition, most churchgoing parents of teens find youth ministry to be a helpful and rewarding part of their kids’ spiritual lives. We interpret parents’ optimistic opinions as additional indicators of youth ministry’s vitality.

This report should be a reminder to take stock of all the things that are going right. Even if there are packed schedules to keep, burdensome budgets to balance and difficult conversations to have, consider pausing right now (no, really) and thanking Jesus for the ways he is blessing your ministry. Make a list of things that are working and acknowledge the people who make them work. Then, based on that list, mobilize, motivate and resource to build on what’s going right.

In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

No Business as Usual

But—you knew there was a but, right?—we also have to acknowledge that stability is not necessarily the most effective approach to rapid cultural change. Youth ministry is being forced to operate in a totally new context. The youth landscape is more complex, accelerated and diverse. The social and spiritual lives of adolescents are being reinvented before our eyes.

We need to shift our thinking from merely keeping youth ministry healthy to creating the future of youth ministry. How will we meet the following challenges?

1. Rising Bible skepticism. Barna’s work on behalf of American Bible Society, published in The Bible in America, shows the degree to which Millennials and teens are increasingly skeptical of the Bible. There is growing consensus, especially among young non-Christians, that the Bible is not just irrelevant but that it’s actually a dangerous book of dogma used to oppress people. How can youth ministry equip teens to place greater confidence in the authority of the Bible?

2. Increasing loneliness. Despite the space-age awesomeness of digital tools and the wonderful benefits of social media, Americans are twice as likely today as a decade ago to say they are lonely. And teens are increasingly native to this trend: hyper-connected, yet isolated. Furthermore, our research on discipleship shows that churchgoers tend to believe spiritual growth happens best on their own, rather than in community. How can youth ministry reverse the isolating trends inside and outside the church, including in teens’ digital lives, in order to engage them in deep, life-shaping relationships?

3. Pervasive pornography. Barna’s massive study on this subject, The Porn Phenomenon, commissioned by Josh McDowell Ministry, illustrates the incredible degree to which porn has become mainstream and widely accessible. Two findings are especially astonishing: 1) Teens regard not recycling as morally worse than viewing porn, and 2) many talk about porn with their peers as a natural and normal part of human sexuality. Furthermore, many youth leaders admit to personally struggling with porn use. And yet most churches have no program or ministry to help. Our house is engulfed in the flames of ubiquitous sexual content, and we’re using water pistols to fight the fire. (Or worse, those tasked with putting out the flames are playing with fire themselves.) How can youth ministry bring a more robust set of tools to the crisis of pornography, focusing on building sturdier souls and grace-filled communities?

4. Confusion regarding human sexuality. Another major challenge facing today’s youth ministry is widespread confusion on matters of human sexuality. A majority of younger practicing Christians continue to hold traditionally orthodox and biblical views on porn, sex outside of marriage and same-sex relationships, yet their views stand in stark contrast to their peers’. The Millennial generation has changed its collective mind on traditional Christian sexual ethics, and the pressure on young Christians to articulate countercultural biblical commitments on these matters is enormous. How can youth ministry foster a grace-and-truth approach to human sexuality?

5. Me-first morality. Another concerning challenge we must meet is the cultural emergence of a moral code that puts the Self at the center. Gabe Lyons and I document this “new moral code” in the book Good Faith, but it is actually not so new (see the last verse of Judges: “people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes”). As a researcher, I was shocked to see the degree to which practicing Christian Millennials believe “the best way to find yourself is to look within yourself” and “the highest goal of life is to enjoy yourself.” How can youth ministry confront the “me-first” spirit of the age by turning the hearts of teens (and their parents) outward to find themselves in Jesus?

6. Pressurized Christian identity. Young Christians are more likely than older generations of believers to say they feel sidelined, afraid to speak up and concerned about looking stupid. Of course, this is partly the perennial challenge of peer pressure that tends to lessen somewhat with age. Yet the apostle Paul’s testimony that “I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ” is a challenge to every generation. If we peek behind the trends and understand how intense it is to be countercultural as a young person today—to live like Daniel in Babylon—we gain a greater measure of sympathy for teens. How can youth ministry make a renewed commitment to their development as disciples in “digital Babylon”?

7. An era defined by achievement. One of the key themes of The State of Youth Ministry is the degree to which youth pastors struggle with the busyness of today’s teens. And the surprise counterpoint: Parents are generally just fine with their kids’ busyness. This points to the challenge of making disciples in an era defined by achievement. Most teens expect to land their dream job by age 25. One in four believes they will be famous within the next 10 years. College is no longer a place for character formation but for skills-building and increasing one’s earning potential. In response, everything in a teen’s life is becoming a résumé builder. And parents are often not only complicit with this drive to succeed but actually behind it. How can youth ministry promote a biblical view of fame, influence and achievement among teens and parents: that God uses ambition, but only to the extent it serves his purposes? (Ecclesiastes is a good place to start.)

8. Conversation-challenged disciples. Barna has found that many Christians struggle to have meaningful conversations with people who are different from them. Evangelicals, in particular, admit they experience conversational obstacles with atheists, Muslims and Mormons, as well as LGBT people. In an increasingly diverse and religiously pluralistic culture, we cannot settle for teenagers to become the same kinds of conversation-challenged disciples. The gospel compels us to be conversation-enabled, especially with people who are different from us (see Colossians 4:5–6). How can youth ministry train young people to be some of the best conversationalists on the planet, for the purposes of Christ and his glory?

These are just a handful of the challenges—and remarkable opportunities—coming to a youth ministry near you. If right now you’re feeling a sense of hopeful excitement and a desire to dive in and address these realities, your call for youth ministry is as strong as ever!

Toward A Deeper
Vision of Discipleship

While nationwide trends can provide helpful insights, each leader is an individual serving a unique community of faith in a specific neighborhood. It matters little that a majority of churches in America increased their youth budget if your church is not in the majority. But accurate information can be a useful tool for wise decision-making and planning for the future of disciple-making.

Barna’s data-gathering over the past decade has led us to believe there are five key components to instilling in teens a faith that keeps them connected to God and his church into young adulthood. These are: 1) a meaningful mentoring relationship with at least one Christian adult who isn’t their parent; 2) learning cultural discernment, the ability to apply faith to their everyday reality; 3) reverse mentoring, an opportunity to share their knowledge and skills with others, especially older adults; 4) vocational discipleship, an understanding of their career choices as an expression of God’s calling on their lives; and 5) a personal experience of Jesus.

Data can be a conversational jumping-off point that leads to deeper thinking about how churches disciple teens and equip parents in the project of faith formation. Keeping the five components of lasting faith in mind, here are some conversations you and your team of fellow leaders and engaged parents might have, based on the research in The State of Youth Ministry:

  • How do we define discipleship in our church? How do we measure effective discipleship based on our definition?
  • Is youth ministry a right-sized priority for our church? Should it play a bigger role in our overall mission? If so, how?
  • How can we connect adults and teens in mentoring friendships that bless and grow both?
  • How does teen busyness impact effective discipleship? Can we cast a more compelling vision for parents to make church a higher priority in their teen’s life?
  • Do we need to reconsider the priority of reaching out to unchurched teens? How can we equip church youth to be effective evangelists?
  • Why do we engage in service and missions projects? How do we measure success when it comes to teen service?
  • Are we hopeful about the future of our youth ministry? If so, what decisions can we make to ensure those hopes become reality? If not, what needs to change?

It is our prayer that this report informs and equips you to joyfully obey as you walk alongside teens in the footsteps of Jesus.

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Appendix A - Data Tables

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