The latest research on youth ministry in the United States found that parents and pastors are in disagreement when it comes to the goals of youth ministry.
The Barna Group’s study noted and followed up on a public debate over a related topic that was brought up a few years ago, when The Atlantic published a piece titled “The Overprotected Kid,” which argued that overprotective parents keep kids from discovering things, taking risks and learning independence – without necessarily making them safer.
“The ensuing discussion raised a number of questions about the tug-of-war between a parent’s protective instincts and their desire to raise fearless kids,” Barna researchers recounted. “This dynamic plays out in schools and child care centers across the country, but is acutely felt in youth ministries.”
To find out whether parental priorities of safety are shared by youth pastors and leaders – and to see whose goals take precedence – Barna partnered with Youth Specialties and YouthWorks to conduct a major study on the state of youth ministry across the United States and got a better picture of the expectations of pastors, youth leaders and parents.
What pastors say kids need …
The Christian research organization discovered that senior pastors and youth leaders typically agree about the objectives of youth ministry.
“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,” Barna researchers divulged. “Seven in 10 senior pastors (71 percent) and three-quarters of youth pastors (75 percent) say this is one of their top goals.”
Other priorities were found to be the main goal of less than a majority of senior and youth pastors.
“’Building relationships with students’ is a primary objective for about half of youth pastors (48 percent) and two in five senior pastors (40 percent), while ‘evangelism and outreach to youth’ is selected by roughly one-quarter of each group (29 percent senior pastors, 24 percent youth pastors),” the research revealed. “’Evangelism to the parents of teens,’ on the other hand, does not appear to be as important (7 percent senior pastors, 4 percent among youth pastors).”
Despite the fact that most church leaders do not focus their teen ministries on being an outreach to parents, a significant portion are hopeful 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 percent),” those conducting the survey found. “And youth pastors are even more likely to say so: one-quarter identifies this as a priority for their ministry (23 percent).”
Even smaller numbers of church leaders feel that providing a safe haven for youth is a major objective.
“Similar percentages of senior pastors (12 percent) and youth pastors (10 percent) feel that providing a ‘safe and nurturing environment’ is an important goal – which … is a much higher priority among parents,” the researchers discovered.
Less agreement among senior pastors and youth pastors was witnessed in regards to community involvement.
“Senior pastors (17 percent) are more likely than youth pastors (10 percent) to emphasize ‘serving the community’ – but ‘serving the church body’ is at the bottom of both groups’ lists (6 percent senior pastors and 4 percent youth pastors),” the report continued.
Even though they do not see eye-to-eye on everything, senior pastors and youth pastors basically share the same goals when it comes to running youth ministries in their churches.
The study found that a large majority of youth pastors put discipleship high on their priority list, while a small majority of them indicated that an outreach to teens outside of the church is a major goal.
“About one in seven reports their church places ‘a lot’ of emphasis on outreach to teens (13 percent), while two in five report ‘some’ emphasis on reaching out (41 percent),” the numbers showed. “The remaining 46 percent say outreach to teens outside the church is ‘a little’ (37 percent) or ‘not at all’ (9 percent) an emphasis for their congregation.”
What parents expect
When it comes to parents, they have a whole different outlook on what they expect youth ministries to provide for their children. Having high expectations, most parents find it hard to narrow down what they believe should be the most important objectives of youth ministry.
“Safety is of paramount importance to virtually all parents (96 percent very + somewhat important),” the Ventura, California-based organization announced. “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 recent introduction of ‘safe spaces’ on campuses across the country.”
It was found that parents are looking for a supportive community where their children will find positive fellowship with peers who are also growing in their Christian 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 percent) or somewhat important (39 percent) to them,” Barna researchers noted. “Like youth pastors, parents acknowledge that outreach and evangelism are important – but not as important as their other priorities.”
The survey also discovered that parents have high expectations for youth pastors, who they believe greatly influence the group experience in youth ministry.
“Seven in 10 parents whose teen regularly attends youth group say they have a ‘major expectation’ that their youth pastor is ‘discipling teens’ (72 percent),” the results indicate. “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 – among youth pastors alone, Barna found a wide range of definitions). About six in 10 parents say youth leaders should be ‘helping [teens] navigate friend relationships’ (62 percent) and ‘helping them navigate family relationships’ (60 percent), which may point to the relational volatility so many teens – and, by virtue of proximity, their parents –experience as they proceed through adolescence.”
Demographic factors swayed the way parents responded to the survey.
“White (47 percent vs. 30 percent other ethnicities) and high-income parents (52 percent vs. 36 percent of those who make less than $100,000 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 percent vs. 56 percent of those who make more than $50,000 per year) and warn them about drugs and alcohol (72 percent vs. 50 percent),” the study showed.
Sharon Galgay Ketcham, an associate professor of theology and Christian ministries at Gordon College, maintains that parents and spiritual leaders have always attempted to find the best way to mold youth and keep them out of trouble.
“There is a well-known narrative shaping our perception of teenagers,” Ketcham pointed out. “The narrative is as old as the socially created category ‘teenager’ that emerged in the 1900s. We hear it daily in the media, in helicopter parenting and even in our approaches to youth ministry: the idea that teenagers are broken, deficient and in need of help. We problematize teenagers and use significant resources to try and fix them. This narrative evokes fear and, in loving response, parents are desperate to keep them safe. I am not saying we live in a danger-free world; of course there are real dangers. What I am saying is that teenagers are more than problems to solve – they have potential as human beings, and surely God sees their potential in Jesus Christ through the work of the Spirit.”
As a contributor to the State of Youth Ministry report, she often gives Christian parents and church leaders insight on providing guidance to children, and after analyzing the results of the Barna study, she suggests that they try to see youth through God’s eyes.
“Helping teenagers imagine how they might contribute to God’s redemptive movement in the world will unveil their potential,” Ketcham impressed. “When parents, youth pastors and church leaders train their eyes to look beyond the dominant problem narrative – to recognize teenage potential and provide a place in the church for teenagers to practice using their gifts – teenagers will find a meaningful purpose in the church. The busyness of teenagers is connected to the longing of adults to help problematized teenagers make it into adulthood. Imagine if we saw teenagers as Christ does: full of potential to join God’s purpose.”