Jul 26, 2021

ChurchPulse Weekly Conversations: Kara Powell on Engaging Teens’ Questions

Over the past month, Church Pulse Weekly’s has featured guests and episodes specifically focused on next gen ministry. To wrap up this month’s theme, Dr. Kara Powell (Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute) and David Kinnaman sit down to discuss the deeper questions church ministries need to be asking their teens, the tensions of social media for a generation searching for meaning and the importance of addressing your personal insecurities as a leader.

Meeting Teens in their Questions
Dr. Powell has found younger generations to be eager seekers of answers to difficult questions about the world around them. In her research, she categorizes the questions this younger generation is focused on into three categories: identity, belonging and purpose.

She challenges ministry leaders to examine if their ministry creates space for young people who are wrestling with these deeper questions. Encouraging leaders to learn from youth, Dr. Powell shares, “We can actually talk to [teens to ask] what are the losses and longings that propel them and keep them up at night […] How can our ministry be a place where they find those answers?”

Dr. Powell sees this approach as mirroring Jesus’ ministry in many ways. She says, “By one count of the gospels, Jesus was asked 183 questions. What’s even more remarkable is that Jesus asked 307 questions. Let’s take that curious posture to try to understand what’s happening at the surface, and what are the identity, belonging and purpose questions beneath it.”

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Embracing the Gifts—and Challenges—of Social Media
When it comes to social media, Dr. Powell shares that while she is a fan of technology, she’s concerned about the “mixed bag” effects it has on one’s ability to seek answers to difficult life questions.

Powell sees Gen Z’s engagement with social media as deeply integrated with the weightier questions they’re asking about identity, belonging and purpose. In considering its impact on identity, she says, “Social media is wonderful because it’s a tool to get a sense for who you are. The challenge is it also gives you all sorts of opportunities to project false images of yourself and compare yourself with others.”

Additionally, social media impacts young people’s search for belonging. “There are a lot of young people who say social helps them feel connected to each other. We saw this in the pandemic. For many of them, social media was a social lifeline to help them feel that they were involved in others’ lives.” Powell shares, “But on the flipside, social media also shows us what we’re not a part of.”

Powell sees social media as allowing teens to seek purpose by educating them on the social injustices in the world around them. She shares, “In 2020, when there were so many conversations about racial justice, most nights at dinner my first question was, ‘What did you see on social media about race?’, and that would be about half of our dinner conversation.”

Modeling Your Own Struggles
Recent data from Gen Z Volume 2 also shows that two in five of all of Gen Z (41%) qualify as either internally or externally pressured (31% can be categorized as “internally pressured,” 25% as “externally pressured”).

For a generation struggling under the weight of pressure, Powell has found it important to lead in humility by admitting her own mistakes rather than attempting to display perfection.

She shares, “There’s something poignant when I talk about my own struggles in questions of identity, longing, purpose […] When I feel myself being insecure, I try to ask ‘What’s being triggered with my identity, belonging and purpose?’”

Powell continues, “As we want young people to embrace those answers, I think the road to them embracing those answers is a lot smoother when we’ve shared our own struggle in embracing those answers.”

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About the Research
Interviews for this study were conducted using an online consumer panel of 1,503 U.S. teens and young adults ages 13 to 21 between June 15 and July 17, 2020. Quotas and minimal weighting were used to ensure data are representative of known U.S. Census ethnicity, gender, age and region. Margin of error is ±2.53 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

Featured image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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