Aug 11, 2020

COVID-19 Conversations: Kara Powell on Innovative Youth Ministry


Over the past few months, pastors and parents alike have expressed the struggle they face when it comes to ministering to children and youth in a time of social distancing. For pastors, figuring out how to keep children and teens engaged while doing church from a distance has been a challenge. For parents, trying to find the balance between work, childcare, school and screen time in the midst of a pandemic is often a daily battle.

In a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman are joined by Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, to discuss the unique challenges pastors, parents and teens are facing in the current moment.

Pastors Say Congregants Are Feeling Anxious and Parents Are Overwhelmed
While many pastors were at first optimistic about how their congregants were doing in the early weeks of the pandemic, recent Barna data show a downward trend in hopeful feelings amid churchgoers. Currently, one in three U.S. Protestant pastors (35%) believes their people to be hopeful in the current moment, while one in five (18%) says their congregants are anxious and one in seven says their people are tired or frustrated (14% each).

Pastors would also say that nearly all parents (97%) are feeling overwhelmed right now, a quarter (25%) being very overwhelmed, two in five (43%) being somewhat and three in 10 (28%) being a little.

Powell, a mom of three teenagers, offers sound advice to pastors and parents alike, urging church leaders to think through the options they’re currently offering for kids’ and youth ministry.

“Working parents, especially, are having a really hard time,” says Powell. “It was one thing to make it through the last six to eight weeks of the school year in the spring, but now to imagine that you’re going to be juggling work and [your children’s] school, that’s just really tough [for parents].”

“And then there’s this gap between what schools are doing and the restrictions they’re placing on in-person visits, while churches seem more lenient [with social distancing guidelines],” continues Powell. “My hunch is most parents are going to be pretty reticent to send their kids to an in-person church environment if the school system has told them, ‘We’re not ready for you yet in schools.’”

Powell notes, “I hope [pastors are] asking parents and finding out, ‘Hey, are you ready to send your kids into an in-person environment, even if your school is all online?’”

Another way for churches to minister not just to teens, but to their parents as well, is through webinars, Powell says. “Research shows, across the board, that there is no more important influence on a young person’s faith development than their parents. [Pastors, your] influence can best be leveraged when you equip parents who have, in general, far more time—especially during the pandemic—around their children and their teenagers.”

“A lot of creative churches are doing parent webinars, and I’ll tell you, I think many of them are seeing greater response from parents, especially if it’s a specific topic that’s very relevant to parents [right now], like anxiety, technology, how to have better faith-related conversations with your young person.”

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Half of Pastors Are Struggling with Children’s Ministry Right Now
Just a few weeks ago (July 24-26, 2020), Barna asked U.S. Protestant pastors to list the biggest challenges they are currently facing. While figuring out a hybrid church model (44%) and maintaining the church’s growth and momentum (46%) in a time of social distancing were widely selected responses, half of pastors (47%) agree that ministry to kids and youth is the largest challenge they are facing right now.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to youth leaders, and I think one of the biggest mistakes that we’ve made in youth ministry [right now] is assuming we could take what we were doing in-person with young people and drag-and-drop that into Zoom,” says Powell. “You can’t take an in-person experience and try to exactly duplicate it on Zoom.”

Powell concludes, “What I think beats at the heart of next gen ministry, and really all ministry, is innovation. Let’s really understand. Let’s empathize with what our people are going through, with what our young people, children and parents are going through, and then let’s experiment with different ways that we can respond to those needs.”

Using Distance as a Catalyst for In-Person Connections
Pastors and parents alike often express a distaste for technology. Pastors prefer in-person worship services and having a set time in the week for face-to-face conversations with their congregants. Parents are aware of the dangers of too much screen time for their children and would prefer to leverage technology as a reward in their household, rather than a necessity. But the pandemic has forced everyone’s hand, leaving no choice but to be immersed in technology in order to maintain connection with others.

Gen Z, and even Millennials, are no stranger to technology and massive amounts of screen time. For these younger generations, screens offer them the chance to stay connected to their friends worldwide and up to date on global events. Church leaders and parents may have a thing or two to learn from their children and youth.

In wrapping up her conversations with Nieuwhof and Kinnaman, Powell shares her thoughts on how youth leaders can use technology and this moment of social distancing to encourage safe, in-person connections and conversations.

“[The blend between technology and real life] has been catalyzed by the pandemic,” notes Powell, “but how do we combine the power of technology with the warmth of relationship? I think we really need to be doing both, and I think the best examples I see is when technology is used as a catalyst for discussion. … How can we use technology to offer some meat to chew on, but then spend more time together in discussion?”

“I recently spoke to a colleague who shared how their church did watch parties with small groups, but it wasn’t just adults [attending], teenagers were also a part of it,” explains Powell. “When the service ended, the teenagers ended up leading the debrief discussion for those four or five families who had come together for small group. I think this shows, again, how it’s mostly about connecting, whether you’re using technology to connect, or in the example I just used, you’re actually in-person, six to eight feet apart.”

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About the Research
COVID-19 Data: 
Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–July 26, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020

Featured image by Kamila Maciejewska 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, 2020

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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