A few years ago, The Atlantic ran a cover story called “The Overprotected Kid.” The piece argued that a preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking and discovery—without making it 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. This dynamic plays out in schools and child care centers across the country, but is acutely felt in youth ministries. Are the parental priorities of safety shared by youth pastors and leaders? Whose goals take precedence? In partnership with Youth Specialties and YouthWorks, Barna conducted a major study on the state of youth ministry in the United States, which included a look at the expectations of pastors, youth leaders, and parents.
The Priorities of Senior Pastors & Youth Ministers
Barna researchers found that senior pastors and youth leaders are generally aligned when it comes to their thinking about what youth ministry should accomplish. 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. Seven in 10 senior pastors (71%) and three-quarters of youth pastors (75%) say this is one of their top goals.
“Building relationships with students” is a primary objective for about half of youth pastors (48%) and two in five senior pastors (40%), while “evangelism and outreach to youth” is selected by roughly one-quarter of each group (29% senior pastors, 24% youth pastors). “Evangelism to the parents of teens,” on the other hand, does not appear to be as important (7% senior pastors, 4% among youth pastors).
Even if most church leaders don’t prioritize reaching out to parents, many express a hope 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%). And youth pastors are even more likely to say so: One-quarter identifies this as a priority for their ministry (23%).
Similar percentages of senior pastors (12%) and youth pastors (10%) feel that providing a “safe and nurturing environment” is an important goal—which, as we will see, is a much higher priority among parents.
Senior pastors (17%) are more likely than youth pastors (10%) to emphasize “serving the community”—but “serving the church body” is at the bottom of both groups’ lists (6% senior pastors and 4% youth pastors). (Read more about Barna’s findings on the volunteering habits of teens and youth groups here.)
Overall, senior pastors and youth pastors are in sync when it comes to the goals of youth ministry.Senior pastors and youth pastors are in sync when it comes to the goals of youth ministry. Click To Tweet
While discipleship is high on most youth pastors’ priority list, a small majority also says that reaching teens outside the church is a significant focus of their ministry. About one in seven reports their church places “a lot” of emphasis on outreach to teens (13%), while two in five report “some” emphasis on reaching out (41%). The remaining 46 percent say outreach to teens outside the church is “a little” (37%) or “not at all” (9%) an emphasis for their congregation.
Outlining Parent Expectations
Parents have their own set of priorities when it comes to their kids’ youth ministry experience. And, as the chart shows, most parents have a hard time narrowing them down! A majority of parents whose teens regularly attend youth group rate each and every feature as either “very” or “somewhat important.”
Safety is of paramount importance to virtually all parents (96% very + somewhat important). 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.Safety is the top priority of youth group for virtually all parents. Click To Tweet
Essentially, parents want a supportive community for their kids where they have positive friendships with peers who are also exploring 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%) or somewhat important (39%) to them. Like youth pastors, parents acknowledge that outreach and evangelism are important—but not as important as their other priorities.
Youth pastors significantly shape the group experience, and parents’ expectations of their leaders reflect that reality. Seven in 10 parents whose teen regularly attends youth group say they have a “major expectation” that their youth pastor is “discipling teens” (72%). 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%) and “helping them navigate family relationships” (60%), which may point to the relational volatility so many teens—and, by virtue of proximity, their parents—experience as they proceed through adolescence.
White (47% vs. 30% other ethnicities) and high-income parents (52% vs. 36% of those who make less than $100K 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% vs. 56% of those who make more than $50K per year) and warn them about drugs and alcohol (72% vs. 50%).
What the Research Means
“There is a well-known narrative shaping our perception of teenagers,” says Sharon Galgay Ketcham, associate professor of theology and Christian ministries at Gordon College and a contributor to the State of Youth Ministry report. “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.
“Helping teenagers imagine how they might contribute to God’s redemptive movement in the world will unveil their potential,” continues Ketcham. “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.”
This is an excerpt from The State of Youth Ministry.
About the Research
Barna is currently in a multi-year study examining the state of youth ministry on behalf of Youth Specialties and YouthWorks. This research represents an initial look at some of the findings of this larger project.
Youth Ministry Leader Study
This study included 463 completed online surveys among a randomly selected sample of youth pastors nationwide. The survey was conducted from October 7 through October 25, 2013. The sampling error for the data is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
The data contained in this report originated through a research study conducted by Barna Group of Ventura, California. The questions were commissioned by Youth Specialties and YouthWorks. The PastorPollSM included 601 telephone interviews conducted among a representative sample of senior pastors of Protestant churches from within the continental U.S. The telephone interviews were conducted from September 20 to October 9, 2013. The sampling error for PastorPollSM is plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Youth Specialties is a ministry that equips youth workers and youth with relevant tools and training so today’s teens can find and follow Jesus. To learn more, visit youthspecialties.com. YouthWorks exists to connect teenagers to God, each other, and communities through life-changing, Christ-centered mission trips. To learn more, visit youthworks.com.
About Barna Group
Barna Group 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.
© 2017 by Barna Group.