May 2, 2005

From the Archives

Research Examines the Role of Healthy Families in Youth Ministry

As part of Barna Group’s ongoing Faith That Lasts project, the firm has been examining the dynamics of faith formation among teenagers. One of the elements explored in the research was the degree to which Christian youth leaders expose teenagers to healthy Christian families as part of the youth ministry strategy. The findings reveal that most youth leaders view this as important but do not see this as a primary part of their task.

The implications of the findings were discussed in a recent discussion with Barna Group president, David Kinnaman.

Q – Overall, what does this research tell us?
Kinnaman – It shows that youth ministry professionals are not of one mind about this issue. In broad terms, about one-quarter say they think it is very important to demonstrate to the teenagers in their group what a healthy functioning Christian family looks like. Another one-fourth of youth leaders believes this is somewhat important, while the rest – about half of all paid youth pastors and leaders – describe this as important but not part of their strategy.

Q – Does this show that youth ministry professionals are missing something obvious about how they should minister to today’s students?
Kinnaman – We have to be very careful about jumping to conclusions about what youth ministers are getting right and what they are doing wrong. Of course, it is important to evaluate what is working and not working, but we have to be careful about making snap judgments about the priorities and planning of youth workers. Why is that? First, I firmly believe that it is more difficult to be working with teenagers than at any other time in at least the previous 50 years. Second, these leaders are often torn between a wide range of competing preferences and goals – those of teens, parents, and the pastors and church boards who employ them. Third, it is not always clear to many youth pastors that families should be a priority. For example, less than one-tenth of senior pastors believe that the reason teenagers lose their faith is a lack of family modeling. So, one of the biggest challenges youth pastors face is getting all of the leaders in the church working from the same playbook.

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Q – Why did you explore this aspect of youth ministry?
Kinnaman – We wanted to provide a simple snapshot of the priorities of youth leaders. There has been discussion, edging on vigorous debate, between youth ministry leaders and family ministry advocates. One of the points of difference has been whether youth ministry places enough emphasis on families.

Q – What are the two sides of this debate, as you see it?
Kinnaman – The argument for many family ministry advocates is that adolescents need to have a tangible model of what they should be shooting for later in life: loving, forgiving relationships expressed in the context of a family. These advocates say that youth ministry strips away the natural, even-if-imperfect influence of strong families that can emerge in a congregational setting. The most vocal advocates of this position believe that youth ministry needs to be reorganized in and through family ministry.

On the other hand, some youth leaders counter by saying that there are too few strong families in their churches to provide effective models. They remind us that even the most well-intentioned parent cannot give to their children what they do not have. Moreover, it is a fact that there are many fewer traditional families today than ever that have not been affected by divorce or some other significant challenge. It is also true that part of the defining feature of adolescence is a time of autonomy from parents. So one of the aspects of effective youth ministry, these advocates reason, is to help young people develop a faith that is not ingrown with that of their parents’ perspectives—even when they come from good families. During this phase of life, youth ministry leaders point out that teenagers are dealing with a range of complex pressures that cannot be addressed by merely including strong families in the mix.

Q – Do you have a point of view about what is better for today’s youth?
Kinnaman – On this point, our research is merely descriptive, not prescriptive. The study did not look at what works best. However, the conclusion that one could draw is that too few youth leaders are making it a priority to include healthy families as  part of their strategy.  This is not to say that it’s easy for youth ministers to do this in every case. Many youth leaders face a significant lack of strong families who are willing to give of their time to the youth ministry. Furthermore, the fact that today’s younger generation is getting married so much later makes the presence of effective family modeling in a church seem like a quaint, distant life event, rather than a soon-to-be-real decision.

Despite these headwinds, the research shows that today’s church leaders need to reexamine some of their priorities. This applies not just to youth workers, but to all those concerned with the faith development of the next generation – pastors and parents. It is hard to imagine young people developing into the full expression of spiritual maturity without more intentional exposure to strong family models.

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Survey Methodology
This report is based on a study of 508 online surveys conducted with youth pastors and youthworkers in Protestant churches. Their status was either full-time or part-time employees of these congregations. Volunteer youthworkers were not included in this study. This sample accounted for about one-third of Protestant churches.

Survey participants were randomly chosen from nationwide lists of churches and were recruited to participate in the study by telephone, then completed the survey online. The cooperation rate of those randomly selected by telephone to complete the survey online was 57%. Slight statistical weighting was applied to reflect regional and denominational distribution of Protestant churches.

The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +5.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. There are other forms of survey error that cannot be statistically estimated.

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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