Reading Between the Lines

Photo by Sarah Noltner

In “What Women Want,” Mel Gibson is given a rare ability that is shared by no other man on the planet. Both a blessing and a curse, he alone is granted the ability to read women’s thoughts. He hears what they think about themselves, this world, and most importantly, what they think about him.

Don't you sometimes wish you had that same ability to read the thoughts of the people in your ministry? Then you could find out what your students really thought about what was happening, what really happens to kids once they graduate from your ministry, what parents really feel about what their kids were experiencing, and what adult volunteers really need from you as a leader.

Actually, it’s not as hard as you think. It doesn't take a movie script and it doesn't even take Mel Gibson. All you have to do is start asking.

That's exactly what the staff of Fuller Youth Institute recently did. A local church contacted us and asked us to try to assess which elements of their ministry philosophy and program seemed to be having the most impact. The best way we knew to do that was to simply ask.

Using a series of focus groups, we asked parents, students, graduates of the youth ministry, and volunteer staff all sorts of questions (the Krispy Kreme donuts we offered really got the conversation flowing). The raw answers and honest experiences that we heard about are likely not all that different from what the parents, students and volunteers in your ministry might have to say.

Themes of the Discussion

While it's tough to summarize five hours of discussion in just a few paragraphs, there were some dominant themes. First, when asked about the most memorable or impactful experiences in the ministry, most answers revolved around either relationships or service. There seemed to be two types of relationships that were most impactful: student to adult leader as well as student to student. While time serving setting up snacks for the youth group and working with orphans in Mexico definitely helped these relationships, these service acts seemed to have their own transformative power. Parents and students agreed that time spent in service was one of the primary ways God seemed to impact the kids in the youth ministry.

A second theme (and this might be true of your own ministry), is that parents deeply desire more connections with the high school ministry but don’t know how to make those connections happen. Parents report that when they show up to the youth group to observe or see if they can help with any tasks, they often feel unwanted and peripheral. To overcome this, parents wish that they were regularly invited to help out with youth group events or even to spend time with the adult leaders in the ministry.

Third, when asked what kept them from coming to youth group, most students said it was that they didn'’t feel connected. If they “didn’t know many people,” they avoided coming to youth group. It was generally the development of a relationship with either an adult volunteer or another student that made them feel welcome at youth group services and events.

Adult leaders generally recognized that their role was pivotal in helping students feel connected to the ministry. When asked what they could receive that would help them better minister, they first asked for greater training. While some reported receiving some brief initial training, they felt they needed relevant training on an ongoing basis. Second, they wished they received more personal support. That support could come from other leaders in the ministry or perhaps from other adult mentors who would be willing to meet regularly with them for encouragement and prayer.

Ask Away in Your Own Ministry

Perhaps even more valuable than what we discovered was the process of bringing people together and listening to their thoughts and experiences. We're including the questions we asked our focus groups below. Please use these as a springboard for holding your own focus groups. You never know what you might learn that could revolutionize your own ministry.

Questions for Students

  1. If you left the youth ministry right now, what would be your top memories?
  2. What do you think makes a successful, or effective, youth ministry?
  3. Which people have had the most positive influence in shaping who you are as a Christian, and how have they influenced you?
  4. What is the best thing that has recently happened on a Sunday morning? What made it so great?
  5. What does the high school pastor do well as a teacher? What should he do differently?
  6. What made you start to come to youth group?
  7. Would you come to Sunday morning or small group if it were totally your choice? Why or why not?
  8. Was there ever a time when you stopped coming to youth group? If so, what made you come back?
  9. Do you know of friends from the church who don’t come to youth group? Why don’t they come?
  10. When you see another high school student growing in God, what does it look like?
  11. What has been your favorite recent trip with high school? What made it so great?
  12. What factors help you decide whether or not to go on a trip?
  13. Would you rather spend a week at a camp like Hume Lake for $400 or a week at a camp like Angeles Crest Camp for $150?
  14. Have you ever gone on a mission trip with the high school ministry? Why or not?
  15. Would you rather do a weeklong missions trip to Mexico for $200 or to Brazil for $1200?
  16. What else would you like us to know about your experience in the youth ministry?

Questions for Graduates of the Youth Ministry

  1. When did you graduate? What are you doing now (i.e., work, school)? How often do you go to church?
  2. What are your top 2 memories from the high school ministry?
  3. Are you still in touch with any adults who you knew from the high school ministry?
  4. What adult (other than your parents) most influenced you in high school? What did they do that made them so influential in your life?
  5. Would you have come to Sunday morning or small group if it were totally your choice? Why or why not?
  6. Was there ever a time when you stopped coming to Sunday morning? If so, what made you come back?
  7. Do you know of friends from church who didn’t come to Sunday morning or small group? Why didn’t they come?
  8. When you see a high school student growing in God, what does it look like?
  9. What factors helped you decide whether or not to go on a trip?
  10. Did you ever go on a mission trip with the high school ministry? Why or not?
  11. What could the high school ministry have done to help you better transition to college life out of high school?
  12. What else would you like us to know about your experience in the youth ministry and/or transition to college life?

Questions for Parents

  1. What 3 words would your kid(s) use to describe the high school ministry right now?
  2. If your kid(s) left the youth ministry right now, what do you think would be their top memories?
  3. What do you think makes a successful, or effective, youth ministry?
  4. Why do you want your kids to go to Sunday morning youth group?
  5. Have your kid(s) shared with you anything meaningful or memorable from Sunday morning in the last 2-3 months? If so, what was it?
  6. Given what your kid(s) have told you or what you have seen, what does the high school pastor do well as a teacher? What should he do differently?
  7. Was there ever a time when your kid(s) stopped coming to youth group? If so, what made them come back?
  8. Do your kids have friends from the church who don’t come to youth group? Why don’t they come?
  9. When you’ve seen your own kid(s) or another high school student growing in God, what does it look like?
  10. What non-parental adult has been most influential on your kid? What 3 things have they done that have been so influential?
  11. What factors help your family decide whether or not a kid should go on a trip?
  12. Would your family rather have your kid spend a week at a camp like Hume Lake for $400 or a week at a camp like Angeles Crest Camp for $150?
  13. Has your kid ever gone on a mission trip with the high school ministry? Why or why not?
  14. From the perspective of your family, is it better for the high school ministry to offer a weeklong missions trip to Mexico for $200 or to Brazil for $1200?
  15. What else would you like us to know about you and your students’ experience in the youth ministry?

Questions for Adult Volunteer Small Group Leaders

  1. What experiences with the high school ministry are having the most impact on the kids in your small group?
  2. What do you think makes a successful, or effective, youth ministry?
  3. Given what your kid(s) have told you or what you have seen, what does the high school pastor do well as a teacher? What should he do differently?
  4. When any kid in your small group stops coming to youth group, why do you think it is that they stop?
  5. Have the kids in your small group ever gone on a mission trip with the high school ministry? Why or why not?
  6. In what tangible ways does the paid high school staff support you?
  7. What else do you need from the paid staff?
  8. In what tangible ways do the parents of the kids in your small group support you?
  9. What else do you need from them?
  10. What are the top two or three opportunities, or areas of potential, for the high school ministry?
  11. What are the top two or three threats, or things that could derail the high school ministry from moving forward?
  12. What else should we know about that we haven’t talked about yet?

 

Action Points

  1. Which of the discussion themes would be most true in your ministry? Which would be least true?
  2. When is the last time you did a systematic survey of the people in your ministry to gain their perspective? How do you feel about your answer?
  3. Which of the questions above would you most like to ask the students, parents, graduates and volunteer staff in your ministry?
  4. What other questions do you wish you could ask your students, parents, graduates and volunteer staff that are missing from the lists above?