The two top challenges youth leaders faced in 2023

LaTasha Nesbitt Image LaTasha Nesbitt | Dec 5, 2023

Aunt Doris and Uncle Leroy Johnson were a married couple that served as second parents to everyone in the community. They provided for the basic needs of countless young people, and they were spiritual guides for us all. They were critical lights in my village.

One of my most memorable moments was learning the books of the Bible while in Sunday School with the Johnsons. We’d recite them week after week, with a divine cadence. When I was six years old, I recall sitting in the vinyl cushion chair as my legs dangled in the air, anxiously awaiting my turn. I was up: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2nd Kings…I did it.

The Johnsons were also my youth leaders. At the start of my senior year of high school, my dad passed away suddenly. There was a self-inflicted push to maintain a sense of normalcy. Though I went to school the next day, there existed a hollowness in my heart to gain a greater sense of purpose and peace. I turned to my church, and to the Johnsons in particular. They were essential in my spiritual formation and provided a constant place of belonging until I left to attend college. Their impact is felt to this day.

Youth leaders, your ministry is making an important impact

In 2023 I stepped into a new role as Research Director here at FYI. One of my greatest desires has been getting to know you—our community. During times I’ve gotten a chance to meet you at a recent conference or via Zoom through our Youth Leader Advisory Council, I’ve learned that there are thousands of Aunt Dorises and Uncle Leroys in the Church, as evidenced in the profound work you provide daily in the lives of young people. Thank you for your commitment to serve in this way.

At FYI, we understand that while the work of youth leaders can be rewarding, it is not void of its challenges. In a recent look at responses from more than 1,000 people who took our subscriber survey over three years (2020-2023), we garnered significant data that allowed us to hear you voice your concerns as youth leaders. While responses have varied, some common themes weave together a beautiful story from the challenges youth leaders are currently facing.

By the numbers: youth ministry in 2023

In 2023, youth leaders' most pressing concerns centered around the fact that young people are extremely busy or not prioritizing church attendance. One youth leader stated that it’s been challenging “working around overbooked youth schedules. Youth are running in ten different places.” Another said, “Between jobs, sports, and school, it is hard to get youth to regularly attend [church or youth group].” Still another echoed this sentiment, suggesting the difficulty in “…working with people’s busy activity schedules and having a church be a place families want to be.”

Youth leaders are also troubled by young people’s lack of interest in establishing a desire for God and the Church, and in taking ownership of their faith. One participant said, “We have a lot of students who have a simple understanding of the gospel but don’t quite understand the weight of the difference it can make in their lives.” Another discussed the challenge to “…teach kids to take ownership of their faith and practicing spiritual disciplines on their own.” Youth leaders are faced with inspiring young people to live out the gospel in their everyday spaces.

Youth leaders have previously voiced similar concerns. Throughout 2022, the top concerns we heard addressed lack of support, developing volunteers and leaders, and young people’s apathy and lack of engagement. In 2021, lack of relational connection ranked highest amid the pandemic problems that impacted relational and structural dynamics, in addition to difficulty establishing biblical values and the desire for God and the Church.

While pandemic challenges are no longer at the forefront, some notable other concerns have progressively grown among youth leaders. The challenge of young people’s busyness and not prioritizing church grew from 3% in 2020, to 8% in 2021, and to 19% in 2023. And youth leaders are still struggling to establish a desire for God and faith in young people—a concern that has grown 50% from 2021 to now. While we cannot account for a direct cause of this concern, the presence of the challenge to encourage young people to prioritize church and God is evident in each data point. For youth leaders, it can be difficult to be effective when the teenagers you love and serve aren't attending consistently.

3 practical strategies to refuel your engagement with young people

While there have been glimmers of improvement regarding pandemic impact, frustration remains present for youth leaders. Often I’m reminded of Moses’ frustration as the children of Israel murmured and complained in Numbers 11. God provided specific instructions to Moses that led to the creation of a village of people and resources that would aid in lightening Moses’ load.

Our FYI team’s prayer is that God anoints those around you to help carry the load in your assignment to serve young people. We hope that through further conversation and relevant resources, we too can continue to be an arm to help lighten that load. It truly does take a village.

Until the village assembles, as I consider the complexities of raising my own two teens to remain grounded in Christ, I want to provide three practical strategies that could prove beneficial for youth leaders who want to engage young people who don’t come to church:

1. Go to where they are. Set up shop. Remaining flexible in your locale can seem inconvenient. But I remember as a young person in the early 90s, it was fascinating to see my youth leaders in places outside the church. They supported me at my cheer competitions, they supported family functions, and they showed up. When I couldn’t get to them, they found time to get to me.

2. Work to remain relevant. Learn teenagers’ lingo. Veer from the lesson plans. While there are curricula that require careful planning, be open and allow space to hear from your young people. Be innovative in your delivery. Incorporate (appropriate) popular music that could aid in bringing the message of Christ.

3. Lead with love. Young people are inundated with messages about what they can and cannot do. Going to church can sometimes represent a continuation of restrictions. Springtide’s latest work explores the work of sacred spaces,[1] concluding that one of the elements of sacred spaces is that they’re relational. While some of this space equips teenagers’ connection with God, it’s also an opportunity for them to connect with adults.

At FYI, we know you long to be successful and flourish in your role as a youth leader. However, one young person in Springtide’s report reminds us that success should not be our goal—qualities like impact are more important: “I’m not sure that religious or spiritual organizations should be going for ‘successful.’ Honest, kind, impactful, yes. But the pursuit of success is what often leads to a lack of things we say we prioritize.”[2] As we go where our young people are, work to remain relevant, and lead with love, there will be significant opportunities for impact and profound invitations for our teenagers to prioritize God and church.

In all, we hope to advance in rigorous yet relevant research in the months and years to come. Your partnership and your voice continue to matter to us. We see you, and we hear your concerns. For FYI, we aim to continually be a part of the village alongside you, helping faithful young people change our world. We look forward to learning more from you in the months and years ahead.

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[1] Sacred spaces those things, places, and moments that feel special and set apart from others—experiences that evoke a sense of wonder, awe, gratitude, deep truth, and/or interconnectedness.

[2] Springtide Research Institute, The State of Religion & Young People 2023: Exploring the Sacred. (Bloomington, MN: Springtide Research Institute, 2023). p. 26.

LaTasha Nesbitt Image
LaTasha Nesbitt

LaTasha Nesbitt, Ph.D. is the Research Manager at Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). Born and raised on Chicago’s southside, she brings a unique perspective on serving God, understanding research, and connecting with youth. She has served as adjunct professor, business owner, and itinerant pastor. Her greatest joy is to assist others in discerning their God-given gifts and assignments. She holds a Ph.D. and M.A in Educational Policy Organization and Leadership from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.A. in Political Science from Eastern Illinois University. Some of her favorite memories include: traveling to Israel, giving birth to two children, and discovering her Dad’s family five years following his death. Her current research interests are regarding the history of race in American society and effective post-pandemic leadership within the church context. She enjoys and embraces the power of storytelling, spoken word, Zumba, and all things genealogy.

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