Photo by Brad Neathery
If you’ve been in youth ministry for any length of time, you’ve probably heard a question along the lines of, “So what exactly do you do?” Or perhaps my favorite variation, “Isn’t that just on Sundays? What do you do the rest of the time?”
I remember an instance early on in my youth ministry days when an employee at Trader Joe’s was genuinely curious about what filled my time. I explained how my job has many roles: teacher, mentor, event planner, counselor, and volunteer coordinator, just to name a few.
Yet this question of what we do in youth ministry is a crucial one, particularly if we go a bit deeper than simply outlining our schedule to someone unfamiliar with the ministry world. What are we trying to do in youth ministry? Whether it’s our full-time job or we’re a volunteer, whether we serve in the church or in a youth organization: what are our hopes for our students? What are the goals we hope our ministry is accomplishing?
In short, what exactly are we doing?
The Fuller Youth Institute decided to ask youth leaders this very question as part of our Character Virtue Development in Youth Ministry project (funded by a planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation). We surveyed hundreds of youth workers across the country and, among other things, asked you to tell us your top five goals for your ministry. We then asked you to rank each of those five goals on level of difficulty, level of clarity, satisfaction with progress towards the goal, and how supported you are by leaders and/or congregants to pursue the goal.
We received over 2,000 goals, which gave us some fascinating insights about what we as youth ministries are trying to do!
Here’s what we discovered
On the whole, the ministry goals we looked at could be broken down into a few major categories:
- Not surprisingly, about 25% of all responses had to do with the students’ relationship with God, faith, worship, discipleship, or something similar.
- Another 25% had to do with some form of relationships with peers, adults, the church, and the community.
- About 15% described some form of learning, including Bible knowledge, theology, or skills.
- 12% aimed to create a specific type of environment, like one that is safe, fun, or a place of belonging.
- Service came in as the highest single goal, with about 9% of goals being specifically about students serving.
- Other goals included leadership, missions, wrestling with questions, partnering with parents, training volunteers, and evangelism.
Our research team wanted to observe trends on more specific goals beyond these big categories, so we categorized youth leaders’ goals as specifically as possible. While none of the goals came out as a clear winner in terms of being the most common, or easiest, most clear, most satisfying, or most supported, there were a few trends in the goals that are challenging.
In particular, we see that partnering with parents is difficult, unclear, unsatisfying, and unsupported. Witness or evangelism is also a difficult, unsatisfying, and unsupported goal. Third, the goals around a student’s relationship with God, faith, and discipleship are all generally difficult, unclear, and unsatisfying, yet encouragingly these are well supported and relatively common goals.
This project is just beginning. But based on our research so far, here are three goals that perhaps we can do better at prioritizing and clarifying in order to be more effective in our discipleship with young people.
Partnering with parents
Partnering with, equipping, or ministering to parents in some way was represented in 3% of the goals we received, ranked #15 of 29 types of goals we coded. A key finding of FYI’s 2010 Sticky Faith research affirmed that parents are the primary spiritual influence in a kid’s life; thus one of the best ways to nurture a faith that lasts is by partnering with parents.
Yet, according to this survey, we youth leaders are struggling to implement this important goal. Partnering with parents was rated as both the hardest and the least clear aim. Perhaps because it is so difficult and unclear, it’s not surprising that this goal was one of the least satisfactory. In other words, we as leaders aren’t sure exactly what we’re doing, it’s difficult, and we don’t feel great about how well it’s moving forward. On top of that, it’s one of the least supported by other leaders and congregants!
Many of us have heard and adopted the value of partnering with parents as a key aspect of youth ministry, but we may struggle to form action steps. If we’re doing this alone, without support of leadership or the congregation, and lack clarity on what we’d like our end result to look like, it is going to be difficult. We need clear vision, and clearer steps on how we are going to go about partnering with parents in simple, tangible ways. Hopefully, as we do so we can cast vision to those around us to get the support we need for this crucial goal of ministering not only to students, but also to their parents and caretakers.
The goal of better partnering with parents is one of several areas where Mark McMinn’s work in positive psychology and virtue (which project member Aaron Yenney recently introduced) can serve as a useful aid. Perhaps the research of “interventions” could be translated to benefit not just youth leaders, but also parents, in nurturing the qualities of Christ in students’ lives. How might the church partner with parents by offering tangible practices they can implement at home, too?
In your context, consider the role of parents in your ministry. If you resonate with these findings and want to make this goal more concrete, what conversations could you have to take steps forward? Perhaps you can:
- Talk to parents in your ministry to ask what partnership would look like to them, to gain more clarity.
- Find other youth workers wrestling with the same questions to share your trials and errors and make it a little easier.
- Reach out to key leaders or families in your church if you lack support. What stories or conversations could begin to spread this vision more broadly?
Witness or evangelism
Witnessing or evangelism was ranked closely to partnering with parents in frequency, also at 3% of all responses. Our research team was a little surprised that this goal did not appear with greater frequency. While we don’t have data to look back at 10 or 20 years ago to know if the prominence of evangelism has shifted, this stood out to us.
Our hunch that this value is shifting may in part be because resistance to evangelism in America is pervasive. This is not just outside the church, but Barna research recently found that nearly half of millennial Christians agree somewhat or strongly that “it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes they will one day share the same faith.” Clearly there has been a cultural shift in attitude, including among Christians, regarding evangelism or the attempt to convert others. Given this, it is not surprising this is the one of the least supported goals from our survey.
Along these lines, witness was the least satisfactory goal by a notable margin, and was in the top three hardest goals, just behind partnering with parents, and discipleship. (It should be mentioned here that several goals used the phrase “make disciples who make disciples,” which arguably has a witnessing value embedded in it; we categorized these as discipleship to stay true to the specific language used in the phrase. That being said, discipleship was right alongside witnessing in difficulty and satisfaction level, so the findings on evangelism are consistent even taking this into account.)
It is possible, however, that this trend reflects not a lack of evangelism, but a shift in our language or approach to it. As one leader commented in response to this finding, “our whole faith or life is our witness.” Perhaps the infrequency of specific evangelism goals is because our approach to witnessing has become more focused on relationship and service. For example, the goal of specifically building relationship with the local community was almost as common as witnessing (just under 3%). The goals for service and missions (which totaled 10%!) mentioned serving in the church, but also in the local and global community. In other words, it may not be that we are running away from witnessing, but rather we are approaching evangelism differently. We are adjusting to what our students, friends, and neighbors will receive in a culture guarded against and often offended by outright evangelism efforts.
Most if not all of us would say we long for all young people to experience a life with Jesus, but the path to get there may look different than it did in the past. This applies not only to evangelism: What exactly does it mean to have a relationship with God? And what does it mean to be a disciple, or to have faith?
In your ministry context, consider:
- what does witnessing mean to you?
- what does it mean to the young people around you?
- how are you or your young people currently witnessing, perhaps in ways that are different than prior generations?
- how can we teach, support, and model what it means to share Jesus with others with our whole life, in word and in action?
That brings us to our third trend.
Relationship with God, faith, and discipleship
As I mentioned in the beginning, if we lumped all the responses around connection to God together, they make up a quarter of all goals. If we break those down more specifically, a few specific goals mentioned more often are relationship with God (including references to all members of the Trinity), discipleship, and specifically using the word “faith” (such as a student owning or living out their faith).
It is encouraging and expected to find that these were such common goals.
What’s less encouraging is that commonality does not make them easy! In fact, all three of these goals were ranked among the most difficult, and near the bottom on satisfaction with progress. Faith was the least clear goal, while discipleship and relationship with God were on the lower side of average on clarity. Thankfully, however, these goals are well supported by other leaders and congregants.
When we think about a student’s relationship with God, their faith, or their path as a disciple of Jesus, it makes sense to acknowledge that the goal is difficult and our attempts to measure progress might be unsatisfying. As youth leaders, a lot of what we do is aimed at strengthening and growing a student’s relationship with God, but it’s hard to know if it’s “working.” Often because of the nature of adolescence, we won’t really know if students have cultivated a deep, lasting faith until after they’ve left our youth ministry. Further, while these goals are central to the heart of youth ministry, God is mysterious! So a student’s relationship, discipleship, and faith are hard to “track”. We might be able to check if a student has served recently, or gauge how well they know the Bible, but their relationship with God? It may seem like we can only guess.
This brings us back to FYI’s project on character, virtue, and the question of “interventions.” What if we developed practices and tools that could help us nurture the life of faith in our students? For example, Aaron mentioned in our previous post that following Jesus might convict someone to forgive, but that doesn’t mean they know how to forgive. A forgiveness intervention could be just that tool. Relationship with Jesus—being a disciple of Jesus—is about living, speaking, acting, serving, praying, being like Jesus. Perhaps by bringing clarity to what faith and discipleship look like in concrete terms, we can help students discover how to nurture these qualities of Christ, and learn how to live with and like him in every area of life.
We hope our research will unleash even more practical tools to help ministries engage a student in active discipleship, daily becoming more like Christ in all aspects of life and in all relationships. Whatever terms we use, it’s clear that relationship with God, discipleship, a student’s faith—these are important and central to the work of youth ministry. They are too important to be left as “difficult,” “unclear,” and “unsatisfying.” Our hope is to come alongside leaders and parents to leverage the tools that will bring clarity, tangibility, and depth to the work of discipleship, and build a faith that lasts.
A first step in greater effectiveness is clarifying your goals. What aims do you hope your ministry will accomplish?
This post is part of a series presenting findings from the Fuller Youth Institute’s Character and Virtue Development in Youth Ministry project, funded by a planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Read more from the project here.
 Mark R. McMinn, The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2017), 3.
More From Us
Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads sent straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.