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Youth Ministry Research Report


An abridged version of a rather lengthy report Bryan put together for the Wisconsin Conference UCC is available here.  If you would like a copy of the full version, please contact Bryan directly and request it.  He'll be glad to print out the full report (about 50 pages) and send it to you, as long as you're willing to pay for the printing and postage costs.  You can reach Bryan by calling  1-608-294-8716, or e-mail him at: --

Ten Key Marks of Thriving Youth Ministries


The following report was presented verbally by Bryan Sirchio at the 1999 annual meeting of the Wisconsin Conference of The United Church of Christ. The 20 minute report represents an overview of Bryan’s year long research project on behalf of the conference.

  1. Mark 1: Thriving Youth Ministries (TYM) are "Team Building"

There is a paradigm shift going on in youth ministry these days. The old paradigm was that youth ministries are built around the personality of one charismatic, extroverted leader--the "young guy with the beard and the guitar." To sum it up, that model is now being seriously critiqued for a number of different reasons;

A). Statistically, these leaders either burn out or move on after an average of 18 months--so there is a constant crisis of continuity in these ministries.

B). More importantly, this model has proven to be ineffective in helping youth enter deeply into the Christian faith. While teens may be drawn deeply to the Pied Piper (which can be a dangerous thing in and of itself), the Pied Piper is rarely able to transfer the allegiance from him or herself to the God of Jesus Christ.

The new paradigm is developing youth ministry teams of diverse adult lay leaders with no charismatic stars. Just teams of down-to-earth adults who love kids and are alive in their faith. The primary focus of professional leadership in these ministries is to nurture and train and equip the lay leaders.

  1. Mark 2: TYM are "Purpose Driven"

We’ve all probably heard the cliche-- "if you go nowhere on purpose, you’re sure to get there." One of the greatest areas of weakness in youth work in much of mainline Protestantism is that we are often not clear about what we’re really trying to do in youth ministry and why. In light of this, one of the two most helpful books I discovered this past year was a book called Purpose Driven Youth Ministry by Doug Fields, director of Youth ministries of Saddleback Community Church in southern California (the other "most helpful book" I found is The Godbearing Life by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster). Saddleback’s denominational roots are Southern Baptist, and it is a "mega-church." I must confess, because of my own prejudice and narrow-mindedness and arrogance, a big part of me did not want to like this book! To my surprise, its one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read. It was like getting a crash course masters in youth ministry. It provides a very sound and sophisticated model for helping congregations clarify what God is calling them to do, and then to create programs that are "driven" by their purpose. If we could get 2 churches in each Association to really work with this, it could radically alter the vitality of youth ministry in our conference altogether.

  1. Mark 3: TYM are "Relational"

This is very simple, but its extremely important. All the research underscores the fact that most often, the Christian faith is "transmitted" or "picked up" in the context of relationships. Think about your own experience. If you’re here today and you love God and you know that what your life is about is trying to respond to God’s amazing Grace and Love for you--chances are you can think of a person or two who, when the time was right in your life-- was there for you, helping you to catch a glimpse of what the Christian faith might mean for you if you really said "yes" to God from the depths of your being.

That’s how it happens. God uses people to reach people. And that’s why author Kenda Creasy Dean, director of the Institute For Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary writes;

"Who I am with youth, and not what I do with them, is what they will remember

20 years from now. Who I am with youth ultimately determines whether my

ministry points to Jesus Christ or something else. All those Sunday night meetings,

service projects, white water rafting trips, and spaghetti dinners matter only to the

extent that they serve as occasions to live my faith in the presence of youth and to

remind youth that they have a faith to live too." (The Godbearing Life, p. 41-42 )

  1. Mark 4: TYM are "Telling the Story"

We do a lot of relational work in most of our youth ministries. We’re pretty good at creating safe places for youth to go, develop relationships with trustworthy adults, have fun, and do good things. What we tend to not do as well, however, is help our teenagers enter deeply into a transforming relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.

Now there’s just too much under this mark for me to get into adequately now. But TYM create opportunities for youth to hear clear Gospel messages, expressed in ways that youth can clearly understand, and clearly respond to.

Research suggests that the majority of teens in mainline churches simply don’t know the basic Story of the Christian Faith. They are functionally illiterate when it comes to the Bible. I hope the kids in your church are an exception--but I doubt it.

So what does this mean? It means that if we want our youth to enter more deeply into the Faith, we need to clarify, for ourselves first, what the essential truths of the Gospel are--what’s the "good news?"--and we need to develop our ability to communicate spiritual content in ways that teenagers can truly hear and connect with and respond to.

When I asked Kenda Creasy Dean, Ph.D. in youth ministry--and no intellectual or theological slouch, believe me-- O.K.--so what’s the Good News? She paused for about 5 seconds and then said, "God loves you so much that God was willing to die for you. And God wants you to love others so much that you’ll do the same for them." Now that simple statement is anything but simplistic. It begs lengthy discussion regarding atonement theories and all kinds of other stuff--but its a statement that a 13 year old can understand and enter into.

  1. Mark 5: TYM are "Sensitive to the Processes of Personal Development and Spiritual Growth"

If we’re going to tell the Story and create clear opportunities for youth to say a deep "Yes" to Christ--we need to also give youth the space they sometimes need to be able to say "No"--or "Not yet"--or "I need time"--without making them feel like they’ve failed a test or let us down.

We need to deepen our understanding of why kids sometimes need to say no--or why they sometimes just "don’t get it" or "couldn’t seem to care less." Sometimes it has more to do with where they are in terms of stages of cognitive development than it does with our ability to communicate or their shallowness of character.

According to developmental psychologist Erik Erickson, one of the last things that happens during adolescence is the ability to embrace what he calls a "governing ideology." By "ideology" he means a conceptual framework or world view that helps a person make sense of life. For us, our Christian Faith is our governing ideology. Follow Jesus. "Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

But if most teens are not truly ready, developmentally, to embrace a governing ideology until the end of adolescence, then perhaps we should rethink what kinds of responses we are programming kids to make at the end of 7th or 8th grade--or whenever your confirmation program ends.

The kid who seems clueless at age 15 may respond is some dramatic way at age 17 to the same story you know you used at the same campfire at the same retreat 2 years ago for no other reason than that he or she was finally "ready" to hear what you had to say. So what does ministry mean while kids are in the process of "getting ready" to hear the Word?

  1. Mark 6: TYM are "Training Disciples For the Long Haul"

Doug Fields writes about a key moment in his own ministry. He ran into a former youth group member named Jake at the mall. Jake had been one of the most active, reliable, committed members of Doug’s Youth Ministry program until he went away to college. Jake was now a recent college graduate, and he confessed to Doug that he’d pretty much let go of the whole church thing after high-school.

Doug said God used that encounter to cause him to do some serious soul searching as to why so many of the kids who seemed so spiritually alive in high-school had lost their faith once the youth group experience was over. He realized that what had really happened was that most of these kids had been socialized into a particular group experience, and that he and his team had failed to equip youth with the spiritual disciplines that they would need to keep growing as Christians for a lifetime.

What are the spiritual disciplines he felt were important? The classical traditions of spiritual formation;
--scripture study and reflection on the text
--involvement in the church community
--accountability to other believers
--tithing or some kind of discipline of soulful giving with regard to money and resources

And Fields offers a wonderful model for how to train youth in spiritual disciplines in ways that youth can understand and even have fun with.

  1. Mark 7: TYM are the "Present of (and in) the Church"

Quite simply, virtually everyone in the field these days is saying that while its fine and good for youth to do things on their own--even developing unique models of worship that appeal directly to their own age group, ultimately, the Body needs to be together. The youth need the Church; every adult member of every congregation has an opportunity to "do youth ministry" simply by the way they treat the teenagers who are with them in worship on Sunday morning.

How do teens feel when they come to church? Are our services, including our music and our sermons and our liturgies, as much for teens as for adults? How would the teens in your congregation answer these questions? Do we really care? And for a number of reasons which I don’t have time to get into, the Church needs youth to be present and participating in the whole life of the congregation.

In an interview with Kenda Dean, she made a few statements that underscore why the presence of youth in the full life of the church can be such a gift to the congregation. I have woven these statements into one paragraph;

"Part of the human condition is that we all long for something that is worth dying for. But this longing is particularly acute during adolescence because teens don’t have the screens or defenses of adult society developed yet. The acute presence of this longing and searching for meaning calls us back to the real problems of being human, not just adolescent. We shouldn’t just be talking about youth ministry. We should be talking about what really addresses young people, and how young people really address us. Youth, who have not yet succumbed to a society which pressures us to ‘sell out’ to some degree, and who have not yet embraced a ‘governing ideology’ which may actually be in tension with the Gospel, can teach us about being vulnerable to the ‘gods’ in our life."

  1. Mark 8: TYM are "Evoking Gifts and Calling Youth into Mission"

Again, this is pretty simple, but crucial for us to take seriously. TYM help young people to discover and develop and use the gifts God has entrusted to them. These ministries train youth to be ministers and missionaries.

Again, Doug Fields offers a wonderful model for helping youth to go through the process of discerning what their gifts are, and then developing creative new ministries in which these gifts are used to serve others.

And every vital youth ministry I’ve looked at is big on the power of work projects and short term mission projects. We’ve been doing this well in our churches for a long time. All the research suggests we should do as much of it as we can, and in my report I’ve tried to share some reflections on why retreats and work camps are so spiritually transformational.

The more we can deepen our understanding of the dynamics of what tends to happen spiritually when people get away from their normal routines, and experience what Foster & Dean refer to as "dehabituation"--the more we can fine-tune our retreats and mission trips so that we are intentionally opening ourselves to the Presence and Movement of the Holy Spirit.

  1.  Mark 9: TYM are "Serious About Research and Development"

There’s no way I can get into this in any real depth. I’ve probably spent more time and effort on this component of the research than on anything else, and yet as I shared with the conference board of directors in a recent meeting, the more I get into the whole "Gen X," "Gen Y," "Buster, Blaster, Boomer" stuff--the less impressed I am with it. Not that its insignificant or unimportant. I think its implications are crucial for us to wrestle with if we want to work effectively with youth and young adults. But cultural research is an extremely fluid and inexact social science. The organizations that put the most money and time into it are the advertising agencies, most of whom define generations in terms of 4 year segments. By the time any of the research these organizations sell at a very high price is available to folks like us, the research is often outdated.

Kenda Creasy Dean helped me put it into a new conceptual framework though. Rather than thinking in terms of generational shifts, she contends that all this research basically applies to anyone who has grown up in the world of "postmodernity." Tim Celek and Defter Zanier, who are the directors of ministries to the Buster generation at Willow Creek, offer this definition of postmodernity in their excellent book, Inside The Soul of a New Generation. (P.46)

"...If you had to break it down to two words, try these: Anything goes.

The Busters were the first generation to grow up in the postmodern era, and it’s had a tremendous impact on them. They were the first generation to work their way through a completely secular public school system, where they learned that truth was an entirely subjective matter: There are no absolutes; everything’s relative.

Therefore, a postmodern person’s attitude might be, "Let’s respect each other’s truths. You have your truth; I have my truth. That’s fine for you.’"

In addition to the influence of postmodernity, the second greatest "shaping force" of the Gen X and Y crowd is the brokenness of the family. We all know this, but according to the research, the loss of stability in the family is even more consequential than we’ve tended to realize.

One of the results of it all is that kids are longing--though it may be hard for them to admit or trust it--more than ever--for adults who will love them and "be there for them." And this brings us back to the power of relational ministry.

One final thing. Surprisingly it is folks like Dieter and Zander in churches like Willow Creek who are downplaying the importance of needing high tech media in order to minister with youth. They insist that what’s really needed is not "high tech glitz"--but "low-tech, high touch" ministry. In other words, kids want to be loved even more than entertained.

  1.  Mark 10: TYM are "Humble, Prayerful, and Willing to Risk Failure"

Note: My allotted 20 minutes for the presentation of my research during the annual meeting actually ran out at this point. All I said was something like,

"We need to encourage youth ministers to feel free to try new things and not worry about failing. The research indicates that its time to radically rethink a lot of things, and those who are willing to do this need to be encouraged and supported to risk what may look like failure in their attempts to learn better ways to minister to and with youth. I could tell you some great stories about people who have tried things that didn’t "work," but which wound up being extremely important and fruitful in terms of what God was actually trying to accomplish--but I don’t have time to tell those stories now. One thing I want to just note in closing though is that the people I spoke with in the course of this research who impressed me the most in terms of the sophistication of their theology and purpose and programs-- also tended to be the most humble. They were the first ones to say something like, ‘Well, this is what we’re doing now, but we really don’t know what we’re doing a lot of the time. We keep trying new things, evaluating them, fine-tuning them, praying over them, and trusting that God will do something good despite all our weaknesses and inadequacies!’"

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updated: 15 years ago

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