Notes from an American Study of Youth Ministry

Over the last decade or more, a project entitled ‘Exemplary Youth Ministry’ has been in progress in the United States. Results from the study were published in 2010 in The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry: Leading Congregations toward Exemplary Youth Ministry. While there are many differences between the American and Australian contexts, not least in the numbers of churches that can afford paid youth leaders, there are some findings that are important for youth ministry in Australia.

The study that took place in the United States was large and comprehensive, being funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment. It involved churches from seven denominations: Assemblies of God, Evangelical Covenant, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church (USA), Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and United Methodist Church.

The first major issue in the research was to determine what would count as characteristics of ‘vital Christian faith’ among young people. Seven dimensions of a vital Christian faith were identified as part of this picture: Seeking spiritual growth, possessing a vital faith, practising faith in community, making the Christian faith a way of life, living a life of service, exercising moral responsibility and possessing a positive spirit.

The study found that in churches with a strong youth ministry, this ministry was integrated into the life of the church as a whole. They found that these churches had an effective Christian education programs in which there was clear teaching about how to be a Christian. These churches also taught people about Christian perspectives on moral issues and helped people to apply their faith to decisions about what’s right and wrong. At the same time, they involved people in helping others through community service, making use of each member’s talents and abilities within the congregation and in the wider community. These churches also had an emphasis on mission.

While the overall life of the church and intergenerational activities are critical for the development of youth ministry, age-specific activities also play a significant role. Young people in those churches with a strong youth ministry were very positive about the youth ministry itself. The specific content of the youth ministry programs was not of critical importance, but the ethos developed within the youth activities was. In Australia, the influence of parents on their children’s religious faith has also been found to be very strong. It was found in surveys of 3000 students in Catholic schools that, when both parents were attending church monthly or more often, 90 per cent of the children also attended monthly or more often, and only 2 per cent said they never attended. When neither parent ever attended church 90 per cent of their children did not attend frequently and 10 per cent of their children attended monthly or more often. The practice of the parents was, by far, the strongest influence on the practice of the children.

The quality of the leadership in the local church is also important for the overall quality of the youth ministry. While giving young people responsibility can be positive for their faith, these young people needed to be mentored in their roles.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 22, No. 2, Pages 9-13

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