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Research shows gap in parents’ and pastors’ objectives for youth ministry

Barna Group report reflects different perspectives, priorities

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterian Youth Triennium participants hold candles high at the conclusion of Friday evening's worship service. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Presbyterian Youth Triennium participants hold candles high at the conclusion of Friday evening’s worship service. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

LOUISVILLE – Parents and youth ministry leaders have differing views on youth ministry, suggests a recent report from the Barna Group. The report, “Pastors and Parents Differ on Youth Ministry Goals,” is derived from the comprehensive State of Youth Ministry study released last November in cooperation with youth ministry resource organizations Youth Specialties and YouthWorks.

When asked what the objective of youth ministry was within their context, 71 percent of pastors and 75 percent of youth pastors said discipleship and spiritual instruction were high priorities, followed by 40 percent and 48 percent respectively saying building relationships was a top priority.

On the other hand, 96 percent of parents say safety is very or somewhat important for youth ministry. “Presumably this would include their kids being kept safe from physical harm, but many parents may also think of safety in emotional terms, especially since the recent introduction of ‘safe spaces’ on campuses across the country,” the report concludes.

Yet, the highest expectation parents had of youth leaders was “discipling,” for which it was a “major expectation” of 72 percent of respondents, falling in line with what pastors and youth ministers consider the focus of their work.

“Church leaders tend to form their goals from the church’s mission statement, from their own understanding of Christian formation, or from a particular model of discipleship and ministry,” said Gina Yeager-Buckley, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) associate for youth ministries. “Parents tend to form their goals based on their ‘big picture’ view of their child’s livelihood, ethical behavior and understanding and how their child reflects the family ‘mission.’”

Amy Kim Kyremes-Parks, director of spiritual formation at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, agrees that youth ministry leaders have broader goals in mind for youth, including instilling lifelong faith and moral grounding. “We’re trying to create a moral and ethical framework with kids and their parents so they can live in the real world and adapt, not just know the right answers,” she said.

Barna’s interest in this topic was piqued by the article “The Overprotected Kid,” which appeared in The Atlantic in 2014. Researchers wondered how the “tug-of-war between a parent’s protective instincts and their desire to raise fearless kids” would play out in youth ministries. They found that, to a large degree, the protective attitudes parents exhibit on the playground, in school and through sports apply equally to those entrusted with the spiritual welfare of their children.

Kyremes-Parks believes parents rely on youth leaders to teach morality and decision-making, especially in regards to uncomfortable topics or issues the parents haven’t resolved for themselves.

“The data shows what our experience is,” she said. “By and large it’s the consumer society leading into the church. Parents sometimes say ‘I want you to have my kid for 1½ to four hours each week, and in that time I’d like you to completely spiritualize my kid and give them a Christo-centric worldview and help them develop a moral compass so they don’t do drugs or get pregnant.’”

It’s also a matter of parents looking for help in the spaces where they feel safe or where they wish they could have found advice as a teen.

“Many parents in the teenage years are parenting out of a gut reaction based on their own adolescence,” Kyremes-Parks said. “When you see them asking things of pastors or youth leaders it’s a reflection of what they needed when they were youth.”

In the Barna survey, parents also ranked peer relationships, life guidance and activities as important aspects of youth ministry. Service opportunities and mission trips were ranked lowest; just 48 percent said they were “very important.” Youth ministers ranked mission trips highest in their list of external activities that also included camps and retreats, with 74 percent saying mission opportunities are “very important.” Yeager-Buckley believes this difference is a matter of perspective.

“I wonder how the parental ‘big picture’ view gets involved in this statistic,” she asks of parents’ “overwhelming responsibility” of managing a teenager’s schedule of activities, including church commitments.

“Youth leaders see the experience as critical for a young person’s faith formation because they actually see the transformation, education and developing awareness that happens to a youth participant during a mission trip,” Yeager-Buckley said. “Parents are often not involved in the trip. They are on the receiving end of the trip — maybe privy to a slightly enthusiastic report after the trip — but they don’t actually get to see the trip unfold.”

Study authors conclude mission trips will continue to play an important role in youth work and that these trips will have to be justified against expectations, saying, “It will be important for youth ministry leaders and pastors to make strong connections to the outcomes they are attempting to create, such as discipleship, spiritual instruction and relationships.”

Yeager-Buckley recently participated in a youth ministry visioning process at a church where small groups of parents, youth leaders, youth and others voiced their hopes for the program. The results were similar to the Barna study.

“Parents said their primary goal was for their child to ‘Learn to live responsibly, ethically and to demonstrate these things in all of the aspects of their lives,’” she says. “The primary goal of the youth was to learn about God, and the primary goal of the leaders was to call young people to discipleship in Jesus Christ.

“Wowie! Are these completely separate? Do they have connections? It’s an interesting situation.”

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