I’m reading through the research on youth ministry by the Barna organization. The subtitle of the book is “How Churches Reach Today’s Teens – and What Parents Think About It.” What a tantalizing title!

I’m going to divide this first set of observations into three categories. First, what I expected to see. Second, what I found affirming but puzzling. And third, what surprised me.


What I expected…

I wondered how much the packed schedules of teens interfered with participation in youth ministry. Barna reports that 74% of youth leaders cite teen busyness as the main obstacle to their ministry. As I have listened to youth leaders I often hear the same frustration. “How can I schedule anything when I’m in competition with so many other activities?”

What I didn’t expect was the finding of the report that only 11% of parents think their child is way too busy. That’s a huge gap between parental perception and youth leader experience.


What I found affirming…

A whopping 93% of parents said the youth ministry in their congregation was “somewhat” or “very” effective. Likewise, 95% of parents reported that they were “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with their youth pastor. I don’t think youth leaders could get a better rating than this.

Nevertheless – and on the other hand – only 45% of parents reported interacting with the youth leader a lot. This leads me to be suspicious about the level of attention some parents are giving to the youth program. Are they just assuming it is working because “no news is good news?”


What I found surprising…

I looked at the definitions and demographics at the very back of the book and discovered that the study divided small and large youth groups this way. Small youth groups had 50 or fewer youth attending on a weekly basis, while large youth groups had 51 or more attending on a weekly basis.

Really? Would I be far off the mark if I assumed that in our church body about 95% of our youth groups would fall into the “small” category, if not more? Even our large congregations would have difficulty meeting the “large” criterion. Fortunately, many of the insights from the study do not hinge on the size of the youth group.

In the next blog I’ll share some insights on challenges and practices in youth ministry. If you would like to get your own copy of the research, you can do so here: https://www.barna.com/product/state-youth-ministry/

Dr. John Oberdeck was a parish pastor in Southern Illinois for ten years, and served on the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in the Practical Department for thirteen years before coming to Concordia University Wisconsin in 2002, most recently serving as the Director of Lay Ministry. He retired in June 2017. He and his wife, Ginny, live in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, and have three grown children and seven growing grandchildren.

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