I was listening to Mark Matlock’s “Transforming Conversations: Using Research from Barna’s State of Youth Ministry Report” session from the National Youth Worker’s Convention the other day and wanted to respond to part of it. Essentially, Barna and Youth Specialties did a massive survey on youth ministry in America, producing a lot of valuable data for youth workers and churches to process and discuss; you can find the research here. In his session at the convention, Matlock highlighted some of the data, including the topic of what obstacles youth workers face in youth ministry.
To reveal my own bias, before hearing the results, my immediate response to the question of my greatest obstacle in youth ministry is my own busyness.
According to the survey, the top two obstacles reported by youth workers were (1) the busyness of youth (74% said this) and (2) 34% reported lack of parent interest (respondents could put more than one obstacle). It is significant that student busyness was far and away the highest reported obstacle.
Further complicating the conversation was the survey responses from parents regarding the busyness of their children: 11% felt their teens are way too busy, 58% feel the balance is good, and 31% believe their children need more to do.
At this point Matlock opened up the conversation to the youth workers in the room to comment on the disparity between 74% of youth workers believing students are too busy, and 89% of parents feeling kids are at the right balance or actually need more to do. There were a number of different thoughts; some felt parents needed to be educated on the busyness of their kids, perhaps parents are not in healthy balance so cannot see that their kids are not either, etc. One person suggested that youth ministries are running too many programs so kids are picking and choosing, as opposed to them actually being too busy. Matlock suggested that perhaps some youth workers blame busyness because it puts the fault of lack of involvement outside their control; it’s the fault of families and other circumstances, rather than the youth worker not giving them something they value enough to participate in.
For me, it was frustrating to hear some of the responses. Sometimes I feel like we as youth workers can be unintentionally arrogant, genuinely believing we know more about what’s best for someone else’s child(ren). Yes, there are things students talk to us about that they don’t tell their parents; while it may make me uncomfortable at times to know that my fifteen year old may go to someone else about something instead of me, I remember my own discomfort with bringing up some topics with my parents as a teenager and so I try to surround him with Christian adults I respect and trust to be positive influences and role models for him. In the same way, some of their teens come to me; but it would be incredibly arrogant of me to believe that my limited interactions with their child compared to their lifetime of daily involvement would leave me knowing more than them, only that I may have a different perspective with limited insights.
Kids make time for things they value and are excited about. Parents prioritize that involvement when they know the important enough details far enough in advance to plan for it. Rather than looking to things outside of our control to blame poor response on (busyness of teens, lack of parent interest), we should be constantly evaluating and changing our approaches and programming in response to the rapidly changing youth culture. Further, this type of blame only builds invisible walls of disconnect instead of bridges with parents. One of the values I have constantly told my team is that we should never have to guilt or manipulate kids into coming to something, and we definitely should not have to be spending excessive amounts of time trying to talk them into participating – if they’re not excited about it, than we’re doing something wrong, not them. Maybe our schedule is overcrowded, maybe we’ve picked the wrong hook, the wrong date (yeah, the time I inadvertently scheduled a retreat on homecoming weekend – that’s not them loving school more than Jesus, that’s me creating an unnecessary conflict of interest), or the wrong content.