Youth Ministries that Help the Whole Church Mature

Youth Specialties
August 7th, 2016

Tom’s post below is a great reminder of all we can learn from each other when we gather together. Join us at the National Youth Workers Convention this fall in Cincinnati, OH to connect with and learn from the full family of youth workers.

Last time we learned that teenagers can become spiritually mature because with God’s help they can become followers of Jesus who:

  1. Know the Basic truths of the faith (Heb 5, Eph 4, 1 Cor 3)
  2. Exercise discernment in applying those truths to everyday situations (Heb 5, Eph 4, 1 Co 3)
  3. Are growing and helping others grow in the body of Christ (Eph 4)
  4. Are treating others in a way that is recognizably similar to the way Jesus did (Eph 4)

How can our youth ministries help teenagers become spiritually mature?

Two important studies of the past few years, the National Study of Youth and Religion and the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study give us solid research findings that can help us answer that question.

The National Study of Youth and Religion found 6 factors that contributed to strong teenage faith that lasted into the early emerging adult years (18 – 23):

  1. Parents attend church often and say faith is “very” or “extremely” important to them.
  2. Teenager says faith is “very” or “extremely” important to them.
  3. Teenager has many religious experiences, including all four of the following
    • Had committed their life to God
    • Had prayers answered
    • Experienced a miracle
    • Had a moving spiritual experience
  4. Teenager frequently prays and read Scripture on their own
  5. Teenager has no doubts about their religious beliefs
  6. Teenager has many adults in their congregation to turn to for help and support

The researchers found 6 different paths to strong emerging adult faith, with each path combining 4 of these factors.  It’s worth noting that 4 out of those 6 paths included item #1 above: strong parental faith.  But there is hope for students whose parents are not strong in faith.  They just follow a slightly different path.

If you’re serious about cultivating spiritual maturity among teenagers, stop reading, look over the list of 6 items and ask yourself:

  1. How well are we doing at helping students experience this item?
  2. How many of the students in our ministry have experienced 4 or more of these items?


So how are we doing? 

I don’t have hard data to answer that question, but I have had the privilege over the past 15 years of visiting many outstanding youth ministries across the country.  Based on those experiences, I believe that youth ministries are most often succeeding at helping teenagers care about their faith (item 2) and have meaningful spiritual experiences (item 3).

Many youth ministries also have an adult volunteer team, which is one way to help teenagers have a network of adults in their congregation to turn to for support (item 6).

Some youth ministries invest in helping teens know and understand their faith, which relates to item 5 – increasing confidence and reducing doubt.

But I have less often encountered youth ministries that invest heavily in equipping teenagers to have life giving personal times of prayer and Scripture reading (item 4).

Sure, kids who grow up in church know they should pray and read the Bible daily, but many of them have never done so successfully for any sustained period of time.  And so for them, their whole life experience (short as it may be) teaches them that “I can’t pray or read the Bible.”  We need to make it a priority to teach them, coach them, and help them keep at it until they succeed.

Imagine a basketball coach whose entire strategy was to constantly tell his players “make more baskets” but who never taught the players better techniques and never led them through practice sessions.  Nobody thinks that is good coaching.  Helping people pray and read Scripture regularly and joyfully is harder than getting them to make all their free throws.  When it comes to prayer and Scripture reading, what can you and your coaching staff do to help your players succeed?  It’s one of the most important questions we can be asking ourselves.

The other single most important factor in forging spiritual maturity is the student’s relationships with a congregation full of caring adults.  It is on this point that the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study findings are important.  In that study, researchers found the most effective congregations in the country when it came to producing “maturing Christian youth.”  Then they studied those congregations and found a list of characteristics, or “assets” that those congregations possessed.  But the key overall finding was that it was the spiritual life and culture of the whole congregation that was decisive.  Congregations in which everyone was growing spiritually and in which adults and youth had many meaningful relationships with each other were congregations in which youth were maturing the most spiritually. These congregations had both a strong youth ministry and strong intergenerational activities and environments.  These congregations also equipped parents to be a positive spiritual influence and engage in faith enhancing practices with their children at home.


So the questions we need to be asking ourselves about the whole congregation are questions like these:

  1. Are adults (including parents) in our congregation growing spiritually?
  2. Is our congregation equipping parents to talk about faith, pray, and serve with their children?
  3. Do the young people and adults in our church have a web of meaningful, spiritually significant friendships?
  4. Does the whole congregation see youth ministry as “their job”?
  5. Are youth involved in many different elements of congregational life, including corporate worship, or is their only contact with the church through youth ministry activities?

As youth ministers, we can’t single-handedly change the church culture.  But we can do our part and we can ask others for help.  And as we do that, by creating more intergenerational relationships and partnerships, we’ll cultivate a church culture in which everyone is maturing.


For more tools for evaluating your church’s culture and assets and prioritizing your efforts at cultivating “maturing Christian youth” visit http://www.firstthird.org/eym/tools.aspx?m=3929

Tom Bergler blog photoTom Bergler

Professor of Ministry and Missions, Huntington University

Author of The Juvenilization of American Christianity and From Here to Maturity

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.