Teenagers’ Top Needs
In our March/April issue we covered one half of the results from our massive survey targeted at Christian teenagers’ top priorities and needs. Now we explore how more than 20,000 Christian kids attending one of our summer work camps (groupworkcamps.com) answered when we asked them, simply, to rank a list of 20 possible “dying needs.” Their answers are predictable and surprising and challenging—and worth a close look by you and your leadership team.
In addition, I’ve gathered insights and reactions about the survey results from veteran youth pastors around the country—they all serve on our Inside Track Team for the Simply Youth Ministry Conference (youthministry.com/conference) —about 250 people from every denomination and geographic area of the U.S. Just as I did with the “top priorities” half of this survey, I’ve highlighted comments that are particularly insightful, along with responses that are representative of what many others said about the survey results.
If you have something to add to the conversation, send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you know youth ministry friends who don’t subscribe to GROUP who would benefit from the results of this survey, send them a link to check out this article (and get a great deal on subscribing).
Teenagers’ Top Needs
We asked Christian teenagers to scan a list of 20 “needs” in their life, then rank them from one to seven according to how strongly they’d like that need to be met. The lower the number, the higher the desire for the need to be met. We wanted them to differentiate between “dying” needs and “nice to have but not that important” needs. Here’s how the numbers added up….
Top Needs (Description) Teenagers (Average)
1. I need help building a positive relationship with God 2.66
2. I need help building a positive relationship with my parents 3.47
3. I need help managing or dealing with the stresses in my life 3.65
4. I need someone to help me answer some of my big doubts
about the Christian faith 3.79
5. I need help understanding the Christian faith better 3.82
6. I need help in knowing how to share my faith with friends and others 3.88
7. I need help with my academics 3.92
8. I need help figuring out my future choices (college, job, career, marriage, etc) 4.00
9. I need help dealing with depression 4.01
10. I need help with my overwhelming commitments 4.06
11. I need help dealing with the pain I feel in life 4.09
12. I need help developing more and better friendships 4.15
13. I need help ending my dependence on drugs or alcohol or tobacco 4.20
14. I need help with making better moral choices in my life 4.22
15. I need help in receiving forgiveness for things I’ve done 4.40
16. I need help with living a healthier lifestyle—eating better and exercising 4.44
17. I need help with time management and discipline in my life 4.51
18. I need help resolving conflicts 4.83
19. I need help sorting out sexual issues (sexual activity, gender issues, homosexuality, etc.) 4.91
20. I need help with girlfriend/boyfriend issues 5.18
In general, the way kids ranked these needs primes the pump for cynicism among youth workers who see a big disconnect between the “God stuff” teenagers elevated to the top of the list and the topical stuff that settled out on the bottom. Typical is this assessment of the survey by Andrea Vincent of Michigan, who’s a volunteer youth worker by night and an assistant research professor by day:
“I’m not sure I believe the results. I think teenagers are simply comfortable thinking that others could help them with their faith issues. They want help with things they can talk about without embarrassment. Ironically, the items lower on this list are the ones where many adults fall down. At worst, they don’t want to be told what to do by hypocrites. At best, they already know what to do about these things (conflicts, sexual issues, time management).”
Whenever a survey result conflicts with our perception of reality, it creates a dissonance we have to resolve. One of the easiest ways to do that is to discount or explain away the results as flawed, skewed, or unrepresentative. And I’m sure these results are tainted by all of that—but it would be a mistake to keep what 20,000 Christian kids are trying to say at a cynical distance.
How would it challenge your assumptions, and your priorities, if you assumed these results are a perfect mirror of what kids know they really need?
Getting Tight With God
“I am thoroughly encouraged that these teenagers recognizes that they need more help in understanding their relationship with God. I will also probably use these stats to help the parents in my ministry understand why I choose the Bible Study formats I choose. I’m currently trying to get a student Bible Study going based on the major issues of theology—most of the parents I’ve approached about assisting me are concerned that the issues would be ‘too boring’ for teenagers. Instead, they think I should discuss issues like dating, financial literacy, and dealing with peer pressure.” —Brooke Oehme, Iowa
“Kid’s today need help discerning their faith…period. Though most youth ministries touch on the top four in this survey, they’re more likely to focus on the bottom-feeder topics such as peer pressure, drug and alcohol, boy/girl relationships, conflict resolution, yada, yada, yada. Should we talk about these topics? Sure. But they shouldn’t be the backbone of our ministry.” —Melissa Rau, Pennsylvania
Soldering the Parent Connection
“This survey demonstrates the importance teenagers place on the relationship they have with their parents….
1. Maybe our youth ministries need to recognize the importance of parents, and start equipping teenagers with a faith that is lived out in the home first.
2. Maybe we need to have a greater focus on helping teenagers apply their faith in their families before their schools.
3. Maybe we need to reevaluate our programs with the understanding that parents are the most important thing in adolescents’ lives, after God—not us.
4. Maybe students aren’t participating in our programs because they really are spending time with their parents.”
—Tony Clyde, Arkansas
“As much as teenagers say they’re embarrassed by their parents or that they don’t want them around, my experience has taught me that the opposite is true. Teenagers need space, without a doubt, but they still want and need their parents to be an integral part of their life—especially when it comes to matters of faith. How powerful would it be to have parents talking with their teenagers about their own faith journey—the struggles and questions they have, and the way they deal with them? And youth workers are in the unique position to facilitate those very conversations!” —Heather Cox, Virginia
Navigating the Sea of Stress
“Number three is a huge one with teenagers. As I meet with students to counsel them, I sense an overwhelming burden to be successful and to be busy doing 100 different things every day. I think we’ve corrupted our children by modeling a busy-beaver lifestyle that is not healthy or godly—whatever happened to being still?” —Jana Snyder, Pennsylvania
“What’s the real source of teenagers’ stress? Relational tension? Parent issues? Schoolwork? Sports? Work? Many of our teenagers have WAY too much on their plate. This is a huge concern for me. They want more of God, they want good relationships with their parents, but they need help with their stress levels if they’re going to grow in either of those areas. If we can help them balance their lives it opens the door for a healthier relationships with God and their parents. When we’re stressed we don’t function at our best. But this over-busy lifestyle is modeled for them at home.” —Mike Hammer, Pennsylvania
Understanding the Basics Better
“This survey underlines something I have seen more and more of in my part-time job as professor of world religions at our local community college. Each year I have students in my class share their own ‘history of belief’ (what religious influences have been evident in their life). And each year I basically hear the same responses: ‘My parents took me to (blank) church, but after I was baptized/took first communion I didn’t see any point in going. I didn’t agree with their beliefs, so I no longer belong to any church.’ “Many of my students also adhere to the popular ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ or ‘I believe in Good, not God’ mantras. From these survey results it’s obvious that, rather then helping our teenagers grow in faith, we’re encouraging religious Illiteracy. Even teenagers who’ve grown up in the church struggle to understand what ‘salvation’ means and have basically no understanding of what a ‘covenant’ is. They can recite John 3:16, but have no idea why an incarnated God who dies for humanity is important. For them, religion seems to be nothing more than dying traditionalism wrapped in confusion infused with a good dose of uselessness. “If we’re merely teaching a Christianity that offers a system for making you a good person, they have endless examples of non-Christians who meet that same criteria but get to sleep in on Sundays. They want more, but most of us seem ill-equipped to show them where they can find what they’re looking for.” —Brooke Oehme, Iowa
Helping Where It Hurts
“I’m unsurprised, but very sad, that ‘dealing with depression’ lands so high on the list, just above ‘dealing with pain.’ We know kids are hurting, but are we making any headway helping them to feel like we’re meeting their needs? It seems like most of us spend more time on the bottom issues—sex, morality, healthy living, friends, forgiveness—than on the critical issues of building a positive relationship with parents and dealing with depression and pain. How can we bring the pendulum into better balance?” —Beth Scriven, Michigan
What About Sex and Dating?
“I was very shocked to see sexual issues so far down on the list. I have led small groups of high school boys for over seven years now—this is an issue that that they wish to discuss more than the others.” —Nate Mills,
“Is ‘I need help with girlfriend/boyfriend issues’ last because they don’t want to be challenged in this area, or because students do not see this category as the root of many of the problems they face—depression, commitment, moral choices, drug use, and so on? Acceptance is so much of a bigger issue than we give time or credit to. I believe the movie To Save A Life gives us a real picture of our students’ struggle with acceptance, portraying it as the basis of many other problems. “Are our youth group and church relationships so superficial that they do not feel accepted? Are teens sexually promiscuous because this is the only way they truly feel accepted and loved? Have we not authentically shared the truth that there is no greater love than a man lay down his life for his brother? Are we not showing them the love of Christ?” —Shan Smith, Indiana
“I thought it quite strange that the youth wouldn’t rank their boyfriend/girlfriend relationships more highly. Perhaps this points to a trend of increasing secrecy when it comes to these issues and concerns.” —Aaron M. Schellhas, Illinois
“I’m completely shocked that sexual issues and girlfriend/boyfriend stuff came in dead last. WOW…. It’s either a major shift in teenage culture or these Christian kids are trying to give the “right answers” or they feel they have their dating lives all figured out and they don’t need any help. But based on the drama I see in their lives and the pain and the heartache they bring on themselves, it seems odd to me.” —Drew Cope, Pennsylvania
Why Some Youth Workers Stay Longer
By Tom Wanberg
I’ve been a longtime volunteer leader in my church’s junior high ministry. One of the great blessings of my involvement has been, simply, the longevity of our paid youth staffers. Over the years I’ve observed several reasons for our heath in this area.
1. Increased longevity is directly proportional to the longevity and happiness of the volunteer leaders. With healthy volunteer leaders, the paid staffer feels less isolated, panics less, and can maintain a normal family life.
2. When volunteers feel supported by the paid leaders they stay happy. When volunteer leaders feel loved, cared for, and supported, they stay—and they recruit more volunteers! To understand this critical point, watch how our marvelous paid staffers conduct a meeting with volunteers. They don’t focus too much on their prepared agenda, or even on the specifics of the kids. Invariably they want to know how the individual volunteer leaders are doing handling the normal curveballs that life throws at them. They not only listen to us, they cry and laugh with us. They are our pastors.
3. The bunker mentality. When you go to war (any typical retreat), all the leaders are physically, mentally, and spiritually attacked as they battle for the kids. At first blush this doesn’t seem like a great recruiting pitch for potential volunteers. But when you’re in a bunker with other leaders you can’t help but get closer to them. The closer the volunteers get to each other, the more they want to go on the next retreat. And when our paid staffers lead a retreat they’re not only keeping up with the kids, they’re bonding with the volunteer leaders. This is very healthy.
4. Raising up the next generation of volunteers. Our last junior high retreat was overflowing with high school volunteers. It was amazing to watch how the “old-timers” modeled to the newbie leaders the “tricks of the trade.” These high school kids had so much fun in middle school, and they remember how much fun their leaders were having, that they want to get in on all that retreat action. They know that God shows up in big ways on retreats.
5. A pastor’s pastor. While all of us volunteer leaders recognize that our Director of Pastoral Ministry, Bob Krulish, is awesome, we also realize his position is a bit unusual. His job is to pastor the pastoral staff. He has an uncanny ability to see burnout stalking our paid staffers, and actively works to counter the physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion that comes with ministry.
Tom is vice president of a real estate investing firm in Colorado, and a longtime volunteer leader in his church’s junior high ministry.
The article “Teenagers’ Top Needs” written by Rick Lawrence was excerpted from www.simplyyouth.com web site, July 2010.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”