A 2019 Lifeway Research study found that 66 percent of young adults stop attending church between the ages of 18 and 22. While the same study found that some eventually make their way back to the church, the data is staggering.
The shocking exit from the church by many young people after they age out of the youth ministry spurred David Odom to action. Odom, who serves as associate professor of student ministry and director of the Youth Ministry Institute (YMI) at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College, created a new tool designed to assess the effectiveness of youth ministry programs. The goal of the assessment is to help churches improve the way they minister to youth and retain young people during the transition to adulthood.
“We have come to understand over the last 15 or 20 years that traditional youth ministry is not effective to build lifelong faith in teenagers,” Odom said. “There is a problem if we have that many of our kids who are faithful youth group members leaving the church during college or as adults.”
Researching Youth Ministry Effectiveness
For Odom, a review of recent research was the first step in understanding why youth are leaving the church and developing strategies to create more effective youth ministries. He also leveraged research conducted by his mentor, Richard Ross, professor of student ministry, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Researchers have found that successful youth ministers focused on three "arenas" of ministry: Teenagers in the youth group, teenagers in their own families, and teenagers in the congregation. The traditional youth ministry model has emphasized only one of these arenas. Youth ministers spend most of their time, effort, and resources on direct ministry to youth within the youth group. The other two arenas are often neglected. Those who focus only on the direct ministry to youth groups struggle to create effective ministries that lead youth to lifelong church involvement.
For the pilot research project, Odom and Sara Robinson, a PhD student at NOBTS, created a 30-question survey for youth ministers to self-assess their effectiveness in the three arenas of youth ministry. Based on the answers, the youth minister’s effectiveness was scored as “high,” “medium,” or “low.”
Odom and Robinson received 314 responses to the initial survey. Only 24 percent of the respondents scored in the high effectiveness range. Fifty-four percent scored in the medium range. The remaining 22 percent scored low, indicating serious problems in their ministry model. Overall, the research indicated the need for intentional effort in the two neglected arenas of ministry. The full Youth Ministry Arenas Research Summary is available at ymarenas.com.
The YMI team discovered the need for an expanded view of youth ministry which emphasizes ministry to families of youth and better integrates youth into the larger ministry of the congregation. Ministries without family-focused and cross-generational integration efforts have fewer opportunities to develop life-long faith among teens and fail to connect with key influencers.
“Parents are the number one influencer of a teenager’s faith,” Odom said. “Youth leaders must influence the influencers by developing significant relationships with parents and helping them disciple their teens.”
Youth ministries can create a consumer attitude among teens, Odom said. Involving youth in church-wide service opportunities combats consumerism and helps the youth develop love for the church and Christ-centered purpose for their lives.
"Many teens fall in love with the youth group but don't necessarily fall in love with their church," Odom explained. Youth leaders must help young people move from consumers to contributors – from 'I love my youth group' to 'I serve Christ in my church.'"
Launching the New Assessment Tool
The YMI pilot research project led to a refined assessment tool and the opportunity to provide tailored help for struggling youth ministers. In August, Odom and YMI released an expanded 47-question assessment tool allowing youth ministers to self-assess their effectiveness. The free online survey provides a youth minister with an immediate effectiveness score and produces a detailed report explaining the scores and suggestions for improvement. The assessment tool is available at ymarenas.com.
“We worked carefully over the past several months to design a professional, easy-to-use resource,” Odom said. “We pray it will serve thousands of men and women who serve in youth ministry.”
According to Odom, the insights gained from the new assessment tool and ongoing research will help NOBTS and YMI develop better strategies to serve local churches.