You talk, sometimes late into the night.
You teach, and sometimes you feel the wonder of serving as a “spigot” for truth.
You pray, sometimes with a good understanding of why Jesus sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
You plan, sometimes laying a hidden foundation for growth that no one will ever see.
You enter into dark moments, sometimes punished for your efforts rather than rewarded.
And after all of the personal treasure you’ve invested, how do you know if your efforts are really benefiting your teenagers’ lives? The question is haunting: Would these kids turn out the same way even if they’d never come to youth group?
Sure, you hear thanks from parents and your kids tell stories about how wonderful their experiences have been in youth group, but how much have they really learned, and how close do they really feel to God and each other? And even if you see evidence of life-change now, what will happen down the road with them?
What We Already Know About Religious Faith
These are exactly the questions that interest me as a sociologist studying religion and youth. While I was preparing to launch a study focused on religious youth group programming, I first had to ask myself: “What difference does youth group really make?” To answer that question I first focused on four previous findings in the world of social research.
1. Religion creates positive life outcomes. Social researchers already know that religious teenagers, as compared to their non-religious peers, enjoy…
• increased physical health,
• a longer lifespan,
• more life satisfaction,
• better problem-solving skills,
• greater friendship support,
• an increased ability to cope with life’s problems,
• healthier family relationships, and
• reduced depression.
And I wondered: Could youth group have anything to do with that?
2. Church is a common experience. Church attendance actually drops during teenage years, so youth groups are a primary way kids remain in contact with the church during adolescence. More than half of American youth participate in religious youth groups. This means that most adults have had a youth group experience while they were growing up, making them an important place for faith expression and key social interactions.
3. Religion creates valuable social support systems. According to Dr. Christian Smith, pioneering lead researcher for The National Study of Youth and Religion (www.youthandreligion.com), churches offer teenagers many advantages that lead to better life outcomes. For example, attending church can help young people establish more and better social connections, and we already know that more social support leads to a better life.
4. Religion helps people learn right and wrong. Smith also tracked the influence of religion in the crucial forming of a moral foundation in young people—it offers them guidance and order as they make moral decisions. Because churches have agreed-upon standards for what good behavior looks like, their faith guides kids’ behavior toward more socially acceptable choices. And people who experience greater degrees of social acceptance are less stressed-out, resulting in positive physical and psychological health.
What Impact Do Youth Groups Have?
Based on these four basic truths about religion’s influence, I set out to discover how youth groups could be a catalyst for better life outcomes. I analyzed data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), looking first at the second wave of the study, when the participating teenagers were ages 16-20.
1. Teenagers in youth groups experience greater levels of adult support. The results of the NSYR show that “youth groupies” are more comfortable talking to adults and have more supportive adults available than their non-groupie peers. Youth groupies also have more supportive adults within their church than those who’ve attended services but not youth group.
However, when I tracked these “wave two” kids back a few years and studied their answers to the “wave one” questions, I discovered that they already had more supportive adults in their lives when they entered the study than their non-youth-groupie peers. This may mean that they joined youth group in the first place because they already felt supported by adults. It also looks like the main reason kids in youth groups feel more comfortable turning to adults for support is because they’ve attended religious services, not because they’ve belonged to a youth group.
2. Teenagers in youth groups have more connections to church. As another measure of social support, I also looked at whether young people felt connected to their church and how likely it would be for them to continue attending church as they got older. I looked at four measures of church connection, and discovered that youth groupies, again, had more connections to church than their religious-but-non-youth-groupie peers did. Even after taking into account their religious tradition, race or ethnicity, economic background, parents’ education level, and parental relationship stability, youth groupies are more likely to say church makes them think about important things and isn’t boring. They’re also more likely to say they think they will still be attending church when they’re 25, and if it was totally up to them they’d still choose to come to church. These findings show that youth groups do encourage kids to stay committed to church over the course of their life.
But again, after I studied how the study participants answered the “wave one” questions when they were younger, I discovered that kids who already had more and stronger connections to the church gravitated to the church’s youth group—the “greater connection” influence seems largely due to self-selection (the idea that people choose the groups that they join based on some underlying quality, like being more social). Also, it turns out that “attending religious services” is the main reason kids say that church makes them think about important issues, not their participation in youth group. And, more sobering, youth groupies who also attended a church youth group when they were younger are actually more likely to say that church is boring than those who didn’t attend when they were younger.
3. Teenagers in youth groups show a stronger moral backbone. When I looked at six measures of moral values, I found that youth groupies are less likely to lie to their parents and to do things they hoped their parents would not find out about than their non-youth-groupie peers. They’re also more likely to agree that…
• morality is not relative,
• what is morally right or wrong should be based on God’s law,
• it’s not okay to break moral rules if it works to your advantage, and
• religion is important in shaping their daily life.
Youth groups do help teenagers believe in moral values. But those beliefs don’t always translate to their behavior—kids who’ve attended youth group throughout their teenage years are actually more likely to lie to and keep secrets from their parents than those who haven’t!
◊ ◊ ◊
Does youth group make a positive, long-term difference in teenagers’ lives? Absolutely. But it appears that youth group is good at producing some positive outcomes, but not others. The results of the NSYR suggest that participation in the greater life of the church is often just as important as youth-group participation. In the end, it’s a both/and story—youth groups excel in teaching kids moral beliefs and in “hooking” them into long-term churchgoing habits, but the congregation as a whole has a crucial role to play in helping them navigate their adolescence into the adult “promised land.” ◊
Patricia Snell is the assistant director for the Center for the Study of Religion & Society at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
How Youth Group Changed My Life
We asked youth pastors who serve on our “Simply Youth Insider Team” to tell us how their own experiences in youth group when they were young impacted their life.
Jon Batch—When I was young we didn’t have a youth group at my church, but a very special math teacher invested in me, and it made an impact. I started to work with youth as a volunteer because I didn’t want to see any teenager go through life without the support base I would’ve enjoyed and learned from. I’m now a 15-year youth worker, and some of my students are now adult leaders in their groups.
Liz Duncan Simmonds—Through my youth group involvement, I was invited to church camp. At church camp, I met my best friend who later became my husband (not sure if that’s the sort of life change you were looking for!). I also recognized my calling to youth ministry there and met some of my closest friends and encouragers in life.
Darren Sutton—I was an incredibly awkward kid. I grew up in a very abusive household (though we didn’t call it that at the time) and I had no idea how to interact with people in a functional way—think of a junior high boy times 12! I thought I was worthless, hopeless, and rejected. But as a 12-year-old, my youth pastor (I was a bus kid!) not only invested in me, he stood in front of others who would’ve shredded me. Sometimes teenagers are mean. He protected me, loved me, and valued me…all things I never received at home.
God used that man, Mitch Jackson, and other adults in the youth ministry not only to rescue me on his behalf, but to reveal his purpose for my life. Their passion for Jesus and teenagers empowered me to break the cycles of dysfunction so engrained in my family history, and gave me the sight to see that God wanted to give me a new heart, a new start, and a new name. I am forever indebted to their acts of kindness, obedience, and love.
Andy Disher—I was awkward—tall, lanky, and socially shy. However, two individuals saw potential in me and helped me get involved in our youth group. Ron handed me a keyboard and said, “Play with me in our worship band.” And Ken (my youth pastor) put up with a lot of my crap—he had the patience of a saint. These two guys taught me how to get both junior and senior highers to get involved in our group. If they had patience for me, then I can have patience for others. These two guys invested their time, money, patience, and love in my life, forever changing me.
Hank Bellomy—As a youth I went through many youth directors from the time I was in middle school until I graduated from high school. Infidelity and divorce shipwrecked most of them, leaving me devastated and crushed. But a volunteer and his wife, Nathan and Barbara Scroggins, were faithful and committed to me throughout all of these changes and struggles. They were a blessing to me in my spiritual growth, and guided me to be able to rely on Christ for my strength through these troubling times. Also, my discerning parents kept me from being too attached to my youth leader—they encouraged me, instead, to grow in my relationship with Christ. Through this I learned that it’s important to involve parents in our ministry because we’re a team in molding their children in the ways of the Lord. I praise God for the opportunity to learn these things prior to my call to ministry.
Paul Daly—I grew up in a non-Christian home—my parents were alcoholics and I had no interest in church. I had very few friends in school and was picked on quite a lot due to my family circumstances. One friend I did have invited me to his youth group one evening where everyone embraced me and wanted to know me better. I had never experienced such a welcome, and I’d never had so many friends. There were about 30 students in the group. Even though I was a rough, hard, foul-mouthed teenager, I was allowed to remain in the group. This love and acceptance brought me to a place where I accepted Christ and grew in my faith. If it wasn’t for the love of these teenagers, my peers, I probably would not be a youth pastor today.