What motivates a young person to stay in the youth ministry & the church?

Quite a few years ago now I was involved in a Mentoring Project in Scotland, I am involved in one now at DYFC but just the managing of it. One of the key aspects of the mentoring work, and it was largely short term relationships in which my role was to mentor a young person, often referred by a school, was to try and set goals with the young person that they felt they would like to achieve through the process of the relationship.

Sometimes this worked.

Sometimes it took 3 weeks out of 6 just to have a conversation about goals.

Sometimes the goals were highly influenced by the school and what they wanted and were paying for.

However, goals in this kind of programme were set, arranged and to a point referred to in the evaluation of outcomes and results.

In the main however, the goals set, might not have become motivating factors for the young person, unless the goals were negotiated by them, and they believed in them. On a bigger scale – the things that might motivate young people in a school setting are numerous and can include popularity, success, relationships, notoriety, status and many others, or its heads down and just get through every day.

Why am i talking about Goals and Motivations?

For a number of reasons, but firstly i think this is fascinating:

We only have feelings for what matters to us. To experience an emotion, cognitive theories suggest that we first appriaise the situation and then decide the significance in relation to our goals (J Bryan, 2016)

Jocelyn Bryan is talking about Emotions first and foremost in the context of a conversation about ‘Human Beings’ and their psychology. What she is getting at here is that how people react to something is based upon their appraisal of it in relation to the goals of the person. So its not just the situation that causes an emotion, but how a person appraises it.  For example a difficult church meeting might be reacted to in a calm way by a pcc member who might have 100 other things to worry about, but causes anger, frustration and lack of sleep for the clergy whose role is dependent on the PCC approval. but we all know this kind of situation is just a piece of internet fiction…. no clergy gets angry with PCCs…

Anyway, going back to goals and faith based youthwork.

If for a moment, we think about that age old problem of trying to keep young people in the church, or even in youth groups, ministry and the like. Do we need to ask a fundamentally serious one about motivations and goals?

In his book, Faith Generation, Nick Shepherd talks about giving young people opportunity to become deciders, and not just learners in a church setting, which is a valid premise to reflect on in terms of learning styles, participation and empowerment of young people. But theres a fundamental question – what motivates a young person to stay in church/ youth ministry? and linked to this what goals are negotiated with them that they have adopted? 

There could be many motivating factors for a young person to want to attend church, social factors, learning, challenge, volunteering might give them experience, or its a place of safety to talk about faith.

But as they decide to leave they do so often because something else fulfils that motivation. Whether thats homework, recovery from a night out the night before (social), sports clubs (physical, competition).

Something might have to motivate a young person to stay in the church – enough so that they want to and care about it! 

I wonder how often in youth ministry settings we negotiate either person or collective goals for a youth group? something to motivate them, or challenge them?  – not just an activity for a week – but an inspiring goal to change something, do something or be something. Unlike the example of the mentoring programme above, the key is that it is negotiated – because young people have a certain amount of choice to be there. If part of giving young people an identity in a church is to give them a niche and validity in the community – then how might we in our relationship enable a young person to negotiate that it its worth it, and so that it becomes a motivation for them.

Maybe it is not enough to give young people opportunities to learn, enable them to have opportunities to be involved, to decide and to create. But part of that to is to give them the desire, the long term desire that causes it to be a motivation.

We might single out a young person as leadership potential within a church,  after all thats kind of what Jesus did with Peter, and they then might have greater motivation bestowed upon them which they have to internalise. A new long term motivation and goal is orientated. But once they do this becomes a motivating factor, affecting their involvement in the faith community. In an environment where there might not be female leaders – how might female young people be as motivated? Especially in an age where they can become Prime minister in the world outside of the church. This isnt an article about Gender inequalities, but about the effect of such positions might have on the motivation of young females to maintain within the church environment, should they have a driven and achieving personality – and leadership potential.

How else might church & youth ministry provide motivation for a young person?

Shouldnt we sit down with young people every now and then and ask them what drives them and keeps them motivated to attend church and groups – we might find they have little choice- we might be more surprised.

But it might also be that we as their youth workers negotiate with them goals to motivate them in the short and long term – not just activities to attend- in order that they not only have reason to participate but that it fits with their own emerging motivations for their lives. I am just wondering whether we should be more deliberate with them in negotiating goals, and so that they have more motivation for being there – maybe like school its popularity, learning, success, or even notoriety!

These are likely to be the motivating factors, which stem from core motivating factors in Everyones lives such as meeting needs, relationships, autonomy and Competance (Bryan, 2016:14). And there are other faith ideals and motivations which take root in the christian life some of which spur on young people – but i wonder whether the spiritual motivations are enough for young people or even if they ‘own’ these motivations in their stage of life (thinking about ownership of faith in terms of faith development stages, Westerhoff etc) – for young people who have a myriad of competing voices trying to affect their long term goals and motivations – the church and youth ministry has to develop practical ways in which young people maintain goals and motivation to invest in the community for what they can give and receive from it for their whole life.

How might motivation for young people be negotiated in youth ministry – thoughts anyone?

When was the last time a young person got frustrated or cared enough about youth ministry to get angry about it? Maybe that when we know it means something. But how often does anger precurse leaving…

as an additional, 24 hours later, what about discovering the key motivators for young people, what drives them, though we might want to identify the motivating factors in terms of gifts, and then shape the style of ministry around developing these? sort of back to asset based community development but with motivational gifts?  Ie young people who might be motivated by care for others, how could this be actualised in church & youth ministry?



Human Being; Insights from Psychology and the Christian faith by Jocelyn Bryan (2016, SCM)


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