What Works by Todd Buegler

I’ve been working in children, youth and family ministry for 23 years, and in that time, there is one thing I have learned:  The longer I do this, the more clueless I am. Seriously. When I started out, I was quite certain I knew and understood the whole thing. I knew what to do…I had...


I’ve been working in children, youth and family ministry for 23 years, and in that time, there is one thing I have learned:  The longer I do this, the more clueless I am.


When I started out, I was quite certain I knew and understood the whole thing. I knew what to do…I had great advice…I was program-ready at the drop of a hat…I played guitar…

Now? Not so much.

I think this is due to a few different “standard” things:

1.       I’m older now.  I drive a minivan.  ‘nuff said.

2.       Young people and their families have changed. (Yes, I know…that’s not exactly revolutionary, but I think it can’t be underestimated)

3.       Culture has changed. (Again…not exactly brain surgery…but huge.)

I think there is also another reason, however, and perhaps it’s one that we have underestimated, or never even considered: I think quite simply, “there is more to know.”

Twenty-three years ago, the idea of doing youth research focused on meeting a young person at a Burger King and asking them “how are things going?” (Still not a bad practice, by the way.)

But the world of research into the adolescent faith lives of young people has completely blown away the assumptions with which we used to live.

Now we know things. Now there is data. Now, we can test our assumptions against actual information and see where we were completely off base…we can ask more questions, create new models, and have a baseline to continue to test effectiveness.

I know there are people who thing research in our field is a waste.  I’ve heard the mantra: “It’s all about relationships…why should I pay attention to data that gives me a wide swath of info…I’m just concerned about one kid at a time.”

The only response I can make to this is: “huh?”

Yes, the individual kid is important. No doubt. And that kind of one-on-one contact work is critical. But we need to be aware of a bigger picture: This is what we do! This is important stuff. For us to be excellent…for us to be effective…for us to be professional we all need to not only be familiar with the data, we need to master it.

We need to know it backwards and forwards. We need to wonder and argue about its implications nationally, regionally and within our own congregations. There is a conversation going on of which we all need to be a part!

There has been a lot of data that has come out in the last couple of years, and it’s raised a million questions. The study that’s gotten the most press and traction has been the National Study on Youth and Religion. This is perhaps the largest and most important piece of research done across the scope of the Christian church. This is one that is going to take years for us to digest and process.

But hovering out there, in perhaps a more humble, shy Lutheran way, is the data from the Exemplar Youth Ministry Study.

What I love about the EYM material is that it focuses on what works.  It is focusing on the positives and the assets of ministry with young people.

These two studies, the NSYR and the EYM Study complement each other.  We need them both: The NSYR focuses on the whole, big picture. The EYM Study focuses on a slice, and in all honesty it’s the one slice that I’m most interested in.  It’s the question I love to ask:  “What’s working for you?”

Whenever I gather with ministry peers, I love to ask that question.  It steers away from the trite and mundane questions about numbers…and it directs conversation away from complaining.

Let’s be honest: I already have a long list of things I’ve done that has not worked. I have zero interest in hearing about your failures.

But I am interested in knowing about the one or two things you have going for you that really work…I might have one or two things too. And if I can find out what you do that works, and I can figure out how that might be contextualized to my setting and put into practice, then I might add to my “it works” list.

The EYM Study looks at what is working, and why it’s working. That information is gold to me. 

Not that I’m just chasing programs…that’s not it. Rather, I know that if I can find out why something works, I’ve learned something important about faith formation with young people. And I know that I can probably figure out a way to make that fit in at my congregation.

So I’ve finished the NYSR books. And now I’m working my way through the EYM Study book, with a highlighter; and I’ve bought copies for a couple of my colleagues…we’ll talk about it together and figure out what we can learn from the data.

Ultimately, I believe it will affect our ability to participate in God’s mission in the whole of the church, in our region, in my congregation and yes, even with that one young person sitting across the table from me at the Burger King, talking about what’s going on in their life.

Todd Buegler, along with being a youth ministry “lifer,” is a pastor at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove, Minn. He is also the Executive Director of the ELCA Youth Ministry network. He has been a lifelong advocate for people doing youth ministry.

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