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Story Magazine

Fall 2011

Exemplary youth ministry: This changes everything

by Angela Denker, M.Div. Intern

The foreword to "The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry," a book written by Luther Seminary Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean Roland Martinson, along with Wes Black and John Roberto, begins with one three-word phrase: "This changes everything."

That's a bold claim for the book, which was the result of a three-year-long study of congregations that have exemplary youth ministry programs. The study was called the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study—or EYM for short. But as the foreword, written by the Center for Children, Youth and Family Ministry's Terri Elton and Nancy Going, goes on to explain, this study really does change everything—it already has in Luther's CYF program.

First, the meat of the study: By surveying 131 congregations across seven denominations and visiting 21 of them for intensive study, Martinson, Black and Roberto made several key findings. Primary among them: youth programs are not divorced from the rest of the congregation but rather are determined by the spirit and culture of the congregation at large.

"At least four elements played across all seven denominations we studied, and across all regions of the country and sizes of the churches," said Martinson, the leader and driving force of the study. "First, God is present tense. Second, God affects peoples' lives. Third, the youth and congregation members are active in evangelism and service. Fourth, the youth group and congregation see themselves as a community where people hang out together."

Those four factors came across in surveys of youth in each of the congregations used in the study, which came from Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Covenant, Presbyterian, Southern Baptist and Assemblies of God churches.

Despite the ecumenical nature of the survey, Martinson did point to traditionally Lutheran ideas that bore out in its findings, such as the ideas of vocation and free grace borne out of an active God—something that was evident in every congregation studied.

"God must be active," Martinson said. "Kids vote with their feet if God is an artifact."

So what has all of this meant for the CYF program at Luther Seminary?

As Going and Elton wrote in the foreword: "For the past seven years, (the CYF team) has sought to allow the EYM study findings to both permeate and shape how we teach and equip leaders in the church. In doing so, we have developed a very different kind of degree program."

As a result of her conversations with youth at the congregations in the EYM study, Going was convinced that "conversations about faith need to shape not only the practice of youth ministry, but the very essence of our beliefs about adolescent development."

For Elton, a key learning was that "congregations can be coached to create a new culture and spirit around ministry with youth ... but it takes time, a committed and diverse leadership team and a shift in thinking."

Specifically related to the CYF curriculum, Elton said that because the 44 assets discovered by the EYM
study in the exemplary congregations were clustered into four areas—the congregation, youth ministry, family/ household and leadership—the CYF curriculum at Luther had to be adjusted to address all four areas.

Finally, the EYM study affirmed a focus on context. In the CYF program at Luther, students learn in three spheres: the classroom, in community with other students and in ministry contexts.

"(The EYM study) has not only impacted what we do 'in the classroom' but what learning is taking place as students lead in actual ministry settings. Much more effort has been placed here to come alongside both the student and the ministry site," Elton said.

For more information on the EYM study and implementing it in your congregation or academic setting, or to buy the book, visit

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