Growing Spirit

By Bart Frost

Last year, the Barna Group -- a for-profit, Christian research group -- published an article about the different goals pastors and parents have for youth ministry. In their survey, Barna determined that senior pastors and youth pastors shared common goals with more than 70% of both groups reporting that discipleship* & spiritual instruction is their highest priority. When parents responded, 96% prioritized that the youth program was a safe space to explore their faith. This isn’t just safe from physical harm, but also about spiritual and emotional health. Barna elaborates that “[E]ssentially, parents want a supportive community for their kids where they have positive friendships with peers who are also exploring faith.”

Sometimes making correlations between Unitarian Universalism and the evangelical churches that Barna interviews doesn’t always make the most sense. We don’t have the same structure as the churches Barna interviewed and we only have about 90 folks paid to do youth ministry work (in the way that a youth pastor would) in over 1000 congregations. Furthermore, to be honest, I’m not sure that 71% of ministers, religious educators, or youth ministry professionals would say that spiritual growth and instruction is the biggest priority of youth ministry programs. I know many parents wouldn’t believe that. All would agree one of the priorities of our youth programs is being a safe place.

We’re pretty good at it too. Time after time, I hear from our young folks that the best part of their UU community is how accepted they feel. We’ve still got some work to do, but many youth say they feel more accepted for their identities and beliefs at church than at school. I’ve heard many anecdotes that the first people UU youth come out to (after their parents) is the youth group. I’ve witnessed how we try, piece by piece, to create more welcoming spaces for non-binary youth and youth of color.

Where we could do a little bit better is helping our folks of all ages engage in spiritual growth. 72% of the parents Barna interviewed said they expected the youth pastor to disciple teens. If we use Barna’s previous definition that discipleship involves practices that promote spiritual growth, how much of that is happening in our youth ministry programs?

Eric Bliss, the Pacific Western Region’s Youth Ministry Specialist, recently wrote about spiritual practices. Last year, he also interviewed a number of religious educators from across the country and found that most youth programs only did two spiritual practices: chalice lighting and personal sharing. In response, Eric launched the first Youth Ministry Revival with a focus on spiritual practices and growth and over 120 youth and adults attended and brought the revival back to their congregations.

That’s one way to promote spiritual growth in our youth ministry programs. What are the ways that you promote (or wish you could promote) spiritual growth with the young folks in your congregation? What about the older folks?

Graph from Barna report

In this case, discipleship means engaging "spiritual growth practices." See further: New Research on the State of Discipleship (

Youth talk amongst themselves

They might even agree that creating safe spaces is something we do well.