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relationships rule: a new study examining teenager's role models

relationships rule: a new study examining teenager's role models

A new study by the Barna Research Group caught my attention today, and should catch yours, too, if you you're a youth worker. The study polled a nationwide sample of teenagers with the purpose of identifying the person whom they admire most as a role model, other than their parents, and WHYthey admire them. (Interestingly, Barna left parents out intentionally, as teenagers, particularly younger ones, "feel compelled to list their parents as role models . . . almost as an automatic response.") Here's a brief summary of the findings: The highest percentage of role models were still family members, even with parents excluded.

  • 37% of teens named a relation other than their parent as the person they admire most. (Grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, etc.)
  • 11% identified a teacher or a coach.
  • 9% identified their friends
  • 6% identified pastors or other religious leaders
  • There were a whole host of role models mentioned by 6% or less of students with whom students did not have a relationship, specifically, entertainers, sports heroes, political leaders, and so on.

So, that's the breakdown of the "who" teenagers identified as role models. But what about the reasons why?The reasons are pretty instructive for those of us who work with youth. They are as follows:

  • 26% of teenagers reported an individual's personality traits as the reason they looked up to them. (Some of the most common traits included: caring about others, being loving and polite, and being courageous.)
  • 11% reported that "encouragement" was a factor in identifying role models.
  • Overcoming adversity (9%), working hard (7%), and intelligence (7%) were also high on the list.
  • Maintaining strong faith was reported by 6% as a reason for identifying role models.

This is an overview of the study. To see more go here. But how does this info influence what we do as youth workers? What are the takeaways?

Relationships Rule

David Kinnaman, President of Barna, noted that the main takeaway is that teenagers in large part look-up to people with whom they have relationships. And a parent (even though they were not factored in this particular study) or family member places high on their radar. This is yet another study to add to the overwhelming body of work that supports the idea that parents (and meaningful adults) play an absolutely vital role in who their children will become. (See this article for other research.) This is crucial as it pertains to faith development, as dealt with so effectively in the excellent book released last year, Kenda Creasy Dean's, Almost Christian.

Spiritual Growth???

Kinnaman notes that there seems to be a disconnect between spiritual activity and who teenagers identify as role models. The study noted, "Teens rarely identified spiritual mentors. Moreover, few teens consider issues of faith, religion or morality when deciding whom they will try to emulate." The role model of those teenagers who are spiritually active don't look any different from those who are not. I'm not so sure that we can make any direct applications to how we do youth ministry from this research. However, I do think this particular finding is simply more evidence that program-driven youth ministry will never be as successful as relation-based discipleship in developing the faith of our students. Relationships are key motivators in teenagers' lives. Again, this has been supported in multiple studies. Having meaningful adults model vibrant faith for students increases the likelihood that students will in turn emulate this faith.

Culture Makes An Impact

Today's teenager is a cultural consumer. The study noted, "The eclectic nature of the role models [teenagers] embrace is not new but the diversity of pools from which they choose those models is atypical. Their choices are substantially affected by media imagery and exposure." Our students are soaking up culture. What of our faith are we giving them to soak up?

More than ever, our students are in dire need of real relationships with meaningful adults; adults who are modeling biblically sound, transformative, and action-oriented faith. If parents, youth workers, and other adults are not offering lives worth emulating, students will go elsewhere to find role models. It looks like many of them already are . . .

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