We lived in the Los Angeles area for years. One of the very cool benefits and perks of living there was getting to see pre-released movies for free - it was absolutely incredible! The only catch was that after the movie, you would have to answer some questions so that the movie company could poll early feedback and possibly make changes before the movies release. They would ask you questions around the characters, the music, the plot line, how the story made us feel, what was funny, what moved us, etc... The curious thing that I noticed was that answering those questions would put me in a kind of a critical mode - like I know anything about making movies, ya know? - but I would judge something that I really had no stake in and each time I'd answer their questions, I wondered if they'd actually listen to any of my uninformed and rather ignorant opinions. Occasionally I'd go back to see the movie when it was released to see if they made any of the changes I'd suggested, and just as I suspected, they never listen to a single idea I gave. =) How dare they!
When I see polls being conducted at church or at a youth ministry it immediately reminds me of the entertainment industry. I've even heard churches call parishioners, patrons, call church members, clients, and view them not as fellow laborers, but as consumers. This business/entertainment mindset that the church has is one of the reasons churches are losing people today. Why? Because the shopper has found a better product.
This whole philosophy of many churches really sticks in my craw - it bothers me - and I believe it should - which is why I've argued for us to move away from youth ministry to youth IN ministry. Where the student doesn't just attend and watch us on stage, but are leading, contributing, using their gifts, and where they have a full stake and role in the movement. [Side-note: Most youth groups have moved to the "come and watch" model - and why I believe is one of the reasons why 70% of students, by the time they finish 10th grade leave youth group/church - they are tired of sitting, listening, and watching - they actually want to do something. Along these lines, try going to your student's schools - students are running the place - using their gifts - they are the stars on the field, on the stage, in the band, behind the sound board, etc... They have a major role at school...]
Surveys: Motivation is Key
Now I realize that this isn't completely fair, nor is it the full story. There are good reasons to conduct a survey - like maybe around what students believe and how they might shape what topics we cover in our teaching. Although, I've always used a different method than surveys to gather that information. There are good reason to maybe conduct one - motivation is key. But when a survey is around enjoyment or any kind or "does this entertain you," "will this make you come more," "how can we get you to invite your friends," "do you like the youth leader?" then I believe we are heading down the wrong path. WARNING: I've seen these surveys used to get rid of youth staff.
About two years ago I was talking with a fellow youth worker whose Executive Pastor had asked her to conduct a survey at youth group. He made up the questions and handed them to her to pass out and have the students fill them out. Some of the questions were quite loaded - really setting up the students to think and write very negative things. This student pastor walked away from that experience demoralized and shortly after was asked to step down from her position. The crazy thing was that the students absolutely loved her - loved youth group - the youth group was actually growing, but these loaded questions gave the executive pastor the ammunition he had desired the whole time - a reason to get rid of her.
I would just say, please be careful. Don't contribute to the entertainment/business model of church. Remember that the students who are at youth group are your teammates. Do whatever you can to get them on the playing field and out of the stands. If a survey will help you do that, then wonderful. Otherwise, please be careful. I realize there's much more to be said here, and maybe I'll do that in a future post - but here are my quick two-cents.