Spiritual Growth through Self-Authorship

Apr 23, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Spiritual growth.

Faith development.

Spiritual formation.

We use a variety of terms to describe how we help our students mature in living the life God has made them to live. The terms pepper our vision statements and websites, but if we’re honest they are difficult to define.

The charge we have as youth workers is to nurture growth. Whether you call it spiritual growth, faith development, spiritual formation, or something else, we face the formidable task of cultivating something in adolescents that mostly seems intangible

Whatever term we use, we are often expressing some of the following:

  • a student’s knowledge of God and the Christian story increasing
  • a student’s ability and willingness to internalize or “own” their faith
  • a set of beliefs by which students interact with their world and make sense of things
  • the process of acceptance into and participation with their faith community, denomination, or church
  • the work of God’s Spirit that is mysterious, unexplainable, and often only understandable through hindsight

Spiritual formation is all these things, and yet the sum of the parts seems like so much more.

These concepts are hard enough to define conceptually, but when we apply them to adolescents, the waters become even murkier. Take the story of Landon. Two years ago, I (Josh) went to summer retreat with 8th grade students. Landon came from a difficult home, seemed over-medicated, and was significantly more immature than his peers. Throughout the weekend we challenged the students in their faith, encouraging them to take the next step to which God was calling them. By my estimates at the time, Landon didn’t appear to make much progress.

Two days ago I talked with Landon again. He’s not the same 13 year-old he was in 8th grade. He’s 15 now, and he has definitely taken some of the steps in his faith that we challenged him to take two years ago on that retreat. His faith has matured—but is that simply because he has biologically and cognitively matured? I’d like to think that God had used the 8th grade retreat to make a difference, but is what I’m perceiving as spiritual growth also a mixture of the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social maturation he’s experiencing through puberty? Either way, it’s God who is making the changes in students like Landon.  As youth workers trying to join what God is doing, we want to know if there are better and more helpful ways. 

The more we analyze, describe and try to measure faith, the more elusive it often feels. This confounds most youth workers, leading them to argue that formation can’t or shouldn’t be measured or to reduce formation to simplistic behaviors.

We believe there’s a third way.

Growth and Transformation

Our pursuit of God is a transformative process.  The Apostle Paul describes this in his Epistle to the Roman Christians (12:1-2). Using the metaphors of their previous way of understanding the world, he instructs them, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed [italics added] by the renewing of your minds …”  Paul’s imperative for followers of Jesus is that they commit their whole person (body) completely (living sacrifice) to the process of resisting conformity to the world’s patterns (principally the violent patterns of the world that destroy life and relationships), and be transformed.

Transformation is the continual process of metamorphosis through the renewal of one’s center, leading to a more Christ-like way of living (“… that you may prove what is the good and acceptable will of God.”) This is a process that must ultimately be internally motivated, not dictated by a parent, teacher or youth worker. The result is not just Christian behavior. It is the way we follow Christ out of our deepest, most thought-out convictions.

Another name for this is self-authorship.

Jesus and Self-Authorship

What we assume when Paul exhorts Christians to be Christ-like (e.g., Colossians 1-2, Romans 8), is that he’s not asking us to literally say and do the exact same things Jesus did—otherwise, we’d all go around putting mud in people’s eyes, telling fishermen how to do their jobs, referring to religious leaders as snakes, and flipping over tables. The transformation process of becoming Christ-like means understanding ourselves and our world like Jesus understood himself and his world and then living and writing the story of our lives from that perspective.

Jesus understood his calling as Israel’s Messiah within God’s larger story of redemption for the whole world, and he lived in decisive ways that actually moved God’s story forward. Jesus lived as the co-author of God’s story, writing each new word on behalf of and with God. And as followers of this Messiah, we are also called to live this way. From this perspective, spiritual growth, faith development, and spiritual formation all point to our capacity, willingness, and intentionality toward joining Jesus in writing this grand Story—a story that is not only God’s story, but has become our story.

The concept of consciously living life as the author of your story is not solely theological. It is also psychological. In a 22-year study, researcher Marcia Baxter-Magolda has identified the concept of self-authorship, by which a person deeply and critically understands herself, her story, and her world, and lives accordingly. 1

Self-authorship theory proposes that people develop through three phases in life:

1.     Following formulas. In this phase, which lasts through childhood and much of adolescence, authority comes from outside the self—from parents and others. This external authority promises that fulfillment and satisfaction come from following certain formulas in life, relationships, career, etc.

2.     Crossroads. When a person begins to challenge those formulas or when the formulas do not deliver on their promises, the second phase begins. In this “Crossroads” phase, there is a tension between external and internal authority as a person places his own perspectives and thoughts alongside those given by parents and other authority figures.  This usually happens during the emerging adult years.

3.     Self-authorship. The final phase is reached at the point when the internal self becomes the authority, guide, and compass. Those who self-author balance their own expectations with others and are better able to maintain good relationships, make good decisions, and meet life’s challenges.

According to this framework, we are always answering three specific questions, and the process of answering them gives us the grounding and direction to self-author:

  • Who am I? (Intrapersonal)
  • How do I fit and relate with others? (Interpersonal)
  • How do I know what is true? (Cognitive)

As youth workers seeking to inspire spiritual growth in students, our teaching, mentoring, questions, and assessment also can be grounded in these three orienting elements. They raise the possibility of a holistic and transforming faith.

Ongoing Self-Authorship Questions of Identity, Belonging, and Mission

From our perspective, self-authorship is the goal for people’s spiritual formation. The goal is not so much an “arrival” as much as it a way of looking at the world that inspires mature, ongoing transformation. The concept of self-authorship is framed in the questions we ask and how we go about searching for answers. The quality is not merely in the answers but in the process of how we search for the answers. We have taken the concepts from Baxter-Magolda’s questions and adjusted them for our context by putting them into the categories of Identity, Belonging, and Mission. 

Identity: Who am I?

Belonging: What is my place?

Mission: Why am I here?

These are three questions that we’re all asking all the time, but this life-long journey to discover our Identity, Belonging, and Mission intensifies during the adolescent years.  With our students, we have situated the questions in terms of the good news of Jesus. Adolescents are constantly bombarded with potential answers to these three questions, but the good news is that our Identity can be made new and rediscovered in God, our Belonging is unconditional in the Church, and Christ invites us to join in his Mission. Here’s how it plays out for us and our students.

1. Identity

Who am I? This is the classic question of adolescence and is central to the human experience.  As youth workers, we encourage students to ask this question and to begin the life-long journey of answering it. Perhaps the best gift we can give our students is the freedom and security needed to begin the journey with imagination and without fear.

We must admit, however, that encouraging students to ask this question ignites a strong desire in youth workers to quickly and definitively answer it. We want to blurt out, “You are a person created in the image of God, you are a dearly loved child of God, a co-heir with Jesus, and God’s beloved!” But perhaps our impact can be deeper if we don’t simply give them the answer (like a movie spoiler), but rather invite them on a journey to discover their identity as God reveals it to them.  We want to affirm our students’ questions of identity and invite them to begin finding answers by asking a deeper question: “Who is God?” Jesus modeled this for us. He constantly found his identity in the Father who had sent him. We can see him doing this when he says things like, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

We have trained volunteers to teach students that this is not a formulaic process; it’s a mystical one.  When we have the courage to not only ask, “Who am I?” but to also ask, “Who is God?” the Spirit of God is faithful to take us on a journey of discovery that is rooted in the same story from which Jesus found his identity and self-authored his life.  This, of course, is the Good News—in Jesus, we are being re-made into the image of God. By God’s grace, we become co-authors with Jesus. God entrusts us to live in a way that actually moves God’s story forward, bringing life, restoration and redemption through Jesus’ Kingdom of grace and love.

2. Belonging

The process looks nearly identical with the question of Belonging: What is my place? In the same way that we are free to answer the question, “Who am I?”, we are also free to find an answer to this question of Belonging however we’d like.  But the good news is that God has created us and invited us to belong to God. As our students are asking, “What is my place?” we can help them to answer the question by inviting them to ask, “What is the Church?”

Again, we want to blurt out an answer that identifies the Church as the family of God. But we must create the space for our students to trust the Spirit of God to show them what it means to belong to Jesus’ Body and Bride by connecting them anew to this larger story of redemption. Then, like Jesus, each opportunity to include the outsider, extend forgiveness, offer reconciliation, live in community, and to show love isn’t just something good we should do as a Christian, but it is a chance to self-author, connecting our story to God’s larger story of redemption.

3. Mission

For some (unknown) reason, it is completely acceptable for adults to ask a twelve, fourteen or sixteen year-old the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and expect an accurate answer.

Adolescents are increasingly bombarded with questions about what they are going to do with their life, yet in our context we see it as more helpful to invite students take a deeper look by encouraging them to discover their mission. “Why am I here?” is a question that goes beyond career or college choices, reaching to the depths of what it means to be human. We affirm whenever students ask this question, and we invite them to see the good news that we have been created and called to join the mission of Jesus.  So we encourage them not only to ask, “Why am I here?” but to also ask, “Why was Jesus here?” If students see themselves as connected to the mission of Jesus, they can become like him, self-authoring to bring about the fulfillment of his mission.

Prepared for the Life-long Journey

Encouraging the process of self-authorship through teaching young people to ask and answer their questions fuels a life-long faith journey. As youth workers, this approach gives us direction to work through the overwhelming complexities associated with development and the ability to resist the temptation of focusing merely on behaviors. Nurturing self-authorship encourages an ever-increasing (developmentally appropriate) capacity to see oneself and others as authors—authors who, like Jesus, live in decisive and intentional ways to join the Author in writing this magnificent, beautiful, blessed story of life, love, and restoration. This is the life-long journey youth workers are calling students toward. May our charge be nothing less.

 Action Points:

  • How are you defining spiritual growth? How do you think your students would define it? Ask leaders, parents, and students for their own take on defining spiritual growth/formation/maturity (whatever language you tend to use in your context).
  • How do you (and the other adults on your team) answer the questions, Who am I? What is my place? Why am I here? How are you helping students answer these questions?
  • What implications does the concept of “self-authorship” have for your ministry relationships and programming approaches?

  1. Baxter-Magolda, M. (2009). Authoring Your Life. Stylus Publishing

Q&A with Donald Miller & Steve Taylor

The FYI Blue Like Jazz Interview

Apr 10, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

The Blue Like Jazz movie releases around the country this weekend. I had the opportunity recently to sit down with the creators, author Donald Miller and filmmaker Steve Taylor, to talk about Sticky Faith themes within Blue Like Jazz and their hopes for young people who see the movie.

Watch this 6-minute synopsis of our interview and share it with other leaders and parents who are wondering about the film and its exploration of faith across the transition to college.




Free Discussion Guides for high school and college groups are available for download from Youth Specialties.

Dare to Disciplines

Spiritual Practices to Lead Teenagers Toward Deeper Faith

Apr 09, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

When the squirrels come to Jesus…

Our ninth-grade boys are affectionately known as “The Squirrels.”

The nickname captures their unceasing chatter and fast-twitch restlessness. So you can imagine the mix of excitement and fear that gripped me when every last one of them signed up for Winter Retreat. The weekend ended up a wild mix of sleeplessness, laughter, a few we-don’t-do-that conversations and some wonderful “aha” moments.

Near the end, Evan approached me and said he wanted to be a follower of Jesus. We celebrated and prayed, I encouraged him, and we agreed to meet soon to talk about next steps. He wasn’t 10 feet away when the thought hit me with a thud:

Next steps?!

Specifically, what next steps could I give this new believer so that he might know Jesus more? He was about to return to the routinized frenzy of school, sports, friends, and family. At most he could spend two hours per week at church stuff. Saying “read your Bible” or “pray” felt too simplistic and broad, and I also didn’t want to give him a laundry list of “don’ts.” But lest I do him a disservice, I had to give him something.

I was rescued from my inertia by another student, a senior, who wanted to ask me about some things he’d been thinking about. The conversation turned to prayer, and he marveled aloud how God had been so faithful over the previous year, and how he had seen this through his journal entries.  

And there was my answer for Evan: spiritual disciplines.

What are spiritual disciplines, and how can they be used in youth ministry?

Mythbusting Part I: Disciplines are Fringe & New Age-y

When I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” I was suspicious. They sounded like a Johnny-come-lately experiential fad that was cheekily attempting to replace tried-and-true practices like prayer and small groups.

But they aren’t that. In the first place, spiritual disciplines are not new; they are ancient. The Church has been blessed by them for centuries. Further, they are not so fringe; in fact, saying the Lord’s prayer, the ACTS prayer (a praying framework of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) or listening to worshipful music could all be considered spiritual disciplines. So could some other things I had already deemed orthodox, like journaling.

Disciplines Defined

So if spiritual disciplines aren’t new, what are they? Quite simply, spiritual disciplines are practices, exercises, and habits that create space for an encounter between God and us. Author and pastor Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains that the disciplines arose to meet peoples’ desire to know God more. They do not satisfy the longings of our souls by themselves, but rather prime us for the Spirit who does satisfy. 1

When my wife was in college, she found herself in a sorority house full of fun, intelligent girls but no sisters in Christ. Until she met one. And they committed to deepen their relationship. How? Coffee dates. Movie nights. Studying together. Walks around campus when the weather was good. Within weeks they were closer, and within months they had a bond that would extend beyond commencement.

And while they bonded over coffee and movies, it wasn’t the coffee and movies that bonded them. Coffee and movies merely provided the time and space for intimacy to occur.

Spiritual disciplines are like that. They are venues for us to be intimate with the Spirit, and for the Spirit to do its work in our lives. There are lots of different disciplines, many of which I’ve listed some at the end of this article. One of my favorite spiritual disciplines is focused, meditative reading of the Bible. I also have been greatly blessed by listening prayer, the prayer of examen, and fasting. In the time since I’ve started practicing a broader range of disciplines, I’ve grown closer to Jesus.

Some folks identify just a few disciplines, others upwards of 30. A number of people have categorized spiritual disciplines in a way that makes them easier to understand and approach. Dallas Willard offers a framework that has been helpful to me. He identifies disciplines into two major categories: Disciplines of Engagement and Disciplines of Abstinence. 2

Disciplines of Engagement are practices we add into our lives for the sake of spiritual formation. Disciplines of Abstinence involve making changes to things we probably do already in order to create space for spiritual encounter. For instance, we might engage in Bible study or a prayer exercise, and schedule regular times where we abstain from interacting with others, or some expendable part of our regular routine. The list below is partially adapted from Willard’s work:

Some Disciplines of Abstinence

+ Solitude. Purposely abstaining from interaction with other people for a period of time.

+ Silence. Closing off our souls from “sounds,” whether those sounds are noise, music, or words.

+ Fasting. Giving up the pleasures of food, or a certain kind of food for a period of time.

+ Simplicity. Abstaining from using money or goods at our disposal to merely gratify our desires.

Some Disciplines of Engagement

+ Listening Prayer. Spending time in prayer with our hearts and ears open, without much speaking on our part.

+ Prayer of Examen. Deliberately and prayerfully retracing our day/week and paying attention to our “highs” and “lows,” and inviting God into them. This ancient practice was pursued in earnest by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits (and namesake of my high school). 3

+ Meditative Reading. Focusing on a short passage of Scripture and reading it several times prayerfully (sometimes this is also called lectio divina).

Mythbusting Part II: Disciplines are diagnostic tools

So does that mean I can gauge my spiritual health by the frequency and quality of spiritual disciplines? No, of course not. Just as the health of my wife’s friendship isn’t defined by coffee dates, and that of our marriage isn’t defined by chores or Tiffany jewelry, spiritual disciplines are not necessarily indicative of spiritual health.

As we encourage students like Evan toward spiritual disciplines, we must help them distinguish between their relationship with Jesus and the ways they invest in that relationship.

The Fruit of Disciplines

Why encourage students to practice spiritual disciplines?

For starters, it helps them move from “religion about Jesus” to “relationship with Jesus.” The intimacy that students experience from practicing spiritual disciplines can lead to a living, authentic relationship of love, trust, and obedience in God. No longer will they simply memorize Scripture or repeat prayer requests; instead they will begin to love the Bible, love prayer, and most importantly love the God who first loved them. 

When times get tough

The intimacy students experience with God, and takeaways like greater familiarity with the Bible and the ability to communicate honestly with Jesus, can better equip them for difficult seasons. Not long ago, I heard a pastor share with his community about a sudden grave illness that had stricken his family. Despite the thick, depleting fog of shock, sadness, anger and confusion that so often accompanies these seasons, he found the Bible passages he’d recently memorized randomly percolating to the service. He had communed with God on a deep, intimate, personal level through the discipline of Scripture memorization, and it helped him cling to truth in the midst of a chorus of tempting lies.

Times of loss, pain, betrayal, disappointment, and loneliness are simply part of the human experience, and certainly high school. The intimacy that comes with practicing spiritual disciplines can help students trust Jesus to comfort and carry them during these times.

Each one teach one

Another benefit of teaching students spiritual disciplines is that they can teach other people, especially other students. Imagine if students were able not only to invite their friends to church or direct them to Bible websites, but also help them learn to do things like pray, listen, recognize God’s presence, and be still.

60% of the time, it works every time.

That line from Paul Rudd’s character in the film Anchorman helps me to remember that discipleship is not an exact science. Some students may go all-in right away. Other students might take much longer to try even the smallest of first steps. And that’s okay. Let’s be faithful in engaging the Spirit ourselves, and faithful in encouraging students toward the same.

Evan is not yet much of a journal-writer, but we’ve had a few good follow-up conversations about Bible verses I’ve asked him to check out. I’ve started writing down his prayer requests, and I’m looking forward to revisiting them with him soon. Baby steps are still steps!

When I’m tempted toward frustration with the pace, I envision Evan a year out of high school, wherever he may be, with a little bit of free time, and wondering what God has for him in this new season. That moment is crucial. If, in that moment, Evan feels equipped to channel his questions for God through practicing listening prayer, reading scripture, or some other discipline, then he has a pretty good chance for a faith that doesn’t just survive after high school, but thrives.

Action Points

  • Evaluate the use of disciplines in your own life. Pick a new discipline or two and schedule – literally schedule in your calendar – some times in the next week or so to try them out. If you already do one or more of them, keep a journal to track the experience more intentionally for a couple of weeks. 
  • Run some experiments! Invite a couple of students to try new disciplines for a season. These could be student leader-types, or just students you know would be open to something new. You may also want to have some volunteers take part as well. Give them resources, check in with them during the experiment, and debrief after.
  • Think about incorporating more disciplines into your next retreat/trip experience. The prayer of examen is a great journaling framework. Surprising, prolonged times of solitude and silence work well with students; on the winter retreat I mentioned earlier, I had our high school students spend 90 minutes in silence, and without exception students said it was the main highlight of the weekend.


  1. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2005), 15-23.
  2. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).
  3. For more on Ignatius and Ignatian practices, please visit

Anxiety in the In-Between Stages of Our Lives

Healthy Strategies for Coping with Transitions

Mar 26, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro.

In August of 2008 my wife and I found ourselves driving across the hot desert with our one-year old daughter as we made the 1,400-mile trek from Los Angeles to Dallas. The move was the culmination of a decision-making process that had begun in the fall of 2006, as we felt God encouraging us to make some changes in our lives. But here we are in the Spring of 2012 and all the hopes that we felt like that change would bring about in our lives feels so unsettled in many ways. Though we changed location, the transition didn’t lead to other changes we were hoping for in our lifestyle.

Why is that?

When I was doing research for my new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good. 1  I came across a wonderful book by William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. 2  I soon discovered that my wife and I had prepared our lives for a change, but we failed to adequately take into account the transition itself. Bridges explains the difference between change and transition when he writes:  

Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t…Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner re-orientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, that change doesn’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take.’ Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition.  3

I suspect that if you are like me, you prepare for lots of changes in your lives, the lives of your family members, and the lives of the kids you serve in ministry. But we may come up short in thinking best how to prepare for the transitions that those changes bring about. For example:

  • As parents and youth leaders we tend to talk to our kids a lot about the change of moving from high school into college, yet we don’t properly prepare them for the transition that awaits them. Change is going to college. But the transition involves tasks like learning to deal with peer pressure, self-managing projects at school, taking responsibility for one’s actions, dealing with confusion over majors and career choices, navigating sexuality on campus, or the constant wondering of where God fits into a college student’s life.
  • As youth leaders we talk to our kids about the change that divorce brings about in their lives, but we don’t adequately address the transition they encounter. Change is the divorce itself. But transition encapsulates the emotions that a kid might experience of feeling unloved, the disorientation of shuttling between two different homes, and the identity confusion of constantly questioning where they fit in and belong.
  • As parents and youth leaders we talk about the change of kids needing to “own” their faith as they become older, but we don’t talk about the transition that is involved. Change is making a decision about whether to go to church or not. Transition involves the struggle that many experience as they sort through what their essential theological beliefs are and how they are to be practiced; it involves the self-differentiation that it takes to stand up for what you believe when lots of your friends may be challenging those beliefs; it involves the restless wandering of trying to find a faith community where one can belong.

Transitional Anxiety

Why is having a proper understanding of change and transition so important?

Because it is in the transition, and in those in-between spaces, where so many kids experience anxiety. And when it is not faced, anxiety often leads to a lot of other issues in kids’ lives such as depression, anger, withdrawing, cutting, and even suicide.

The good news for us is that we are a transitional people, continually journeying through the wilderness as God draws us nearer and leads us to where he wants us to be. This journey through the wilderness is one filled with anxiety, but it has the power to lead us closer to God as we lean into our anxiety in hopes that God may transform it or rescue us from it.

A freshman college student may have recently made the change of leaving high school and entering college, but there is a world of transitions awaiting her. And it is on that journey through college that she will face many transitions that will create anxiety.

Another helpful way to frame idea of transitions and the anxiety that accompanies it is through the paradigm Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about in The Message of the Psalms. 4  Brueggemann writes that our journey in the life of faith is embodied by a steady movement from orientation, to disorientation, to new orientation. If we look back at the college student for a moment we can see that she has moved from a place of orientation (high school: where she experienced security in knowing) to disorientation (entering college: insecurity in not knowing), and will hopefully find a new orientation (life meaning that is anchored to the person of Jesus Christ) as she faces her anxiety and navigates through this transition.

As a person of faith and a parent of two young children I am best helped by the imagery displayed in Exodus 17:1 where one translation reminds me that God led his people out of the wilderness as they “journeyed by stages” (NRSV). I like this idea of journeying by stages as God leads his people on a stage-by-stage journey. The change is the movement from one stage to the next, but the transition is all that accompanies that journey between two places…fear, insecurity, lack of trust, disconnection, etc. And when kids find themselves between two stages of their journey, there is a great sense of anxiety in their lives as they have to decide whether or not to deal with the disorientation the journey has thrust upon them.

Strategies for Journeying With Our Kids Through Anxiety

I am a big believer in systems theory so I find it highly unlikely that there are anxious kids without anxious parents. 5  As I think about strategies to help our kids navigate the anxiety of their transition, I have purposefully chosen some exercises that involve the participation of both parent and child. My belief is that when parents engage their kids in these practices it will have the effect of not only helping their kids cope with their anxiety, but also help the parents cope in the process. Youth leaders and other caring adults can utilize most of these exercises as well.

Strategy #1:Talk About It

You might be amazed to see how helpful it is for people to just talk about their anxiety. If I can generalize for a moment, I would suggest that many in the Christian community at some point or another have met resistance from well-intending Christians when they mentioned their anxiety. Pastoral care must go beyond just telling someone “not to be anxious” because the Bible says so. Help your kids talk about what they are feeling.

My own experience as a therapist has reminded me just how big of a deficit there is in our understanding and expression of our emotions, especially for boys. It’s fairly typical that when I ask a guy in therapy how he is feeling, I get a blank stare in return. Talking about our feelings, especially anxiety, helps us build a vocabulary that enables us to better understand how we feel, as well as connecting us with the listener. As we connect with the listener it has the power of helping us not feel so alone. Here are a couple of tips:

  • To help a kid better understand how they are feeling, put a list of words on a page and have them circle which words describe them. 6
  • Model with/to your kids an ability to express your own feelings and a willingness to talk about your own struggles, such as anxiety. Talk to them about what makes you feel anxious. Let them know it’s okay to be anxious about things.

Strategy #2: Ask Questions & Listen

Anxiety can be a catalyst for growth in our lives, and it is a tool that God uses to speak to us. But it’s hard to know what God is saying and what God wants us to do with our anxiety if we can’t listen. If a kid is dealing with anxiety, one of the strategies may require you helping them ask questions of their anxiety, and then slowing down enough to hear what God might be saying to them in the midst of it. Any time I have anxiety I find myself asking God, “What are you saying to me in my anxiety? What are you trying to teach me? How do you want me to respond to it?” Or, “Why am I anxious? Is there something in my life that needs changing?” Here are a couple of tips:

  • Help your kid develop a list of questions they can ask God when they are feeling anxious, or when they find themselves struggling with a transition.
  • As a parent, model practices such as Sabbath, silence, and being still as a means to create space to hear God speak.

Strategy #3: Co-Create Meaning

In Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, he tells a great story about a father who realized that he had not created a better story for his family to live for. The father laments the various issues in his family, but ultimately comes to the realization that as he created opportunities for his family (i.e. raising money and building a house for a less fortunate family), they became more engaged with one another, and began to see that their lives had a new meaning that seemed to be invisible before. As kids make changes, go through transitions, and experience anxiety, they are often wondering what it all means. They may not phrase it this way, but questions like, “Who am I? What am I to do? How am I to be loved?” and “How do I become all that God has created me to be?” are resounding in some form or another in their mind. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Model practices that point your kids towards a life that is anchored in Christ. For example, it might be redefining “success,” talking about how you spend money, or by not putting emphasis on looks, clothes and exterior items. Help your kids see that meaning derives from a life in Christ.
  • Co-create a family story with your spouse and kids. Talk about what kind of story you have all been living, and whether or not it carries the meaning you desire. Then write together a new family story that has its meaning centered in Christ.

Strategy #4: Practice Self-Care

Caring for ourselves is often one of the most difficult things we can learn. One of the verses that has captured my attention over the last year is found in Luke 10:27:

“He answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

I have been learning to use this verse as a model for self-care. One of the ways that I love myself is to take care of myself, specifically my heart, soul, strength and mind. If I don’t take care of myself, I wonder if I really love myself, and ultimately it leads me to a place of not being able to love my neighbor. Someone who doesn’t practice self-care has nothing to offer their neighbor. They become an empty well with no living water flowing out of it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my heart (heart=emotional/relational connection)? Maybe it’s a date night, or family game night, or coffee with a friend.
  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my soul (soul=spiritual connection)? Maybe it’s reading a devotional, time in prayer, or sitting in silence.
  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my strength (strength=physical/health)? Maybe it’s running, going for a walk, or eating healthy.
  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my mind (mind=intellect)? Maybe it’s a hobby, or reading a book, or a deep conversation with a friend.

As we journey through life, we are going to experience changes that thrust us into a myriad of expected and unexpected transitions. But in those transitions when anxiety is most acute, we can practice some healthy strategies that allow us to give God our anxiety so that it can be transformed for positive growth in our lives and the lives of our kids.

Action Points

  • Create some space on the calendar this month for the family to play together (e.g. going to the zoo, movies, a sporting event, or the park), and use some of that casual time to begin asking your kids about their dreams for the family. This is a good time to brainstorm ideas and dream out loud together about creating a new story and brining more meaning to your family.
  • As a parent, pay close attention this month to the emotions of your kids. Look for an opportunity to share with them your own struggles in life (age appropriately), by using feeling words that help explain your struggle. This is an opportunity to share, not preach or lecture.
  • Using the four-fold model presented above on self-care, sit down as a family and talk about the ways that you can all assist each other in caring for yourselves, and therefore the family and others. Again, this is a brainstorming exercise that can be used to empower your kids to have a voice. Don’t use it as a time to tell them what to do. Rather, use it as a time to explore ideas together.


  1. Smith, Rhett. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?, 2012.
  2. Bridges, William, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, 2004.
  3. Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, 2004. xxi
  4. Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms.
  5. Smith, Rhett. Managing Anxiety in the Family: Strategies for Changing Our Relationship Dance.
  6. Hargrave, T. & Pfitzer, F. Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy, 2011. For example, some of the words that adolescents often circle are “alone, abandoned, not good enough, can’t measure up, worthless, devalued, powerless, etc.”

Show Me (And Talk to Me About) The Money

Healthy Family Conversations About Giving

Feb 27, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

I remember the first time it registered with me what it meant to give well.  Our church was launching a building campaign and many members were standing up at a worship service and sharing what they were going to sacrifice for this new vision. 

In the midst of the powerful sacrifices people were offering, the most vivid moment came when a couple slowly walked to the stage.  The man was very ill with Parkinson’s disease so it took a while for his wife to help him navigate his way to the platform. 

The couple explained that they had decided to offer her wedding ring, probably the most precious thing she shared with her husband.  I was touched, as was the entire church.

Later that night after our family arrived home, my dad pulled me aside and told me that he had given the pastor enough extra money to cover the value of the ring so that the woman could keep her wedding ring. My dad explained that he and my mom wanted to do this because they felt it was right. More importantly, this was something that was to be kept private within our family. We were not to be proud about what we had given, but humble for what we had received.

It was then that I began to understand the value of giving with integrity and humility. I would continue to learn this, as my parents would involve me in different decisions that would require me to decide for myself how I wanted to contribute. I began to learn what my parents were passionate about and that in turn gave me a chance to share the same with them. 

As I’ve experienced, there is great power in a parent asking a child how they want to help. It not only breeds responsibility, but also ownership in the joy that comes from sacrifice.  Regardless of your family’s financial situation, you as a parent have the chance—and maybe even the responsibility—to talk with your kids about your giving philosophy and practices.


The Power of Our Example

One study analyzing the relationship between the giving tendencies of parents and children found that the giving practices of young adults often mirror those of their parents.  Fifty-five percent of young adults who observed their parents donating money to churches or ministries during their adolescence now do the same.  For youth whose parents did not donate, only 24 percent now make charitable contributions. 1

While Millennials are known for giving the least, around 56 percent actually give to charitable causes and give an average of $341 a year. Forty-two percent of these young donors actually give directly to the organization instead of through a website or fundraising device. 2  With immediate and constant access to the Internet, this group is best at becoming evangelizers for an organization and getting the word out. They are very open to talking about where and how they give.

In 2010, Russ Reid, a leading fundrasing agency, released a study that stated that above education and household income, parents’ giving patterns have a greater impact on the potential for their children to give. In fact, parental involvement in nonprofits increases the odds of their children’s involvement by 80%. 3


Not Taboo:  Talking About Money

Our Sticky Faith research has shown us that parents are more than just the initial launch pad for their kids' journey, but that they continue to shape them as ongoing companions and guides.   Based on our Sticky Faith research, we encourage parents to share about their own spiritual journeys with their children, and giving is often a part of that spiritual journey. In chapter 6 of Sticky Faith we give the suggestion of using your time at the dinner table to ask how you see God working in your daily lives. This may be a good time to share how God has been working through your giving, especially if you’ve received a recent update from a charity or ministry that shared stories of its impact

Charles Collier, the author of Wealth in Families, stresses the need to ask what he calls the “Big Questions.” One of the most important questions according to Collier is “How can we nurture the growth and development of our family members, and what role does money play in their life journey?" 4   The art of discussion helps you begin to understand your child as an individual with their own unique burdens and callings, and then gives you the opportunity to help them act on those passions.

For as much time as we spend having conversations about the things our kids should avoid, why do we often skimp on talking to them about things they should take part in? By opening up conversations with our kids about giving we are not only showing them the value of stewardship, but also giving them the opportunity to share in someone else’s story. The seeds of generosity that we plant now will take root and grow throughout the rest of their journey.


Simple Steps Parents Can Take

The Fourth Partner Foundation recommends the following steps for parents who want to educate and involve their children and teenagers in their family’s giving, whatever the family’s giving potential and practices might be. 5

1.    Expect children and teenagers to give: Creating an understood expectation can sometimes be more beneficial than a requirement. When parents give children an expectation to do something, parents give them the responsibility to choose and then rise to the standard on their own.

2.    Show children and teenagers what you give: Too often giving is a family secret for any number of reasons. By showing children and teenagers what parents give to, children are educated not only in the reality of what their parents give to but also what they are passionate about.

3.    Match children’s and teenagers’ giving: When parents financially match their kids’ giving, parents begin to understand what touches their kids’ hearts and kids discover that parents also value those causes.

4.    Take kids along:  Parents are often surprised at how much children learn just from being with them and being included in ministry visits or meetings. This practice can open up all sorts of conversations about what people are doing and give kids memorable experiences. Parents are often surprised at how much teenagers absorb just from watching and being exposed to the work they are involved in. In time, they may want to go on their own and they will know what to ask and for what to look for in a ministry needing support.

5.    Celebrate children’s and teenagers’ giving:  Parents can find ways to let their children know they are noticing and are proud of their giving. If God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7), then it's okay for parents to show their teenagers that giving can be joyful instead of merely a grim duty. 

I’m glad my parents told me about the gift they gave to our church, which enabled that precious married couple to keep their wedding ring.  It’s not just a memory from my past, it’s part of what motivates me to give in the present, and fills me with a vision for how I might be able to give in the future.  May we all be able to pass on that type of giving legacy to the teenagers in our lives. 

Action Points

  •  Talk with someone you trust: Is there a parent you know who is already talking about their giving with their kids? Spend some time with them to see how they have approached the subject.
  • Start a conversation with your kids by asking them to describe their idea of giving and what they have learned from you or any type of involvement they have had so far. From this you can start thinking of ways to involve them further in your giving patterns.
  • Start a project together. If you are currently not involved in an organization or haven’t included your kids in the work you have done so far, take the opportunity to start a new giving project that you decide on as a family. This could be sponsoring a child, sponsoring an entrepreneur through Kiva, or even volunteering monthly at a local outreach 

Additional Helpful Resources:

1. The Learning Community

2. Learning to Give

3. ShareSaveSpend

4. Family Giving News: 6 Tips on Raising Philanthropic Children

How Can My Struggles Help My Faith Stick?

Free Student Curriculum Sample

Jan 30, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

In this sample session from the Sticky Faith Teen Curriculum, you can engage students around their own doubts and struggles. The "Big Idea" of this session is that our problems, crises, and doubts don’t have to deal a death blow to our faith; in fact, they can help us move forward on our faith journeys.

Download the free pdf (1 MB PDF file) and handouts below (optional video clips not included), courtesy of Zondervan and the Fuller Youth Institute:

Curriculum Sample



From Faith to Faithing

Could Faith be a Verb?

Jan 30, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

It’s not uncommon to hear an exceptional person described as “walking on water.”

This image comes from one of the most memorable scenes in the Gospel according to Matthew of Jesus, then Peter, walking on the water.

Konrad Witz paints it.

And that’s a big deal. 

What’s unique about Witz’s Fifteenth century painting is that he is credited with creating one of the only “great paintings” of this scene from Matthew 14. So why would such a popular biblical and cultural scene be so unpopular to paint?

Remember, this is Peter.

Jesus calls Peter the “rock” of the church.

Peter tries to walk on water.

Peter fails.

The rock… sinks.



Nobody wants to paint a picture of their beloved leaders’ failures, and we certainly don’t want to broadcast our own either. Whether it’s Facebook or the Sunday morning church lobby, the predictable answer to “What’s on your mind?” or “How are you doing?” is often “Everything is just great.”

Herein lie some interesting considerations. First, it appears that the way we talk to each other about our own faith journeys is more likely to mimic our Facebook statuses (that ignore failures and inflate successes) Sunday after Sunday, post after post.  

Second, it appears that we may have misunderstood faith. If we address the second, maybe there’s hope for changing the first.

Faith as a Noun

I have observed that when Christians use the word “faith,” they think of it primarily as a noun. Thus she “has” or doesn’t “have” faith. He defends “the faith.” She’s worried she’ll “lose” her faith.

Examples of faith as an object certainly appear in Scripture—something that is held (Heb 4:14), possessed (1 Jn 1:5), lost and found (Mt 10:39), or received (1 Tim 1:16).

The downside to thinking about faith only as noun is that it can be viewed as a commodity one possesses. It becomes a static “thing” that, once acquired, is placed, even displayed in a prominent place in one’s life, often never to be touched again. Noun-faith assumptions reveal themselves when people are asked about their faith and they say that they “accepted Jesus in the 4th grade,” or that that they’re qualified to teach Sunday school because they’ve “been a Christian for ten years.”

Programming also buys into these pre-conceived notions where more emphasis is placed on getting people “in” or counting conversions, never realizing that these same people leave the church because in their own words, they’ve “outgrown it.” One-time conversions or the length of being a Christian don’t necessarily speak to spiritual maturity. If you have done ministry more than a week, you know exactly what I mean.

So maybe faith is more than a noun. In fact, it is. It must be.

Faith as a Verb

Faith is also a verb, and as a verb is more associated with spiritual formation. It expresses believing and trusting in someone/something (John 3:16); is actively worked out (Philippians 2:12); is pursued (1 Timothy 6:11); and can be maturing (Hebrews 6:1).  

At its very elemental level, faith as a verb is not a just Christian thing, it’s a human thing that people act upon. 1  Faith is the way human beings make sense of their world. People make meaning in order to connect and hold together the barrage of information they are continually learning and experiencing.

This is a difficult task for two reasons. First, new information is constantly bombarding us as we live life, so there is continually more information we must juggle. Second, people need to find “epistemological equilibrium.” In other words, if pieces of information they acquire don’t fit their current understanding, the human psyche is compelled to find a way to make them fit. People can’t live in disequilibrium. Life has to make sense. 2

Therefore, we might say that faith as a verb is “to faith” where each person is in a perpetual process of “faithing”. 

Faithing as a Vessel

Faith, then, is like a vessel we “have,” and also a container that “holds” our view of the world and our understandings of what is true, what is real, or what is right. This is affected by our developmental, sociological, and theological perspectives and affects the way we navigate our world. 3 Every moment, things we know, learn, understand, or experience inform our faithing vessel that seeks to place knowledge and experiences in some coherent equilibrium. This process is called “assimilation,” 4  or making sense of new awareness.

But then something happens that a person doesn’t expect.

  • An adolescent grows developmentally, acquiring abstract thinking skills that enable her to envision a perfect world… and suddenly she begins to understand that her world isn’t perfect.
  • One experiences something that he didn’t have a mental category for before (falling in love, his parents’ divorce, the death of a friend, a mission trip), which throws off his way of faithing up to that point.
  • One learns something in science, philosophy, sociology, or psychology that challenges her assumptions about people, communities, and societies, raising new, more complicated questions about how the world works.

The information or experience is so big that the existing vessel that a person uses can’t hold the data, and the person can’t assimilate it all. They must accommodate it. Accommodation requires a destroying of one’s current faithing vessel in order to reconstruct a new, bigger, more complex one to handle the new information or experience. 5 This is why, when we hear students who have traumatic experiences say, “I’m not sure I believe anymore,” our understanding of what they really mean will make all the difference. Accommodation occurs as one works through crises and disorienting experiences to construct a more reliable way to faith. 6   7

This is where the misunderstanding often happens.

Peter, Young People, and Faithing


The misunderstanding happens with Peter when his sinking is misinterpreted as a failure as though he “lost his faith.” From a faithing perspective, this is actually a beautiful picture of Peter accommodating and constructing a more reliable form of faithing.

Consider this: in the midst of an overwhelming storm, Peter the fisherman determines that his boat (a fisherman’s most reliable possession) will not see him and the other disciples through, and he abandons it, responding to the voice of Jesus. He steps out, away from the familiar, toward Jesus.  Then he freaks out halfway. Jesus catches him, asks why he doubted (a rebuke, but I wonder if Jesus isn’t laughing, so happy that Peter took the step), and they head back to the boat.

I believe that the epistemological “vessel” Peter left wasn’t the same one he came back to. The text highlights that prior to Peter walking on the water, the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost. Now they worship him.

Did Jesus change? No! Peter’s (and the disciples’) perception of Jesus changed and it reframed their whole view of their world (the storm wasn’t so big anymore and the crisis was a portal to a new more “faithful” perspective). This is what faithing looks like.  

Young People

We do young people a disservice when we witness them questioning, struggling, reacting, even pitching the way they believe, and assume that they’ve lost their faith (noun). In actuality, like Peter, they are walking away from more simplistic vessels of faithing, seeking to construct bigger, more faithful faithing through which to hold what they know and what they experience. In faithing, we’re constantly discarding and acquiring perspective that informs our meaning making.

This perspective helps us as adults hear (and respond) differently when we experience adolescents saying things like:

  • “I’m not sure I believe what I’ve been taught anymore.”
  • “Can the Bible really be true about that?”
  • “I’m questioning everything these days.”
  • “Maybe my view of God is different than I have imagined.”
  • “It’s not making sense to me.”
  • “My parents believe it, but I’m not sure I see it that way.”

Noun-faith perspectives find these questions sacrilegious, often evoking reactionary advice like telling young people to just read the Bible more. Verb-faith perspectives find these statements natural, even essential in the meaning-making process.


The challenge is to help students’ faithing versus having them hold onto a childlike Christian belief system. This may be why the National Study of Youth and Religion observes the inability of adolescents and emerging adults to articulate their beliefs. 8

If faithing is relegated to youth group apart from the other domains of life; if it is perpetuated with behavior modification that treats testimonies like Facebook statuses, highlighting only the positive and the fantastic; and if it ignores the Peter paintings by downplaying doubt, fear, struggle, and sinking as part of the faithing journey, then it leaves adolescents and emerging adults with a static faith of untested and un-integrated truth statements. This faith is relegated to church for safe keeping while the rest of life is wrestled with in other ways. Some say young people are leaving the church. Maybe they’re searching for real places to faith.

The reality is that, like Peter, young people will at some point want and need to step out of their existing faithing vessels in order to create truer containers by which to hold their meaning-making. This is a scary venture that freaks parents out and risks making local churches “look bad.” But the good news is found, shared, and proclaimed in each person’s struggle toward transformation.

The challenge, opportunity, and inspiration is to faith with them. The Fuller Youth Institute’s work on Sticky Faith is seeking to understand emerging adults’ faithing through college and what churches, youth groups and parents can do to nurture them in this process. Their work suggests that not only should faith stick, but this stickiness comes through faithing that churches must support and encourage.

These are the stories that must occupy our conversations.

These are the values that must inform our programming.

These are the perspectives that must reframe our understanding of formation.

These are the paintings that we can only hope will fill our church walls.


Action Steps

  • Think about your own community’s view of formation. Where do you see people default to a “noun” faith and where do you see glimpses of “verb” faithing?
  • Often questions of doubt and struggle are signs of a maturing faithing process, not someone “losing their faith.” How might this idea help you help students, volunteers, and parents?
  • Think about your own faithing. What are the questions that you need to ask to step out toward a truer “vessel” of faith and a more mature faithing?
  • How might this concept of faithing inspire you to think about how to prepare your students and parents for life post-high school youth group?




(Photo credit:

  1. Fowler, J.W., Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. 1st ed1981, San Francisco: Harper & Row. xiv, 332 p., and Parks, S.D., Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. 1st ed2000, San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass. xiv, 261 p.
  2. Mezirow, J., Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. 1st ed. The Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series.2000, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. xxxiii, 371 p, Piaget, J., Biology and knowledge1971, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Also see the article "Meaning Making" by Jesse Oakes.
  3. Christerson, B., K. Edwards, and R. Flory, Growing up in America: The power of race in the lives of teens2010, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press., Jacober, A., The adolescent journey: An interdisciplinary approach to practical youth ministry2011, Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books. 182 [1] p.
  4. Piaget, J., Biology and knowledge
  5. Parks, S.D., Big questions, worthy dreams, Piaget, J., Biology and knowledge
  6. Mezirow, J., Learning as transformation
  7. For more understanding of the identity-formation process in adolescence, see “Riding the Highs and Lows of Teenage Faith Development” and “Meaning-Making”.
  8. Smith, C. and M.L. Denton, Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers, 2005: Oxford University Press.  Smith, C. and P. Snell, Souls in transition: The religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults, 2009, Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press. viii, 355 p.

How Do I See Myself After Graduation?

Free Student Curriculum Sample

Jan 02, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

In this sample session from the Sticky Faith Teen Curriculum, you can engage students around questions of identity formation. The "Big Idea" of this session is that having a scripturally-informed view of our identities will help us keep our faith at the center of who we are and what we do.

Find out more about the curriculum

Download the free pdf (1 MB PDF file) and handouts below (optional video clips not included), courtesy of Zondervan and the Fuller Youth Institute:

Curriculum Sample

More Than the Red Bull Rip Off

The Sticky Gospel

Dec 12, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

This article is adapted from the newly released Sticky Faith by Kara Powell and Chap Clark, and Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition, by Kara Powell, Brad Griffin and Cheryl Crawford (Zondervan, 2011). The article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of Immerse Journal. Reprinted with permission.


The carpet suddenly looks so fascinating.

Or so it seems whenever I (Kara) ask youth leaders to describe the gospel to a roomful of their colleagues. As soon as I ask for volunteers to share their own description of the gospel, heads bow and eyes look down at the carpet.  

No, it’s not because they are deep in prayer.

It’s because they are desperately trying to avoid looking me in the eye, fearing that if no one volunteers, I might call on them.

How do you define the gospel?

It’s a question we ask regularly when we speak about sticky faith, a major research initiative designed to identify steps that help kids continue on the path of a long-term relationship with Jesus. To try to understand students’ view of the gospel and the effects of that view on their faith both now and in the future, we studied 500 youth group graduates—kids like yours—as they transitioned to college. During the course of our research, we became aware that when it comes to sticky faith, there is nothing more important than students’ view of the gospel.

The gospel is not an easy term to define. If it were easy to define, then it wouldn’t be God-sized.

And yet as leaders—not to mention followers of Jesus—we need to keep wrestling with the meaning of the gospel until we pin down some answers. Our lack of clarity about the good news is mirrored—and magnified—in our students.

Or, as it’s been rightly said about preaching, a mist in the pulpit becomes a fog in the pew. Because of that, it’s important that we understand and then bridge the gap between students’ truncated view of the gospel and Scripture’s expansive view of the good news.

The Red Bull Rip-Off

Many of our kids—even those who have grown up in church—have surprising views of what it means to be a Christian.

You might think that asking college juniors who are youth group alum to define what it means to be a Christian would get you pretty straightforward answers. You would be wrong.

Of the 168 youth group graduates who answered our question, 35 percent gave an answer that didn’t mention Jesus at all. Granted, two-thirds of the kids who didn’t mention Jesus did mention God, but the number of youth who define Christianity without any reference to Jesus remains disturbing.

The most dominant theme in youth group graduates’ descriptions of being a Christian was that it meant “loving others.” Certainly, that is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching. In fact, Jesus declared that “Love your neighbor as yourself” was the second most important commandment (Matthew 22:39). But it comes after the first and greatest commandment, which is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

Even most atheist teens think it’s a good idea to love other people. And they are right. It is. But true sticky faith demands a bigger, Jesus-centered view of the gospel.

High school students seem to have embraced a Red Bull gospel.

We found that the average youth group graduate drinks more alcohol and has more sex in college than they did in high school. That shouldn’t surprise you. That finding in and of itself is not worth a major grant and six years of research.

But here’s some data that is. We also looked at the rate of increase in alcohol and sex in different types of students. Guess which type of kids showed the greatest rate of increase in drinking alcohol and engaging in sexually risky behaviors as they bridged from high school to college?

The teetotalers. 1

Yes, it’s the kids who didn’t drink or have sex at all in high school who get to college and come undone.

Many of the kids who said yes and no at the right times during high school had what we at the Fuller Youth Institute call a Red Bull view of the gospel. After all, Red Bull’s sugar and caffeine (as well as some other ingredients we can’t decipher) can get you through a few tough hours. But eventually you crash. And crash hard.

Similarly, our youth group kids often have a Red Bull experience of the gospel. It’s a gospel that is potent enough to help them make the right decision at a Friday night party in high school, but the Red Bull gospel and the support of other Red Bull gospel followers isn’t powerful enough to foster long-term faith.

Many youth group kids have adopted the gospel of sin management.

As we tell those same youth workers who stare at the carpet when we ask them to describe the gospel, many youth group kids have a superficial view of the gospel. They view the gospel like a jacket that they can take on and off based on what they feel like doing that day. If they’re going to church or hanging out with Christians, they put on their Jesus jacket. If they’re headed to a party or drifting toward spiritual apathy, they toss that Jesus jacket into a corner.

Our kids can stuff the gospel into a corner for many reasons, one of which is that they have somehow picked up that following Jesus means following a list of what to do and what not to do.

Do go to church and youth group as often as possible, read your Bible, pray, give money, share your faith, get good grades, respect elders, spend spring break on a mission trip, be a good kid.

Do not watch the wrong movies, drink, do drugs, have sex, talk back, swear, hang out with the wrong crowd, go to Cancun for spring break, go to parties.

If students aren’t good at following these lists, then this gospel isn’t only unappealing—it’s irrelevant.

For many of our youth group kids, the gospel has been shrunk down to fit inside the small box of what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management.” 2   In this gospel focused on behaviors, we’ve sadly let the gospel deteriorate into a list of good virtues, and then we slap Bible verses on them. We don’t blame them for tossing that gospel aside. Wouldn’t you do the same?

The Gospel à la Paul

This gospel of sin management couldn’t be further from the gospel described by the apostle Paul in his epistles. One of Paul’s pointed and concise explanations of the gospel in practice is in Galatians, especially the fifth chapter.

The first verse of Galatians 5, the crescendo of Paul’s argument that has been building throughout his letter, is considered by some to be the summative verse of all of Paul’s writings: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

In a surprising twist, the types of slavery that Paul goes on to describe aren’t the typical forms of slavery that we and our students might assume (e.g., all those “don’t” behaviors we talked about earlier). Ironically, Paul championed freedom from something that, up until that time, had been encouraged as a virtuous, even necessary, religious rite: circumcision. 3

Paul jumps into the debate over this controversial Jewish rite feet first and aligns with the Gentile converts who don’t think they need to be circumcised to follow Jesus. In doing so, Paul uses the rift in Galatia to demonstrate God’s intent and plan for his people since the beginning: It is not the work we do that makes us pure enough to please and come close to a holy God but what God has done and continues to do in and through us.

Paul describes our role in this in Galatians 5:5: “It is by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” In other words, it is God’s job to work in us and to present us as righteous, and it is our job to learn to trust God and let the process proceed. God is the one doing the work; our part is to trust.

Paul’s point in Galatians 5:6 that “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” is not limited to circumcision, or any of the other ancient Hebrew rituals. It also applies to our—and our students’—more contemporary attempts to climb the ladder of righteousness on our own through our self-imposed gospel of sin management.

When we teach a faith that is more concerned with working than trusting, kids might actually feel like they can sustain this performance style of Christianity (often motivated by a desire to please adults) based on how well they “live” the gospel…for a season.

But this gospel of sin management can only last so long. When kids inevitably reach the awareness—through failure, pain, insecurity or inner wrestling—that they do not have the power, capacity or even interest in keeping the faith treadmill going, they put their faith aside.

Teaching the Sticky Gospel

With a bit of thoughtful preparation, you can create space for the Holy Spirit to deepen your students’ love for the gospel every time you teach.

Explain your terms.

When students hear you talk about the Lamb of God or sanctification (which are both biblical terms) but don’t know what those words mean, they conclude that either they are stupid or their faith is incomprehensible. If being at your youth ministry makes students feel stupid, they are not going to want to stay around for long (would you?). If they conclude Christianity is over their heads, then they’ll be less likely to engage in personal study and ownership of their beliefs, both of which are key steps in the path to internalized faith.

One night after youth group, Jim Candy, the pastor of family life ministries at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, debriefed the meeting with his adult leadership team and worship interns. That night they had led their students in a worship song that proclaimed “Hosannah” multiple times. Jim wondered aloud with his adult leaders if their students knew what this word meant. All the adults said they were sure the students knew its definition.

Then Jim asked those same adults to explain what it meant. None of them could do it.

The point is pretty clear: Sticky faith means explaining to your students—and adults, for that matter—the meaning of important theological terms.

Teach with an understanding of the context of Scripture’s imperatives.

In the midst of my (Kara’s) search to understand the gospel, I printed out all of Paul’s epistles and read through them in one sitting, looking for connections between all God has done for us and all God wants us to do to show our trust in him.

Interestingly, Paul’s epistles by and large follow a pattern of starting with all God has done for us and then ending with the imperatives—the commands—of what we are to do in return. Reformation scholar Michael Horton describes this progression as moving from the indicative to the imperative. 4   In grammar, the indicative mood describes a state of being; in the case of Paul’s letters, it often occurs in the earlier chapters when Paul describes who we are in Christ. Having established who we are in Christ, we are then able to move into the imperative mood—meaning verb tenses that carry a sense of command.

When we teach, we often gravitate to texts at the end of Paul’s letters—to those meaty commands we want our students to follow. The problem with starting there is that that’s not where Paul starts. Paul wants his readers (both individually and corporately) to marinate in the power of trusting in God before calling them to fiery obedience.

Last year our youth ministry taught a series on Ephesians. I (Kara) volunteered to teach the Sunday morning lesson on Ephesians 5:21-33 and Paul’s now controversial passage about submission to one another in marriage. The other leaders seemed pretty pleased that I had volunteered. No one else was exactly begging to teach that particular passage.

At the start of my lesson, I walked students through Ephesians 2:1-10, pointing out that all of our life, as well as any impetus we have to obey God, flows from our acceptance of God’s grace and our resultant trust. This trust in God’s grace fuels our obedience and motivates our lives to be great big thank-you notes back to God for all he has already done for us.

That morning I did tackle Paul’s teaching on submission but not before I felt students understood Ephesians 2 as its precursor.

When you teach, how do you frame your invitations to obey God’s commands? If I was a teenager hearing your talk, would I think I was supposed to obey God because God said so? Or would I know that my obedience flowed out of my trust and the Holy Spirit’s work in and through me?

Engage students in case studies that help them figure out what it means to trust God.

More and more, colleges and graduate schools are adopting case studies as a central tool to help students learn and apply their new insights. 5   And for good reason. Case studies help students vicariously live out the principles you’re discussing by applying them to situations they are likely to face.

In order to help students grasp what it means to trust God, create case studies set in school, home or social situations. While they can be about any topic, the most interesting case studies are those involving complex scenarios, such as how to respond to a friend who is unsure about his or her sexual orientation, what friendships with non-believers should look like or whether it’s okay to go to a party with alcohol if you don’t drink. Regardless of the plotline, invite students to discuss a few key questions:

  • What would it look like to trust God in this situation?
  • If you were trusting God, what would you do?
  • What would you say?
  • How would you explain your trust in God to others involved?
  • What would it look like to doubt God in this situation? Is that bad?
  • What do you suppose God would say to you about this? What might God’s perspective be?

Trust as an ongoing teaching theme.

Even Jesus had to repeat things over and over and over and over. So, in the midst of your teaching topics, dream with students about what it means to trust God.

When you’re teaching about money, ask: What does it look like to trust God and give lavishly to the child our ministry has adopted through Compassion International or World Vision?

When you’re inviting students to go to Guatemala for a weeklong summer mission trip, ask: What does it look like to trust God with your time and the money you were hoping to earn that week at your job?

When you’re talking about social networking, ask: What does it look like to trust God with the number and type of folks you friend?

When you’re discussing partying, ask: What does it look like to trust God with your weekend plans as well as your friendships when it seems like everyone is going to that Friday night party that is bound to get out of control?

Unlock students’ imaginations and dreams about trust. You’ll likely end up surprised by their creativity and their courage.

Teach about recovery and repentance.

Your students—either before or after graduation—are going to blow it. They will make choices that they regret and commit sins that surprise even themselves. The question is not if but when.

When students (or adults, for that matter) are living with the gospel of sin management, their faith isn’t large enough to handle those mistakes. They’ve blown it. They might as well toss in the towel. As a result, they run away from both God and faith community—just when they desperately need both.

The gospel of trust is big enough to handle sin. Your job is to help students know that. Your role as their teacher is to let them know ahead of time that if Jesus can’t handle a little partying, we all need a new Jesus.

To help students understand that the love of Jesus (as well as youth ministry) is bigger than their sins, one youth ministry hung a large board on their youth room wall with the phrase “Nothing can separate you from the love of God…Romans 8” plastered across the top. Using different pieces of torn construction paper, students were invited to anonymously write whatever they wanted. What emerged were confessions, hurts, resentments, failures and questions. For the weeks that the board remained on the wall, their youth pastor periodically referred to the board as a place to start writing, and she also encouraged students to share what they wrote with one of the youth leaders.

More Caught Than Taught

When the students in our survey were college seniors, we asked them how their participation in their youth group had shaped them—both then and now. Youth group activities were rarely mentioned. Youth group talks were mentioned even less.

What was mentioned was the legacy of youth leaders—a legacy derived not from what the leaders said or even what they did but from who they were. Your own passion for trusting God will be more caught than taught. Students emulate better than they listen. As you live out your trust-centered faith, your life will never be static, stale or boring. You will be disappointed, discouraged and maybe even thrown around a bit at times. But as you faithfully hold on to the God who has taken hold of you, the life you live and model will be a beacon of hope and direction that no Red Bull gospel can hope to achieve. As you trust the gospel, and the Lord who saves, students catch on and fall in love with Jesus too.

  1. Krista M. Kubiak Crotty, Spirituality, Religiosity, and Risk Behaviors in High School Seniors Transitioning to College (Psy.D. dissertation, Azusa Pacific University, 2009).
  2. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 41.
  3. The history of circumcision dates back to the opening chapters of Scripture. In Genesis 17, God initiated a covenant with Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrews; Abraham’s part of the covenant included: “Every male among you shall be circumcised” (v. 10).
  4. Michael Horton, “Union with Christ,” 1992,
  5. Thanks to Meredith Miller for her collaboration on implications for teaching kids the Sticky Gospel.

Sticky Changes

Becoming trail guides into new territory

Nov 28, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

This article was adapted from Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition, by Kara Powell, Brad Griffin and Cheryl Crawford (Zondervan 2011) and originally appeared in the Sep/Oct edition of YouthWorker Journal.


“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

This quotation, usually attributed to Albert Einstein, should be plastered over your desk and recited at the start of every meeting.  Yet if you’re like us, it’s an axiom that you forget on a regular basis. 

In the midst of the last six years of research dedicated to building long-term faith in kids, or what we call Sticky Faith (see, we have interacted with hundreds of youth leaders and churches.  Our deepest dives have revolved around our Sticky Faith Cohorts, a year-long process of learning and transformation we have led with 28 churches from around the country.  

As we share our research, leaders quickly grasp what needs to change.  Then comes the bigger question:  How do we bring about these changes—both in our youth ministry and in our church?

Note the final eight words of the last paragraph: in our youth ministry and in our church.

The reality is that many—and probably most—of the challenges you face aren’t isolated to your ministry.  They echo—and often stem from—problems that pervade your entire church.

Let’s be honest: The average congregation isn’t usually looking to the youth worker to be their trail guide. Sure, we youth leaders are fun to have along, and we are great at keeping people smiling and laughing during the hike, but we’re not usually the ones out front, blazing the path.

Thanks in large part to the expertise of Dr. Scott Cormode, the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Seminary, we have been able to wrestle with the question of How do I help my whole church engage make sticky changes? and actually pin down some answers.

The Power of Story

The most important guiding principle—the true north of of what we have learned from our Sticky Faith Cohorts and other churches—is the power of story. In fact, under Scott’s coaching, we learned that vision cannot be separated from story, because Scott defines vision as a “shared story of future hope.” 1  

A shared story. Of future hope.

As powerful as research is, stories are more powerful. Stories are more memorable, more personal, and more transformative.

As your church is thinking through its own desired changes, try asking two fundamental questions:

1. What stories of real life people in your ministry or church already capture your hopes for your future?

2. If you could imagine stories that capture how you hope God continues to work, what would they be?

Stories of God at Work Today

The first of these two questions invites you to consider how the changes you envision are a natural outgrowth of what God is already doing in your midst.  One of our Sticky Faith Cohort churches answered question #1 by talking about Kelly and Linda.

Kelly started at the church as an eighth grader, primarily through connecting with the middle school ministry.  As a ninth grader, Kelly connected Linda, an adult who shared her passion for raising funds for missions. This bond continued to grow when Linda followed Kelly’s lead as she rallied her peers and adults to fundraise for a low income school in a nearby inner city.

During Kelly’s sophomore year she went through Confirmation and became a member of the church. During that season, Linda served as her adult mentor.  Recognizing Kelly’s ongoing interest in fundraising to make a difference, they began conversations that resulted in Kelly joining the church’s stewardship team.

For this church that already wants to head toward intergenerational ministry, Kelly and Linda are a narrative snapshot of their dreams for the future.

Your Stories of Hope for the Future

If the first question allows you to pinpoint how God is already working, Scott Cormode’s second question allows you to prayerfully dream about the future God has for your ministry. When asked to share a story that described where they wanted to be in two years, one church in the Midwest spoke of their desire to give young people the space to ask hard questions and wrestle with their doubts.

In her sophomore year of college, Koly knows it’s time to choose a major. In light of the good and bad advice from parents, friends, and her small group leader, Koly makes this choice based on the identity she’s discovered over the past two years. She sees this as a new opportunity to ask Who am I? and to discover more by asking Who is God? She chooses engineering because, seeing God as a creator in whose image she’s made, she wants to use her creativity to design a new cement that resists potholes in the harsh Michigan winters.

Upon hearing this story, this entire congregation can now clearly picture Koly and the importance of stretching her with hard questions before she graduates from high school. And folks who live in a snowy climate can also celebrate Koly’s soon-to-be-invented pothole-proof cement!

The Power of Shared Stories

Once you have identified stories, you share them. Often. And broadly. Because the power of the story lies not in the story itself but in the story as it is shared.

The next time you have an opportunity to share about your short-term mission trip with your entire church, make sure you share stories that capture the dreams you have for your church.  When you’re meeting with parents who are new to the church, instead of talking about the fun of the annual amusement park weekend, paint a picture of the way this weekend helps adult leaders and kids have a shared experience that helps them feel more connected in future small group discussions.

As the youth leaders who have journeyed with us have discovered, you have more power than you think to bring about change through the stories you tell.

That’s so important we are going to say it again: You have more power than you think to bring about change through the stories you tell.

Build a Team

As is probably apparent to you already, changing your church is a job that is…well…bigger than you can accomplish on your own. So you need a team—a team of strategically invited people who are either already onboard the train to the future or who you feel you should get onboard before the train leaves the station.

Odds are good this team will include the pastor or volunteer leader who works most closely with the children in your church. We are more and more convinced that families and kids have often been profoundly shaped by the children’s ministry before they even walk into our youth ministries. We inherit the good, the bad, and the ugly of our children’s ministry and the imprint it leaves on kids and families.

Your change team might also include your worship leader, your adult Sunday school coordinator, your missions chair, your senior pastor, and maybe even a few key students.  You’ll probably want to invite parents into the mix, as well as some of your most committed adult volunteers.

You might be the quarterback, but even the best quarterback needs a team. Otherwise you will never reach the end zone.

Helping Your Team “Maintain Disciplined Attention”

While building a team might seem difficult, your greatest challenge comes after you have your team all set: What do you do with it?

Our 28 churches made the most progress toward Sticky Faith when they were able to do what Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz describes as “maintaining disciplined attention.” 2  Often that meant eliminating any program or energy-suck that didn’t nudge them toward their goals.

Most of the churches sought to maintain disciplined attention by holding monthly or semi-monthly team meetings in order to:

1.   Pray.

2.   Tell new stories—stories that could be shared—that reflected their vision.

3.   Report on work done since the last meeting.

4.   Assign tasks with deadlines to specific individuals, who were expected to report at the next team meeting.

5.   Evaluate the momentum and pace of the change. When it was too fast and furious, they would turn down the heat. When it was too slow and safe, they turned it up a notch.

Josh Kerkhoff, the Next Generation pastor at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church and a member of our first Sticky Faith Cohort, found that their meetings were helpful because “we have shared personal and ministry stories and have taken a step back from our day-to-day responsibilities to look at the big picture of our church and what impact our church has on kids, students, and their families. We initially didn’t know what would come of our regular meetings but have found that our bi-monthly meetings have been vital to our relationships, our vision, and a shared future direction that God is moving us toward.”

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

If we’ve sent out an email announcing a change, we tend to assume that every kid, parent, and leader has read it, understands it, and remembers it. We end up surprised when we make the change we announced in the email, and two-thirds of the folks most affected by the change are shocked that anything new is happening.

Given how busy kids, parents, and leaders are today, it’s almost impossible to over-communicate with them. Whether it’s a weekly email blast, regular parent meetings, or specially trained carrier pigeons, add up whatever communication you think needs to happen about the changes you will be making. Now double it. At this point, you have a better estimate of the communication you need for successful change.

Experiment around the Margins

While some churches may quickly develop strong change momentum and can charge ahead, most churches need to take more time. Your ultimate goal is systemic change, but odds are good that you need to take the first three to six months to “experiment around the margins” with your changes. 3  In other words, try piloting your new ideas with one particular small group, or one grade of kids, or one handful of families. When things go well, identify those signs of hope and nurture them so they grow bigger. Capture those stories and practice telling them to different audiences.

Be Patient; Good Things Take Time

Earlier we asked you to add up how much communication you think will be needed to explain your desired changes, and then to double that amount for a more accurate estimation.

You need to do the same with the amount of time you think it will take.

But bit by bit, story by story, kid by kid, prayer by prayer, God will bring about new changes.  Pretty soon they will stick as your new normal.

  1. Scott Cormode, Sticky Faith Summit, February 2010, Pasadena, CA.
  2. Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Bellknap Press, 1994).
  3. Scott Cormode has been incredibly helpful with our Sticky Faith Cohorts in introducing and leveraging this concept.