The Best Family Summer Ever

Ideas to Help Families Connect Before Summer Slips Away

May 24, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

School’s out for summer!

Long gone are the enthusiastic days when I excitedly anticipated the end of school so I could “do nothing” for three months. 

Summer was a magical time of playing with friends, staying up late, sleeping in, and taking family vacations. I look back on those memories with great fondness, but now that I’m a parent I am beginning to realize that summer can be either a really great experience for the family, or a very frustrating and exhausting one. That has led my wife and me to begin plotting out the summer for our family with more intentionality. 

We know that if we don’t, summer will not only slip away very fast, but also could be full of conflict and power struggles with our kids. 

One of the things that I have noticed with increasing frequency is the number of parents who want me to help them explore in family therapy what the summer is “going to look like.” Just last week I spent several sessions with different families helping them communicate realistic expectations between parent and child. And a few weeks ago, upon finishing a church parenting class on anxiety in the family, several parents came up to me to thank me for how timely the topic of anxiety was for their family as they head into the long summer. 

Whether you are a parent or a ministry leader, and whether your summer is just beginning or already near its mid-point, our hope is that this summer will be one of the best summers that you have had with your family and with the families you minister to. But in order to make that dream become a reality, below are a few ingredients that can help you prepare. 

Communicate Expectations

One of the mistakes that many families make going into the summer is assuming that everyone in the family has the same idea about what summer is going to look like. If these expectations are not communicated clearly to one another, it can be hard to get on the same page. 

For example, a 5th-grade student may create an expectation that summer means playing video games all day with little to no responsibility. A 16 year-old may have the expectation of taking on a summer job, an extended curfew, and little family contact, hoping instead to hang out with friends all summer. Meanwhile, a parent may have developed expectations of summer camps, daily chores, summer reading material and a family vacation to the beach. In being more intentional with their summers, families can begin by clarifying everyone’s hopes. 

Here are a few helpful tips for communicating summer expectations: 

1.    Hold a Family Meeting – Schedule a family meeting for every member of the family to gather and share their expectations for summer. This is actually a very important and crucial step, because families often don’t get together to discuss their plans and hopes, instead finding out each other’s expectations as they unfold throughout the summer. (Hint: It’s never too late to have this meeting, even if you need to frame it as “expectations for the last few weeks of summer.”) 

2.    Empower Every Member to Have a Voice – When you hold that family meeting, make sure to give every member a voice. This is simply an opportunity for the entire family to brainstorm ideas for the summer. 

3.    Decide on Some Options as a Family – After you have listened to each family member’s desire for the summer, then begin the process of making decisions and prioritizing items. In doing so, make sure that each member has various wishes that are honored. This can be tricky, so I recommend a few resources that may be helpful in that process:

  • I have found Patrick Lencioni’s book The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family  1 to be a very useful tool in my personal life and the lives of families who I work with and minister to. I love the way Lencioni helps a family discover what makes them unique, therefore empowering everyone to rally around a goal for a period of time (e.g., a summer).
  • More recently, I was informed by a client of the “summer bucket list” she discovered. This idea helped her plan out the summer with her family in a way that was empowering for everyone, using an actual bucket they could see in their home. 

Create a Rhythm of Downtime and Activity

Striking a balance between being super busy and doing nothing over the summer can often be difficult for families. Hopefully in the process of communicating expectations for the family a good rhythm can unfold between busyness and rest.

Lots of kids, as well as parents, come to the end of the school year completely exhausted. Sometimes a period is needed for families to rest and rejuvenate before launching fully into busy summer mode. But the reality of family life today is often that both parents are working, and therefore kids need to move quickly from school into summer activities.

Depending on your family, you may have characteristics that help you go about finding the right rhythm. But here are a few suggestions that I have found to be helpful:

1.    Create “White Space” – As you look at your summer calendar, make sure there are days on the calendar where there is nothing planned. There should be “white space” on those days. In our busy world, it’s important to have days where kids and parents don’t have something to do.  These days allow families to be spontaneous and creative in the absence of planned activity.  I recommending purchasing a large white board calendar if you don’t have one, or drawing a calendar on a white board. Capture all the planned activities on the calendar, which will give you a visual picture of whether the “white space” is being honored. 

2.    Observe a Sabbath – Whether the day falls on Sunday or another day of the week, a family needs to have one day when nothing gets accomplished. Sabbath reminds us that our relationship with God is not about what we can do for God, but that we are God’s children and can rest in our relationship with him.

If you do something on your Sabbath, stick to activities that are life-giving and that remind or point family members towards their relationship with God. I like how Eugene Peterson talks about the Sabbath pattern he and his wife created for most of their life in pastoral ministry. Every Monday they would take off and hike for most of the entire morning in silence, then gather to eat lunch together and reflect upon what they had seen. Your family can create your own Sabbath rituals—including time to play and time to pray. 2

Connect by Disconnecting

The more we immerse ourselves in a technologically-driven world, the more we need to thoughtfully reflect on how we use technology and how it impacts our relationships with one another. 3   If summer is an important time for us to connect as family, then our use of technology is one of the things we need to be thinking about. I love the words of Ronald Rolheiser recalling a conversation with a nun. The nun tells him, “My vocation is, at each moment, to make the person in front of me the most important person in my life.” 4  

As a family this summer, how do you go about making each person in your family the most important person in your life?

1. Put Away the Cell Phone – The cell phone is often a constant reminder to our kids that someone or something else is more important than them. No matter how much I think I don’t let technology get in the way of my relationship with my kids, I usually underestimate. So I was convicted the other night when I read the article “How to Miss a Childhood” at the Hands Free Mama blog.  It’s a pretty sobering read, so I recommend you check it out. Here are some ideas for going cell-free:

  • Use a technology basket in your house. 5
  • Leave cell phones in cars or at home when you do activities.
  • Stay engaged by limiting the amount of photos you take. Check out the article by technologist John Dyer, “Parenting Tip: Three Photos and I’m Out.” 6  

How to Get Started:

  1. If you are married, I recommend first meeting with your spouse so that the two of you can get on the same page. If you are not married, I recommend discussing these ideas with the kids’ father/mother so that co-parenting may be approached together. Grandparents or other summer caregivers should be part of the conversation as well. I also recommend sharing ideas with a friend, especially if you are not able to discuss them with anyone else. It’s helpful to get feedback, as well as garnering support and encouragement so that teamwork may come more easily this summer.
  2. Once you have met and discussed these ideas with others who will surround your kids this summer, I recommend having a family meeting right away. Just get the ball rolling before the summer gets out of reach. Plan an initial family meeting where you have every member of the family give input to what they want to do this summer. Give them 2-3 days to brainstorm ideas, and then come back for another meeting where you begin to put the ideas into action.
  3. Schedule a time at the end of the summer (put it on the calendar now!) when you will come back together for a family meeting to reflect, celebrate, and share both wins and losses from your family summer experience. This can be a great time to think together about creating expectations, rhythms, and ways to stay connected during the school year.  Keep a record of your insights so you will have them handy for next summer as your family continues to learn and grow together. 


Photo credit: Happy BLUE Monday by turtlemom4bacon, some rights reserved (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  1. Lencioni, P. The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable About Restoring Sanity To The Most Important Organization In Your Life, Jossey Bass. 2008.
  2. Peterson, E. The Pastor: A Memoir. Harper One. 2011.
  3. Smith, R. Maintaining Relational Presence in a Technological World. Fuller Youth Institute.
  4. Rolheiser, R. The Restless Heart: Finding Our Home in Times of Spiritual Loneliness.
  5. Pure Hope, Sixty Second Solutions: The Tech Basket.
  6. Dyer, J. Parenting Tip: Three Photos and I’m Out.

Soul-Care Sweat

Finding God in Movement

Mar 18, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

This article originally appeared in Immerse Journal, Nov/Dec 2011. Reprinted with permission.

I get choked up when I watch marathon races.

As a runner, I find deep connection with people running big miles for long hours and finishing exhausted. It reminds me that some of our best human experiences are captured while we’re in motion. These are not the “to do list” activities that crowd our lives as much as the regular rhythms that help us find a cadence through life’s journey.

Often, calls for rhythm or balance default to practices that require a slower, more contemplative focus. However, I have noticed that for many, a slower pace can spiral into an unhealthy and misinformed inactivity all in the name of spirituality.

Youth Ministry Movement

First, I wonder if youth ministries have bought into the idea that the Christian faith is only truly spiritual when spirituality is practiced in one’s head, on one’s butt. Think about the ways youth workers tell students to connect with God: Read your Bible. Do a Bible Study. Keep a prayer journal. Sit in a circle. Think about your life. Listen to a sermon. Be still. While important, these approaches to soul care situate in the cerebral at the expense of the rest of the body. And, in my estimation, this contributes to a false Platonically-informed dichotomy that pits “secular” motion against “sacred” stillness.

What if we recognized movement as sacred?

What if active expression actually contributes to one’s transformation? Historically, we recognize that the movements of receiving baptism, sharing communion, serving others, walking the labyrinth, or embarking on a pilgrimage have grounded people’s meaning-making for centuries. Movement matters, and maybe it’s time for a little more, not less.

Rethinking movement may require youth workers to consider if or how they promote a movement-less spirituality, unknowingly separating the spiritual from the active. It can happen at youth group when we ask students play the (active) game before everyone sits (still) to listen to the message. It can happen at the retreat, when we wear students out (though activities) at the beginning of the retreat so that they sit (still) around the campfire for the “spiritual” stuff. It can happen when we pit school activities (sports, drama, band, etc) as the arch-enemies of youth group when it is likely that students are not choosing between secular and spiritual but between forms of worship and meaning-making. Hence, school activities and youth group may not be enemies but friends.

Further, look around church this Sunday. When’s the last time you encouraged skipping in the hallway (Maybe kids are on to something)? When’s the last time you allowed running around the sanctuary (Props to middle schoolers!)? The typical reaction of adults is to enforce “sit still” and “be quiet.” Maybe young people are not disturbing the worship service. Maybe we are as we short-circuit their meaning-making in those very moments. In the name of order or program, might we unknowingly be teaching a motionless spirituality?

Youth Worker Movement

Second, (and closer to home), might youth workers believe and perpetuate a sedative spirituality because youth workers, themselves, live sedative lives? We’re not only teaching a motionless spirituality; we’re modeling it.

Barbra Brown Taylor reminds us that, “In a world of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. […] In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life." 1

Sedative lives affect us, affect our spirituality, and affect our soul care. We are born to run, made to move, created for expression, placed in a world that’s tactile, in need of exploring and involvement. Maybe that’s why I tear up when watching marathons. They’re likely running for something, running from something, running for someone, working something out in their lives. Sweating, straining, pushing, extending, wondering if they’re going to make it. And the only way they’ll know they’ll make it is by doing it, not just thinking about it. I find that the true appreciators of any activity are not the one’s who read about it, but who have been there themselves. Action draws people toward each other, connecting them not merely through cerebral belief systems, but through motion, challenge, and experiences.

So each day, I choose to join in this holy practice of movement. I lace up and hit the road. I commit to sweat; to raise my heart rate; to step out into a bigger world in order to remember who I am and where I live. I hear my breath, I push myself further, I get in touch with my body, I pass people, feel the hills, dodge cars, and avoid dogs. I think, and remember, and pray, and think some more, and work things out. The world often looks different when I return to the spot from where I started.

I’ve discovered that when I run, it is not a form of escape. Rather, it demands all my attention. I leave the headphones at home, resisting the temptation to distract myself from me or my world. Fatigue, pain, sweat, breathing, and an increased heart rate are friends who remind me of the joys and limitations that come with being human and finding solidarity with others.

So put this down. Take a walk. Skip down the hall. Ride your bike up a hill. Dance. Lace up your running shoes. Sweat. Live. Give. Be. Worship.

Be moved by others running their human race. For, as Taylor reminds us with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth." 2 If we choose, we can experience this miracle each day.

Action Points

  1. In what ways might you be either subtly or not-so-subtly communicating to students that spirituality only involves being still?

  2. How is your own spirituality connected to stillness? How is it connected to movement? What do you find helpful about both?

  3. What ideas do you have about your life or ministry based on the value of movement? What practice could you try this week to actively engage faith?

  1. Taylor, B. B., An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), xvi.
  2. Taylor, B. B., An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 53.

Milestones of Faith

Creating rhythms through rites of passage

Feb 18, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

Looking around the room at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah, there were family, friends, and faith community members cheering in celebration of a boy who had just turned thirteen and so had become a “son of the covenant.”

I could not help but smile at all the excitement happening around me, but a little piece of me wondered, Why doesn’t my faith community celebrate rites of passage this way? What would it look like for my church to celebrate faith-development rites of passage for children and teenagers?

Marking Faith Milestones

Throughout the historical life of Israel, at times when the people of God have an encounter with God, they pause to build an altar to honor God’s movement in their lives. For instance, after Jacob has a life-altering experience of wrestling with God and receiving a new name, Jacob/Israel builds an altar in remembrance of what God has done in his life.

Similarly, in many of Paul’s letters he refers to his faith life as a race. On every track, there are mile-markers (or milestones) that allow the runner know how far along they are in their journey. The runner can pace him or herself, change speed based on remaining distance, and push on toward the end goal. Along the sidelines at mile markers, crowds of people gather to cheer on the runners as they race, providing energy and support to the runners.

Combining these ideas—Israel’s use of altars as memory markers and Paul’s language of running the race—our community developed what we call “faith milestones.” These milestones act as a concrete map of hoped-for faith development that fuels parents’ and the church community’s involvement in the lives of kids.

Leaving Silos Behind

Creating milestones at our church took a long time. Like most church communities, we have the tendency to gravitate toward what we refer to as “silos,” in which ministries or programs operate as distinctly separate, rather than working in collaboration. When we began this process, only our children’s ministry really was wrestling with how to partner with families. I sat down with our retired Children's Ministry director Judi to explore what initially helped Milestones take off in our church.

Our milestones ministry started with conversations about what “rites of passage” might look like in our context. 1 Our essential question when developing faith milestones was: What does faith development look like in our community from birth to when our kids go off to college and beyond? Those conversations turned into ideas, then into small events and shifts, and then moved into consistent programs. It was only after people started seeing and getting excited about the programs working on the periphery of our church that our whole church caught the vision for milestones.

Compelled by what God was doing on the margins of our church, our staff felt we had to shift the vision. The staff sat down to recast our vision of ministry together. It was only then that milestones became more than just an idea, but instead a means of accomplishing the vision God was giving us for children, teens, and families.

Getting on the same page is not easy; it takes time and has to be an ongoing process. Our teams have each given up idols in our ministries and continue to be challenged to die to the pride that so often taints our motives and actions. For example, to put some of these changes in place, our youth ministry program had to cut away programs that were in conflict with where God was leading our church. This was not easy because many mourned the loss of these programs, but our team continues to work to stay on course with where God is leading our community.

The First Rite of Passage: Baptism

In many Christian communities across the world, infants are dedicated or baptized into faith by their parents and their community. In our church faith life begins with infant baptism. Within the ceremony parents and/or sponsors are asked to promise before God and the community that they will raise their kids in the faith, attend church, read the Bible to them, and teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ. They respond, “Yes, with the help of God.”

The pastor then turns while holding the baby and presents the child to the church community. While walking the rows, the pastor asks the community, “Will you commit to praying for this child and for the parents, and to helping raise the child in the faith?” The congregation is then urged to respond, “Yes, with the help of God.”

With this ceremony, a child becomes a part of the Christian community and the child begins the process of faith development. As the first of many milestones in a child’s spiritual journey, baptism gives us a chance equip our parents, as well as the community, to pour into each child.

Adding Rites of Passage for Every Grade

Once our ministry staff started to drive toward our vision, we began with the faith celebrations already present in our community: first communion, first Bible, and confirmation. The next step was developing these celebrations into something that accomplished the other two goals of our milestone program—equipping parents and inviting the community to celebrate with the kids.

We asked ourselves: What do we want kids and families to learn during this stage of their life? Around this question we built key learning goals for each grade level that were developmentally appropriate. It is out of this conversation that we developed our milestones for each grade level. For example, when a child enters into second grade we wanted to them to start to grasp the importance of the Bible in their faith development. Therefore we introduced a milestone that helps train parents and kids about the importance of reading the Word of God. At the beginning of the year, parents attend a class on the importance of teaching and reading the Bible to their kids and helping their kids start to read their own Bibles. Then during the following Sunday service, families are brought forward and the parents are given Bibles by the pastors. The parents then hand the Bible to their own kids and make a promise in front of the church to teach them and read them the Word of God. Then throughout the school year, kids are encouraged to bring their Bibles to Sunday School so that they can learn how to read and learn from them.

Through the process of developing milestones, we saw that some rites of passage traditionally held more significance than others. For example, within the Lutheran church, First Communion and Confirmation hold a lot of meaning to our tradition. We decided to build on that enthusiasm within our tradition while also introducing new milestones. Here is a list of our elementary and middle school milestones:

Elementary Milestones:

  • Kindergarten: Lord’s Prayer. The kids learn the Lord’s prayer and explore what it means. At the end of the lessons, kids recite the prayer by memory.

  • 1st Grade: John 3:16. During Sunday School students start to learn the basic idea of the gospel. Families work with their kids to understand this concept over dinner conversations designed by our Children’s Ministry team.

  • 2nd Grade: First Bible. Each parent presents their child with a Children’s Bible at the beginning of the year in church. Then the kids are invited to learn how to use it all year long in Sunday School as they journey through the Bible. Parents also attend a class on the role of the Bible in faith development.

  • 3rd Grade: First Communion. Parents and kids attend a special class that teaches kids the meaning of communion. Then at a special ceremony during worship, parents serve their kids communion for the first time.

  • 4th Grade: 10 Commandments. Kids learn the meaning of the “law” and what the 10 Commandments are in the context of a Sunday School class. At the end of the year, they recite the 10 commandments by memory.

  • 5th Grade: Apostle’s Creed. Each family receives Luther’s Small Catechism as kids start to learn the meaning of their faith and what the Apostle’s Creed means with their families.

  • 6th Grade: Martin Luther. Being raised in a Lutheran church, during this time kids start to learn why Martin Luther was important to our faith tradition through special classes on Martin Luther.

Middle School Milestones:

  • 7th Grade: Youth Bible and Confirmation Introduction. Students each get a new youth Bible as they enter into Confirmation/Middle School Ministry.

  • 8th Grade: Confirmation. After the student has gone through the 2 years of our Confirmation that trains them through scripture and theological discussion, they can be confirmed as members of the congregation. On the Saturday before Confirmation Sunday, families are invited to celebrate their teen’s faith milestone at a special banquet dinner. As a part of the banquet dinner, each teen is affirmed by their parent(s) in a public affirmation. Then on the following Sunday, the confirmands are confirmed in front of their church community and prayed over by pastors, family, friends, and the community.

Building Milestones in High School Youth Ministry

Only after the children’s ministry faith milestones were developed did the youth ministry start to include milestones into our middle and high school ministry. When creating high school milestones, our ministry team created a milestone for every grade level that would help to equip adolescents with a faith that would stick. At the same time, we partnered with the children’s ministry to introduce new parent seminars into our yearly calendar to equip parents to spiritually lead their kids.

Using the Sticky Faith research and other rites of passage ideas, we created four high school milestones:

  • 9th Grade Discipleship: Placing each new high school teen into a discipleship group that would last for the rest of high school.

  • 10th Grade Gifting: Offering a spiritual gifts class that would help teens discern how their passions, natural gifting, and spiritual gifts work together as God’s calling to serve. We then work to place each student in roles in our church serving alongside other adults in our community.

  • 11th Grade Retreat: Building two spiritual retreats into the year that encourage students to recharge during their craziest year of high school, as well as help train them in deeper spiritual disciplines and prepare for their senior year and beyond.

  • 12th Grade Commissioning: Creating a monthly class for seniors to help them think through their spiritual life after high school. At the end of the year, students are asked to invite friends and family to a barbeque celebration honoring all seniors. During this time, seniors thank friends and family for helping them develop as a Christian, and seniors are invited to share the testimonies of their spiritual journeys. On the following Sunday, the church community commissions students into the next phase of their spiritual life in a special ceremony.

Practical Ideas For Your Own Context

  1. Start Talking: Your church probably has key learning goals you hope kids will grasp, whether you have articulated them or not. With a team, map out those key learning goals for children and teenagers in your congregation. Make sure that what you want them to learn aligns with their developmental abilities at different ages. What are the core aspects of faith you want kids in your community to understand and engage at each stage of childhood and adolescence?

  2. Families and Community. Each child’s faith development requires the entire church. Or as Chap Clark says, turn the 5 to 1 ratio on its head. Work to equip parents to spiritually parent their kids and learn how to invite others to love on each kid in your community. What might it look like for your church to equip parents and others in your community to get involved in the faith development of your kids and teenagers?

  3. Start on the Periphery: Starting small is okay. Think about the small wins you can gain for your community that support your vision. For more ideas about small wins and leading change, see our Making Changes Stick Toolkit. The first small win for us was putting together a confirmation banquet to celebrate our 8th grade students. What are some easy first small steps we can take in our community to start casting our vision?

  4. Program it: Now you can create programs to map out this new approach to faith development in your congregation. Make sure that your programs accomplish your vision, build relationships, and address your key learning goals. What might specific milestones look like in our community?

A special thanks to Judi Hoefs (Good Shepherd Lutheran Church’s retired Children’s Director) whose dreams for family ministry shaped and continue to transform our church community. Judi worked as a consultant on this article.

More resources and ideas on rites of passage:


  1. The term “rites of passage” was coined by French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep who described life transformation in three movements: rites of separation, rites of transition (or liminal rites), and rites of incorporation/re-entry. As a person moves through the transformation process, a person’s identity, or in our case their faith identity, becomes more solidified. See Brad Griffin,

Strings Attached: Video Discussion Guide

Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum

Feb 04, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

Watch the short video “Strings Attached” with your students, either as an opener or closer to the Week 3 “Receive” session of the Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum, or on its own as a discussion starter to help students consider what it means to receive grace with “no strings attached.” You might also use this as a small group resource.

We’ve put together the following discussion questions to accompany this video. Use some or all of them to debrief the video with your students, either in large or small groups.

  • What’s going on here? What do the strings represent?

  • In what ways were the other people in his life placing “strings” on the guy in the video?

  • What was different about the last caller? Why do you think it was still so hard for the one receiving the package to accept it as a real gift?

  • The opening slide says that often it feels like we have to earn every gift, as if they all come with strings attached. What connections do you notice between what this guy is going through and the ways we tend to give and receive gifts? How do you identify with him?

  • Think of a time when you’ve received a gift that seemed to have strings attached. What was that like? How did it make you feel?

  • Just like we give and receive gifts with one another, we do so in our relationship with God as well. What kinds of gifts do you give to or receive from God?

  • One of God’s greatest gifts is grace. God invites us to receive the gift of grace with no strings attached. Why do you think it’s so hard for us to accept that offer?

  • What obstacles tend to prevent us from receiving grace?

  • What do you think happens over time if we keep living as if we have to earn every gift from God?

  • What could it look like to live differently, with God and with one another? What if we freely gave and received gifts?

Note: The Sticky Faith Every Day Week 3 Leader Guide includes a Bible study on John 1:1-16 that might be helpful as a next step following these questions.

Be sure to check out the Sticky Faith Every Day page for the free curriculum download and more resources to help you develop deeper faith practices in your students’ lives!

Sacred Pathways Toward Sticky Faith

Helping Teenagers Meet God Every Day

Jan 21, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

Beginning in junior high, I learned that there was a “right way” to engage in personal spiritual disciplines. 

It was the “quiet time”—a daily, 30-minute (this was the ideal) time of scripture reading, journaling, and prayer. It was communicated to me, explicitly and implicitly, that this was not only the best, but also the only way to maintain a close personal relationship with Jesus.  

It wasn’t until later in my life that I learned there were other ways I could be with God; ways of prayer and engagement that freed me up to be who I am as I discover who God is. Along that journey I heard about the concept of “Sacred Pathways”—a phrase from a book by Gary Thomas that describes patterns and practices customized to our temperaments that open us up to God. 1 As they do, they open us up to the life God wants us to live.  

When I Meet God as Myself

Adolescents are spending vast amounts of energy trying to understand who they are in this world. During the process of identity exploration, we as youth leaders have an opportunity to help them understand not only who they are, but also how those traits can be used to connect with God. We do that best not by plugging them into a one-size-fits-all spirituality, but by showing them the wide variety of ways a person can connect with God. 

John Ortberg describes it this in The Me I Want to Be:

Because you have been created by God as a unique person, his plan to grow you will not look the same as his plan to grow anyone else. What would grow an orchid would drown a cactus. What would feed a mouse would starve an elephant. All of those entities need light, food, air, and water—but in different amounts and conditions. The key is not treating every creature alike; it is finding the unique conditions that help each creature grow. 2

Just as living creatures rely on the same components, Christians often look to a set of practices:  reading and reflecting on scripture, prayer, service, community, and adoration. The key to the pathways is that the types of disciplines or the frequency of engagement with them are not prescriptive. Rather, they are pieces that can be arranged in an infinite number of combinations in order for a follower of Jesus to draw closer to him.

Thomas developed his understanding of various spiritual temperaments by reading classic writings on spiritual formation, studying the lives of biblical figures, and tracing historical movements in the Christian tradition. He also considered the role of personality temperaments, most notably through the work of Carl Jung and the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. These factors combined shaped his perspective that God creates each of us not just to worship him, but to do so in a way that aligns with who God created us to be.

Here is an overview of the nine pathways according to Thomas’ understanding:

  • Naturalists: loving God outdoors. Naturalists draw near to God through nature.
  • Sensates: loving God with the senses. Sensates draw near to God by engaging with what they can see, hear, touch, taste and smell.
  • Traditionalists: loving God through ritual and symbol. Traditionalists draw near to God through longstanding practices of disciples through history.
  • Ascetics:  loving God in solitude and simplicity. Ascetics draw near to God in stripped-down spaces and practices.
  • Activists:  loving God through confrontation. Activists draw near to God through bringing about social change.
  • Caregivers:  loving God by loving others. Caregivers draw near to God through caring for and serving others.
  • Enthusiasts:  loving God with mystery and celebration. Enthusiasts draw near to God through experiences of great joy and God’s unexpected movement.
  • Contemplatives: loving God through adoration. Contemplatives draw near to God through personal adoration and heartfelt devotion.
  • Intellectuals: loving God with the mind. Intellectuals draw near to God when they learn new things about God or Scripture.

Helping Young People Discover their Pathways

In my experience, students are able to identify, at least in part, which 2-3 pathways they feel affinity with. Sometimes they discover this by taking an assessment of some kind. 3   But more often I find that young people tend to discover their pathways experientially, by trying out a few of them and then reflecting on that experience.

A great venue for this is a retreat, since it allows for extended time to experience the pathways. On a couple of retreats I’ve been part of leading, we’ve explored the pathways. We explained the importance of discovering what works for each person, and then allowed time for students to try several out firsthand. 

Each time we spent about half a day exploring the pathways. We created stations where students could engage each pathway, and they were each able to try four pathways for about 45 minutes each. I have included some of the stations we created for each pathway below as examples, along with the scripture we paired with each one.

After students tried several pathways, we gave them time to reflect on their experience, asking which stations they most enjoyed and which they didn’t. The latter, we stressed, was just as important as the former; it is okay to be really bored while trying one of these pathways, and that does not make you less spiritual.

Activities to experience each pathway:

  • Naturalists: Retreats often provide ample natural beauty. Once we were near the beach, another time we went to the desert. In both places, students had time to walk alone in nature.
  • Sensates: Provide mints or small chocolates at a table. Play soft music and, if possible, light a scented candle. Instruct them to eat very slowly, reflecting on Psalm 34:8,  “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Once we had someone who could teach an “Art as Worship” workshop, leading kids to create pieces of art.
  • Traditionalists: Explain and then lead a Lectio Divina exercise. 4  The psalms or the Lord’s Prayer both work very well as texts for this. Alternatively, you could pray a set liturgy, perhaps based on the Christian calendar or using the Book of Common Prayer. 

  • Ascetics:  Provide a space that is as silent and visually distraction-free as possible. Once we were on a college campus and had the keys to empty, undecorated dorm rooms. Each student could have their own room for the 45-minute session, or even choose to stay there through the morning. There is no prescription for what the person does with that time; the key is to offer the right kind of space for engagement.
  • Activists:  This was a station we did not have at our retreats because we didn’t have a partnership for an active service project. This was disappointing, since it was the number one pathway many of our students identified through which they felt connected to God. Instead, students could write letters to people affected by injustice to encourage them. If they were over 18, they could write to their government representatives.
  • Caregivers:  See if a hospital or senior citizen care facility would welcome cards. If so, students could make cards for patients and residents. Similarly, some missions and shelters that serve the homeless value care kits with toiletries, individual snacks, and personal notes.
  • Enthusiasts:  Although none of the pathways are specifically about music, for our purposes we offered celebratory themed musical worship at this station. More than usual, we encouraged dancing, hand-raising and bowing for kids to try. Engaging these different postures before God helped students practice musical worship in ways they did not normally and we found their reflections on both the lyrics and the experience of singing were more thoughtful because they got out of the routine of our typical youth group music time.
  • Contemplatives: This pathway is easily experienced in the simple prompt to write God a love letter. This could also be a place for experimenting with silence or an art project. Whichever you choose, the key is to lead participants towards adoration and an emotional connection to God.
  • Intellectuals: Ask someone with theological training to teach a class on a topic your students may find interesting. This could be anything; in our case, we did an “intro to narrative theology” class, but the goal is to really teach something the students have not learned before, allowing them to be drawn to God by engaging their minds.

The Pathways as Lifelong Tools

Recently I wrote to one of the students who first learned about the pathways during a two-day retreat designed just for exiting seniors. She is in her senior year at Berkeley now. 

I asked if she remembered the pathways and if she had found them helpful. She wrote back,

I loved it!!!! As someone who has trouble connecting to God ‘traditionally’ on Sunday mornings, I remember loving how it gave legitimacy to so many different ways to meet with God. Last year I was feeling spiritually dry and I went back to that list. I love learning but I was always more ascetic and activist. I reassessed myself, and actually found that I had moved towards intellectual and contemplative paths. Since then I have started reading more theologically-focused books and it's helped me deepen my faith a lot in a way I hadn't explored before. As time goes by and your life changes, so can your tools for growing closer to God and your spiritual needs.

I had no idea that introducing this student to new ways to engage God would yield such rich fruit. Understanding the pathways gave her a tool to walk with faith throughout college, responding to the changes in her life. Looking back, I am thankful we created space for students to experiment with and process different avenues for connection.

Whether you use this particular model or another, consider exploring the broad range of spiritual practices that have helped Christians engage God through the centuries. 5  For those students who are like me in junior high, you could help faith stick in whole new ways.


  1. See Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God.
  2. John Ortberg,The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010), 49.
  3. There is an assessment for the nine pathways available in Sacred Pathways, located at the end of each chapter. The same questions have been consolidated in a free online format available at ] ]
  4. Here are two guides that offer ways to engage in a Lectio Divina practice: and There are also several versions of lectio divina woven into the Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum leader guide and daily guides.
  5. Other books that explore similar ideas include Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster, Looking for God: An Unexpected Journey through Tattoos, Tofu, and Pronouns by Nancy Ortberg, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton, and The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg.

Parents Start Here

Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum

Jan 07, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute




Sound familiar? If you live with an adolescent in your home, chances are these words describe quite a bit of your daily life experience. Teenagers engage all kinds of vital life tasks in random, chaotic, and circumstantial ways. Like their friendships. And dating relationships. And homework. And probably their interactions with you. 

But we aren’t using the words random, chaotic, and circumstantial to describe any of those areas of life right now. We’re using them to describe what we’ve learned from research about the prayer life of teenagers.

Research shows that faith practices are important to what we call Sticky Faith—faith that lasts beyond high school and into college and young adulthood (see our Parent page for more resources to help you know how to build Sticky Faith in your family). Yet often teenagers aren’t sure how to nurture their own spiritual growth. Our research at the Fuller Youth Institute has indicated that only about half of graduating youth group seniors pray once a day or read the Bible once a week. Beyond prayer and Scripture study, teenagers also don’t seem have experience with a host of other timeless faith practices that could make a difference in their day to day lives.  

As a follow up to the Sticky Faith research, we are exploring what disciplines best connect kids with God and nurture lasting faith, in particular those that help integrate faith practices with all of life. Out of that exploration we’ve created this resource as an entry point for youth workers and parents to invite young people to create new faith rhythms. To find out more about the series see our Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum page.

You might notice that we’ve tried to create ideas that get both you and your kids talking. Research shows that parents are one of—if not the—biggest influences on their kids’ faith. Yes, even for teenagers. Further, our Sticky Faith research revealed that while it’s important for parents to talk with their kids about the kids’ faith, it’s just as important for parents to talk about their own faith journeys with their kids. We’re convinced you will all grow from these kinds of conversations. 

One parent shared with a leader who helped pilot this curriculum: 

We REALLY needed to hear & read & put into practice what you've put into the Sticky Faith Family Ideas.  

We just went through a follow up conversation last night with our tween about school which made us realize that we need to re-adjust our extracurricular activities & commitments.  After last night's conversation, it became obvious that we need to meet as a family this weekend to come up with a new "adjusted" game plan.  We have taken "notice" last night (as well as noticing the chain of events that have been building up to this point) & getting your email with this week's Family Ideas really confirms it.  

This curriculum has given us the foundation, the gentle reminder, the green light, the road map to do just that! 

The overall theme of this Every Day series is noticing God. Some people say “paying attention” is the core of the spiritual life. We think they’re on to something. So this journey over the next weeks (for many of you, this 8 week journey might work well to use during the Lent season as preparation for Easter) is an invitation to notice. Noticing might mean you have to stop, listen, change up your steps a bit. It might mean trying some new things as a family. One way to think of these practices is that they are ways we learn to pay attention to and notice God and God’s work in and around us. 

Ideas to Engage Your Whole Family in Noticing God More

Below are some ideas and tips for you as you engage this journey together with your family. These are ideas from Week 1 but could be practiced at any time. Please note that you won’t be able to implement all of these ideas, so pick one or two you’d like to focus on and give them a try together! 

  • Acknowledge that certain sacrifices will likely mean something different to your kids than to you. For example, given the pervasive role digital technology plays in the lives of adolescents today (it’s truly all they have ever known), living without the internet or their cell phone is comparable to an adult imagining life without electricity. So rather than fighting with your teenager over instituting a blanket “No media on Sundays” rule, invite them to work together with you toward something that’s manageable as a practice everyone is willing to try together. In the end they might long for more time apart from their digital connectivity, but that desire will have to come from them, not you, in order to really be effective.
  • Many parents have noticed that the moment they pull out the printed family devotion is the moment the kids shut down. If you’ve experienced this, think about ways to have these conversations or try these activities without using this (or another) resource as a cue sheet. Your kids will appreciate your own words and your authentic presence more than anything we could write for you.  
  • Read Psalm 103: 6-14 together. Wonder together what it means that the writer uses such big language for God’s love and for how dramatically God removes our sin. You might also ask: What does it mean that God is “slow to anger”? Do you think that describes our family, and why/why not? How do we need God to work in our family to make us all more like God in this area?
  • Talk together about something your family might want to fast from as a family during this journey. If you do, be sure you choose as a family. Also consider how you can invite your kids to participate, but also give them permission not to participate. Remember that the point is creating ways we can notice God more during our everyday life.
  • Find a local or global outreach opportunity or cause to support as a family. If you’re giving up something together that involves time and/or money, also decide together what you’ll do with that time and/or money. Maybe you can channel money to help build a well in another community, or maybe you can visit pediatric cancer patients in your city at the local children’s hospital. Do some research, incorporating your kids’ web savvy, and try something new together.
  • If you’re doing this during Lent and you attend an Ash Wednesday service together, ask on the way to or from the service or over dinner, “Why do we wear the ashes on our bodies today?” and explore what it means to different members of your family. Be sure you answer this—and every—question yourself!
  • The Week 1 DAILY GUIDE invites your kids to read and re-read Psalm 25:1-7. Consider doing the same and sharing together about the impressions the passage has made on each of you at the end of the week.
  • In the DAILY GUIDE we invite your kids to consider incorporating the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13 into their daily and weekly rhythm of prayer. You might also want to do this in your family as a way to reinforce, wonder about, and be changed by this prayer. In fact, we encourage you to consider using the DAILY GUIDE yourself throughout this 8-week series!   

Our hope is that this resource leads to new long-term rhythms for your family and for your children in their own life with God. Here’s to nurturing Sticky Faith…Every Day!

Click through below to download free Family Ideas and the Daily Guide for the entire series!




Forming Sticky Faith Every Day: New Series Starts in January

8-Week Curriculum and More

Dec 18, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute





Sound familiar? If you minister among adolescents or live with one in your home, chances are these words describe quite a bit of your daily life experience. Teenagers engage all kinds of vital life tasks in random, chaotic, and circumstantial ways. Like their friendships. And dating relationships. And homework. And probably their interactions with you. 

But we're not using the words random, chaotic, and circumstantial to describe any of those areas of life right now. We're using them to describe what we’ve learned from research about the prayer life of teenagers.

Research shows that faith practices are important to Sticky Faith. Yet often teenagers aren’t sure how to nurture their own spiritual growth. Our research at the Fuller Youth Institute has indicated that only about half of graduating youth group seniors pray once a day or read the Bible once a week. Beyond prayer and Scripture study, teenagers also don’t seem have experience with a host of other timeless faith practices that could make a difference in their everyday lives.  

It turns out that the lack of personal spiritual practice can be damaging to Sticky Faith. Christian Smith’s research through the National Study of Youth and Religion found that a key factor in predicting stronger young adult faith is teenagers who have “established devotional lives—that is, praying, reading Scripture—during the teenage years. Those who do so as teenagers are much more likely than those who don't to continue doing so into emerging adulthood.” 1

As a follow up to the Sticky Faith research, we took a year to explore the disciplines that best connect young people with God and nurture lasting faith, in particular those that help integrate faith practices with all of life. We asked some thoughtful and experienced youth workers to join us, and a foundation generously made it all possible. Out of that exploration we’ve created a new spiritual practices resource as an entry point for youth workers and parents to invite young people to create new, or deeper, faith rhythms. 

Rhythms that will help them create Sticky Faith every day.

We’ve created a whole series we’ll begin releasing in January 2013, including an 8-week curriculum that we hope you can adapt to your context in whatever ways make the most sense. The hope is to give you a structure you can utilize to help students reimagine and re-engage spiritual practices as a way to notice God more every day, long beyond the series itself. We want young people to initiate a lifetime of engaging God. 

Each week of the curriculum we’ll provide:

1.     a leader guide for a youth group or small group session around the weekly theme,

2.     a daily guide students and adults can use on their own, and

3.     ideas families can try together.

Because Lent is a set 40-day period in the church calendar leading up to Easter and is practiced across various denominations, we invite you to harness Lent (beginning February 13) as an opportunity to engage students in new practices. You will see some of these themes built into the progression of the curriculum from week to week. But you certainly don’t have to use this alongside Lent; it could be a separate series or reworked for a week of camp.  

The best part? It’s all free.

We’re excited about 2013. We think it will be a new year where together we can rethink the spiritual formation of young people and truly help them develop an every day faith. Maybe this time next year those words random, chaotic, and circumstantial won’t be the best words to describe teenager’s faith after all. 

We hope you’ll join us!


Take me to the Sticky Faith Every Day Download page


  1. See  “Lost in Transition”, interview with Christian Smith by Katelyn Beaty, Oct 09, 2009.  Also see Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Sticky Faith Calendar Prompts

Aug 06, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Last Christmas, FYI regularly posted on Twitter and Facebook suggestions for youth workers to care for college students and connect with them when they returned home over break. As a youth minister, I (Matt) found these suggestions helpful. The suggestions were practical and fit well with the opportunities for connections that Christmas brings. Unfortunately, I had already planned on being with my extended family over Christmas and our ministry calendar was rather full, so the suggestions mostly went unheeded.

This made me wonder if there was a way to communicate Sticky Faith suggestions to the audiences that need them most in a manner that best fits their lifestyles. I know very few youth workers or parents who don’t use the term “busy” to describe their lives. What busy also means is that we often leave well-intentioned opportunities behind in an effort to deal with the urgent. Sticky Faith is best developed through being intentional with both how we spend our time and what we do. 

Leaders and parents need suggestions that prompt us to take actions that can encourage stickier faith in the lives of our churches and students. And we don’t always have time to go find ideas. So we created Sticky Faith Prompts.    

Sticky Faith Prompts currently includes three different online calendars with built-in prompts for three distinct audiences. These prompts are Sticky Faith suggestions intended to help the church and family keep holistic connectedness at the forefront of our minds. The Sticky Faith Prompts can easily be added to your iPhone, Outlook, iCal or Google calendar, which means the Prompts are available anywhere you can get to your digital calendar.

Sticky Faith Youth Worker Prompts

The Youth Worker Prompts are intended for leaders who are a part of the church’s youth ministry, specifically working with high school students. Other church leaders may find it a valuable resource for them as well, though. Youth Worker Prompts include both big picture suggestions and specific things that the youth worker can do to help develop Sticky Faith in the students they work with. While some prompts will help prepare students for college, others will focus on students who have left for college. Many prompts focus on students who are currently participating in the youth ministry and how best to connect them to the church, acknowledging that once they leave it’s exponentially more difficult to make those connections. These prompts will provide the youth worker with valuable Sticky Faith ideas throughout the year.

Sticky Faith High School Parent Prompts

The High School Parent Prompts are intended for parents whose kids are currently in high school. It could also be a valuable resource for adults who are investing in the lives of high school students. This calendar focuses specifically on activities that the family can do together. It gives parents some practical ideas of how to lead their children towards Sticky Faith, as well as how to intentionally work towards connecting their children to others in the church and the movement of God in the world. These prompts are also designed to lead towards and prepare families for the transition to college.

Sticky Faith Post-High School Parent Prompts

The Post-High School Parent Prompts are intended for parents who have college students, whether the college student lives at home or is studying abroad. It could also be a valuable resource for adults who have or are investing in the lives of college students. This calendar focuses on preventing college students from getting disconnected through various activities, conversations and check-ins. It also gives parents specific interaction and connection suggestions that can enrich their relationship with their college student. 

Let the Prompts Work for You

We are excited to offer these resources to you, another step towards intentionally moving towards Sticky Faith in your family and church. Follow the links below for the Prompts that best match your role in the life of students and put this tool to work.

We pray that the Prompts are a source of encouragement, not just another thing that you guilt yourself for not getting done.  Ultimately, the goal of the prompts is to encourage actions that promote Sticky Faith in all of us, especially the teenagers and young adults we care about.  

Get the Prompts Calendars Now





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.