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.




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



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.

I Doubt It

Allowing Space for Questions

Oct 03, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by lauren rushing.

I (Brad) remember as a child in the ‘80s seeing vivid televised images of starving African kids. Grotesque, overwhelming images. 

I can actually recall sitting in my brother’s bedroom watching Ethiopian famine vaulted to a little television screen in central Kentucky, and feeling completely helpless to do anything about it. I also remember wondering why God didn’t just fix it. Why God didn’t pour out rain over Africa or make some kind of manna appear to end the famine. Why God couldn’t figure out how to make suffering stop.

Why, God?    

Those two words have punctuated the beginning of a faith crisis for more than a few believers through the ages. Especially when marked with big questions about the world or about personal circumstances for which easy answers simply don’t come.

Unfortunately, many of us have experienced periods of questioning that were met with silence, trite fix-it Bible quotations, or a well-meaning “Just have faith” from those around us. In short, our questions and doubts were pushed underground and either blocked out or left to grow like cancer until they overtook our faith.

Whether students in your ministry or kids in your home are disturbed by today’s wars and famines, or wondering about God’s goodness in the midst of fifth-period algebra, their questions and doubts are begging to be known.

The question before us is: Will we let them be known?

Doubt in the Research

Some of us may come from traditions or training that suggest that doubt is troubling or even sinful. But our Sticky Faith research findings show that doubt can help form our faith in stronger and perhaps more lasting ways. 1

1. Doubts happen

Seventy percent of the students in our study of youth group graduates reported that they had doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith, and just as many felt like they wanted to talk with their youth leaders about their doubts. Yet less than half of those students actually talked with leaders. Likewise, less than half talked with their youth group peers about their doubts.

So if you do the math here (and at FYI we can’t resist), that means that seven of every ten students is struggling with doubts—but only one or two of those ten is likely to have had conversations about those doubts with anyone. In other words, a lot of kids are wrestling with tough questions alone and in silence.

When we asked our students in college to reflect back on the doubts they remembered having during high school, their responses tended to cluster around four central questions:

  1. Does God exist?
  2. Does God love me?
  3. Am I living the life God wants?
  4. Is Christianity true/the only way to God?

As we've shared these questions with leaders and parents across the country, one of the resounding responses has been that these are questions adults have, too. Perhaps when we're silent about our own faith questions, our kids don't know they can ask them out loud.  

2. Safety matters

Safety to express doubt seems to be connected with stronger faith. High school seniors who feel most free to express doubt and discuss their personal problems with adults show greater faith maturity in college. Further, among those who had doubts and did talk with leaders or peers about them, about half found these conversations helped them. This helpfulness was also linked to stronger faith.

It might be that simply creating safe spaces for young people to explore hard questions can deepen faith. 

3. Students’ view of God makes a difference

When young people feel safe to share doubts and struggles with peers and adults, they also feel more supported by God. Our study explored correlations between a scale measuring this concept of “God support”—the extent to which someone feels that God cares about their lives, feels close to God, and feels valued by God 2 —and a number of other factors. Safe environments for expressing doubts were positively correlated with God support in those analyses. Talking with adults about doubts is also linked to feeling supported by God. And feeling more supported by God is linked to stronger faith maturity as measured in other scales. So it seems as though there’s a connection between students’ perception of God, their perceived safety to express doubt, and their actual faith maturity.

4. Doubts aren’t necessarily the end of faith

Lest we be misunderstood, simply having doubts doesn’t transfer into more mature faith. 

For many students, struggling with faith can in fact lead to weakened faith, at least in the short term. One of the scales we incorporated in our third-year survey was the “Spiritual Struggles Scale.” 3 Students were asked to indicate the extent to which each item on a list of religious struggles (e.g., “Felt distant from God,” “Questioned my religious/spiritual beliefs,”) had described them in college. We found that the more frequent students’ experiences of struggling with belief, the less likely they were to show Sticky Faith. This left us to wonder whether these students received the support they needed in the midst of their struggle.  

On the other side of struggle, we asked students about various events and the extent to which they strengthened or weakened faith. 4  Interestingly, experiences of loneliness, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed seem to push students toward God. These feelings were reported as strengthening faith, and when we analyzed them alongside measures of faith, we found strong correlations.

The same was true of dialogue with other students. In fact, the stretching experiences most connected to Sticky Faith were interactions with other students; particularly with people of other faiths, and with students of other cultures/ethnicities. We often fear that the increased diversity of lifestyle and belief that many students encounter in college will weaken their faith; in our research, the opposite seems to be true.

Other research has found similar connections between college students’ faith and experiences. In fact, some studies have shown that faith can grow as we encounter the following sorts of significant struggles as well as engage with new people: 5

  1. Exposure to diverse ways of thinking, whether through other students, classes, or some other source.
  2. Multicultural exposure, through mission trips, living in another culture, befriending someone from another culture, or even reading about people from other cultures.
  3. Relationship, health, or emotional challenges like significant illness, conflict with parents, or other negative experiences.

In her classic study on crisis and faith, Margaret Hall discovered that those who showed the most spiritual depth after experiencing crises were those who had consciously reoriented their faith in order to overcome the crisis. In other words, they were attentive to the ways their faith must change so they could climb out of the pit of despair. 6

One student in our study described a similar experience:

Entering my sophomore year of college, I became very, I guess, disappointed with life. I had all these ideas about college and it wasn’t necessarily going how I wanted. I was feeling very far away from God and very dry spiritually, struggling to find a church and a church family where I could fit in at school. And as I went through that long struggle, basically spiritual darkness … when I came out of it I found God kind of waiting for me on the other side, and realized that he’d been with me through that struggle, through that time of question and doubt and searching.

Making Space for Doubt

Thankfully, we don’t need to leave young people doubting alone in our ministries or our homes. Below are some ideas for creating space in our relationships and programs with adolescents where their questions can be both heard and unpacked.

1. Creating Safe Zones

The perception that “good Christians don’t doubt” can easily (and sometimes unintentionally) be fostered in youth ministry. This understanding can be intensified by the letdowns that may follow retreat and camp highs and hype, haunting students who wake up the next week and don’t “feel God” as viscerally as before.

Our responsibility to the kids in our care includes creating safe places for questions that emerge along the faith journey. In the family, small group settings, mentoring relationships, and in the context of the broader youth ministry, how are doubts and struggles being voiced, and how are they being received?

One ministry we know is working to create space for struggles and doubts to be safely heard. They now close each session of their fifth-and-sixth-grade group with 56 seconds of silence where kids can write down any question on a note card. The hope is to make asking questions a normal part of faith development starting in early adolescence, even if those questions don’t all get answered right away.

Another church from one of our Sticky Faith Cohorts is working hard to create space for doubt in the midst of its Confirmation program. At the conclusion of the six-month process, most students write a statement of faith. Last year one student felt safe enough to write a “Statement of Doubt” instead. This allowed her to share openly with the community that her own journey of faith wasn’t yet at the place of trusting Christ. Several months later, she came to the point where she had wrestled through her doubts and decided to be baptized as an expression of her newfound trust. Alongside her were several adults who had supported her, prayed for her, and walked with her through her valley of doubt to the other side of faith.

2. Learning to Lament

While scripture doesn’t always give us answers to all our questions, the Bible does have a surprising place where doubts and struggles are freely expressed: the book of Psalms. While we tend to think of the psalms as a book of praises, the writers of the Hebrew songs and prayers that became their worship book were not afraid to ask God to show up in the midst of ugly situations. Out of the 150 psalms, over one-third are considered laments. 7

A lament can be defined simply as a cry out to God. It’s both an act of grief and of asking for help. In fact, lament is usually something we do in the dark places—often the darkest points of our life journeys. For example, Psalm 88 ends with the phrase, “darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18). 

One of the most frequently-asked questions in scripture is “How long, oh Lord?” It’s an important question because it calls God to do something to end our pain or the pain of others. Laments like this don’t answer all of our questions, but lamenting can be a helpful part of strengthening our faith by reminding us that answers aren’t everything. As the psalmists proclaim over and over, the unfailing love of God isn’t wiped out by anything: not our crises, not our doubts, and not even our sins. 

By weaving lament into our corporate worship and prayer life, we open up the possibility that kids might feel freer to share their own hard questions, and maybe even write or sing their own psalms of lament.

3. Preparing Seniors for Doubt and Dialogue

During our research, one youth pastor from Tennessee shared with us: “Every year in the fall I get phone calls—usually in the middle of the night—from students after they get a campus ministry visit where they’re asked if they ever doubt. If they say yes, they’re told they don’t have enough faith. They call me back confused, asking, ‘Is it okay to doubt or not?’”

Some students will leave our ministries or homes and face new questions and doubts in college that they haven’t wondered about before. Giving them a healthy heads-up about this before they leave home can help doubt become a building block for new, deeper faith.  

Alongside new doubts in college is often new dialogue. Students need to understand the basics of Christian faith in order to discuss their faith with others, and training in core beliefs (sometimes called apologetics) can be helpful. However, learning to argue about faith may not be the most helpful approach. Reflecting on her teenage years, author Alisa Harris writes about her own experience of being trained to give these kinds of responses: “I was taught that faith was so simple and easily grasped that I could argue someone into it, which ended up shaking my faith when I found that belief wasn't simple, and argumentation and evidence could only take me so far.” 8  As we prepare seniors for talking about faith after high school, we will do well to avoid oversimplifying belief into neat tenets that resolve every question with a proof-text answer. 9

In response to youth workers' requests and in partnership with youth pastor Jim Candy, we've recently released a curriculum for high school students called Can I Ask That? The small group discussion format is designed as a tool to help you engage dialogue around some of these tough questions while students are still with you in high school ministry (or it could be used by parents as well). Learn more.

Falling in the Light

One of the things we do in my (Brad’s) church is regularly remind ourselves to live out our core values. In affirming authenticity as one of those values, we state that as we struggle and stumble through our faith journeys, “…we encourage one another to ‘fall in the light’—to readily admit our mistakes, not to hide or try to cover them up.” 

Falling in the light. I like that image not only for thinking about mistakes, but also about our fall into questions and doubt. When students around us fall into seasons of uncertainty, let’s help them fall in the light of Christ and Christ’s people, ready to catch and hold them through doubt and back into faith.

Action Points

  • How do you tend to respond when a student asks a hard question about God? What do you think your first response does to open up space for more questioning or shut that space down?
  • Share this article with others in your ministry or with other parents. Then get together and share ideas for how you can collectively make it safe for kids to express their doubts and struggles.
  • Gather a group of students and ask them for their perception of whether it’s okay to share faith struggles in your ministry (or do this with your kids at home). Ask for their input on ways you can create a more supportive environment as well as actively seek answers to the questions that arise.


This article originally published in Fall 2011 on Adapted and updated March 2014.

  1. Portions of this article are adapted from Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). Also see for more details about the research, spanning six years and including nearly 500 students from across the U.S.
  2. W.E Fiala, J.P. Bjorck, & R. Gorsuch, “The Religious Support Scale: Construction, validation, and cross-validation,” American Journal of Community Psychology (2002: 30, 761-786).
  3. Adapted with permission from Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives. SanFrancisco: Jossey- Bass, in press. And Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S. , & Lindholm, J. A. “Assessing students’ spiritual and religious qualities.” Journal of College Student Development, in press.
  4. Adapted from the HERI 2007 College Students’ Beliefs and Values Follow-Up Survey, UCLA.
  5. For example, see Gay Holcomb and Arthur Nonneman, “Faithful Change: Exploring and assessing faith development in Christian liberal arts undergraduates,” in Dalton et al (eds), Assessing Character Outcomes in College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, New Directions for Institutional Research No. 122, 93-103).
  6. Margaret Hall, “Crisis as Opportunity for Spiritual Growth,” Journal of Religion and Health (Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 1986, 8-17).
  7. For a very helpful introduction to psalms of lament, see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A theological commentary, (Augsburg Old Testament Studies; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
  8. Alisa Harris, Raised Right: How A Young Culture Warrior Went from Belligerence to Burn-Out to Love, excerpted in YouthWorker Journal,
  9. Interestingly, Christian education doesn’t inoculate students from doubt either. In an opposite twist, one study of nearly 3,500 college students found that students at private Christian colleges were actually more likely to struggle spiritually than students at public universities or non-religious private schools. Alyssa N. Bryant and Helen S. Astin, “The Correlates of Spiritual Struggle During the College Years,” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 79, No. 1 (January 2008).

The Jacket

2.5-Minute Video for Students

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Research suggests that around 45% of students from high school youth ministries toss their faith aside when they get to college.  At the Fuller Youth Institute we’ve begun to describe this kind of faith like a jacket: it’s easy to take on or off given the situation, as opposed to a faith that becomes integrated into every part of a student’s life.  And far too often for college students, once faith is tossed on the floor, it quickly gets shoved aside amid the competing priorities of college.

As you share this video with high school students, consider using the following questions to foster a discussion about faith and the transition to college (note: this could also be a great tool to use with college students to invite them to reflect on their own experiences, or with parents of high school students or other youth leaders as a window into the importance of faith integration). 

Questions for Discussion

  • What is your first response after watching this? What feelings or thoughts did it stir up?
  • If the jacket represents this student’s faith in Christ, how would you describe that faith?  What tends to happen to faith that can be taken on or off like a jacket? Why do you think that is?
  • What happened to the students’ friends as the video went on? How could isolation from supportive community be part of the problem for students who are tempted to toss faith aside?
  • One way people have described this kind of understanding of faith is that it’s mostly about behaviors—things we do or don’t do to act like a Christian.  What would you say in response to that? How is that different from saying God’s grace through Jesus Christ is at the core of faith? (Check out Ephesians 2:1-10 for Paul’s response to this).
  • What do you think a college student—or high school student—can do to keep their faith from becoming like a jacket? What would you say to people like the guy in the video who feel like they’ve blown it in some way and tossed their faith aside?



40+ Ways to Build Sticky Faith in Your Grandkids

Tips for Senior Adults

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

When I think of the movie Up, balloons come to mind.

I also think of that powerful two minute montage about dating, marriage, and the loss of a spouse in old age (pass a tissue please).

But on a deeper level, I think about the bond between young Russell and Mr. Fredrickson, a senior adult.  A bond which started shallow, but grew to have deep roots. 

One of the interesting themes in our Sticky Faith research and conversations has been grandparents.  As we have spoken at churches, met with families, and talked with leaders, we are struck by:

  • Grandparents’ deep care for their grandkids.
  • Grandparents’ desperate desire to build Sticky Faith in their grandkids, and how complicated this is if their kids have drifted from God.
  • The special tenderness between teenagers and senior adults.
  • The ways senior adults can be wonderful surrogate grandparents to teenagers. 

We decided to ask grandparents who are part of the Fuller community and walking this Sticky Faith journey to share their best ideas to build Sticky Faith in their grandkids.  Whether you and the grandparents you know live close or far away, hopefully these ideas will spur you to think about the powerful difference that senior adults can make in kids.  Like the relationship that developed between Russell and Mr. Fredrickson, any older adult can serve as a grandparent-figure in a kid’s life. So consider sharing these ideas broadly with senior adults you know.

On a personal note, I don’t remember the last writing assignment that has brought me to tears as many times as this article has.  Maybe it’s because my own grandparents were part of the village that raised me.  Perhaps it’s because Dave and I feel so blessed by the way our parents are investing in our three kids’ lives.  Or maybe it’s just because I have a soft spot for connecting kids and senior adults. 

Whatever the reason, we hope these ideas are a catalyst to help you live out the wise words of one grandfather we interviewed:  “The bottom line is TIME—our grandkids just want to spend time with us.”


Take a few hours to teach your grandchildren about being “mindful”.  As you eat together, talk about where the food comes from and who was involved with growing and transporting the items.  Take a walk in your neighborhood together, making an effort to be mindful of what you see, hear, and smell.  As you are struck by something beautiful, thank God for it.

Start a summer book club with your grandkids.  Have them keep a list of books that they’ve read (or that someone has read to them) and after they reach a certain goal, reward them with a small prize, activity, or special outing.  Or perhaps you and your grandchild agree to read the same book on your own, then get together to discuss it over a treat.

Invite your grandchildren for individual “sleepovers” at your house.  While they are over, do some of their favorite activities together. 

Pray with your grandkids.  As you pray, thank God for the special qualities he has given them. 

Create a drama of a Bible story with your grandkids.

Have a talent show together.  Adults and children can participate. No act is too small!

Teach your grandchild a new skill or one of your favorite hobbies, e.g. fishing, skiing, bicycling, jewelry making.

Let your grandchild teach you a new skill or share a hobby with you.

Take your grandchildren to a live butterfly exhibit and talk about the wonder of God’s creation, the life cycle of the butterfly, and if possible, let them see one emerge from a chrysalis.

Purchase or create a craft or science project that you can do with your grandchild.

Enter a race and run/swim/ride or walk it with your grandchild.

Talk with your grandchild about a family tradition that you enjoyed with your own grandparents and/or parents, and have passed along to your children. Then continue that tradition with your grandchild.  Examples could include seeing fireworks together or going to a parade, having campfires and roasting marshmallows on the beach, seeing the Nutcracker ballet or making tamales during the Christmas season, or riding bikes to a favorite ice cream place. 

Bring out photo albums and talk about when your grandchild was born, how you prayed for them even before they were born, how excited you were to first hold him or her, and how blessed you feel that they are now part of your family.

Serve together at a local ministry.

Feed folks who are homeless together.

Play games with your grandchildren.

Teach them to sing and enjoy singing with them.  In the car, play a singing game by having each person take a turn humming a tune of a song you all know. The one who guesses gets to hum the next song.

Plant a plant or tree with your grandchild.  Commemorate occasions (whether they be celebrations or challenging times) by planting special trees or plants.  Seeing those plants together in the future gives you a chance to share about God’s presence in the “highs” and “lows” of life.

Watch value-laden films together, ranging from Veggie Tales for younger children to movies geared for adolescents or young adults. Take time afterward to talk about them together.

Cook with your grandchildren.  Play loud music and sing and cook (and sometimes dance) together.

Build something with your grandchildren. 

Share times when you have blown it, or disobeyed what you sensed God was telling you to do.  Let them know how glad you are that Jesus is bigger than any mistakes. 


Choose a book series to read with your grandchildren.  Read to them using Skype, or as they get older and the books get longer, read them individually and then discuss the highlights of the book by phone. 

Write letters to your grandkids, telling them how much you love them, what you specifically love about them, and the gifts you see in them.  Tell them how thankful you are that God has made them so special (Psalm 139).

Have breakfast together once a week using Skype or FaceTime.

Start a collection of something with your grandchild, e.g. dolls from other countries, interesting stones, coins, colored glass, etc. and continue adding to the collection when you travel or when you are together.

Text them on an ordinary day and let them know you’re thinking about them.

Pray for your grandkids, and let them know the specific things you are asking God to do or show them.

Send packages! Especially at holidays and birthdays when you are apart, packages with even small inexpensive gifts or treats are really memorable to kids.  If they move away from home for college, be sure to send an occasional package to school with homemade cookies or a gift card to a coffee shop.

Call or send a letter when kids have special events or milestones at school or church.  For instance, while you may not be present for a baptism, calling your grandchild on that special day is still very memorable.  The same can be true of soccer tournaments, school plays, or after a church retreat weekend.

If financially possible, offer to pay for your grandchild to travel to stay with you for a long weekend or more, without siblings or parents.  See the below list for more ideas about what to do together during these times.


If possible plan a vacation for a weekend or more to all be together.

On extended family vacations, try to have morning or evening devotions that include questions that all family members can answer.  This way the children hear their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins share on a deeper level. 

Every morning on vacation, choose a particular fruit of the spirit to emphasize that day.  Share together at the end of the day how you saw other family members live out that fruit of the spirit. 

At the age of 12 or 13, take your grandson/granddaughter on a weekend away with the other significant males/females (of the same gender as your grandchild) in your family, e.g. dad, uncles, grandfather/mom, aunts, grandmother. Have a planned activity that you’ll do together (skiing, hiking, going to a Broadway show, camping, etc.). Include time to discuss what it means to be a Christian man/woman.  Give him/her something lasting that will remind him/her of things learned over the weekend and commitments that are made.

Have “Camp Grandparents” with your grandkids either at your house or another destination.  Do things together that they’d do at camp—crafts, sports, singing, cooking, treasure hunts, etc. This could last one day or several days. Or find a camp that hosts weeks for grandparents and grandkids to come together, letting the camp plan the programming and details.

Go on a mission trip with your grandchild, either locally or abroad.  Consider making this a rite of passage experience at a certain age with each grandchild.

If possible, pay for your grandchild to attend a church camp and have them share about it with you afterward. 


Spend time when you’re together as a family sharing how God has blessed you over the past year and include the grandkids.  Christmas morning after you open gifts is a great window to talk about blessings.

At Christmas time play Secret Santa.  At Thanksgiving everyone in the family who will share Christmas draws a name.  One gift is bought for that person and at the end of the Christmas gift sharing, each person has to guess who the gift is from.

On Christmas Eve, spend a few minutes sharing with each of your grandchildren what you hope for them during this next year.  Share some of your spiritual dreams for this next year, as well as ways you already see God at work in and through them.

At birthdays, have everyone gathered share what they really like (such as a characteristic or personality trait) about the birthday person.  Consider also having each person share something they have done with the birthday person in the last year that was special. 

Serve together at a shelter, food pantry, or gift drive during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season.  Make this part of your family holiday traditions.

For the holidays and birthdays you spend apart from your grandchildren, intentionally take time to pray for them and their families, and let them know you spent part of your holiday doing so. 

Action Points:

  1. If you’re a grandparent, which of these ideas inspires you in your own relationship with your grandkids?  If you’re a parent, which of these ideas might fit your extended family?
  1. If you’re a youth leader, how can you facilitate relationships between teenagers and the senior adults in your church?  Which senior adults could you meet with in the next few months to start brainstorming?
  1. If you’re a senior adult who doesn’t have grandkids, or whose grandkids live far away, which of these ideas could you implement with kids in your church or neighborhood as a grandparent-figure in their lives?