Soul-Care Sweat

Finding God in Movement

Mar 18, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

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

I get choked up when I watch marathon races.

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

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

Youth Ministry Movement

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

What if we recognized movement as sacred?

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

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

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

Youth Worker Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action Points

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

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

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

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

Milestones of Faith

Creating rhythms through rites of passage

Feb 18, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

Marking Faith Milestones

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

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

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

Leaving Silos Behind

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

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

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

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

The First Rite of Passage: Baptism

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

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

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

Adding Rites of Passage for Every Grade

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

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

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

Elementary Milestones:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle School Milestones:

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

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

Building Milestones in High School Youth Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Ideas For Your Own Context

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

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

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

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

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

More resources and ideas on rites of passage:


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

Fixed Hour Prayer

Setting our day to the rhythm of prayer

Feb 04, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

Two years ago “fixed hour prayer” sounded like a terribly legalistic spiritual practice to me. I didn’t know what the words meant, and wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

But when I was assigned Phyllis Tickle’s seminal guide The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime for a Doctorate of Ministry class at Fuller Seminary, I began to tote her book around with me throughout my day.

As it turned out, the week I began to pray the Hours was also the week I went home to say goodbye to my ailing grandmother. I was assigned night duty while I was visiting: sleeping in a recliner next to her hospice bed, listening for quiet breaths and hoping for morning to bring another day to us both.

So it was in the sacred stillness of that room I began to pray Compline, the end-of-day prayer. Over her bed those nights I began to whisper St. Augustine’s ancient prayer:

“Keep watch, dear Lord, over those who wake, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

I had thirty wonderful years with my grandmother, but those nights remain some of the most poignant memories.

Tapping into Church History to Learn to Pray

Fixed hour prayer is also known as the Daily Office, the Divine Offices or the Liturgy of the Hours and actually predates the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the subsequent development of Christianity. The daily prayers of Jewish faithful found their root in the admonition of the Psalmist in Psalm 119:164, “Seven times I day I praise you for your righteous rules.” This Jewish precedent led the way in establishing multiple daily Christian prayers by the end of the first century AD. Two particular stories in Acts – Peter and John healing the beggar at the Beautiful gate (Acts 3) and Peter’s vision of the sheet descending onto the rooftop (Acts 10)—led to a belief that fixed hour prayer was still significant for the early church. 1

The development of monastic communities in the fourth and fifth centuries, which put a significant emphasis on Paul’s commandment to “pray without ceasing,” led to more formalized understandings of fixed hour prayers. 2 Clergy continued to lead the morning and evening prayers during the seventh and eighth centuries, but they lost popularity as lay people no longer spoke or understood Latin. 3 These prayer services were gradually replaced with a morning mass for ordinary parishioners.

In the twentieth century Roman Catholic Church, the changes of Vatican II (in 1971) brought about a renewed emphasis on the Liturgy of the Hours, particularly for laity (non-ordained members). 4 Vatican II taught that “Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sunday and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the Divine Office, either with the priests or among themselves, or even individually.” 5 The Council encouraged the prayers of the Divine Office “so that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praises of God.” 6

What Does Fixed Hour Prayer Look Like for You and for Teenagers?

While the times and formats of fixed hour prayers have changed through the centuries, the idea of the church continually coming before the throne of God has remained constant. Fixed hour prayer has played a significant, if quiet, role in the spiritual formation of generations of Christians.

Most popularly, the Divine Offices now usually consist of four prayer times: morning, midday, evening and compline (bedtime) prayers, said either individually or in a group. Liturgies of prayer vary depending on the resource used, but often include a call to worship, the recitation of a creed, the Lord’s prayer, readings from a Psalm, confessional prayer, readings from the lectionary and a benediction. 7

Particularly helpful to today’s adolescents, the daily practice of fixed hour prayer provides three unique opportunities: a reorientation of time, an opportunity to incorporate their prayers with the large, corporate church, and an introduction to reading scripture as prayer.

Opportunity #1: Reorientation and Stewardship of Time

The Divine Office provides Christians an opportunity to acknowledge the sovereignty and presence of God in our lives. Fixed hour prayer allows the believer to “see through the mundane reality of daily life to the benevolent, loving, personal spirit of God that permeated it all, to make every day Sunday and all of life prayer.” 8

For those who adhere to the hours, there is a necessary re-ordering of time and focus. While fixed hour prayer is still the foundation of monasticism, Christians who don’t adhere to monastic traditions have found themselves lacking a regular reminder that there was another way of existing in the world – a way of life continually interrupted by prayer. Fixed hour prayer offers that regular (and often needed) reminder.

For students, fixed hour prayer gives them a very concrete context for prayer: fixed times and fixed words provide teenagers with the ability to practice prayer in a consistent and guided way, giving them a language to talk with God at other times as well.

Opportunity #2: Connection with the Worldwide Church

Fixed hour prayer serves as the prayers of the corporate church, not simply the prayers of individual church members. 9 The words and structure of the Divine Hours have changed over the centuries that they have been practiced, but the purpose has remained the same.

Tickle writes that while “other prayers maybe petitionary or intercessory or valedictory or any number of other things, the Liturgy of the Hours remains an act of offering…of the creature to the Creator.” 10 As adolescents engage in fixed hour prayer, they are invited into a rich history of prayer throughout the life of the corporate church as well as engaging with modern day Christians practicing fixed hour prayer around the world.

Opportunity #3: Reading Scripture as Prayer

Lastly, fixed hour prayer provides adolescents a concrete way of dealing with the Bible. Most fixed hour prayer liturgies consist almost exclusively of scriptural text. Leonel Mitchell writes that the “organizational principles [of fixed hour prayer] are the recitation of the entire Psalter and the continuous reading of the scripture.” 11

For students seeking a deep immersion in scripture, fixed hour prayer is a particularly helpful spiritual practice as it provides concrete text to pray. Depending on the resource, many prayer books set forward a schedule that leads students through all of the Psalms and much of the Old and New Testaments.

Fixed Hour Prayer in Action with Students

My first use of fixed hour prayer with adolescents was at a middle school winter retreat. Our theme that January was “Rhythms,” so we listened to a lot of really great music, talked about life’s natural patterns and gathered three times a day to pray together. The Hours have been an integral part of the annual retreat ever since.

I’ve also prayed the Divine Hours with high school students on a summer mission trip. That week the Morning Office was mumbled through half-chewed granola bars and Compline was spotty at best, but we gathered, together with each other and with Christians across the globe, and we prayed.

Today, like every day, the organization I work for ended our meetings and stepped away from our emails at 11:45 to offer Midday prayers together before lunch. Each day we read and sing and listen to remember that we are stewards; stewards of our time, stewards of this ministry, stewards of grace.

Like any spiritual practice, fixed hour prayer has the potential to become rote and insignificant. Prayers penned by others – whether the Lord’s Prayer or one written by a saint of church history – can either be vain repetition or become so engrained in our minds that they become a part of who we are. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about the effect of the daily discipline of prayer in his classic Life Together. “Has [her prayer] transported her for a few short moments into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns,” he asks, “or it has it lodged the Word of God so soberly and so deeply in her heart that it holds and strengthens her all day, impelling her to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide.” 12

Perhaps the ancient practice of fixed hour prayer can help “lodge” the Word of God in the hearts of the students we care for to strengthen and deepen both their prayer life and their action.

Action Steps:

  • If the Daily Office is intriguing to you, grab a prayer book or app and begin to pray. Don’t jump into it with your youth group right away. Leading others in a spiritual practice you haven’t tried on your own is generally pretty risky. In fact, you may want to invite other adults in your ministry to join you in praying this way for a month and then gather to share reflections on the practice.

  • Introducing fixed hour prayer to students usually works best when you have control of your group’s schedule for a significant amount of time like a weekend retreat or week-long trip. Consider what the best context might be for experimenting with this kind of prayer with your group.

  • Projecting Fixed Hour prayer on a screen might make you tech-savvy, but printing out the pages allows those in your group the opportunity to bring the prayers home and continue the practice. Consider how you might make the practice something students can do both together and on their own.

  1. Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime (New York: Doubleday, 2000), ix.
  2. Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime (New York: Doubleday, 2000), ix.)
  3. Greg Dues, Catholic Customs & Tractions : A Popular Guide (New London, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2009), 38-39.
  4. Tickle, xii.
  5. Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy, 100.
  6. Ibid., 84.
  7. For specific fixed hour prayer liturgies, check out Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals or the Anglican Book of Common Prayer or the “iPray” app.
  8. Richard Ostrander, "The Battery and the Windmill : Two Models of Protestant Devotionalism in Early-Twentieth-Century America," Church History 65, no. 1 (1996): 3.
  9. Leonel L. Mitchell, "Theology and Praxis of the Daily Office," Anglican Theological Review 66, no. 1 (1984): 3.
  10. Tickle, x.
  11. Mitchell: 5.
  12. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together , [1st ed. (New York: Harper, 1954), 48.

Strings Attached: Video Discussion Guide

Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum

Feb 04, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What obstacles tend to prevent us from receiving grace?

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

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

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

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

Sacred Pathways Toward Sticky Faith

Helping Teenagers Meet God Every Day

Jan 21, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

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

When I Meet God as Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping Young People Discover their Pathways

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

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

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

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

Activities to experience each pathway:

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

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

The Pathways as Lifelong Tools

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

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

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

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

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


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

Notice Video Discussion Guide

Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum

Jan 07, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

Watch the short video “Notice” with your students, either as a preview or an introduction to the free Sticky Faith Every Day curriculum series. You might want to use it as an alternative opener to the Week 1 session, or as a video you use each week throughout the series to open your gathering.



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

  • Do you really think you see hundreds or thousands of signs every day? How does that make you feel?
  • What signs stood out to you most from the video? Why do you think you noticed them more?
  • What kinds of signs do you tend to notice most every day? What signs do you almost always ignore?
  • Did you notice there were several “No” signs but no “Yes” signs? Do you think signs in our culture tend to be more negative? Why do you think that is so?
  • Besides signs, what are other things we probably don’t notice around us every day?
  • How did you feel about the pace of this video? Does that pace remind you of your life in some ways? How could our pace affect our ability to notice things?
  • The video suggests there might be another voice or other signs we struggle to pay attention to, signs of God’s activity around us. What do you think some of those signs might be?
  • What kinds of messages do you think God wants us to hear throughout our day?
  • Some people say “paying attention” is the core of the spiritual life. Why do you think they say that?
  • What do you think keeps us from noticing God more?
  • What might help you notice God more from day to day? Are there any practices or habits that have made a difference in your life?

Note: The Sticky Faith Every Day Week 1 Leader Guide includes a Bible study and prayer exercise that might be helpful as a next step following these questions.

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


Time and Place

Essential elements for faith sticking

Jan 07, 2013 Fuller Youth Institute

Time and place.

The two go together. They must. And when they don’t, we know it.
You can be at the right place at the wrong time.
You can be in the wrong place at the right time.

This happens in ministry all the time.
I remember thinking that it would be a great idea to take my students on a spring break trip to Colorado. It sounded cool until I was told (rather passionately) that a group of Wisconsin students who had just endured five months of snow, don’t want more cold. They want the sunny beach! Right time, wrong place!

I have also had those frustrating moments where I have yearly taken students back to the same camp with no clear vision for what it means to return to a familiar place. I got the message— students lamenting that the camp “wasn’t as good as last year.” Right place, wrong time!

Youth ministry is about time and place. Both. Together. You can’t have one without the other.

This reality challenges us to consider how we use time and place in our youth ministries. Often, I’ve discovered that attention to one and not the other makes me miss a deeper dynamic that may be going on, clouding my assessment. I’m too quick to give blame or credit to the “camp” when it was actually our schedule that helped or hurt the event. I think an event date will fit perfectly in the schedule; the event fails because I don’t use the venue well. Both time and place must work together for our programming and, more importantly, for our philosophy of spiritual formation.

Mars Hill Bible Church has had the privilege of working with Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith project over the past few years. It’s been beneficial for us to dialogue with other church leaders within the cohort around what youth ministries can do to help students stick with their faith. In these conversations, I have been increasingly aware of our need to understand time and place as framing for youth ministry’s spiritual formation practices.

This piece acknowledges that the research from FYI calls for youth workers to be more thoughtful about how we are preparing our adolescents to carry their faith into adulthood. The answer may not be implementing programs, more lessons, or more activities. Rather, the solution may come from youth workers reconsidering time and place and paying more attention to both in our contexts.

1. We have a responsibility to help our students discover the intersection of time and place. 

As we wrestle with the research from FYI and consider what it means to help our students grow a faith that sticks, we must consider time and place, striving to ensure the quality and intersection of both.

The challenge toward intersecting time and place is to first recognize that some ministries are often naturally stronger at one more than the other. For instance, some are excellent at “place.” They have established great spaces for programming, small groups, and mentoring relationships. Their “places” are filled with good teaching, good interaction, even good content. Yet, these places remain limited if they are not tied to a larger theological narrative that anchors them in a larger context. 

When this happens, students are taught, mentored, peer-pressured into Christian behavior void of a larger redemptive story that they (and every person) is being invited into. In the long term as students move beyond high school, even the best youth group “places” will no longer exist. Therefore, good places also need good timing that explain why we teach, mentor, and meet together. Students need help carrying their faith beyond the familiar youth group spaces.

Similarly, some ministries are experts at “time.” Churches or youth groups may follow the church calendar (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ordinary Time) closely, but fail to bring it to an accessible level for students. Therefore, if you offer wonderful observances of church time but it remains distant or irrelevant compared to the schedules young people keep, their schedules will win out. Their ways of marking time are more pressing, more rewarding, more (sadly) inspiring, and in their minds, more necessary.

What is needed is an intersection of the two – an intersection of time and place. Together we weave teachings, relationships, and story into a narrative that moves beyond high school into their next stages in life. This is one way faith starts to stick.

2. We have an opportunity to help our students form by helping them live rhythmic lives.

The intersection of time and place does not necessarily mean we need to add more to our ministry calendars. It does, however, challenge us to consider where we place the things we do with our students.

Place + Time = Rhythms

“Place” is the educational space by which we implement theological practices.

Practices are the teaching, events, and spaces that we believe are necessary for spiritual formation. Spiritual practices have many potential implications for your ministry and church. Each faith community must consider what practices you want to nurture in your students. For us, we develop our people through practices we’ve named as narrative theology, journey, wholeness, community, serving, and celebration. These disciplines are intentionally embedded in our regular programming so that they are implicitly and explicitly being taught to and practiced by our students. 

“Time” pertains to “timing.” Not only must we place our practices in our programming places/spaces, we must situate our programming within our sensitivity to time. It raises questions about when we teach the practices we are attempting to embed into the lives of our students.

When place meets time, we create rhythms. Rhythms can create cadences for living, which can help faith stick. We recognized that the church has practiced rhythms throughout her existence and particularly we can think of these rhythms as hourly/daily, weekly/monthly, and seasonally/yearly. We implement them in light of these three concentric circles of rhythms that guide us:

Rhythms for the hour/day

‘In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.1

Hourly/daily rhythms teach us that faith is embedded in our daily living. It is not only important to teach our students to pray, but also to offer them strategies for when to pray. For example, teaching them to pray the daily hours 2 or at least at unique times in their day helps them integrate place and time, giving students the opportunities to learn a life of prayer where they can regularly experience communion with God within their daily routines.

In our youth group programming, we take seriously the idea that “every minute counts.” Therefore, each element of our programming highlights our attention to scripture, the freedom to ask questions, the opportunity to respond, or the necessity of journeying with others. This is also how we evaluate whether a youth group night is “successful” or not.

Rhythms for the week/month

“The wisdom of the desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self–to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.” 3

For students, the rhythms of the week or month are typically centered on their participation with the church community and the youth group community. As youth workers, we can start thinking ofthese gatherings not merely as events students attend, but also as weekly metronomes that communicate to our students that we need each other and that, while spirituality is personal, it cannot be private.

In the midst of everyone’s busyness which often leads to isolation, we encourage each other to meet together. We do this not only to receive from others, but also to give to others. Students learn not only the benefit of community, but also the necessity of the faith community in their faith journeys.

Students must learn that we are not competing with their other activities. We are simply teaching them that the Christian faith cannot be lived alone. Through this, we no longer measure attendance as much as we seek to measure participation, seeing youth group not merely as a teaching place, but also as a space in time that is necessary in their weekly cadence. Weekly, students learn to give and receive from each other. They learn to trust, be honest, voice doubts, and share joys that have little to do with attendance as much as they have to do with community. Participation is the antidote to hyper-individualism that only happens over time, not simply altar calls.

Rhythms for the season/year

“Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance but something infinitely rich, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.” 4

Seasonal expressions in the church calendar help students and church communities tell and re-tell the story of God. 5 They encourage a healthy balance, reflecting and experiencing anticipation, celebration, lament, repentance, hope, even “ordinary time.” Living into the seasons challenges youth ministries to even think about the programming, retreats, lessons, and music used during these times. 6

For example, we attempt during Lent season–a time of lament and repentance– to refrain from programming that is silly, wasteful, or overly celebratory. In our teaching and programming, even our song choices, we are attempting to teach our students that part of faith is lament, not just spiritual highs. 7  They tie a black cloth to their backpacks to remind them that this is a season where we reflect on our brokenness, the brokenness of the world, and the longing we all have to be whole. At Advent, we use this space to speak of hope and anticipation rather than a series that focuses only on what “young people are doing wrong."

Seasonal rhythms teach us to practice and reflect on the whole Gospel and on God’s story, bringing up essential topics within their proper liturgical seasons, valuing all aspects of the gospel as a spiritual journey, not simply teaching random Bible topics. 8

Pursuing Rhythm Together

We live in a world that is at a rhythmic loss. Traditions, schedules, regular times to gather as family and friends are sporadic in our 24/7-paced world.

Good news for our students and our community includes recapturing life’s cadence. It’s the cadence that is already embedded in the very nature of our world, highlighted by our historical church through hourly, daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms. By investing in time and place, our hope is that we can help students find their rhythms that will help their faith stick as they live it out beyond high school.

The good news is also this: You don’t need to add more to your ministry programming or timing. Simply take what you’re doing and make it more intentional by intersecting time and place. This, indeed, seems like what we’re called to do.

For more resources in the Sticky Faith Every Day series, including our free 8-week curriculum series, visit the Sticky Faith Every Day page now! 

  1. Brown Taylor, B. (2009). An altar in the world: A geography of faith. New York: HarperOne.
  2. There are many resources: check out: Tickle, Phyllis (2006) The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime . New York: Doubleday.
  3. Brown Taylor, B. (2009). An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith . New York: HarperOne.
  4. Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Webber, R. E. (2004). Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks.
  6. Special thanks to Sarah Arthur, author of The God-Hungry Imagination: The Art of Storytelling for Postmodern Youth Ministry and her latest release, Walking with Bilbo: A Devotional Adventure through the Hobbit , for sharing this concept with me.
  7. The Sticky Faith Every Day curriculum was written to coincide with the season of Lent if you're interested in exploring this seasonal rhythm more intentionally with students. You can download the curriculum free here.
  8. Wright, N. T. (2012). How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels . New York: HarperOne.

Forming Sticky Faith Every Day: New Series Starts in January

8-Week Curriculum and More

Dec 18, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute





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

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

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

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

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

Rhythms that will help them create Sticky Faith every day.

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

Each week of the curriculum we’ll provide:

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

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

3.     ideas families can try together.

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

The best part? It’s all free.

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

We hope you’ll join us!


Take me to the Sticky Faith Every Day Download page


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

Leading Through Conflict

How Tensions Can Change Your Ministry…and Change You, Too

Oct 01, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute


"Kara, we want to meet with you because we don't think you're teaching the Bible enough to our kids." This was John and Patty's greeting one Sunday morning as I was getting ready to speak to our students. Not only were John and Patty parents of two high school girls, but also influential leaders in our congregation.

"Jeff, there are no high school students in the worship service. What are you going to do about it?" asked a colleague as I was walking to my car after a church service one weekend. He was actually more than a colleague; he was a close friend who had been in my home, was at the birth of my son and whose wife is a close friend of my wife.

During the combined 41 years the two of us have worked in youth ministry, it's hard to think of a month that hasn't involved conflict—occasionally with teenagers but most often with their parents, our ministry volunteers and our church staff colleagues. READ MORE AT YOUTHWORKER.COM




Image credit: 20/141 Not Listening by kurichan+ somerightsreserved (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Transforming Mental Models

Sep 18, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

The best leaders change the way that we see the world. 

And they change the way we see the world by changing what are called “mental models.” 

Mental Models are the categories we use to make sense of the world.  We take them for granted.  For example, picture an automobile.  Go ahead, conjure up the image in your head.  Some of you may picture a Volvo and others a Buick.  But no matter what make and model you picked, it’s likely you each of you pictured it having four wheels.  Why? Because a car should have four wheels.  If I showed you one of those concept cars with only one front wheel, you would likely say to yourself, “That’s not how a car should look.”  Your mental model of a car includes it having four wheels.

That’s a rather innocuous example.  So let’s consider a different one.  What’s your mental model of a preacher?  Ask a group of seminary students about what a preacher should be and you’ll likely get many answers.  One might say, “A man standing in the middle of a stage with a black Bible open in his left hand as he talks through a passage verse by verse.”  That’s one way of being a preacher.  It’s probably not the way you would preach.  But think about that student.  If all she has ever seen is an open-Bible guy, she is likely to think that all other ways of preaching are as strange as a three-wheeled car.

In a moment, I’m going to argue that the essence of Christian leadership is to transform people’s mental models so that God’s People use different categories to make sense of their lives.  But before I do that, I want to give a more concrete example.  Let’s look at Jesus (it’s always a good idea to bring in Jesus as the primary example).  Look at Mark 8.

The center of Mark’s gospel turns on Jesus’ reconfiguring the disciples’ mental models and then showing how that reconfigured understanding changed the way that they acted in the world.  Starting at Mark 8:27, Jesus talks to the disciples about the mental models that the crowds used when they tried to make sense of Jesus.  “Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’” They were not sure what to make of Jesus. So they reached back into history to look for precedents. They looked for a mental model that would fit their understanding of Jesus. And the best model they could find was the idea of a ‘prophet.’  So that is how the crowds interpreted Jesus. 

Then Jesus became more personal and asked what mental models the disciples themselves used when they interpreted Jesus. “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’”  The disciples had decided that Jesus was more than a prophet.  They decided that “Messiah” was the best mental model to use in interpreting Jesus’ ministry.  They had the right mental model for interpreting Jesus.  Or so they thought.  It turns out that the next step of growth for the disciples required Jesus to transform the meaning of this mental model.

Jesus knew that the disciples had the wrong mental model; what they understood by a Messiah was not what he intended to be.  They expected him to be a king who would sweep away the Romans and set up a kingdom that would conquer its neighbors.  But Jesus did not intend to be the king that the disciples hoped for him to be. So he explained to them what he meant by a Messiah.  “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”

Jesus offered a new mental model for interpreting this fundamental identity called Messiah.  He described the Messiah as one who suffers. And the disciples did not react well to Jesus’ attempt to teach them.  Peter found this new mental model so offensive that he tried to correct Jesus. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’” Jesus pushed Peter and the disciples to accept this new mental model. He wanted them to see the Messiah as one who suffers in order to redeem rather than one who conquers in order to reign.

But Jesus was not done transforming their mental models. 

He explained that this new understanding of Messiah carried with it a new understanding of what it meant to be a ‘disciple.’  “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?’” Jesus not only asked the disciples to change the most important mental model that they used to interpret Jesus (i.e. the Messiah).  But he also asked them to change the mental model that they used to interpret themselves (i.e. the Messiah’s disciples).  

The Gospel of Mark pivots on this passage.  Once Jesus announces this new mental model, the entire story becomes about living out the new meanings of Messiah and disciple.  The disciples do not fully understand the implications of these new mental models until the Spirit comes at Pentecost.  But the faithfulness of their actions after Mark 8 depends on their coming to grips with these new mental models. Jesus, then, is our model of what it means to lead by transforming people’s mental models. 

Transforming mental models is so powerful because the new mental models change the way people act in the world.   When the disciples thought that the Messiah was sent to reign, it was appropriate (for example) for the mother of a pair of disciples to ask that her sons might sit on Jesus’ right and left hand.  And it was appropriate to expect that the last thing a Messiah would do is to experience the public shame of a scandalous death on a Roman cross.  But, if a Messiah has come to suffer in order to redeem, then it makes sense that a disciple of that Messiah would also live a life of service on behalf of others.  In other words, changing the mental models the disciples used to make sense of Jesus and the mental models they used to make sense of themselves transformed the actions that the disciples attempted to achieve in society.  If a Christian leader transforms people’s mental models, then the people’s actions will change as well.

What would this look like in a church today? 

There are a number of youth workers who want to change the mental model of youth ministry.  They no longer see it as a segregated ministry that takes place at a segregated time (Wednesday night) in a segregated place (the youth room) with a segregated group (teenagers).  They see it as part of an intergenerational ministry that is part of integrated Sunday worship in the common worship space with the whole congregation.  So what is the first obstacle these innovative youth ministers face as they try to enact intergenerational ministry?  It does not fit the mental model people have of youth ministry.  It does not have legitimacy.  It seems wrong – as wrong as a three-wheeled car or a Messiah shamed on a cross.

How then do we go about changing mental models?  Perhaps the best way to illustrate this kind of meaning-making leadership is to look back to Jesus, especially at the way that Jesus constructed new meaning in the Sermon on the Mount. 



Photo credit: BRAiN by GucciBeaR somerightsreserved (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)