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.”

How Can My Struggles Help My Faith Stick?

Free Student Curriculum Sample

Jan 30, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

Curriculum Sample



From Faith to Faithing

Could Faith be a Verb?

Jan 30, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

Konrad Witz paints it.

And that’s a big deal. 

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

Remember, this is Peter.

Jesus calls Peter the “rock” of the church.

Peter tries to walk on water.

Peter fails.

The rock… sinks.



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

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

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

Faith as a Noun

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

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

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

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

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

Faith as a Verb

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

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

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

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

Faithing as a Vessel

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

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

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

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

This is where the misunderstanding often happens.

Peter, Young People, and Faithing


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

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

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

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

Young People

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

These are the stories that must occupy our conversations.

These are the values that must inform our programming.

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

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


Action Steps

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




(Photo credit:

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

How Do I See Myself After Graduation?

Free Student Curriculum Sample

Jan 02, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

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

Find out more about the curriculum

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

Curriculum Sample



Sticky College Campuses

Insights for College Leaders

Dec 12, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

About a year and a half ago I transitioned from a role in youth ministry in the local church to serving at a Christian University. I love this job for lots of reasons, most of all because I get to walk with a group of students each year as they grow in their understanding of social justice.  We spend a lot of time talking about how our faith is shaped by our work in the community.  One pleasant surprise for me was how often we also talk about being a person of faith as well as a student, a busy person, a church shopper, a roommate, wealthy (or not), a future job seeker, and more.  In these conversations I cannot help but see touch points between the lives of my students and our work on Sticky Faith as part of Fuller’s research team.

The College Transition Project (the main research undergirding Sticky Faith) set out with a primary goal of determining if there are programmatic and relational characteristics of high school youth ministries and churches that have demonstrable relationships to how students make the faith adjustment to life beyond high school.  As the project developed, we found many pieces that are also very relevant to the college campus environment.

Based on other studies, our best estimate is that about 40-50% of teens who were Christians before college walk away from faith and/or church during college. 1   However, LifeWay reports that of that 40-50%, only 20% intended to drift; 80% intended to stick. 2]]

If these students walk away despite the best of intentions, what can be done?  Based on my experience in college ministry, I think there are three areas that a college should consider when it comes to helping students across the transition: Campus and local church ministries, New Student Orientation, and the judicial system.

Campus and Local Church Ministries

For a college or university that wants to support the faith of its students, partnering and supporting the campus and church ministry groups is a great first step.  Our research supports the significant role that local churches and campus ministries can play in the transition from high school to college. Students in our study who participated in a church or campus ministry during their freshman year and beyond tended to show more mature faith. These ministry groups are especially important because they have a foot in two worlds related to college students.  On the one hand, they address some theological messages important for the transition, like the depth of God’s grace despite our mistakes or choices.  On the other hand, they also address some practical challenges, like loneliness, especially as they provide a place for students to make friends and forge intergenerational relationships.

We asked students what factors accounted for their involvement in a ministry group.  The prompt indicated that if they were not attending, they could write just that in the space provided.  Students who engaged with ministry groups cited a variety of reasons for attendance overall.  But most frequently they mentioned “feeling welcome.” 

Surprisingly, rather than just write, “not attending,” many participants chose to also expand on why they do not attend a group.  The theme from their answers was also “welcome.”  For various reasons, those who didn’t attend Christian groups had experienced churches or campus ministries as “unwelcoming” or “cliquey”.  Implementing an environment of welcome is critical, but tricky, because the experience is subjective.  What makes an extrovert feel welcome could overwhelm an introvert, for instance.  In light of this, it is important that ministries for college students are intentional in their approach to reaching each student individually.

New Student Orientation and Beyond

While formal ministries are important for the transitioning student, they are not the end-all solution to strengthening students’ faith.  The practical challenges students face cannot all be addressed by a campus ministry, and they are significant enough to warrant solutions all their own.  These challenges begin the moment your incoming freshmen step foot on campus.

On the surface, the first few weeks of school are abuzz with new friendships and kick-off activities.  Just below the surface, the reality is less exciting, and even destructive for our students’ faith.  As we interviewed students about their experience, their voices came back with a clear perspective: “It’s hard.”  They described a transition dominated by loneliness, a desire to make friends, anxiety about decision-making, and the struggle to find Christian community.

As we consider the practical challenges for a freshman, we are helped by the work of Tim Clydesdale and the identity lockbox. 3  Students tend to lock their faith away, he notes, because day-to-day realities of this new independent life take all of their energy and focus.  Clydesdale claims that students handle the changes well by making daily life management the top priority. In the process, faith becomes separated from everyday life.

Consider the very first week a student experiences at your school.  New Student Orientation, Welcome Week, Freshman Frenzy…whatever you call it, these few days can have a huge impact on your transitioning students.  Is the schedule packed?  Are students encouraged to over-commit?  When we know that time management is a struggle, it is worth considering how we can send a message that supports students in trying new things while keeping their schedule sane.

Right along with the beginning of college, but certainly not stopping after orientation, the sheer volume of decisions left entirely up to them challenges students.  Everything from class attendance to personal spending to time management is suddenly subject to students’ own choice.  We cannot fix this for them by making choices in their place; we need to teach them how to do it themselves.

Think about your school’s typical student.  What is their course load, how many clubs are they in, how many jobs do they work?  My office supervises about 35 students each year.  They work for us 8-10 hours a week.  They volunteer 3-5 hours for us on top of that.  They carry at least four classes and are involved in two to four other organizations.  Many of them are also part of the Greek system.  Some have second jobs outside of our office.

Who taught our students that this is the common expectation for their college life?  Why do they do so much?  Any university does well to consider their messaging related to student busyness.  How many events are on the calendar?  In our context, a student can be at one of at least 3 events almost every night of the week, all year long.  That’s just on our activities calendar; it doesn’t account for (usually weekly) clubs, intramurals, or fraternity or sorority meetings, let alone informal parties.

Discipline and Grace

When I was attending a Christian college myself, we had rules.  There were enough rules to be called ‘a lot,’ perhaps—we were a dry campus, a smoke-free, drug-free, drunk-free (you can drink over age 21 but not be drunk ever) campus, a no-members-of-the-opposite-sex-in-your-room-between-midnight-and-noon campus, among others.

Because the college had rules, they also had systems to enforce those rules.  RA’s wrote people up, RD’s had individual conversations to address issues, and there were formal measures above and beyond that depending on the circumstance.

Universities need discipline or judicial systems; they are an inevitable part of enforcing the standards of the community.  This is especially true for Christian colleges and universities who want to be clear about what it means to live in community, worship, and learn together.  But it is critical to consider how a student experiences those systems.

One finding that challenges us at FYI is how students define the gospel.  Instead of the gospel of grace found in the person of Jesus Christ, a high number of students live in a framework that depends upon performance and behavior modification in order to win God’s approval.  They are aware of what they should and should not do, and believe they must focus on managing the balance between the two categories. In short, they have a gospel without grace.  In fact, when asked, “What is Christianity all about?” one-third of respondents did not include Jesus in their answer at all. 

If a student already lives with a rule-based, grace-less faith, and then they violate a campus policy, how will they experience a judicial process implemented by adults who claim to be doing this for the good of the Christian community?  Possibly it will be another representation of a religious system that cares more about their external behavior than anything else about them.  That student may leave even surer that all that matters is doing what they should and avoiding what they shouldn’t.

What is clearly difficult is that we do have to enforce rules on campus, which means some kind of discipline when rules are purposefully broken.  Nevertheless, the discipline process can honor the student and represent grace even as it enforces school rules.  Scripture talks about God’s own discipline and love in the same breath.  In Job 5:17-18, for instance, the writer says “Blessed are those whom God corrects; so do not despise the discipline of the Almighty. For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.” There are similar themes throughout Proverbs, such as chapter 3 verses 11-12, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”  If God himself, who is trying to lead a people to obedience, can embody correction and grace, discipline and love all together, we too can consider that they are not mutually exclusive in our campus policies.

I was faced with a choice on how to express these two values—grace and correction—during my first year on staff.  One of my leaders for a Spring Break service project missed a training meeting because he was at the hospital having his stomach pumped after excessive drinking.  The coordinator of the Spring Break program, also a student, was the one who told me about that (underage) student, and she wanted to know what I would do about it.  So I had to weigh out: Do I pull him from leadership or let him stay?  Turn him in to judicial affairs or just address it with him directly?  Or pretend I didn’t know and ignore it altogether (which would negate both values at once)?

Looking back, I do believe I picked the right option for that student at that time.  Certainly I approached it differently than I would have before I was aware of just how much that situation could connect to his understanding of faith.  Hopefully those of us who work in a college environment will say the same about a variety of programs and structures that we employ as we serve students.

Action Points

  • Think about the overt programs, workshops, or presentations offered to help students navigate the transition from a practical perspective.  Do students receive support related to time management, decision making, or money management?  If your office or department does offer these resources, how do you make the student body aware of them?
  • As a college or university, how can students get to know adults?  Is it easy to forge relationships with professors or staff members?  Are students known by Residence Directors?  How can your school or college ministry create clearer, broader pathways for students to know older adults?
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a student who has violated a significant rule.  How will you experience the judicial process?  Are there personal conversations where you will be heard?  Will the process be restorative, dignified, and just?

  1. In September 2006, the Barna Group released their observation that “the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged”.  Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” The Barna Group, 2006, September 16, 2006.  According to a Gallup Poll, approximately 40% of 18-29 year-olds who attended church when they were 16 or 17 years old are no longer attending.  George H. Gallup, Jr. “The Religiosity Cycle,” The Gallup Poll, 2002, October 19, 2006.  Frank Newport, “A Look at Religious Switching in America Today,” The Gallup Poll, 2006, October 19, 2006. A 2007 survey by LifeWay Research of over 1,000 adults ages 18-30 who spent a year or more in youth group during high school suggests that more than 65% of young adults who attend a Protestant church for at least a year in high school will stop attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.  In this study, respondents were not necessarily seniors who had graduated from youth group.  In addition, the research design did not factor in parachurch or on-campus faith communities in their definition of college “church” attendance. Data from the National Study of Youth and Religion published in 2009 indicate an approximate 30% drop in frequent religious service attendance across multiple Protestant denominations.  Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition:  The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009). FYI’s estimate that 40-50% of high school graduates will fail to stick with their faith is based on a compilation of data from these various studies.
  2. LifeWay, “LifeWay Research Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church,” LifeWay Christian Resources,
  3. Tim Clydesdale, The First Year Out (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2007). Also see “The Lockbox Theory’s Implications for Your Students,” by Meredith Miller on the Sticky Faith site.

More Than the Red Bull Rip Off

The Sticky Gospel

Dec 12, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

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


The carpet suddenly looks so fascinating.

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

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

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

How do you define the gospel?

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

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

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

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

The Red Bull Rip-Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teetotalers. 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel à la Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching the Sticky Gospel

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

Explain your terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust as an ongoing teaching theme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach about recovery and repentance.

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

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

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

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

More Caught Than Taught

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

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



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

Sticky Changes

Becoming trail guides into new territory

Nov 28, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Story

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

A shared story. Of future hope.

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

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

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

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

Stories of God at Work Today

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

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

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

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

Your Stories of Hope for the Future

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

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

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

The Power of Shared Stories

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

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

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

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

Build a Team

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

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

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

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

Helping Your Team “Maintain Disciplined Attention”

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

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

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

1.   Pray.

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

3.   Report on work done since the last meeting.

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

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

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

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

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

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

Experiment around the Margins

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

Be Patient; Good Things Take Time

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

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

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


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

Silence is Not Golden

The Why and How of Sticky Faith Conversations at Home

Oct 31, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

This article appeared in the Sep/Oct issue of Group Magazine and was adapted from Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition.


“Kara, I need to ask for your forgiveness.”

I couldn’t think of anything that Linda, a single mom of two teenagers in our youth ministry, had done that might require my forgiveness.  The last year had been a roller coaster for Linda, full of the highs of watching her son sprint forward spiritually, as well as the lows of her daughter’s spiritual stumbles.  Seventeen year-old Kimberly had become pregnant and quickly made the choice to have an abortion. This double-blow left Linda reeling. 

Linda began to cry as she confessed, “For over a year, I have been mad at you for what happened to Kimberly.  I have blamed you and held you responsible.”    


I had no idea that Linda blamed me for her daughter’s choices. 

In response to Linda’s tearful confession, I hugged her and told her that I forgave her and that I understood.  I told her that it is normal for parents navigating storms with their kids to wish that their youth leader could be some sort of all-powerful shelter.  When we can’t, parents’ disappointment can turn to frustration and even blame.

Yet as I thought about Linda over the next few days, I got angry. Not at Linda, but at a church culture that had allowed parents to outsource the development of their own kids to me as the youth leader. 

I saw Kimberly three hours per week for four years of her life—at most.  During those same three hours, I saw a few hundred other teenagers too.  How did I, in those three hours, somehow end up being more responsible for Kimberly than her mom, who saw her every day for the first seventeen years of her life? 


“Why We Can’t Afford Not To Talk About Faith at Home”

Through our College Transition Project research we explored all kinds of factors that may be related to faith formation in students' lives. In the midst of a host of factors that do seem to help develop Sticky Faith, some of our most intriguing findings point to the role of parents and family conversations about faith.


Reason #1:  Parents are usually the most important spiritual influence in their kids’ lives.  

While we believe in the power of adult mentoring (we are both youth ministry volunteers at our respective churches), it’s challenging to point to a Sticky Faith factor that is more significant than students’ parents.

Following his nationwide telephone survey of 3,290 teens and their parents, as well as 250 in-depth interviews, sociologist Dr. Christian Smith concluded, “Most teenagers and their parents may not realize it, but a lot of research in the sociology of religion suggests that the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.” 1  

As Smith more simply summarized at a panel at Fuller Seminary, “When it comes to kids’ faith, parents get what they are.” 2  

Of course there are exceptions.  Your own faith might be vastly different than your parents’.  Plus we’ve met plenty of parents whose kids end up all over the faith spectrum.  But parents are more than an initial launch pad for their kids’ journeys; they continue to shape them as ongoing companions and guides.


Reason #2:  Most parents miss out on opportunities to talk about faith with their kids. 

At Fuller Seminary, we have great respect and affection for the Search Institute, a research center devoted to helping make communities a better place for kids.   According to Search’s nationwide study,12% of youth have a regular dialog with their mom on faith/life issues. 3   In other words, one out of eight kids talks with their mom about their faith.

It’s far lower for dads.  One out of twenty, or 5%, of kids have regular faith/life conversations with their dad. 

One more interesting statistic:  Approximately 9% of teenagers engage in regular Bible reading and devotions with their families.  So not even one out of ten teenagers looks at Scripture with their parents.  When it comes to matters of faith, mum’s usually the word at home.


Reason #3:  The best discussions about faith happen not just when parents ask questions but when parents share their own experiences too. 

That relatively small group of parents who do talk with their kids about faith tend to default to asking their kids questions. 

What did you talk about in church today?

How was youth group?

What did you think of the sermon?

Depending on the personality and mood of the kid, responses usually range from grunts to “the usual”.  Not very satisfying for the parent or the kid.

Our research shows that asking these questions can pay off.  But as vital to Sticky Faith is that parents also share about their own faith.

In other words, parents shouldn’t merely interview their kids; they need to discuss their own faith journey and all of its ups and downs too.


How Can I Help Parents Talk About Faith in the Midst of Normal Life?

While the average age of youth leaders is on the rise, many of you are likely not yet parents.  Or if you are parents, your kids are not yet teenagers, which is true of both of us. 

Like you, one of the great benefits of our experience in youth ministry is the hundreds of families that we have closely observed.  Regardless of your age or life stage, one of the best ways to cast a vision in your ministry for family faith discussions is to share stories of other innovative parents—either stories of parents in your ministry or stories of parents like those below. During the course of our research, our FYI team has been continually impressed with parents’ creativity in planting that same DNA in their own families.  In most cases, parents are simply weaving faith conversations through the everyday events of life (i.e., you’re going to have breakfast anyway, right?).


Breakfast Dates

One member of our team, Dr. Cheryl Crawford, talked with one dad of four daughters who took each of them out for a one-on-one breakfast date every week.  Yes, that’s four breakfast dates every week.  And he did that with them throughout middle school and high school.


Dinner Questions

On nights our (Kara’s) family has dinner together, we have a tradition of sharing our “highs” and “lows” of the day.  Because of what we’ve learned about Sticky Faith, we’ve added a third question:  how did you see God at work today?

The first time we added that question to our conversation, our seven year-old said quickly, “But I can’t answer that question.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I don’t have a job.” 

Once we explained that we meant, “How did you see God working today?” she realized she could be part of the discussion.

Often our kids don’t have an answer to that question, and that’s OK.  In fact, more important than the kids answering that question is that they hear Dave and me answer that question every day. 


TV as a Catalyst

A year ago we met Eileen, a mother of two teenagers who decided that when her kids have the TV on, she will sit and watch it with them, but she’s the one holding the remote.  During or after scenes that show something sexual or related to drugs or alcohol—or anything controversial or provocative for that matter—Eileen will hit the remote’s pause button, ask her kids questions, and share her own thoughts.  At times Eileen finds the best question to ask her kids is simply, “What should that character have done?” 

We asked Eileen if her kids ever roll their eyes at her questions and commentary.  “Sure, at times they do.  But sometimes we get into good conversations.  Like all parenting, I’m planting seeds.”


Post-High-School Haircut

The intentional effort, time, and thought parents have to pour into conversations with their kids doesn’t end when they graduate from high school. Recently we spoke with Rowena, whose college freshman son lives on campus at a university thirty minutes from their home.  When Rowena calls his cell phone, he’s often headed into class or on his way to lunch so he never seems to have much time to talk.  His occasional moodiness doesn’t help.

But he does need regular haircuts.  He likes the barber who cut his hair through high school but he doesn’t have a car at school so he can’t drive himself 30 minutes back home.  So this busy mom of three makes an effort every month to pick up her son at school, take him for a haircut, and then drive him back.

At first her husband objected, “This is silly.  He’s a college student.  He can get his own haircut.”

But then Rowena explained that it wasn’t about the haircut.  It was about the thirty minute car rides to and from the barber they had together – just the two of them.  

It is during the car rides that she gets the best glimpse of how her son is doing.  It was during a car ride that he mentioned that he had started attending Campus Crusade for Christ on his campus.  The thirty minute car rides give her son time to unpack his life.


Prayer Catalysts

If the parents of your teenagers haven’t already been talking about their faith, trying to ask specific questions will likely feel awkward and forced.  Encourage parents just getting started to try a simple question that a host of parents have found helpful:  How can I be praying for you?  Whether it’s by text, e-mail, phone, or in person, many parents find their kids’ answers to that question have helped them learn more about their lives than anything else. 


How Can I Set Up Parents to Succeed in Their Conversations?

Throughout our Sticky Faith research, we’ve gleaned a host of practical ideas you can leverage to help parents and kids talk about faith together.

Give Parents Regular Updates on Youth Culture.  Parents are eager for resources that can help them better understand and relate to their kids.  For parents confused by their kids’ behavior, monthly tips or resources you e-mail can both alleviate their anxiety and help them know how to better talk with their kids. 

Debrief big events with parents in person.  Tim Nielson, the youth pastor at Grace Chapel in Denver, decided he wanted to help his parents better debrief the annual winter retreat with their kids.  So he left the retreat one hour early to meet parents at his church an hour before the kids arrived.  He took this hour to share the spiritual highlights of the weekend and give parents questions they could ask their kids related to the Scriptures covered during the retreat.  As a bonus, since parents showed up an hour early, Tim and his team didn’t have to wait around for parents who were late to pick up their kids. 

E-mail debriefs as the second best option.  Often it’s not feasible for you to leave a major event early to debrief with parents (if you’re driving the church bus, it’s best not to delegate that to one of the kids).  If you don’t have a chance to meet with parents, send them a simple debrief sheet the day you get back with a summary of what God seems to be doing and a few questions they can try asking their kids.

Encourage parents to check in with you.  The more parents know what’s happening in their kids’ lives, the better their conversations.  Without betraying any kids’ confidences, welcome parents to touch base with you periodically so you can share how you see God working in their kid, as well as any concerns you might have.  Some youth ministries are even encouraging parents to schedule “Parent/Teacher Conferences” with the youth pastor just like they do at their kids’ school.

Take initiative with parents yourself.  Often the only time parents hear from us is when their kid is causing problems.  Build time into your calendar to call parents or send them e-mails letting them know what is happening with their own kids, empowering them to ask better questions as they try talking with their kids.   

Have parents share their testimonies with your ministry.  One urban youth leader regularly invites parents of her kids to share their testimonies with the entire youth ministry.  Not only does that make it more likely for that parent to have deeper conversations with their own kid afterwards, it also motivates other kids to go a bit deeper with their own parents.


What’s my role with parents who don’t yet know the Lord?  

The good news is that your kids can be a catalyst for their parents’ faith.  While you don’t want to pressure them or guilt them into feeling like it’s up to them to “convert” their parents, you can help your kids be involved in their parents’ journey by asking questions like:  What’s God doing with your mom?  What signs of openness are you seeing in your step-dad?  Just today I (Kara) had coffee with a youth leader whose mom became a Christian after she did in eighth grade.  We never know what or who the Lord will use to draw people to himself. 

In the meantime, kids who don’t come from Christian families should be at the top of your list of kids who need intentional mentoring and other intergenerational relationships.  Caring adults can help provide the spiritual scaffolding those kids need to grow.  In most cases, non-Christian parents also still very much want to know about the other adults involved in their kids’ lives too, so don’t skimp on communicating with them.


How do I help parents whose kid doesn’t want to talk to them? 

When we share with parents the importance of having good conversations with their kids, often one of them will sheepishly raise their hand and ask, “What do you do if your kid doesn’t want to talk to you?”

Every teenager goes through seasons when they don’t want to talk to their parents.  What varies is the length and intensity of the season.  The longer and more intense the season, the more creative the parents in your ministry need to be.

One mom desperately wanted to have meaningful conversations with her sixteen year-old son but he was completely uninterested.  The last thing he wanted to do was spend time talking with her. 

But he did love movies.  So she began scanning movie trailers, seeing which ones might be the most interesting for her to see with her son and hopefully talk about afterwards.  When those movies hit the theaters, she would offer to take her son.  He almost always accepted and they would usually have pretty good conversations on the drive home.

Plus we can’t assume that just because kids say they don’t want to talk to their parents, they really mean it.  We’ll never forget hearing the story of Jin, a pretty rough seventeen year-old whose single dad sent her to a Christian school in hopes that it would “straighten her out”.  Whether it was because her friends were going or because Jin started warming up, she signed up for the school’s spring break mission trip to Guatemala.

Jin ended up sitting on the flight down next to Joe, the school’s campus pastor.  For the first few hours, Jin was her normal tough self.  She put on her earphones and mostly ignored Joe.  He tried to ask her questions about her family but Jin summarized her relationship with her dad by saying, “I asked him to leave me alone.  And he has.” 

Throughout the mission trip, the Lord worked in Jin and she softened.  By the end of the trip, she confessed to Joe through her tears, “I wish my dad had not done what I asked.  I wish he hadn’t left me alone.”

Jin, so do we. 



  1. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York:  Oxford Press, 2005), 56.
  2. Listen to the “Soul Searching” panel discussion from March 2008.
  3. Search describes their study of 11,000 teenagers from 561 congregations across 6 denominations in the Search Institute research report, Effective Christian Education:  A National Study of Protestant Congregations, 1990.

The Church Sticking Together

The Vital Role of Intergenerational Relationships in Fostering Sticky Faith

Oct 17, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

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

Wouldn’t it be great to find the youth ministry silver bullet?

Neither of us has seen (or used) an actual silver bullet. In our culture today, the silver bullet has become synonymous for a sure thing.

The problem is, sure things in youth ministry are rare. Programs come and go, as do communication channels and strategies for reaching kids on the margins. Who would have guessed the power of online social media a few years back or the number of middle schoolers in our groups who use smart phones?

While sure things are rare, one phenomenon that is not as rare as we would hope is students leaving the faith after they graduate from our youth ministries. As we have examined other research, our conclusion is that 40 to 50 percent of kids who are connected to a youth group when they graduate high school will fail to stick with their faith in college. 1

Let’s translate that statistic to the kids in your youth ministry.

Imagine the seniors in your youth ministry standing in a line and facing you. Now, imagine that you ask them to count off by twos, just like you used to do on the playground to divide into teams. The ones will stick with their faith; the twos will shelve it.

In an effort to understand this drop off as well as give youth leaders, churches and families tools they need to help kids develop more lasting faith, we at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) launched the College Transition Project. As we were planning our College Transition Project six years ago, 2 our FYI research team hoped to find one thing that youth workers could do that would be the silver bullet for sticky faith; the one thing that would develop long-term faith in students. We hoped to find one element of youth ministry programming (e.g., small groups, mentoring, justice work) that would be significantly related to higher faith maturity in students. This silver bullet would launch our high school graduates on a journey of faith that would help them not only survive but thrive across the transition to college and life beyond.

We haven’t found that silver bullet. While small groups, mentoring, justice work, leadership and a host of other youth ministry programs are important, the reality is that kids, ministry programs and spiritual development are far more complex than that.

Intergenerational Stickiness

It turns out that intergenerational relationships are one key to building lasting faith in students. Silver bullet? No. Helpful if we want students to live their faith beyond high school? Absolutely.

Sadly, many high school students lack these significant relationships. In our effort to offer relevant and developmentally appropriate teaching and fellowship for teenagers, we have segregated (and we use that verb intentionally but not lightly) students from the rest of the church. In interviews and open-ended survey questions, participants shared reflections like this one: “The students seemed to be very separated from the rest of the congregation. Maybe fixing that gap would help unite the church.”

That segregation causes students to shelve their faith. Our study of nearly 500 youth group graduates from around the country has revealed the following important insights about the power of intergenerational relationships in building sticky faith:

Intergenerational Insight #1: Involvement in all-church worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation.

The closest our research has come to that definitive silver bullet is this sticky finding: High school and college students who experience more intergenerational worship tend to have higher faith maturity. Of the many youth group participation variables we examined, involvement in intergenerational worship and relationships had one of the most robust correlations with faith maturity. This is true for our students’ senior year of high school and their freshman year of college.

Intergenerational Insight #2: The more students serve and build relationships with younger children, the more likely it is that their faith will stick.

Granted, some of your teenagers opt to serve in children’s ministry because they want to avoid going to the regular service. And sure, others volunteer because their schools require service hours.

Yet, even in the midst of these mixed motives, the high school students we surveyed who served in middle school or children’s ministry seemed to have stickier faith in college. Part of that is probably due to the type of student who is likely to volunteer to serve younger children, but nonetheless, more than just babysitting, being involved in children’s ministry seems to be faith building.

Intergenerational Insight #3: High school seniors don’t feel supported by adults in their congregations.

As a research team, we weren’t all that surprised that, of five major sources of support (adults in the congregation, parents, youth workers, friends in youth group and friends outside youth group), high school seniors ranked adults in the congregation last.

What did surprise us was how far behind they were the other four groups. One graduate reported that his church “would talk about having students involved, but they never really did.” Another reflected that church members “wanted nothing to do with us… I think they see us as kind of scary in that we’re the people on the news, you know, who are dealing drugs and getting pregnant and all those sort of things…keeping us separate and treating us like we were a hazard.”

Intergenerational Insight #4: By far, the number-one way that churches made the teens in our survey feel welcomed and valued was when adults in the congregation showed interest in them.

More than any single program or event, kids were far more likely to feel like a significant part of their local churches when adults made the effort to get to know them. One student beamed as he said, “We were welcomed not just in youth group; we were welcomed into other parts of the ministry of the church: the worship team on Sunday mornings, teaching Sunday school to kids and helping with cleaning and serving. All these other types of things really just brought the youth in and made them feel like they had a place and even feel like they were valued as individuals.”

Becoming a 5:1 Church

One of the goals we give churches that want to take sticky faith seriously is to reconsider the traditional 5:1 ratio. 3 Many youth ministries say they want to have a 1:7 ratio of adults to kids on their winter retreats (meaning they want one adult for every seven kids), or a 1:5 ratio of adults to kids for their small groups. But what if we reversed that? What if we said we want a 5:1 adult-to-kid ratio in our youth ministries?

Before you panic because you think you’re now supposed to recruit five small-group leaders for every one kid and you’re already having a hard enough time recruiting one adult for every five kids, please relax. We’re not talking about five small-group leaders. We’re talking about five adults who are willing to commit to investing in one teenager in little, medium and big ways. Here’s how we have seen churches embrace 5:1 through a variety of creative paths.

Put a 5:1 Twist on Existing Programs

The good news is that, as you intentionally move your programs toward 5:1, you don’t have to start from scratch. Your youth ministry and your church already host events that, with some careful planning, could easily become more intergenerational. Consider these possibilities:

  •  Invite an adult Sunday school class to join your students on their next mission trip.
  • Reshape your youth baptism service into an all-church baptism service.
  • Invite students’ parents to your fall kick-off and prime your volunteers to invest relational time not only in students but parents too. • Encourage your high school guys’ small groups to attend annual men’s events (crawfish boil, steak fry, chili cook-off, whatever your church does).
  • Ask your women’s ministries if their upcoming events (like Saturday teas or ladies’ outings) can be geared for teenage and younger girls too.
  • Ask if your senior adult ministry would be open to pairing up with teenagers for the next food pantry program.

The bottom line is that, if you plan ahead, you can capitalize on momentum from existing events instead of starting them all from scratch. Whenever possible, invite the larger church body to get on board with your 5:1 vision, and explain that the goal is to build lasting faith in students.

5:1 Teaching

If you’re serious about sticky intergenerational relationships, you probably will need to launch a few new catalysts for 5:1. One excellent opportunity for new 5:1 dialogue is your Sunday teaching. Odds are good that you’ve got adults and kids sitting in Sunday school rooms, separated only by a few walls (and, as a youth worker, you hope those walls have really good sound insulation). What if you periodically removed those walls and invited kids and adults to experience God’s Word together?

5:1 Worship

We’ve heard from many innovative churches about how they are involving students in congregational worship—often after many years of segregated Sunday programming. A few churches have even canceled Sunday morning youth ministry in order to bring generations together in worship.

A church from St. Louis we dialogued with recently wants adults and kids to experience the same worship service every week, yet they also want to make sure their teenagers feel connected to their peers. So, every Sunday after the intergenerational worship service ends, the high school students meet for 30-45 minutes to talk about how to live out the sermon that next week at school. That way, students know they’ll have a focused, lively conversation every week with their friends.

In an effort to bring a sticky intergenerational flavor to their morning worship, one Denver church decided to make their youth choir the choir for the main Sunday morning service. They were initially concerned that the service would shrink down to teenagers and their parents, but the opposite happened. Their 11:00 worship service became one of the most popular services. Adults who had invested in those kids throughout their childhood and adolescent years couldn’t wait to have the teenagers lead them in music worship.

We’re not advocating that churches cancel their Sunday youth groups or disband their adult choirs. Churches must do what they feel is appropriate for their own contexts. Every church should ask the simple question, “How can we increase adult-teen interaction during worship?”

5:1 Mentoring

Many churches include mentoring in their 5:1 paths. Through these empowering relationships, students are able to spend intentional time with adults who can impact and shape their spiritual journeys. The more adult mentors who seek out students and help them apply faith to daily life, the better. Among 13 different ways adults support high school kids, two variables stood out as significantly related to sticky faith over time: feeling sought out by adults and feeling like those adults “helped me to realistically apply my faith to my daily life." 4 Especially as we wrestle with how to train our staff and adult volunteers, helping kids connect the dots between their faith and their everyday lives should take priority if we’re looking for long-term impact.

On one all-church retreat we heard about, participants were encouraged to find one person from a different age group and strike up a conversation. Participants were challenged to keep this conversation going once a week for six weeks. Carlos, a ninth grader, and Belinda, his grandmother’s age, connected on that retreat and committed to the six-week trial. Six months later, they still get together to talk regularly.

Some youth leaders, realizing that the adults in their congregation are too busy to meet regularly with a teenager, have offered less intensive 5:1 connections. One church in our Sticky Faith Learning Cohort in Pasadena is asking adults for a few hours per year to connect with a kid based on a mutual interest, such as gardening, cooking or auto repair. Another Texas church in our cohort identified members who could meet weekly with graduating seniors for a few months. That limited time commitment created great success in connecting youth group students with innovative and godly congregation members of all ages.

Another church in our learning cohort has decided that they are already a multigenerational congregation—everyone gathers together in the same space at the same time. But they aren’t satisfied with being multigenerational. They want to truly become intergenerational, focusing their worship, budget, priorities and language around what it means to connect with one another in mutuality across age groups. One practical way they are addressing this shift is changing the way they talk about mentoring. They’ve determined that mentor/mentee language can be a hindrance because it implies a multigenerational, top-down relationship. The kind of 5:1 relationships they hope to foster are rooted in mutual influence, where old and young shape one another in profound ways.

5:1 Rituals

San Clemente Presbyterian Church had already embraced the importance of intergenerational relationships before FYI started our research. As a result, while other churches are taking 5:1 baby steps, they are sprinting ahead.

When students graduate from sixth grade, they’re presented with a Bible with inscriptions from their parents and other friends of the family. When those same students enter junior high, they are taken on a confirmation retreat and officially become members of the San Clemente body.

At the beginning of their senior year of high school, students hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite with the youth pastor, the youth ministry volunteers and the senior pastor. According to Dr. Tod Bolsinger, the senior pastor, “This tradition is so important, I have parents of elementary-age children telling me to keep in shape so I can take their children on this rite of passage hiking experience.” 5]]

At the end of their senior year, the church hosts a blessing ceremony for all high school students, graduating seniors, parents and congregation members. These sorts of annual rituals shape both the DNA of the church as well as the sticky faith of the students.

The Role of Parents in 5:1

When we speak with groups of parents about 5:1, we often feel them look in the direction of their youth pastors, as if it’s the leaders’ job to build a 5:1 web for their kids. However, parents should assume the primary responsibility for linking their kids with five or more caring adults. The youth worker’s role is to come alongside parents as partners in the process, only taking the lead when parents aren’t able to create the needed 5:1 strands.     A few months ago I (Kara) met a single mom who understood that she was ultimately responsible for surrounding her son with loving adults, especially men who could fill the void created by his absent father. This mom had a brilliant idea for helping her son visualize their family’s sticky web. In the hallway between their bedrooms, this mom has hung a few large collage picture frames, each of which has several openings for pictures. As her son builds a relationship with an adult—especially with a man—she takes a picture of her son with that adult. Then she places those pictures in her frames to remind them of the amazing adults already surrounding their family. The blank picture frames that are yet unfilled reinforce that there are more enriching 5:1 relationships still to come.

Help parents connect the dots between their kids’ faith and the influence their kids’ coaches, teachers and neighbors have on them from week to week. When we meet with our own kids’ teachers for parent-teacher conferences, we now share our vision for bringing adults around our kids to help them flourish in all of life and ask how we can support their roles within that web. Another parent told us that she has committed to gather the parents of all the kids in her son’s small group at the beginning of each school year for a barbecue. She wants to encourage them to pray together for their kids and to begin to look for ways to invite each other into the circles of influence around their kids.

From Silver Bullets to Red Rover

Building sticky faith into your students is a complex process. But as students are released into a web of relationships where they are shaped and changed by the lives of the people in your congregation, research shows encouraging signs that this helps faith stick. Think of your 5:1 strategy like a targeted Red Rover game, where you exercise your passion as a youth leader to call upon adults you know and trust to enter the very high calling of shaping the life of a student. No silver bullet. No magic wand. Just living out Jesus’ call to make disciples.

  1. In September 2006, the Barna Group released their observation that “the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings—61 percent of today’s young adults—had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged” (Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” The Barna Group, September 16, 2006). According to a Gallup Poll, approximately 40 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds who attended church at age sixteen or seventeen are no longer attending (George H. Gallup, Jr. “The Religiosity Cycle,” The Gallup Poll, October 19, 2006. Frank Newport, “A Look at Religious Switching in America Today,” The Gallup Poll, October 19, 2006. A 2007 survey by LifeWay Research of over one thousand adults ages eighteen to thirty who spent a year or more in youth group during high school suggests that more than 65 percent of young adults who attend a Protestant church for at least a year in high school will stop attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. (LifeWay, “LifeWay Research Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church,” LifeWay Christian Resources, In this study, respondents were not necessarily those who had graduated from youth group as seniors. In addition, the research design did not factor in parachurch or on-campus faith communities in their definition of college “church” attendance. Data from the National Study of Youth and Religion published in 2009 indicate an approximate 30 percent drop in frequent religious service attendance across multiple Protestant denominations. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults [New York: Oxford University Press, 2009]). Fuller Youth Insititute’s estimate that 40 to 50 percent of high school graduates will fail to stick with their faith is based on a compilation of data from these various studies.
  2. The College Transition Project is a culmination of six years of study of 500 youth group students as they transition into college, including two three-year longitudinal studies and two interview studies. The goals of this research are to offer help to parents, leaders and churches in building a faith that lasts, or “sticky faith.” See our About page for more details.
  3. This vision was inspired by the research of our friend and colleague Chap Clark.
  4. Note that these weren’t just what students chose as most important to them but what seemed to have the strongest connection to the faith variables in our survey. Erika C. Knuth, Intergenerational connections and faith development in late adolescence, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Theological Seminary, Graduate School of Psychology, 2010).
  5. See David Fraze, “A Church in the Intergenerational HOV Lane,” FYI E-Journal, February 2, 2009,

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).