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).

Natural Mentoring for Real Impact

Oct 03, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

When I was in high school our youth pastor decided that it would be a good idea if we utilized the large number of seniors in our congregation—and I don't mean high school seniors—to pray for our youth.  I was paired up with a delightful man named Irving, who would come up to chat with me most Sundays and ask if there was any way he could be praying for me in the coming weeks.  Even after I moved away to college he would ask through my parents how he could be praying.

I was in seminary when I found out that Irving had died, and while I can't honestly say he had a deep, obvious impact on my life or faith, it still felt sad, and a little strange, to know that there was one less person in the world who cared about me enough to pray for me.

In contrast, when I was a college junior our campus ministry staff decided it would be a good idea if more students were being mentored. 

They proceeded to pair up local alums or volunteers with whichever students were interested in such an opportunity.  I don't remember the name of the guy I got paired with, which pretty much tells you the sort of deep impact he had on my life.  We met a couple of times for awkward conversation, and then he stopped emailing me—which really was sort of a relief. 

Two experiences of mentorship; one positive, one negative, yet neither with much formative impact.  Is there a better way?

Mentoring Across the Spectrum

In his book Connecting, Fuller guru Bobby Clinton outlines a spectrum of mentorship.  He argues that it is unrealistic and counterproductive to expect every mentoring relationship to be what normally comes to mind when we think of “mentoring”—that is, formal, consistent, intense, and one-on-one.  Instead, most people experience their mentoring relationships taking a variety of forms and intensities depending on the situation.  For more on this model, see this article

The spectrum model has some application for youth ministry, especially since it's a win to have as many positive adult relationships as possible in an adolescent's life, and not all adults can commit to a time-intensive form of mentoring.  However, the reality is—and as we will see, research is bearing this out—that some of the most important things in the life of an adolescent (including faith and identity formation) happen best in the context of consistent, long-term relationships with adults.

Mentoring Relationships: Necessary but Largely Absent

One of Fuller professor Chap Clark's main findings in his research on adolescents in the last decade has been that adolescents have largely been abandoned by adults to make their own way to adulthood.  It isn't going well.  "There are at least two consequences," Clark writes, "of parental and adult abandonment.  First, the adolescent journey is lengthened, because no one is available to help move the development process along.  Second, adolescents know that they are essentially on their own." 1 One of the primary things the church can be doing to help youth in their adolescent journey is to reverse this abandonment.

Sociologist Christian Smith and Princeton professor Kenda Creasy Dean, giving us yet more motivation, have found that the main predictor of the quality of faith in an adolescent is the quality of faith in the significant adults in their lives. Says Dean about the National Study of Youth and Religion’s findings: "[The study's] most incontrovertible finding is that parents generally 'get what they are,' in religion as in most things." 2   For many, this means their faith is less than robust.  Quality faith formation just isn't happening naturally in most kids' lives, which is something of a problem for those of us in the Church.

This finding has been corroborated by the research being done by FYI in the College Transition Project.  One of the main predictors they have found of "Sticky Faith" is significant, lasting relationships with adults from the church. In fact, contact with adults from the church both inside and outside the youth ministry is connected with stronger faith up to three years after high school. 3   If we are going to take all this research seriously, it is clear that providing our youth with quality adult relationships may be the single thing most likely to have a lasting impact on their faith.

What Matters Most in Mentoring Teenagers?

It isn't, however, just any adult-adolescent relationship that works this sort of magic (as my own experience clearly attests).  In a recent unpublished dissertation based on FYI’s research, Erika Knuth writes that the two aspects of adult-student relationships that matter the most for faith formation in the first three years beyond high school are 1) that the adult sought out the student, and 2) that the content of their conversations included applying faith concretely to everyday life. 4   Relationships matter for developing an adolescent's faith, but only if these relationships are pursued by adults and intentionally focused on applying faith. 

In another unpublished dissertation, Jason Lanker argues that there is another component to successful mentoring relationships: how they are formed in the first place.  Specifically, they should be natural, not forced.  He writes, "Formal, or assigned, mentoring relationships simply show little significant impact in the lives of adolescents," and can actually be "more harmful than helpful" since they are more likely to be short-lived. 5

Instead, Lanker contends that the most effective mentoring relationship, according to the latest research on adolescents, is one that arises naturally out of an adult's interactions with a teenager and lasts for the long haul, often ten years or more.  Usually this sort of long-term, natural interaction happens with friends of the family.  But the church, Lanker writes, can also be an ideal place for such relationships to form.  This is true both because adults and adolescents are part of the same faith community, and because the church offers the opportunity for long-term relationships to form that stick with an adolescent well after high school graduation. 

When I was in high school, I started to realize, as some adolescents do, that I didn't want to talk to my parents about, well, anything.  My best friend's parents, the Fergusons, became for me a sort of surrogate family.  I would be almost as likely to end up in a long conversation with Jeanette or Steve as I would with their kids in my times at the Ferguson house, and I wasn't the only one who could say that.  I would guess that when a group of us was hanging out in their house, most of the parents' time was spent in deep conversation with at least one of us.  This pattern continued long past high school, and I even remember college grads coming back to "visit Adam" who would actually end up sitting in the kitchen with Adam's mom until it was time to go. The Fergusons modeled this type of informal, long-term mentoring for us.

Youth Ministry that Mentors

So what does this mean for youth ministry?  Well, the good news is that it doesn't necessarily mean adding another formal program.  In fact, the research shows that is generally the opposite of what we should do.  However, researchers and likely our own experience would tell us that these sorts of relationships do not, in fact, just happen either.  Perhaps some kids are lucky enough to have friends of the family who drop right in and take them under their wing, ready to have significant conversations about life and faith that will continue long into the future, but this is hardly the norm.  What then is the alternative, if not a new program or just letting things happen?

I would suggest that if we truly want this sort of mentoring to take place for our youth, then we need to be working at the informal, culture-making level of our communities.  In other words, this type of mentoring needs real leadership from us if it has any hope of happening consistently. 

Rather than creating a formal program, we, and/or others with a heart for this cause, need to be constantly in the ears of our congregations' adults, talking about the importance of these types of relationships.  We need to be casting a vision for what it would look like if the adults in our community were on the lookout for kids with whom they could form natural, lasting, impactful relationships.  And we need to be putting significant thought into how we could create environments in which these sorts of relationships might grow.  Research shows that these relationships happen most often in relaxed, unforced contexts, where we can help adults and kids "find shared activity that [they] are both drawn to." 6

Is building a church culture in which these sorts of mentoring relationships form going to be easy?  Not a chance.  However, this kind of culture does have the potential to create significant, long-lasting impact on the students in your ministry for years to come.  I don't know how to make this work in your context, but if the research is right—and it has been pretty consistent—then I can't think of much else that is more worth trying.  How amazing would it be if we had churches full of Fergusons, each committed to a handful of kids, seeing them through the rocky adolescent years?  This is a vision worth pursuing.

Youth Workers Respond

FYI asked a few seasoned youth workers to add their reflections and responses to this research on youth mentoring, as well as to share practical ways they have tried to foster natural mentoring relationships in their contexts. Below are some of their thoughts:

Keegan Lenker, Pasadena First Church of the Nazarene, Pasadena, California:

One thing that has seemed to work for us in developing natural mentoring has been the relationships fostered in our past two years of intergenerational mission trips. These have required significant training with the adults, but when people have come together to work alongside and give their lives away together, it has fostered amazing relationships for us. Most of these relationships have continued when we get home. For example, one of the senior adults who participated in these trips has now become the surrogate grandfather to a few students, and their parents are thrilled to have another adult who is walking alongside them.

Josh Bishop, Mars Hill Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan:

Our student ministry has several layers of belonging that allow for multiple adult relationships—both formal and natural.
1. Small community: Every student is in a LifeGroup (small group of 6-10 same gender, same grade students). Each LifeGroup has two leaders who we train as and call pastors.  This is the formal mentoring relationship. We have two leaders in each group for several reasons, but one of them is that it gives each student two opportunities to form a good connection with an adult.
2. Medium-size community: Every student is in a Family, which is made up of all students from their grade.  Each Family has two Class Pastors—one of each gender—who are residents in our internship program. Class Pastors teach and lead activities sometimes, but their primary role is to pastor their Family and the individuals in it. Class pastors try to have a relationship with everyone in their Family, and typically form deeper relationships with a few students. This gives every student a more natural chance to form a connection with an adult.
3. Large community:  Every student is part of the large group where they interact mostly with staff pastors and some interns/residents.  Students who desire to have a deeper relationship with them often form a natural relationship with staff pastors.

Hal Hamilton, First United Methodist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma:

In a previous church we had a young couple who started several new traditions when they began a Sunday School class for other young couples.  One was to meet at their house on Sunday evenings for popcorn and hanging out.  Another was to pray in the New Year together. That couple is now close to 50 years old.  What no one anticipated is the impact of those times together as those families had children and raised them together.  Their children grew up valuing the network of relationships and allowing the other parents to speak into their lives.  As they became teens, they brought their friends into the circle. And the adults never gained the fear of "other" teenagers that most adults have. Now most of those children are in college or high school.  And most of those adults have spent at least a decade of volunteer ministry with teens.  When I recently visited the home on a New Year's Eve, I was amazed at the crowd of college students who were hanging out together with the adults and who continued to drop in throughout the evening to make a connection.


R.O. Smith. Bel Air Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, California:

We set up a senior mentoring program, ideally connecting high school seniors with adults they already know and feel connected with (e.g. their Confirmation mentor from earlier years, or an adult they connected with at Family Camp).  But our reality is that we often have to join up a student and adult “cold”. One of our seniors this year is on our worship band and is really into music. My guess is he would want to be a performer one day; it runs in the family. We paired him up with a mentor who is a professional musician, has led worship for students in the past, and has a desire to get involved in the lives of students. They have just started meeting, so the results of this are still out. But if we have to go the “cold” route, we try to match up students and mentors with common backgrounds and similar interests.


Nate Roskam, Nampa First Church of the Nazarene, Nampa, Idaho:

We currently have a dynamic weekly mentoring structure that is both formal and informal at the same time.  For us, our Life Groups have become a key descriptor of our culture. These formalized groups are focused intentionally on making Jesus Lord, emphasizing relationships, and thinking long-term about both. We train our leaders to see the value of a long-term commitment and the value of participating with their group, not just "leading" or even "facilitating" it. The best compliment our leaders can get goes something like, "Julie doesn't just ask us the 5 questions and critique or correct us, she answers them herself and asks us to hold her accountable!"

In many cases, we’ve seen that when the formal nature of the relationships has stopped, the relationships themselves continue. From our experience, bringing the "informal" heart into a "formal-ish" relationship can be a beautiful and unifying way to escort in a new paradigm and culture.

Jesse Oakes, Lake Avenue Church, Pasadena, California:

We have tried to foster ways students and adults can find a commonly enjoyable, easily
accessible activity or environment for adults and students to navigate together. For example, I'm mentoring two guys on a weekly basis right now, one of whom I met on
a service night at church. The other is the first guy's friend, whom he referred after a few months. On that service night, there were a few of us picking up trash. It gave me a chance to ask about life and faith in a small setting, where we also had an activity to distract us that didn't take up all of our brain power.

Another example is how we shifted our Spring Break trips.  Last year we hosted weekend gender-based retreats (guys only, girls only, in separate places). On the guys’ retreat, there was a lot of exercising, hiking, hanging out, campfire-ing, etc., which created natural venues for relationships to form between the high school guys and the older guys we invited along. We found it to be an easy invite for non-youth-staff guys, because they could come to be a part of football, hiking, or BBQ, rather than just "come and be around kids and try to befriend them."

Action Points:

  • Have you seen natural mentoring relationships in your church?  Where?  How did they form? Is that context repeatable?  What can you glean from those success stories that could be transferable to helping form other such relationships? 7
  • Who else in your church needs to be on your side to make this happen?  Set up lunch with them and go after them with both barrels to get them on your side.  You need other, powerful advocates beside you to make this happen.
  • What are you already doing as a youth group that could be tweaked to increase the chances of mentoring relationships naturally forming?  Can you train your volunteers to look for this sort of opportunity and to keep seeking kids out long past graduation?  Can you tweak your retreats or events to increase the likelihood of shared experiences where these relationships form? Can you offer opportunities for volunteers to naturally start talking about applying faith to life?


  1. Clark, Chap, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004, p. 53.
  2. Dean, Kenda Creasy, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 39.
  3. See Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 78.
  4. Knuth, Erika, Intergenerational Connections and Faith Development in Adolescence, Unpublished Dissertation from the Fuller Theological Seminary Graduate School of Psychology, 2010, p. 17.
  5. Lanker, Jason, The Relationship Between Mid-Adolescent Natural Mentoring and the Christian Spirituality of North American First-Year Christian College Students, Unpublished Dissertation from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, 2009, p. 5.
  6. Ibid, p. 13.
  7. This idea, "find the bright spots", is step one in the change process laid out by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch, I'd suggest reading it before trying to make a move of this magnitude; besides, it's a fun read.  Plus - lucky you! - FYI just included a review of the book in a recent e-journal, which you can find here.

The Jacket

2.5-Minute Video for Students

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

Questions for Discussion

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



40+ Ways to Build Sticky Faith in Your Grandkids

Tips for Senior Adults

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Create a drama of a Bible story with your grandkids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serve together at a local ministry.

Feed folks who are homeless together.

Play games with your grandchildren.

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

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

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

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

Build something with your grandchildren. 

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


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

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

Have breakfast together once a week using Skype or FaceTime.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Action Points:

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

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

Book Review

Sep 19, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

I Heart Change

For most people, change is difficult. 

I learned this the hard way when the youth team at my church and I decided to switch up some programming in the high school Sunday morning experience and kids revolted, threatening to start a petition within the group to get things changed back to the “old way.”  This was hysterically amusing to me, first because we are not a government agency, and second, last time I checked circulating a petition was not the best way to handle relational conflict.  But perhaps more importantly, I was shocked at the strong resistance to change. 

Admittedly, I sit on the opposite end of the spectrum of most people on this issue – I love change.  To me the absolute worst reason for continuing to do something is because “We’ve always done it this way.”  In fact, this usually motivates me to push for change even more.  But over the years I have seen how hard change is for many people and have learned that there are better ways to approach change than my preferred rip-the-band-aid-off technique. 

Recently a colleague introduced me to a book entitled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  This colleague and I had joined forces on a project that we were both passionate about and that we thought was a great opportunity for our church congregation to participate in.  Unfortunately, the timing was not quite right to engage in the project.  Although this was disappointing, I learned a lot along the way, especially about change. 

If I thought it was difficult for high schoolers to adjust to a shift in programming, I had no idea what we were up against in the change-resistant forces of a church congregation with over fifty years of history.  For a change-lover like me, I am inclined to give up; why spend time rearranging the chairs on the Titanic?  Yet there is a richer, deeper lesson to be learned that comes from a commitment to relationship even when it feels like my perspective is overlooked.  The book Switch helped me see past my frustration with change-haters and to understand the process of change in a different way.  Here I would love to share with you some of the main research findings and implications of the book and what I learned along the way.

The Elephant and the Rider

The basic thesis of Switch is that by uniting the rational mind (that craves change) and the emotional mind (that loves comfort), dramatic and sweeping change can take place despite having few resources and little structural authority.  The authors describe the emotional side as an Elephant and the rational side as its Rider.  The Rider seems to be in control holding the reins, but many times it is actually the Elephant who calls the shots.  Anytime the Rider and the Elephant disagree on which direction to go, it is inevitably the six-ton Elephant who will get his way when push comes to shove.  While it might be easy to place blame on the Elephant, both parties have benefits and challenges of their own.  The Rider is able to think long-term and can see past instant gratification, yet at the same time the Rider has a tendency to overanalyze and spin his wheels, leading to a lack of clarity that ends up taking the Elephant in circles.  The Elephant, while he may be lazily looking for an easy payoff, embodies a strong emotional instinct.  In the end, the strength of the Elephant is what gets things done. 

The changes we made to the high school Sunday morning program involved a shift in the teaching time from a large group lecture style curriculum to small group discussion-based learning.  I could list reasons all day long for why this was a better use of our teaching time: an opportunity to build deeper relationships, an increase in real-life application of the material, even the cognitive structure of adolescent brain development.  Yet these appeals to the Rider were no match for the Elephant, who was more interested in the comfortable large group setting that involved donuts, flirting and falling asleep during the lesson.  Somehow we had to get the Elephant and the Rider to move together.  To do this, Switch suggests ways to Direct the Rider, Motivate the Elephant and Shape the Path.

Direct the Rider

The key to Directing the Rider is twofold: follow the bright spots and script the critical moves.  First, the Rider is a visionary and is willing to make short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.  By looking for the bright spots in the things that need to be changed, a more organic solution can be found.  So many times in ministry it is easier to determine the things that are not going well.  We vividly remember the fall kick-off that was barely attended or the teaching that ended up creating more confusion.  Yet more likely than not, there are plenty of things that are going well.  The idea here is to find those bright places – the parent meeting that miraculously connected volunteers to families or the genius e-newsletter that created faith conversations at home – and build on those successes.  We might be frustrated when 38% of students have not turned in camp forms on time, but what worked for the 62% whose forms were completed?  In times of change the bright spots need to sparkle in order to ignite hope.

Second, sometimes change is difficult because of decision paralysis.  When there are so many choices, even excellent options, the simple act of making a decision can be overwhelming.  So much so that it seems easier to not make a choice (and not make a change).  Instead, provide direct easy-to-follow instructions.  By scripting these critical moves we can create a simple path that provides step-by-step instructions towards the greater vision.  Eating healthy is a great goal but can be ambiguous and feel unattainable.  Yet eating a salad a few times a week is an actionable item that guides the eater toward the greater goal.

Before making the sweeping change we did in the Sunday morning program, it would have been wise for us to stop and find what was working in the old model.  One bright spot was the sense of community that students felt by having the teaching time together in one large group.  By switching to small group teaching, students felt fragmented.  We also lacked judgment in scripting the critical moves, since there wasn’t really anything that was scripted!  We had reasons for the change, but we did not lead students into the change step-by-step.  We certainly could have avoided a lot of heartache.

Motivate the Elephant

The most important thing about the Elephant is to keep it moving, which requires motivation that comes from the confidence that change is attainable.  The elephant can get super lazy super fast, so it is imperative that the Elephant is persuaded to move ahead.  Heath and Heath describe this as “finding the feeling,” noting the difference between the processes of ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE and SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.  Remember, the Elephant is driven by emotions, especially positive emotions like joy and fun.  Many times we introduce change from a good news / bad news perspective, hoping the bad news outweighs the good.  For example, “Unfortunately we will not be going to the water park today, but we set up a sprinkler instead.”  Finding the feeling is like distracting a toddler when she is headed the wrong way.  Jingle an enticing toy in her direction and suddenly she forgot about the glass of water she was about to knock over. 

In addition to finding the feeling, the authors suggest to “shrink the change.”  This involves breaking the big change into bite-size pieces of little changes.  Once the tiny changes begin to feel like mini-victories, the next steps seem more attainable.  This method is especially helpful for the change-averse.  It is even more effective if somehow through the smaller victories the bigger change becomes their idea.  If I had more patience in the Sunday morning program change, we could have set up opportunities for students to meet in small groups at other times and promoted a positive experience.  Then through numerous conversations with students and volunteers, we could have pitched the idea to get their feedback.  This would have allowed them to have a voice in the process, instead of feeling like it was an us-against-them situation.

Shape the Path

So far we have seen that the Rider needs direction and the Elephant needs motivation.  The final part of the process addresses shaping the path.  If we want people to change, we can provide a clear assignment (Rider) and boost their determination (Elephant).  Finally we can also make the journey easier by tweaking the environment.  We already do this on a daily basis in ministry.  We put the couches on the front row of the youth room instead of begging kids to sit closer.  We provide food at almost every event or program to make the parent schedule a bit more manageable.  Now we just need to apply this ingenuity to specific areas of potential change. 

By tweaking the environment we can also influence people into building habits.  This is why there is a Starbucks on every corner of Los Angeles and consequently why many of us find ourselves in one almost every day of the week.  In our high school Sunday morning program, we eventually tweaked the environment to be more conducive to small group teaching times by providing comfortable rooms to meet in.  Over time students came to value the relational attention they received as a result of a smaller group.  We could have eased this transition by making the small group meeting rooms a highlight of the change from the beginning.

Worth the Wait

For the Sunday morning program we eventually found common ground between the change-lovers and the change-averse.  Since our method of ripping-the-band-aid-off left students feeling fragmented and uncared for, we adjusted our change to include one Sunday a month with everyone together.  This helped rebuild some of the relational capital that we had lost with students since they felt that we had pulled a fast one on them. 

Since this negative experience of change, we have been much more sensitive to the needs of our group when things need to switch.  We consider the Elephant and the Rider and we view change as an ongoing journey of teeny-tiny influences in direction, rather than dramatic transformation all at once.  The change-lover in me still winces at this slower technique, but I’ve learned my lesson: long-term change is worth the wait.

Action Points

  • Identify a time you have made a change that didn’t work so well.  Using the ideas from Switch, what could you have done differently to introduce the change?
  • What is one big change you are planning to make in the next six months? Take that change and break it down according to the principles from Switch.  Identify the points of consideration that need to be made for the Elephant, Rider, and the environment.
  • Before you attempt your next big change, consider getting your team together to read Switch and develop a plan based on insights from your discussions of the book.

Sticky Faith Deployed

Helping Students Prepare Faith for Military Service

Sep 05, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by Kelly West Mars.

Each year, parents and youth workers alike send off high school graduates to serve in the military. While much of our research at FYI has been focused on Sticky Faith in college and beyond, we have been well aware of the need to explore how faith can be nurtured for graduates who head off to service in one of the armed forces.

FYI Advisory Council member Mark Maines serves as a U.S. Naval Chaplain, currently assigned to the United States Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan.  We recently asked Mark to help us understand some of the unique issues facing military personnel and their families and how we can both prepare and support those who leave our homes and ministries with faith that sticks.

How would you describe the current spiritual landscape of military personnel, as you have experienced it?

I can only speak for what I have encountered here in Okinawa, and Okinawa is a bit unusual.  For instance, many of the Marines and Sailors I work with are here on their first tour straight out of boot camp. Immediately, many young men and women find themselves away from home, having to adjust to the military lifestyle, their new assignment, and a foreign culture.  This is often a hard adjustment.

There are many parallels between this adjustment and the transition one makes into a college setting.  It’s a time of great autonomy, it’s a time to explore values and behaviors, and it’s a time to be away from home.  At first glance, the Marine Corps can appear to be a fairly “godless” environment.  However, I have encountered numerous young Marines who are involved in Bible studies, committed to their faith, and committed to modeling a righteous kind of life while in the Corps. 

What does “Sticky Faith” look like for a new military member?  What are some of the common features you have seen among those whose faith seems to survive the transition well?

Connecting to a faith community is monumental in helping faith “stick” in this environment.  Marines are, well…Marines.  They are warriors.  They pride themselves on being the “first to fight” and they are the best in the world at it.  Generally speaking, Marines don’t do well “in garrison.”  They are trained to be at war, and so when Marines are in a location either waiting to be deployed, or waiting for war to occur, sometimes things can get a little out of hand.  This is what makes connecting to a community (even just 2-3) of like-minded people so important.  The service members whose faith seems to be thriving are also the individuals who have connected with other service members who are taking their faith seriously. 

I am reminded of the passage in Ecclesiastes 4, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

The Marine Corps understands “strength in numbers” as solid war-fighting doctrine; however, it is also spiritual wisdom when it comes to helping faith stick.

What else have you seen that helps faith stick for high school graduates entering the military? 

The presence of a mentor also makes a remarkable difference in service members’ lives.  In the particular regiment I serve, which supports about 1,300 Marines, there is a strong mentorship program that covers everything from core values, physical fitness, financial wellbeing, to marital wholeness and spiritual vitality.  A secondary effect of this mentoring effort is that it lowers negative behaviors across the regiment.  Simply stated, fewer Marines do fewer bad things when leadership engages a strong mentoring program.

What are some of the most common struggles you see among young service members? How do you see these struggles affecting their faith?

The military reflects society as a whole.  So any struggle that exists on the outside certainly exists on the inside.  Alcohol abuse, drug use, and sexual abuse 1 are all everyday issues.  It’s no secret that the military can be a harsh environment, and for many it is. 

Perhaps the most serious struggle currently facing service members is the tension between taking life and valuing their own.  According to a recent study conducted by the Center for Naval Analysis, “In the past 3 years, the Marine Corps, like the other Services, has experienced a rise in the number and rate of suicides. In 2008, the Marine Corps had its highest suicide rate since 1995—a total of 41 active-duty Marines (a rate of 19.5 in 100,000). In 2009, the number and rate were even higher: 52 active-duty Marines committed suicide (a rate of 24.9 in 100,000). 2

This is the highest suicide rate since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Although Marine Corps leadership is taking proactive action and focusing on the importance of leadership at all levels of the organization in addressing this issue, we still have yet to determine how to best reach out to Marines and Sailors who are thinking about harming themselves or what resources they really need after returning from a combat tour. 

For families with parents currently serving in the military who have teenagers in the home, what are some of the particular issues they need to be aware of related to their kids’ social and spiritual development?

Military families are not immune to the stresses of deployment. There is a growing body of research on the impact of prolonged deployment and trauma-related stress on military families, particularly spouses and children. 3   A recent White House publication reported that there are “approximately 700,000 military spouses and an additional 400,000 spouses of Reserve members. More than 700,000 children have experienced one or more parental deployment.  Currently, about 220,000 children have a parent deployed” 4     (italics mine). The cumulative impact of multiple deployments is associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental health diagnoses among spouses.  A 2010 study reports an 11 percent increase in outpatient visits for behavioral health issues among a group of 3- to 8-year-old children of military parents and an increase of 18 percent in behavioral disorders and 19 percent in stress disorders when a parent was deployed. 5

We all need to recognize that these families and kids are under additional and unique stressors.  In addition to asking the normative developmental questions like, “Do I matter?  Where do I belong? Am I socially and relationally safe?” adolescents in the military are also asking “Is my parent safe?  When will I see them again?  What will they be like once they return?  These kinds of questions inevitably alter their social and spiritual development, and we need to become especially mindful of how to respond to them as they navigate this delicate terrain. 

How would you advise youth workers and parents whose kids are heading into military service? What can they do beforehand to help prepare them for what they might face spiritually? Similarly, what can we do during their service to support and encourage their faith journeys?

I would suggest both parties think through how they will stay connected, to have an intentional plan of correspondence and communication.  I would also suggest that the stateside community own the responsibility of staying connected.  In my opinion, it is more difficult for a service member to get in touch with you than it is for you to get in touch with them.  So own the task, and make it a priority.  It means the world to us when we receive an unexpected phone call, piece of mail, or message on Facebook.

In the same way our country commissions these young men and women for service to our nation, commission these young people as missionaries in the Kingdom of God.  For this is their highest calling and their most important mission.  Before they leave, determine the appropriate “sending out” ceremony where the service member is surrounded by the community and prayed over.

I would also encourage the service member or the family to get in touch with the nearest chaplain.  Once you receive orders, get in touch with the chaplain, and find out what services the Chapel offers or what kinds of churches exist in the area.  Chaplains are here to serve and they are a resource in getting you connected to a community of faith.

I also think an individual has to be very realistic about what it is they are going to go see and do.  Do not be afraid to discuss the hard questions of military life and service: How will you deal with authority? How will you handle your sexuality?  How will you process your loneliness and isolation in healthy ways?  If you are asked to kill for our country, how do you think that will affect you?  How will you process the potential death of your friends?  Who will you lean on for support and encouragement?  Having these kinds of conversations on the front-side of service can make a big difference.

When a service member returns home, what are some of the key issues to be aware of in ministry to them as parents or youth workers?

Depending on where this person was deployed, we have to acknowledge that the person now standing in front of us is not the same individual who left home.  Military service changes you.  Deployments change you.  War inevitably changes you.  However, we often do not know how or to what extent.  We need to create the kind of relational space where service members are allowed to be who they have become. 

I love what Henri Nouwen says: “Hospitality … means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” 6   We need to be willing to hear these young people’s stories.  We need to engage, to inquire, to listen without judgment, and to welcome them back to a truly “hospitable” home.  We may be proud of their service, but I think it is more important to truly understand how they served.  Returning service members need to tell their story, and we need to hear the stories they tell. 

There seems to be a lot of tenderness in the country toward troops, which is present in many churches. How would you love to see that tenderness put into tangible action in support of those troops?

If you have young men and women leaving your church to enter into military service, I would suggest developing some form of ministry to these individuals.  It can be as simple as appointing one person to track their lives and to stay in touch with them.  Do something to help re-connect them to your community, to communicate that you and the church haven’t forgotten about them, and that you are grateful for the sacrifices they make.  A few tangible suggestions might be:

Develop a theology that goes beyond patriotism. 

With the fairly recent announcement of Osama Ben Laden’s death, and with President Obama’s commitment to troop withdrawal, we now have the opportunity to revisit why we are “tender” towards our service members.  These monumental events also provide the opportunity to re-examine our theology of justice, war, loving our enemies, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the role of military power in global affairs.  I think it would help the Church if we looked to these recent current events as opportunities to go back and revisit both the scriptures and our previously-held assumptions. 

Support ministries that reach out to service members:

Perhaps you would consider how you might partner with one of these two organizations:

The Navigators were founded when Dawson Trautman shared his faith with a young Sailor in a US Navy shipyard.  To this day the Navigators train missionaries whose primary purpose is to disciple service members.  However, there are far too few of them. 

Cadence International is one of the few youth ministry organizations that possess contracts with the Department of Defense, allowing them to do youth ministry on military bases.  Here in Okinawa, there are 6 youth workers for approximately 35,000 military members and their families.

Utilize the USO

The USO does a lot more than just host celebrity concerts.  They will deliver messages.  They provide care packages to deploying service members.  Here in Okinawa, they will even deliver a large birthday cake to a specific service member for $25.  In return, you will get a picture of that service member with the cake…candles lit!

Send Mail:

Living overseas for almost a year now, I now have a new found appreciation for good “old-fashioned” mail.  As strange as it sounds, checking my mailbox everyday helps me feel normal.  For several short minutes I forget I am in the military.  I forget what the day held, and I long to hear from people I know.  Most times the mailbox is empty, which immediately reminds me how far from home I really am.  I would imagine I am not the only one who feels this way.  If some of your former students are now serving in the military, please take the time to write them.  Send them anything.  The simple gesture will remind them that you have not forgotten about them. 

Throw a Party for Returning Service Members

Perhaps you have seen a family member waiting in the airport lobby with balloons and flowers and a big sign that reads, “Welcome Home.”  Even if I am just passing by in the terminal, these kinds of reunions always warm my heart.  Is it possible for you to meet a returning service member at the airport terminal with cheers and hugs?  If being at the airport doesn’t work, perhaps plan a “Welcome Home” BBQ/Dinner at the church or at minimum, recognize the return of their presence with you in an upcoming worship service.

Consider becoming an Army, Air Force or Navy Chaplain:

Each branch of the Armed Forces is varied and unique in its approach to chaplaincy.  However, what all chaplains have in common is a strong desire to be present for their people and to do it in an exceptionally dynamic environment.  To learn more specifically about becoming a Naval Chaplain, see the US Navy Chaplain Corps site. 

  1. According to the report by David J. Strauss and Jennifer L. Purdon, Sexual Assault Prevention, Risk Mitigation, and Response: Applying Best Practices from the Civilian Population to the Marine Corps, 2009.
  2. Annemarie Randazzo-Matsel and David Strauss, Suicide and Suicide Prevention Literature Review and Applications to the Marine Corps. Lesser P, Peterson K, Reeves J, et al. “The long war and parental combat deployment: effects on military children and at-home spouses,” Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2010; 49(4):310-320),  and Mansfield, AJ, Kaufman, JS, Marshall, SW et al. “Deployment and the use of mental health services among U.S. Army wives,” New England Journal of Medicine (2010; 362:101-9).
  3. Flake EM, Davis BE, Johnson PL, Middleton LS. “The psychosocial effects of deployment on military children,” Journal of Developmental Behavior Pediatrics (2009; 30:271-278).
  4. “Strengthening Our Military Families:  Meeting America’s Commitment.”  White House Publication, January, 2011.
  5. Gregory H. Gorman, Matilda Eide, and Elizabeth Hisle-Gorman.  “Wartime Military Deployment and Increased Pediatric Mental and Behavioral Health Complaints Pediatrics,” Pediatrics, (2009; 2856 v1).
  6. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1986), 71.

What Makes Faith Stick During College?

Research Release

Sep 05, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Findings from Sticky Faith research provide surprising insights into instilling lasting faith in young people.


Pasadena, California, Sept. 6, 2011—Parents and church youth leaders often see big changes in youth group graduates as they transition to college, but one change that can catch them off guard is a vastly diminished commitment to faith. To give parents, leaders, and churches the practical tools needed to instill long-term faith in young people, the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Seminary has just completed six years of what they call Sticky Faith research through the College Transition Project.

For many Christian church youth group graduates, the transition to college is rocky at best in terms of faith retention. Previous studies indicate that 40 percent to 50 percent of all youth group graduates fail to stick with their faith or connect with a faith community after high school.*

To unearth why that is and what can be done to help students develop a faith that doesn’t just survive but thrives over the long haul, FYI paired interviews of youth group graduates with a longitudinal study of approximately 500 youth group graduates during their first three years in college. Based on this research, FYI has unveiled three surprising and counterintuitive findings with enormous ramifications for the long-term faith development of teenagers and young adults in the United States:

1. While churches across the U.S. have tended to allocate financial and personnel resources toward building strong and dynamic youth groups, teenagers also need to rub shoulders and build relationships with adults of all ages.

Churches and families commonly assume that involving teenagers in various youth group and peer activities is the key to vibrant spirituality. Testing this premise, FYI assessed the relationship between teenagers’ faith maturity and their participation in a number of church and youth group activities, including small groups, short-term missions, and Sunday School. Contrary to what is widely assumed, more than any other participation variable measured in the Sticky Faith study, students’ participation in all-church worship during high school was consistently linked with developing a mature faith in both high school and college. 

Rather than only attending their own Sunday School classes, worship services, small groups, and service activities, young people appear to benefit from intergenerational activities and venues that remove the walls (whether literal or metaphorical) separating the generations. Churches and families wanting to instill deep faith in youth should help them build a web of relationships with committed and caring adults, some of whom may serve as intentional mentors.

2. Churches and families think youth group graduates are ready for the struggles ahead, despite the students themselves feeling unprepared and challenged by everything from loneliness to difficulty finding a new church.

Only one in seven high school seniors report feeling prepared to face the challenges of college life. Few students seem ready for the intensity of the college experience and the perfect storm of loneliness, the search for new friends, being completely on their own for the first time, and the sudden availability of a lot of partying. One pervasive struggle for college students is finding a new church, as evident by the 40 percent of college freshman who report difficulty doing so.  Young believers’ need for greater preparation is heightened by the powerful influence of their initial post-high school decisions. Young people retrospectively report that the first two weeks of their college freshman year set the trajectory for their remaining years in school. 

Given both the importance of those first days at college, as well as the widespread lack of preparation, parents and leaders should consider talking earlier and more frequently about college while students are still in high school. Comprehensive preparation should include helping new college students develop a plan for the first two weeks complete with church attendance, as well as an investigation of ministries and churches near the college setting that can offer a transitional lifeline.

3. While teaching young people the “dos” and “don’ts” of Christian living is important, an overemphasis on behaviors can sabotage their faith long-term. 

When asked what it means to be Christian, one-third of subjects as college juniors (all of whom were youth group graduates) failed to mention “Jesus” or “Christ” but rather emphasized behaviors. This and a few related findings suggest that students tend to view the gospel as a “do” and “don’t” list of behaviors instead of a faith that also transforms interior lives and beliefs. “Jesus Jacket” is the phrase the FYI team coined to describe how student respondents frequently view their faith. In other words, they hold the perception that faith hasn’t changed them internally but is more like a jacket they wear when they feel like practicing certain behaviors. One of the dangers of reducing Christianity to this sort of external behavior is that when college students fail to live up to the activities they think define Christianity, their feelings of guilt can make them quick to toss the jacket aside and abandon their faith altogether.

Parents and leaders eager to build Sticky Faith in youth need to exemplify and explain that while particular behaviors and practices are part of the faith, the focus is on trusting (not just obeying) Christ along with explaining how he leads, guides, and changes us from the inside. In particular, young people better navigate their faith journey when adults share the challenges of their own spiritual paths—complete with past and present ups, downs, and turning points.

Commentary on the Findings

Dr. Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, expressed both concern over the faith trajectories of youth group graduates as well as optimism about the potential of the research findings to transform youth, families, and churches. “As many churches and denominations experience decline, and as anxious parents wonder about their children’s futures, this Sticky Faith research has the power to spark a movement that not only changes youth, but also families and churches. Throughout the research, we’ve been sharing preliminary results and are impressed with the powerful changes families and churches have already been able to make by incorporating the findings,” Dr. Powell says.

Brand New Sticky Faith Resources

Expanded analyses of the groundbreaking Sticky Faith research and implications are fleshed out in two just-released books:  Sticky Faith by Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, and Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition by Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford (both of which are published by Zondervan Publishing). A pipeline of additional information and resources is also available at the recently launched, or by following @stickyfaith on twitter.

More About the Research

Drs. Kara Powell and Chap Clark focused on two research projects: most recently the six-year-long College Transition Project, a series of groundbreaking studies conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute in collaboration with Dr. Cameron Lee, and the HURT Project.

The College Transition Project is comprised of four separate research initiatives: an initial quantitative pilot study involving 69 youth group graduates, two three-year longitudinal (primarily quantitative) studies of high school seniors during their first three years in college involving 162 and 227 students respectively, and additional qualitative interviews with 45 former youth group graduates currently in college. 

Thanks to a sizable research grant from the Lilly Endowment, central to the College Transition Project are two longitudinal studies of 384 youth group seniors during their first three years in college. The majority of the students surveyed took their first online questionnaire during the spring of their senior year in high school, and then one or two online questionnaires during their freshman, sophomore, and junior years in college. Each phase of data allowed researchers to peel away less significant layers of the transition and focus on what lay at the Sticky Faith core. The research was not designed to prove causation, rather to discover strong correlations between variables that might predict the relationships between those variables.

Students in the study represent a cross-section of Christian seniors transitioning to college. They come from different regions of the United States, having attended public, private, and Christian colleges and vocational schools. Fifty-nine percent are female and 40 percent are male. Of note, youth in the sample do tend to have higher high school grade point averages and are more likely to come from intact families than the typical student heading to college. The students in the study also tend to come from larger than average churches that employ full-time professional youth pastors.

The HURT Project is based on Dr. Clark’s qualitative research conducted from 2001 to 2010. It started with recording stories and coding observations collected during one year as a substitute teacher at a California public school campus with permission to be a “participant-observer.” It evolved to include ongoing observations, interviews, open-ended conversations, and deliberate focus groups with high school and college students across the US and Canada.

The Fuller Youth Institute ( is located in Pasadena, California and is part of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the world with more than 4,000 Master’s level and Doctoral students. The mission of the Fuller Youth Institute is to leverage research into resources that elevate leaders, youth, and families. To find out more about this and other research projects, as well as to sign up for a free FYI E-Journal, visit


Press Contact: Susan Arpin, Jane Rohman & Associates, 413-848-1407,


* Barna Update, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years.” The Barna Group, 2006, September 16, 2006; George H. Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll, 2006; and Christian Smith with Patricial Snell, Souls in Transition (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 105, 108, 109, and 116.


Moving Away from the Kid Table

A Bigger Vision of Church

Aug 14, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by Paul Nicholson.

On my dad’s side of the family, I’m the oldest of 15 cousins. There were too many of us to fit around one table at my family gatherings, so my grandparents came up with a clever solution: two tables. The first table was the adult table.

The second table? You guessed it. It was the kid table.

The contrast between the two tables was stark. The adults ate in the dining room. We ate in the TV room. The adults had real china; we had paper plates, or if we were lucky, plastic. The adult table had sparkling and interesting conversation. The kid table inevitably degenerated into rolls flying through the air and Jell-O–snorting contests.

Two separate tables, two very different experiences.

Does this sound like your family? How about your church?

In churches today, there’s an adult worship service and a youth worship service. We have an adult worship team and a teen worship band. The larger the church, the greater the separation.

Is it good for teenagers to be on their own some of the time? Absolutely. As one youth worker told me, “Kids don’t want to talk about masturbation with Grandma in the room.”

But one of my life mantras says that balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme. In our effort to offer meaningful and relevant ministry to kids, we’ve segregated them—and I don’t use the verb segregated lightly—from the broader church.

Helpful Images with Harmful Consequences

The way we think about the church profoundly shapes the way we think about teens’ place within the church. Some of the common—even biblical—images we use to describe the church, while admittedly inspired and powerful, can have potentially harmful consequences for kids because of our unintentional miscommunication.

Our Use of the Word Church

The New Testament Greek word for church is ekklesia from ek and kaleo, meaning called out from or the called-out ones. To think of a church as merely a building runs counter to the New Testament description of church (1 Corinthians 11-14).   1 The well-known nursery rhyme, “This is the church, this is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people,” is actually heresy. It is more theologically accurate to say, “Here is the building, this is the steeple, open the doors and see the church, which is people.” Not as catchy, to be sure.

My church, Lake Avenue Church, is not the building located at 393 N. Lake Avenue. It is the people who gather at 393 N. Lake Avenue and then live as kingdom people during the rest of the week.

What does this mean for youth ministry? If we think of or refer to the church as a building (e.g., “Let’s go to church”), what does that make our students? They are the guests, the visitors at that building. And they better not make too much of a mess while they are visiting.

The Bride of Christ

Moving on from this most fundamental understanding of church as ekklesia, let’s look at another mystical image of the church periodically used by youth workers: the church as “Christ’s bride” (2 Corinthians 11:2-3; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 21). We as the bride of Christ are being prepared for the coming day of marriage to the Groom, who both awaits us and is purifying us for himself. Looking ahead, we wait in anticipation for the wedding feast of the Lamb described in Revelation.

We want and need an eschatological view of our future. The imagery of the bride of Christ is an important and biblically rooted picture. But let’s think about how this imagery is misunderstood in youth ministry. All too often, teenagers are seen as part of the church’s future instead of also the church’s present. As youth workers, we know that teenagers are not just the church of tomorrow. It’s trite but true: teenagers are the church of today.

The Body of Christ

Some of us—and our congregations—speak of the church primarily along the lines of Paul’s description as the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:1-31, Ephesians 1:15-22). As the body, all of us function as parts of Christ’s body in our communities and across the world. In this metaphor, everyone has a place, and that place is marked by our service to the rest of the body.

This is a wonderful and often used picture of the church. As a youth leader, I want teenagers searching for a sense of identity and significance to know that they have gifts and that those gifts can impact others. However, the potential danger with this imagery is that it can be misinterpreted to lack a sense of relationship and instead focus on the instrumental value of the parts. It’s high on mission and purpose and low on a core need of adolescents: love.

The Family of God

If love is what we want, then this fourth and final image of church helps us move toward that goal. The metaphor of the family of God, which appears in Scripture only once, in 1 Peter 4:17, carries the image of family, of a tribe or cohesive community, that is inherently appealing to us.

This is an important image, but what is often lost in this image is the role of biological or adopted families. In this family-of-God imagery, what place do teenagers’ parents, stepparents and foster parents play in the spiritual formation of teens? Recent research continues to confirm the enormous influence parents have on their kids—for the good, the bad and the ugly. As Christian Smith from Notre Dame explained, both in Soul Searching and at a panel at Fuller Seminary, parents are the most dominant influence on their kids’ faith. As he summarized at the panel at Fuller, “When it comes to faith, parents get what they are.”

An Intentionally Inclusive and Intergenerational Image

An image we’ve been re-exploring at Fuller Seminary recently is the church as a “family of families.” We think this image has merit because it captures the spiritual reality that all followers of Jesus are family to one another—spiritual siblings, actually. And yet this image also acknowledges that we exist in biological (or legally adopted) parent-child relationships that God wove into the design of creation. So in the midst of our spiritual family, we keep our biological family too.

Dr. Dennis Guernsey, a former Fuller faculty member who was an early proponent for this ecclesiology, wrote:

I am suggesting that the church redefine itself in system terms as the whole but with the parts being its familiesrather than the individuals in those families. Even where there are no families… I am suggesting that the parts which make up the whole be construed as those clusters of primary relationships which function as family. The church according to this redefinition becomes a family of families.   2

You might be concerned by any phrasing that includes the word family, since kids today are often adrift from their families. I myself am a daughter of divorce and am fairly sensitive to phrases that may alienate kids who come from “atypical” families.  That’s why the middle sentence in the quote is so important: “The parts which make up the whole be construed as those clusters of primary relationships which function as family.”

This extension of family to include those who fill the role of family members (even if they are not biologically related) parallels the thinking of sociologist Diana Garland. In her well-known book Family Ministry, Garland acknowledges the structural definition of biological or legally adopted family but then stretches us to also think about a functional definition of family. This functional definition acknowledges those who are not biologically related but nonetheless meet kids’ needs for belonging and attachment.

While the term family of families is nowhere mentioned in Scripture, we at Fuller Seminary think it well captures the family-of-God imagery while also acknowledging the enormous influence and importance of smaller community groups that function as families. In fact, viewing the church as a family of families aligns with the most central aspects of the images previously mentioned: it focuses on people as the church; it reminds us that the ultimate goal of all of our familial relationships is unity with Christ as his bride; it points to the importance of each person’s contributions as the body of Christ; and it obviously highlights our relationships as spiritual siblings.

A New 5:1 Ratio

My colleague, Chap Clark, says a lot of brilliant things. But one of the most brilliant things he has said in the last few years is that it’s time to reverse the normal adult:student ratio in youth ministry. In youth ministry, we talk a lot about a preferred ratio of one adult for every five kids on the retreat, or one adult for every seven kids for our Sunday morning small groups.

What if we flipped that ratio upside down? What if we said we need five adults pouring into one kid?

When I say this to youth workers, I see their bodies get tense. I can tell they are thinking, I’m having a hard enough time recruiting one small group leader for five kids, and now you want me to round up five leaders for every single kid?”

I’m not talking about five Bible study leaders. I’m talking about an adult in your church who meets a kid named Claire and remembers Claire’s name. Or an adult who talks to Nathan and asks how they can be praying for him. And then the next week, they ask Nathan how it’s going with soccer this week.

Some churches are taking baby steps toward this 5:1 goal. I’m a volunteer at my church, leading a group of high school juniors on Sunday mornings. My own church recently had a special six-week Sunday school class that combined specially invited high school upperclassmen with senior adults. The theme of the class was Christ and Culture. Some of the most meaningful moments in the class were when the teenagers showed how they were trying to shape culture. One kid brought in his guitar and played a song he had written. Another girl wanted to be a fashion designer and brought in sketches of her clothes. The kids had the chance to share their best talents, and then the senior adults oohed and aahedover the kids’ gifts and asked them how their faith shaped their work.

I met a youth worker a few weeks ago whose church encourages juniors and seniors to step away from small groups that are comprised only of their peers and instead join adult small groups in the church. The kids do this in groups of twos or threes so they still have some friends their own age in the small group.

More and more youth ministries are taking even larger leaps toward intentional intergenerational relationships that lead to this new 5:1 ratio. One youth ministry that was meeting both on Sundays and Wednesdays started asked the question, “Why are we meeting twice per week? What’s the purpose of each meeting?” They realized that they were more or less offering the same sort of worship, teaching and fellowship twice and that hardly any of their students were involved in the larger church.

So they cancelled Sunday youth group. No more Sunday meetings. Now kids are fully integrated into the church on Sundays. They are greeters; they serve alongside adults on the music team; they are involved in giving testimonies; they even take chunks of the sermon from time to time. As the youth pastor was describing this shift, he said that not only has it changed the kids; it’s changed the church.

Do 13- and 16-year-olds need to be together on their own at times? Absolutely. But I’m inspired by churches that are realizing that the kingdom is more than separate adult and kids’ tables; it’s followers of all ages who feast together on the goodness of God’s kingdom and invite others to join the celebration.

Action Steps

  1. In what ways does your church have separate “kid tables” and “adult tables”?  What do you think Jesus would say about that?
  2. What are the advantages of trying to surround each kid with 5 adults who care about them?  What are the costs?
  3. In your role in your church, how can you help change your church’s culture?
  4. What current events, rituals or worship services does your ministry or church offer that could be infused with a 5:1 flavor?

A version of this article also appears in the July/August 2010 print issue of  Immerse Journal

This article was originally published at  in August 2010.

  1. A great resource for exploring the biblical writings on the church is Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, revised edition (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994).
  2. Dennis B. Guernsey, A New Design for Family Ministry (Elgin, IL: D.C. Cook Pub, 1982), 100.