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.

Intergenerational Ministry Beyond the Rhetoric

Research Brief

Aug 13, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

“I knew we were starting to get somewhere when my six-year-old son was rattling off who he wanted at his birthday party.  There were as many adults as kids on that list.”

A pastor recently shared this with me (Brad) as we talked about the emerging conversation surrounding intergenerational (sometimes called cross-generational, or multi-generational) ministry.  At the Fuller Youth Institute we’ve been active promoters of this conversation, including hosting post-doctoral fellow Dr. David Fraze to study and write on intergenerational ministry a couple of summers ago. 1

As many churches are finding though, simple proximity doesn’t equal relationships.  Being in the same room does open the possibility for relationship, but it’s not the whole answer to the problem of the adult-kid divide many of us experience in our congregations. Intergenerational   2  youth ministry ends up being a great new catch phrase that in practice tends to be really vague to most churches.

We at FYI often hear questions like, “How do I get started?” and “How do I get the rest of the congregation involved in this?” from leaders who want to establish more cross-generational relationships but are unsure (and maybe a little uneasy) about how to get there. Amid the emerging strategies and experiments, researcher and Denver Seminary faculty member Brenda Snailum wondered:  Are there common factors that contribute to churches’ success or failure that can inform the ways leaders structure their approach to intergenerational ministry?

In a recent research project, Brenda asked four intergenerational ministry thought leaders to offer their expert advice in an anonymous panel discussion on factors they consider most critical when initiating intergenerational ministry in existing congregations. 3  The result is a valuable list of insights that might help you better connect the kids you love to the rest of the church community.

Begin Where You Are

Start by assessing the current conditions.

The leadership needs to prayerfully and honestly assess current ministry practices and motives, including examining how deeply age-stratified ministry is valued among the leadership and members of the congregation and how open the church will be to change.

Begin with existing structures.

Intergenerational ministry is context-specific and should be customized to fit a particular church’s history, culture, location, staff, and vision – it is not “one size fits all.” Churches that have been successful started with what they were already doing well in one of the ministries of the church, then asked, “Since this is already good (or even great), what would it take to move to the next level and use this to become intergenerational?” Identify key influencers in the congregation who already have an intergenerational mindset and enlist their help.

Establish Intergenerational Community as a Core Value

Intergenerational is not something churches do–it’s something they become. The findings emphasize that becoming intergenerational is nothing short of a paradigm shift, and the whole church must value intergenerational relationships and community at a core philosophical level. This shift requires that all of the leaders of the church (not just the youth leader) buy into the value of intergenerational ministry and commit to changing the culture of the church over the long haul.

Intergenerational is a way of life. Making such a shift requires overcoming the individualistic mindset that is so strong in our culture and developing a community mentality in which all generations and ministry departments are valued and involved with each other in significant ways throughout the church body. Cross-generational valuing must become an integral part of the congregation’s collective story. As one panelist shared, “The vision of the church needs to include assimilating our children and youth into the church today, not someday.”

Keep Intergenerational Values in Balance with Age-Specific Ministry

Establishing intergenerational community does not mean eradicating age-specific ministries. As important as it is to embrace intergenerational values at a core level, it’s also important to keep that in balance with age-specific ministry. We need to realize that exclusively age-specific ministry may be “working” to varying degrees, but has not proven sustainable for ongoing transmission of faith among young adults who have grown up exclusively in youth ministries. At the same time, all ages still need their own space to grow and develop at their own pace. Everyone needs to be part of a web of relationships that includes their peers AND members of other generations.

Leadership Must Be Fully Vested

Successfully transitioning to an intergenerational paradigm lives (or dies) with the leadership. In order to make such a culture shift, the senior leadership team must get on board with the vision early and all the way, and actively take the reins in leading the congregation through the transition. A youth pastor wanting to create intergenerational community must cast vision for the value of intergenerational relationships in all directions across age groups, starting with senior leadership.

Be Intentional and Strategic

Do not try to reinvent everything at once–start small and avoid big sweeping program changes, particularly before there is adequate ownership of the vision on the part of all stakeholders. Celebrate little wins. Tell stories of success to encourage the congregation and build momentum. A positive comment from a student about an older adult, or vice versa, is a win! An adult learning a kid’s name and saying hi to them in the hall is a win!

Build in accountability and support structures

Ministry leaders should pass everything through an “intergenerational filter” and regularly ask themselves how their plans can be made in such a way as to keep the church moving toward being an authentic intergenerational community.

Experiment with Intergenerational Ministry Practices

The main congregational worship service is one key area of opportunity to implement intergenerational strategies, as long as the services are designed to include all generations. Intentionally involve teenagers and younger kids in corporate worship, and plan worship gatherings with every age in mind. Start small–maybe once each quarter the entire congregation worships together and experiments with creative approaches. Or restructure the first or last “X” number of minutes in the service to include all ages before splitting out into age-level ministries.

However, multigenerational worship services alone may not be effective in building authentic community without providing other settings to develop and maintain meaningful relationships between generations. 4

Consider ways to build relationships between all combinations of children, teenagers, singles, parents, empty-nesters and senior adults. Try integrating intergenerational relational opportunities in small groups, Sunday school, Bible studies, outreach events, mission trips, and special programs.

Cautions and Hindrances

Only a method, not a value.

The area of greatest caution raised by all of the panelists deals with the failure to fully embrace an intergenerational paradigm at the core philosophical level. Too many times churches try to do intergenerational rather than becomeintergenerational. So often churches fail to keep momentum going and as a result, “intergenerational” is only a temporary emphasis or strategy, rather than a culture shift.

Uncommitted leaders.

One of the reasons that churches find it difficult to become intergenerational communities is because there is not enough buy-in from senior leadership. This makes it nearly impossible to make significant gains in the congregational climate. It may be particularly hard for a youth pastor to lead the charge, especially for young 20-somethings fresh in ministry. Cast vision “up” and try to cultivate a heart for it among the senior leaders. Youth pastors in this situation should respectfully attempt to share books, articles and stories offering glimpses into intergenerational community in an effort to inform and inspire the senior leadership rather than leading unproductive kamikaze missions.

Generations lack understanding of each other.

Another common error is that churches often set up ministry opportunities that force youth and adults together without adequately preparing and equipping them for the experience. For instance, an intergenerational mission trip requires a lot of framing for the adults to understand that the goals and expected outcomes are going to be different when kids are involved. The same applies to trying to incorporate kids and adults into small groups together.

The congregation lacks understanding of biblical emphasis on intergenerational community.

Often members of the congregation are not aware of the strong biblical foundations of intergenerational ministry. But without a clear Biblical ecclesiology that drives older generations to invest in younger generations, intergenerational ministry will stall out.

Self-centeredness is the enemy.

Self-centeredness and age discrimination manifests itself in individuals within the church and can become a dominant force at work in generational cohorts and the culture at large. This deep-seated selfishness is a formidable foe that can potentially derail the best intergenerational ministry efforts. True intergenerational community is built on genuine love for every generation beyond a consumerist “What’s in it for me?” mindset.

It just seems too hard.

One of the common complaints from youth ministry leaders desiring to implement intergenerational ministry ideas is that it seems like it will require a tremendous amount of additional time and effort, and youth leaders often feel as though they are overworked already. At FYI, we often encourage leaders to start by looking at everything they are currently doing in ministry and pinpointing where intergenerational connections already exist, as well as where more connections could be made with a little tweaking.

In other words, don’t start by immediately adding new programs.  In fact, some leaders have found that they can de-program various aspects of ministry in ways that open up space for kids to engage adults and/or younger kids in established venues. For instance, one church decided this year during Lent to consolidate all of their mid-week programs into one big community gathering.  They share a meal, worship together, then discuss content, pray, or serve together in small intergenerational groups.  Small, even short-term programming changes can often pay big dividends for churches and ministries.

Action Points

  • If you were to place your ministry on a continuum between intergenerational engagement and age-stratified relationships, where would you fall?  What about your church as a whole?
  • What would you add or subtract from the list of approaches above?  What seems most doable as a first step in your context?
  • When you read through the list of cautions and hindrances above, which seem particularly poignant for your context? What can you do to guard against these hindrances?
  • With a team or other ministry leader, determine a next action step for your ministry based on what you’ve discovered in this quick assessment.

This article was adapted from Promoting Intergenerational Youth Ministry Within Existing Evangelical Church Congregations: What Have We Learned? by Brenda Snailum, Fall 2010 for Talbot Theological Seminary.

This article was originally published at in April 2011.

  1. To read David’s work, check out the Intergenerational Ministry page on our site.
  2. Intergenerational is generally understood as members of two or more different generations having some degree of mutual, influential relationship developed through cooperative interaction to achieve common goals, as opposed to multigenerational settings where several generations are in proximity with each other, but not necessarily engaged in meaningful relationships. (Villar, F. 2007. Intergenerational or multigenerational? A question of nuance. Journal of Intergenerational Relationships5(1), 115-117.)
  3. The four experts who participated in this study represent almost 60 years combined expertise in intergenerational ministry. They represent a diversity of perspectives, professional experiences, geographic locations, and genders. Most all of them hold doctoral degrees in their field and have published books and research articles dealing with intergenerational ministry. The panelists were anonymous in order to facilitate an open forum for them to express their views and critique the responses of others who have equivalent expertise but different experiences and perspectives. Each of the experts anonymously submitted their ideas or proposals on a given issue and then the facilitator synthesized all responses into one document that highlighted the commonalities and areas of disagreement. That document was then redistributed to all participants for a second round of review and critique.
  4. See The Perceived Efficacy of Multigenerational Worship Services for Establishing Intergenerational Relationships Among Adolescents(2010) by Brenda Snailum.

You Make the Call

What College Freshmen Need to Hear from their Youth Pastors

Aug 12, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

It’s the phone call at the bottom of your list.

You know you need to make it, but you’ve been putting it off.

On one hand, you feel a little guilty because you know it’s probably important, but on the other hand, you’re afraid of what you might learn. That fear keeps you a bit on edge when someone asks, “How are last year’s grads doing at college this fall?” With a growing pit in your stomach, you fake a smile and answer, “Oh, great—they’re digging into college life, and are starting to get involved in Christian community on campus and at a local church.” But while you hope this might be true, you really have no idea.

You have a hunch that they might be having a tough time in their first semester. You have a hunch that making friends and finding community is probably a real struggle for them. You have a hunch that the temptations to get involved in the drinking and party scene are huge—especially for the kids who were more straight-laced in high school—and you’re not entirely sure how firm they are standing.

But you haven’t picked up the phone to see if you’re right.

Recent research seems to be confirming your hunches. We at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) have been conducting several coinciding studies that are all part of our College Transition Project. One of these studies was a qualitative research project involving in-depth interviews with former student leaders from various churches who were in their sophomore year of college at the time of the interviews. In two-hour face to face interviews, we asked them to reflect back on their freshman year and respond to a number of questions about the transition, their youth group, and how their youth group could have better prepared them for their transition. As it turns out, that phone call might be more important than you think.

1. Finding Friends First—and Fast

Students’ biggest priority during the first two weeks of college is to establish friendships and figure out where they fit in. Across the board, the freshmen we interviewed indicated that these first two weeks are absolutely critical for creating a social life. The primary—and most accepted—way to do this in college is to engage in the party scene. All too quickly, partying becomes a regular part of the weekly routine for many freshmen.

Often, kids who come out of youth groups have been told over and over what “not to do.” We’re usually pretty good at giving them a list of temptations to avoid, but perhaps not as helpful in equipping students with healthier strategies for other real-life needs like finding friends. Our research affirms that the first few months of college can be incredibly lonely for students who are away from family and life-long friends for the first time, and who may show up not knowing a single other person on campus. Desperate to begin to build new relationships, students go where those from their immediate living situation (roommate, floor-mates) go to find friends. The last thing they want is to be “left behind” on a weekend night. And once they’ve tried the party scene they feel hypocritical if they then add commitments to Christian groups, simply layering “Christian” onto their new identity. Others intentionally decide to shelve their faith and “do the college thing,” intending to pick faith up again later after they’ve enjoyed the party scene guilt-free for a while.

In The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School, sociologist Tim Clydesdale describes this freshman phenomenon as an “identity lockbox”. Students recognize that faith is “good for them” in some way as part of an adult lifestyle, but see it as something to put on hold in order to attend to the more immediate needs of their college lifestyle. Clydesdale recalls from his extensive research:

As one freshman put it, “I feel like God dropped me off at college and said, ‘I’ll be back to pick you up in four years’.” Note that this student, like many of his peers, planned to be picked up when he graduated—in the same place and by the same driver. It is not that his religious identity was unimportant (quite the contrary), only that he did not see its relevancy to his college education and campus experience. 1

As youth workers we need to help kids form an integrated Christian identity that both sustains them across the friendship gap and helps them remember who they are if they fall prey to the common temptations of desperate friend-seeking behaviors. When we make that call to new freshmen, it’s important to remember that students probably don’t need the sermon about why they shouldn’t be drinking and having sex. We may have opportunity to call them to accountability, but their primary need is to be known and loved for who they are. We can be a voice who assures them of their identity in Christ and of God’s unchanging love, while also reminding them that their extended faith family can be a safe place to be real about the struggles they are facing.

2. Alcohol Rules…But it’s More about Friendship than Getting Buzzed

It’s no secret that most college environments embrace a huge party scene—often starting on Wednesday and ending with a Monday hangover. A 2007 study from Columbia University revealed that around seventy percent of all full-time college students in the U.S. drink, while half (3.8 of the 7.8 million) binge drink, abuse prescription drugs and/or abuse illegal drugs. 2 While many students obviously dive into a pit of experimentation with other drugs, alcohol remains the college student’s primary drug of choice. This seems to be true whether on the campus of a state or private school, large or small.

So why is alcohol so important to college freshmen, even those who were raised in the church and who were actively involved in youth groups in high school? And why do some students choose not to get involved in drinking?

As we discussed above, the primary reason students give for participating in the “party scene” is that it’s where “everyone” is. One student said, “I don’t think I’ve met many people who don’t drink here. I mean it’s not looked down upon if you don’t drink, but it’s really hard to meet people.” When freshmen first arrive on campus hungry for new friends, sometimes they don’t feel like they have other options.

The second reason students give for drinking excessively is related to the new-found freedom of being away from their parents for the first time. “It’s kind of like, ‘Wow, I can do whatever I want.’ At home, even with drinking, you always had to go home to your parents so you had to be a little careful.” Though many students drink first in high school, the difference is in the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption. Nearly all of the drinkers we interviewed talked about at least one night where they “did something stupid” and drank too much, ending up feeling pretty sick (and often regretful) afterwards.

One of the students stood out in her response to the alcohol question. She did not drink at all in high school, and was raised in a home that was very loving, open, and supportive of her. Her college roommate is also a Christian. Towards the end of the first semester, she and her roommate were really grappling with the drinking question, feeling like they weren’t able to hang out with their friends when they went off partying. She reflected,

I didn’t expect to drink in college…and that was true to a certain extent. But I noticed how entrenched alcohol is in the college culture. If I’m not going to drink, my options, my opportunities and the people I spend time with are very limited. It was a big deal at the beginning of the year, for both me and my roommate…and so after thinking a lot about it, we both came to the conclusion that if I don’t drink, I come across as ‘holier than thou’…and I don’t want that. This year I did consume alcohol, but I never pushed my limits… I wouldn’t know my friends as well if I hadn’t been with them at parties.

This was probably the most reflective response we heard from a student wrestling through the issue of drinking. And despite her thoughtful and difficult journey regarding alcohol, this student still hasn’t been able to tell her parents (or her youth pastor) about the decision she made.

As youth pastors, we need to better prepare students to think about the alternatives to alcohol available in college. We did hear from students who chose to avoid alcohol altogether and instead to get involved with campus Christian fellowship groups as a way to make friends. One way to help students find these alternatives is to have someone on your ministry team get in touch with college pastors and campus ministries where your students are heading to school (or where your freshmen already attend) and connect them with one another. 3

3. Sustaining Faith and Identity in College

Underneath the frenzy of finding friends and taking risks, college freshmen still remember the faith that sustained them in high school—their youth-group faith that once seemed so real and vibrant. But often that faith is just a memory instead of a current reality. Many students we interviewed said they missed the “feeling of God,” which led them to ask whether or not God really exists at all. Many reflectively identified that they were on a downward spiral in their faith, which they thought was the result of their personal lack of effort, motivation, and fellowship with other believers.

Faith seems to be directly connected to freshmen participation in high-risk behaviors. From our longitudinal studies of college students who came out of high school youth groups, one noticeable and consistent trend has been that higher risk behaviors are correlated with lower faith integration, especially when it comes to the decision to drink alcohol.

Furthermore, those who did not drink in high school displayed a stronger increase in alcohol consumption than those who were already drinking. A similar trend emerged with sexual encounters—high school seniors who reported abstaining from sexual activity show a significant increase in sex across the transition to college. Taken together, it seems that the greatest risk in the transition may be to the students who abstained from these risk behaviors in high school. And faith maturity is linked to these decisions: those with a deeper intrinsic faith (meaning their faith consists of an internalized set of beliefs more than a set of outward behaviors) and those who relate faith to their life choices more consistently are the students who also report less increase in risk behaviors.

In the midst of this scene, there are students who thrive spiritually at college. Though we are far from understanding the complex dynamics involved in sustaining a thriving faith through the freshman year, we have noticed a few consistent similarities among such students.

One of the comments we heard most often from thriving students was that church had been a part of their families’ lives. As one student described, “I’ve grown up going to church. My parents always believed in God and had a relationship with God but it wasn’t as dominant in our lives. During high school they both started going to church more and got really involved, and it was completely God who changed their lives….”

Another factor commonly evident in students who maintain vibrant faith is consistent, quality youth pastors and small group leaders. In fact, small group leaders were often noted as the individuals besides parents who have had the most impact on students’ lives. Also consistently, these small group leaders remained in touch and involved in their lives across the college transition.

Why the Call is Critical

When we asked college freshmen to reflect back on their first year of college as well as their prior youth group experience, we asked them what they thought might have helped them in the transition. Two of the most consistent responses among students were that they wished someone from their high school youth group would have contacted them after they had entered college, and that they would have liked more practical training describing the college context and relevant issues they might face, along with discussion about the transition and how to make it easier. Many noted they would have liked to hear from college students or graduates to learn from their experiences. And when asked what they wish had been different about their high school youth group, the most common responses centered around wishing they had maintained contact with either friends or youth group leaders (or both) post-graduation.

So when you finish reading this article—or maybe right now—you might want to re-think the call at the bottom of your list. Maybe making the call right now could make a difference in the life of a student who’s struggling to make sense of life and faith in the midst of their first semester.

Action Points: Helping You Make the Call

There’s a lot you want to know about how that freshman is doing, but clearly you don’t want to just jump in and ask a direct question like, “So how much have you been drinking?” Here are a few tips for getting into that conversation. Begin the conversation with general questions about how they’re doing, then let the conversation move deeper:

  • What’s gone well for you since you graduated?
  • What challenges have you encountered since arriving at college?
  • How’s your roommate? What’s your floor/hall like?
  • Who are your closest friends so far, and how did you meet?
  • What do you usually do on the weekends?

You may want to note that you’ve heard from a lot of other freshmen about the amount of partying that goes on during the first year of college. Then ask, “What’s that like at your school?” Again, if they don’t start to talk about their own experience, you can ask, “What’s it been like for you?”

You also want to know how your students are doing spiritually in college, but you’re not sure how to get at that in a phone call. Here are a few suggestions for asking meaningful questions about college faith experiences:

  • What has your spiritual journey been like so far at college?
  • How have you found the spiritual scene on campus? What are the Christian groups like?
  • What’s it been like to look for a church?
  • How have you felt about your connection with God this semester? How are you investing in your relationship with God? What’s it been like to balance that with all of the other pressures and work of college?

This article was originally published at in October 2007.

  1. Tim Clydesdale, “Abandoned, Pursued, or Safely Stowed?: The Religious Life of First Year Undergraduates” (Social Science Research Council Essay, 10/9/2006), 2. Article can be downloaded in PDF form at This .article summarizes the research in Clydesdale’s book and draws upon additional research he has conducted since the book publication.
  2. Joseph A. Califano Jr., National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse, “Wasting the Best and Brightest: Substance Abuse at America’s Colleges and Universities” (Columbia University, 2007).
  3. One major effort being made toward connecting new Christians heading to college with other Christians is being championed by the Youth Transition Network. Incoming freshmen can check out for access to a number of resources, including help with finding potential Christian roommates.

Riding the Highs and Lows of Teenage Faith Development

The Importance of Moratorium

Aug 12, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Deon is a high school junior with good grades, good extracurricular involvement, good parents, and seemingly good faith.  He has been in church since age 8; his parents became Christians at that time and have been committed to Christ ever since.  Deon has inherited their faith in many ways, most notably an intense desire to "do all the right things."  He does not drink, smoke, or swear.  His dating style seems impeccable.  He is only considering colleges with active campus ministry groups.  Students, staff and parents alike point to Deon as the model for the youth ministry.  "He's exactly what we are hoping will come from our program," they say.

Then there's Eva, a senior who has been involved in church on and off since junior high.  Lately she's been more off than on, but that wasn't the case six months ago.  There was a long stretch when she was committed to the youth group and seemed to have an established group of friends.  When she stopped showing up, it was learned that she had talked with her small group about a series of doubts she was having about Christianity.  She questioned the pressure to follow so many rules and she wasn't sure about everything she read in the Bible.  Well intentioned, her group tried to convince her of the merits of the Christian life.  She told them that she thought she needed to do her own thing for a while and "figure herself out."

Finally, meet Brandon, a college student who has just joined the junior high volunteer staff.  When interviewed about becoming a volunteer, Brandon confessed his regrets about previous mistakes, "I spent my first year at college pretty much just being selfish.  I did what I wanted — parties, dating, whatever.  I took some world religion classes, even went to some of their services, just to check them out.  I learned a lot though, and although I see now that it wasn't the wisest, I'm grateful for it.  I tried it all and realized that I want Jesus, I want the church.  This is where I belong."  Other leaders and parents are concerned about what to do with Brandon's story.  They think he might, even unintentionally, encourage kids to experiment like he did.

If you were to guess which of these three has the most developed identity, who would you choose?  How would you decide?  The answer may not lie where you expect.

Background:  the Development of Four Basic Identity Phases

Beginning in the 1960's, psychologist James Marcia (based on Erik Erikson's work) developed four basic phases of identity development:  diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium and achievement. 1 The characteristics of each phase are as follows:

  • Diffusion: This status can be understood as the "don't know, don't care" status. This stage describes adolescents who have not experienced any identity "crisis" or even done any exploration, nor do they have a stable set of commitments. Persons in diffusion have simply not thought about their identity. They are not sure what they believe about key issues such as religion, politics, gender roles, or occupation, nor are they concerned with them.
  • Foreclosure: This is a status in which adolescents have definite opinions about their identity, but those opinions have been inherited from external forces rather than cultivated from within themselves. They have stable commitments, but have not experienced exploration or crisis. For example, they vote how their parents vote, not because they have chosen to agree with their parents, but because they have never questioned the political views they inherited.
  • Moratorium: The moratorium status is the stage in which individuals challenge what they have inherited. They question who they are and what they believe and are unable to land on clearly defined beliefs and standards. For this reason, they will often express doubts and uncertainties about what they believe.
  • Achievement: The goal of identity development is to reach the achieved status. It is the status wherein individuals have explored who they are and what they believe and hold stable commitments to a set of beliefs, values and standards. Their identity is defined, and they have thought through their perspectives.

The phases are progressive:  foreclosure is further along than diffusion, moratorium is further along than foreclosure, and achievement is the most developed of them all.

Represented visually, the typical chronology of the four phases is:

Identity Phases


Or, if you like grids, the diagram below shows the same process from diffusion (bottom left portion of the grid) to foreclosure, moratorium, and finally achievement.

Identity Status

Let's return to those students we met at the beginning of the article.  Can you match the student with the status?  Deon is foreclosed.  Eva is in moratorium.  Brandon is identity-achieved. 2

Implications for Our Youth Ministries - Responding to Moratorium

Recently I (Meredith) was catching up with a woman from my church who was celebrating her son's graduation from college.  I added my congratulations, and as she thanked me, she remarked, "We're just so excited he got through it.  And we're a little relieved that he survived the theology courses."

I was bit confused by her comment, but she explained, "Oh, you know, they'd teach something or other in his Biblical Studies class and he'd come home and say, ‘Mom, they said that such and such event didn't really happen in history,' and we would say, ‘It's okay, it's not really like that,' and explain that he didn't have to buy into what the professors were saying."

This student's school was not a "liberal" or hostile environment when it came to religion.  In fact, he went to a Christian school with a very respectable reputation in evangelical circles.  This woman's son was on the verge of moratorium as he entered college.  He was beginning to question the faith narrative he had inherited from his family as he encountered the new material of his theology courses.  At this point, his parents had the opportunity to walk through moratorium with him, but chose instead to push him back to foreclosure.  They reiterated their own answers, downplayed his questions, and led him back into the settled, secure place he knew as home.

What should that mom have done differently?  And what can we as youth workers do to promote, instead of hinder, healthy identity development in students who have similar experiences?

First, even though the symptoms of moratorium might make us fearful, we can remember that it is incredibly common for first year college students.  In the midst of some of the less than ideal experiences of moratorium (which include lower social satisfaction and increased engagement in unprotected sex and substance abuse), we need to monitor our own fears so that we don't push students with doubts or questions back into foreclosure, rather than help them reach achievement.

Second, remember that it is progress to move from foreclosure into moratorium.  A study done by the University of Guelph of 108 first year students tracked their identity status over their first year.  The major result was a decrease in diffusion and an increase in moratorium. 3 Another study tracked identity status development over a three year period and examined its relationship with particular growth patterns. 4   The data indicated that 80% of students' progressive growth (meaning they moved from any one status to a different, more advanced status, such as from diffusion to foreclosure, or from moratorium to achieved) occurred for freshmen entering college in moratorium.  Most diffused youths showed unstable development. Those with committed statuses — that is, achieved and foreclosed — were most likely to remain stable.  However, foreclosure was likely to predict an unstable or regressive developmental pattern overall.

So back to our students:  what can we do to encourage Deon, Eva, and Brandon in their identity development?  Perhaps Deon needs to be encouraged in all the truly positive aspects of his life, while also knowing that it is okay to ask questions and to explore how to take ownership of his own beliefs.  Brandon would benefit from the support of a community who listens to and appreciates his story.  Adults can also help Brandon learn to communicate his story to students in ways that promote their identity development without glorifying high risk behaviors.  Students can see that asking questions about faith is acceptable and that there is room in their church community to be a Christian and have doubts.  Eva needs to be encouraged to continue to question the world around her rather than feel pressured to accept a belief system offhand.  Her church community can invite her to continue her season of searching within the community rather that off on her own.  If Eva is welcome to search within the life of the church, she will be more likely to allow the perspectives of Christian adults to influence her thinking as she decides what she believes.

In order to help us all think more about this very issue, Kara Powell discussed these phases and their implications for youth ministry with Chuck Bomar.  Chuck is a church planter for the Colossae church in Portland, Oregon, and formerly worked with college students and overseeing children and youth ministries.  He also founded, which is focused on training ministry leaders working directly with college-age people. 5

FYI:  How should a youth worker respond to parents who are concerned by what they see in their kids when it’s likely a reflection of the kids’ moratorium status?

Chuck:  I try to remind parents of their own desire for the child to be an independent adult.  Every parent wants their child to be an independent adult.  Then I try to help parents see that a certain amount of exploration is a healthy and probably necessary step in the path toward independence.

FYI: In what ways do our youth ministries push students into Marcia’s stage of foreclosure?

Chuck:  I think the biggest way we push students into foreclosure is that we automatically teach conclusions.  As adults, we’ve thought through faith, and we’ve thought through what it is we believe and why we believe it…and then we come to conclusions.  Then we come to our kids and we teach them our conclusions, and then we teach them how to apply our conclusions.  By doing that we tend to rob students of a healthy faith development process.

FYI:  What specific tools does a youth ministry need to give to students in order to support them in moratorium?

Chuck:  We need to love them.  I don’t mean to sound cliché, but in 1 Corinthians 13, the first word used to describe love is patience.  And while I don’t mean to discredit the other attributes in the passage, to truly love kids is to be patient as we walk with them through tough questions.

FYI:  What can a church as a whole do to contribute in positive ways to the moratorium and achievement process?

Chuck:  One of the most practical steps a church can take is to get high school and college students into the homes of older, more mature believers.  That gets students involved in relationships with people who have reached a more achieved identity.

FYI:  Your role in your previous church included overseeing children and student ministries.  In what ways do our children’s ministries send messages that are unhealthy about identity and faith even before kids enter our youth ministries?

Chuck:  What I’ve seen is that much of our teaching in children’s ministries is basically conclusions and application.  So the kids learn that Christianity is little more than law because we’ve only taught them behaviors and adult-derived conclusions.  Yes, Deuteronomy tells us to impress principles upon our children, but we are teaching Christianity as behavior management instead of a faith covenant.

FYI:  Do you think we underestimate what kids and teenagers can handle in exploring issues of their faith?

Chuck:  I do.  However, I would say that kids will go as deep as we will take them.  And I would emphasize the words take them.  We have to meet them where they are and bring them along.


This article was originally published at in November 2008.

This article also appears in the November/December 2008 issue of The Journal of Student Ministries, reprinted with permission.

  1. James E. Marcia, "Development and validation of ego identity status." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-558, 1966. Also James E. Marcia, "Identity in Adolescence," In Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, ed. Joseph Adelson, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1980).
  2. To read more about the identity process, as well as the role of worship in identity formation, see the articles "Through the Zone: Creating Rites of Passage in Your Church" and "Singing Ourselves Nowhere: The Like-it-or-not Impact of Worship on Identity Formation."
  3. The study was conducted in 1994 with two retests in 1995 and 1996.  Each found the same patterns.
  4. Gerald R Adams, The Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status:  A Reference Manual, 1998.  This study was conducted by Adams and Montemayor in 1987.
  5. For the full interview with Chuck Bomar, visit


Helping Students Make Sense of their Experiences

Aug 11, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

For the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1 John 4:4b (NRSV)

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28 (NRSV)

In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! John 16:33b (NRSV)

For many followers of Jesus, these Scripture verses are in the “Hall of Fame.” They are go-to verses in worship, discipleship, and times of trouble. We love these verses.

Specifically, we love these verses because of the new perspective – the new meaning – they offer to our present circumstances. Interpreted properly in context, they can help us understand our lives in wise, comforting, appropriate ways, when we might have otherwise ended up confused or hopeless. In other words, these verses can help us to make better meaning.

Proper meaning-making is profoundly important, because it affects just about everything: the ways we work, sleep, dress, spend our time and money, view ourselves/others/the world/God... the list goes on. Fuller’s Hugh DePree Professor of Leadership Scott Cormode explains in Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters that our primary job as leaders is to provide “an interpretive framework for people who want to live faithful lives.” 1  For Cormode, leaders both in the Christian and secular spheres too often tend to be either authoritarian managers of hierarchy, or egalitarian enablers who support those they empower. Instead, Cormode suggests that “the best leaders give people the tools to think for themselves.”

Among the most powerful, effective tools a leader can offer to others – especially to students – is the ability to view their lives from God’s perspective. In other words, we have the opportunity to help students make meaning of their lives based on their identity in Jesus. For example, sixteen year-old Claudia shares that her parents are getting divorced, or her grandmother has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or her classmate is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is (truth be told, it is not uncommon for a student to be dealing with all three of these things at once, and even more). There are lots of various meanings she can derive from, and in the midst of, these life experiences. How do we help her move forward? How do we help her meet Jesus in these places?

How can we help her make good meaning?

There Is No Such Thing As Obvious

Without realizing it, we can easily start to believe that some things in life are just plain. For instance, you are walking on the sidewalk in front of a bank when an armored car stops on the curb, two men in uniform with thick canvas bags and shiny submachine guns jump out and enter the bank. Obviously, this is a routine pickup from a security company. But why not a carefully orchestrated robbery? Or training drill? Or hidden-camera show? The evidence supports each scenario. However, our minds automatically select the option that makes the most sense based on our past experiences, level of cultural awareness, etc. When that selection process is nearly instantaneous, we call the answer “obvious.”

But there is no such thing as truly “obvious,” because no event ever has a singular, unmistakable meaning to all people in all places. Each new President is hailed as a savior by some and a villain by others. Soccer is pure glory for some, pure monotony for others. And the cross is either a sign of mercy and love, or the symbol of a hoax that has fooled the world for millennia. And just because it is obvious to me that so-and-so was a great President, soccer is amazing, and the cross is salvation, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to someone else. It is all a matter of interpretation and meaning-making, and the speed at which we do each.

We’re All “Writers”

The human brain does not simply catalog new experiences into unique, non-overlapping “memory slots.” Instead, our brains naturally assemble our experiences into a “cohesive story that allows us to integrate selected moments into our sense of who we are. Stories are used to organize, predict, and understand the complexities of our lived experiences.” 2  By the time children reach third grade, they are already able to recount individual experiences in single coherent stories, and by eighth grade most can tell their life story as one unified narrative. 3

In other words, when Claudia learned her parents were getting divorced, her brain instantly began the process of “writing” that new information into a singular “life story” by which she determines her identity, forms her worldview, and creates expectations for the future. Helping students make good meaning begins with identifying the ways they already “write” their story. A small sampling of things I have observed Lake Avenue Church students “writing” recently: I love my family but I can only trust my friends; hard work is the way to success; I can do what I want as long as I’m not hurting anyone; I am good at almost everything (yes, really).

Our First Responsibility

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” 4

Max De Pree wrote that phrase in his seminal book Leadership is an Art, and meaning-making is exactly what he was talking about. Students are in significant need of good meaning-making tools. They are navigating adult-sized experiences with kid-sized resources; that is to say, the joys and pains they encounter in their school years are fully grown, while their ability to process those things and make healthy decisions is still developing. 5

Parents and youth workers have the opportunity to partner together to offer those adult-sized resources. When it comes to making meaning for students – choosing the story that will help them understand their lives – we can offer the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, if “reality” includes things like the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, holistic transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the redemption of all creation, then any student who is unaware of these things is making meaning with insufficient tools. By properly defining reality and guiding the process of meaning-making, we can help students like Claudia understand that even in the midst of divorce (or illness or crisis of any kind), there is the potential for peace and even joy.

Tell Me A Story

It all comes back to the framework of “narrative.” We must tell stories if we hope to influence the grand story that students are already “writing” about their lives. As Cormode has written, people (of all ages) attempt to find a story that makes the most sense of a situation, and will compare competing stories against one another in order to select the one that makes the most sense. 6  As youth workers, it is incumbent upon us to offer students and families a set of stories and vocabulary that can help them make sense of their circumstances. Offering things like a theology of suffering or instruction on resurrection is helpful, and what will help make it “stick” is a story of that theology in action.

Let me illustrate this using Claudia’s parents’ impending divorce. We might first affirm her feelings of confusion/anger/sadness, and then share how God loves her and her parents, and hates the pain that they are all suffering. The narratives Claudia might have at this point are (a) it’s my fault, I’m a bad kid; (b) one parent is the culprit and the other the victim; and/or (c) God does not exist, or if he does, he hates us or has forgotten about us. These are all “stories” that attempt to make sense of the facts she has been given.

The most effective way to help Claudia move forward may be to speak into the stories she is evaluating. We have the opportunity to offer a different story. For instance, we might share the story of the resurrection, and how God brings new life from death. We can share stories of the power of the Holy Spirit, both from Scripture and from our own experiences. We can offer Claudia a vision of a better future made possible by God’s grace. As Cormode explains, we take our own stories, our people’s stories, and God’s story, and then weave them together to create a shared story of future hope.

Love Takes Time

No less a theologian than Mariah Carey reminds us that sometimes the process of transformation is exactly that: a process. 7  The students and families in our lives will oftentimes either be too comfortable or too hurt to change immediately the way they “write” their stories. Students like Claudia have deep-seated anger, confusion, and shame, and none of these will dissipate overnight.

In these moments, let us remember that not even Jesus could control the meaning that his hearers made, and yet he remained consistently loving. Our task is to continue creating categories, stories, vocabulary, and meanings that others can adopt for themselves, 8  and keep telling them over and over until they take root.

Action Steps

  1. Check out an online news source, find a top story, and expand it to see all the related articles from the various sources.  Then take note of how the headline profoundly shapes your initial impressions of the event. For instance, “Dow Soars Above 12000 on AT&T Deal for T-Mobile” strikes a different chord for me than “AT&T Merger Unlikely to Benefit Consumers.”
  2. Take inventory of the go-to words, phrases, stories, etc. in your church in general, and youth ministry in particular. We all have vocabulary that we use frequently. Identifying what we already say can help us figure out how we want to go forward. For instance, at my church, we often use the phrases “God’s unexpected family,” “worship, community, service,” “a Revelation 7:9 church” (referring to cultural diversity), and “our purpose is to reflect our God to our world with our lives.” When students are facing loss or disappointment, I have a few stories that I almost always go to, like illnesses or deaths in my family, or the time when I was cut from the soccer team, or instances when I needed to repent and receive forgiveness. What are your core phrases and stories, and what kind of meaning are they creating?
  3. Make a short list of words, phrases, Bible passages, or even short sentences that you’d hope students remember from their time in the youth group. For instance: grace by faith not works, God is good all the time, worship is a lifestyle, etc.
  4. Equip your staff with the ability to identify the way students are writing their stories. Based on what Johnny or Lizet says and how they behave, what story or stories seem to be guiding them?


  1. Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), x.
  2. Laurel J. Kiser, Barbara Baumgardner, Joyce Dorado, “Who are we, but for the stories we tell: Family stories and healing” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy Vol 2(3), Sep, 2010: 243-249.
  3. Annette Bohn, Dorthe Berntsen, “Life story development in childhood: The development of life story abilities and the acquisition of cultural life scripts from late middle childhood to adolescence” Developmental Psychology Vol 44(4), Jul 2008: 1135-1147.
  4. Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1989), 11.
  5. Jesse Oakes,Recruiting Volunteers: Lessons from One Church’s Journey, accessed 31 January 2011.
  6. Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 28-36.
  7. Mariah Carey and Ben Margulies, “Love Takes Time,” performed by Mariah Carey, album Mariah Carey 1990, Columbia Records.
  8. Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense, 54

Your God Is Too Small

Charting Students’ Changing Views of God

Aug 11, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

I (Kara) love the title of the book Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips.  It reminds me of the desire I have to experience more of God’s bigness, both for myself and as well as for teenagers.  In his introduction, Phillips writes:

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for [current] needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions…their ideas of God have remained largely static.  1

This trouble echoes a theme emerging in our College Transition Project.  Thanks in part to a grant from the Lilly Endowment, we at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) have studied over 500 high school seniors during their first three years in college.  Previous research seems to suggest that at least one-third (if not close to one-half) of youth group seniors struggle with their faith and with connecting to a faith community after graduating from youth group.  2   The goals of our research are to understand the challenges of transitioning out of youth group and provide leaders, parents, churches, and kids themselves with the tools they need to develop faith that sticks long-term.

In FYI’s College Transition Project, former youth group students were asked two to three years after finishing high school, “Since leaving high school, what's changed about the way you view God?”  They gave fourteen different types of responses to this open-ended question, ranging from “I don’t think it has changed much,” to “I have no more relationship with God,” to “I have experienced God's faithfulness more deeply than I ever understood it in high school.”

Interestingly, the top three categories of change are all positive changes.  In order, they are:

1. Feeling closer to God

2. Believing that God is bigger than they once thought

3. Having a greater understanding that God is with them and for them

“I’m closer to God now”

The largest single category of responses consisted of those who identified being closer to God overall.  If you read the question and answer back to back, you’ll probably notice that being closer to God is not really a change in how one views God.  The wonderful thing about open ended questions, though, is that students explained why they feel closer to God now.  In the midst of their reasons, two themes emerge that more directly address what’s changed in how they view God.

Theme 1: I view God as a more integral part of my everyday life, so we are closer now.

The majority of responses in which students felt closer to God included some description of other perspectives and practices that showed how they had integrated their faith with their everyday lives.  They said that they now see God as more active, involved, and important in their day to day reality.  One student described this shift in perspective by saying, “I view God on a much more individual level and feel as though he is much more a part of my life, mostly because I allow him to be more a part of it.”  Another student expressed, “Since high school I have realized that God is the most important and he is not just a Sunday or Wednesday thing; he is everyday, every minute, and should really be in control of everything, not me.”  Many students cited spiritual disciplines and involvement in Christian communities as sources of or support for their faith integration.

Theme 2:  I view God as someone who is with me when life is hard, so we are closer now.

Many respondents who talked about being closer to God also cited that they had struggled or faced adversity.  For these students, the difficulties caused them to see God as both active in their lives and connected to their experiences.  One student explained, “My relationship with God since leaving high school has been a roller coaster. At first, it may sound like a negative thing, but it isn't necessarily. We all need those little dips in order to bring ourselves to a higher understanding of God's glory and power.”  The “post-high school roller coaster”, as this student labeled it, was a chance to see God in new ways.  In a similar way, some students felt that their faith in God was more authentic because they had worked through difficulties.  Another student claimed, “I think my faith finally got really serious to me… God is SO real, and so important in my life. My faith finally got hard and inconvenient, which I think makes my faith REAL.”

“God is bigger now than before”

The second category of responses represent students who found that there is more to who God is and more to following God in real life than they thought in high school.  One student explained,

I used to view God as being inside a nice little box that could easily be explained to anybody… Through studying and experiencing God, I have given up on trying to put God inside of a box and I have given up on trying to attempt to explain all of the details about who he is.  Basically, I have encountered the living and uncontrollable God in the Bible.

This response reflects a common theme.  Students who once thought God existed to serve them, or “had a genie mentality” as one explained, “now see that there are some things that [God] will say no to. He's not subject to our will but we are subject to his.”  Respondents consistently mentioned their new perspective that God is more sovereign, less black and white, and more powerful than they had thought in the past.

Interestingly, like those who felt closer to God, the theme of integrating faith and everyday life surfaced again in this category of answers.  For some of these respondents, seeing God as bigger than before (or less under their own control) was connected to a new belief that God deserves to be more involved in their lives.  One respondent explained how they have a greater sense of God’s sovereignty and power.  They now see their relationship with God in light of those attributes, so “it affects the way I spend my money, the way I spend my time, the career path I choose, the way I treat my body, the way I treat the environment…”

“Now I see that God is with me and for me”

The third most common response to the question, “Since leaving high school, what's changed about the way you view God?” centers around God’s goodness in the student’s life.  Compared to their attitudes in high school, they now perceive that God loves them more, gives more grace, or is more faithful than previously thought.  These students have a greater sense that God will be with them.  But more than just God’s nearness, these answers reflect a greater confidence in God’s love towards them.  One wrote, “I realized that he'll never give up on me, no matter what kind of stupid stuff I get myself into, or how many times I doubt him, or even if I think I want him to leave me alone, he never will. God is so patient with me.”

In other words, students believe—more than before—that God really does want what is best for them. God is full of love and grace for them; God’s not there to condemn them for their mistakes.  As one student explained, “In high school I always felt guilty when I did something wrong, and I've learned that I don't need to feel guilty.  I've got a better picture of God's mercy and understand now that his grace is sufficient.”  For these students, life after high school included an increased confidence in God’s goodness and grace towards them.

Implications for Youth Workers

Overall, these themes reflect the positive changes of a greater integration of faith and everyday life, walking with God through problems, seeing God’s character more clearly, and trusting God’s love and grace more fully.  As leaders, we applaud these types of changes for our youth group graduates.  We want their view of God to expand and deepen as they grow.  The question is, how can we help shape high school students’ views of God now so that they continue to grow and change in positive ways after they graduate?  We can begin to answer that question by thinking about the ways we engage with both our students and our teams.

Engaging with Students

Students who said they were closer to God or that God was bigger now than before often identified ways that God was connected to the details of their everyday lives.  As youth leaders, how can your interactions with students connect faith and real life more?  You can, and more than likely will, use a variety of approaches.  Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1. Create case studies set in school, at home, or in group scenarios in order to have kids think about how their faith would affect a specific decision in a real life setting.  These case studies could involve a complex situation, such as how to respond to a friend who is unsure about their sexual orientation, what friendships with non-believers should look like, or whether or not it’s okay to go to a party with alcohol if you don’t drink.  You could also present a situation with a clear “right answer” where they brainstorm as many ways to fulfill that goal as possible (answering questions like “What would it look like for you to give grace to your enemies?”). The goal of these case studies is to use storytelling to help students connect their faith to real life decisions they make and situations they experience.

2. As kids share personal problems with you, ask questions about how they see God in that situation.  Where is God in the situation?  Is God near or far?  Is God supportive, angry, apathetic, or pleased?  Asking these types of questions can help adolescents look for God’s activity in their current experiences.

3. In other aspects of our College Transition Project research, we’ve seen that youth group graduates have trouble seeing how their faith relates to their time and money.  In the midst of a culture that communicates that our time and money are our own to spend as we wish, how can we help students see those as integral to their faith?  As we help our students give their time and money to Kingdom work, they are more likely to catch on that these things are not their own in the first place.  Help your students learn tangible ways to become more generous with these assets and to see that every decision about time and money reflects our faith in some way.

4.  Share with your students the ways you are continuing to learn about God’s big-ness, God’s presence, and the way your faith integrates with your life.  So often our students forget that just like them, we are on our own spiritual journeys, with God nudging and transforming us along the way.  The best way for students to understand the ways we are seeing more of God is for us to…well…tell them.

5. In a similar vein, get parents and college students involved in sharing how their own views of God have changed since they were in high school.  Perhaps host a parent panel or invite parents individually to share their testimonies or faith journeys with your group, and then do the same with former group members who are now in college.

6. Other research through the National Study of Youth and Religion suggests that high school students in the U.S. tend to see God more as a “divine butler” who jumps at our beck and call to help us feel better or make good moral choices.  3   Consider ways to expose and explore some of these common fallacies kids hold about the nature of God and the ways God interacts with people and the world.  This may become part of your teaching or small group content strategy, or it may become a lens through which you view one-on-one conversations with kids about faith.

Engaging Your Team

As a youth worker, how can you engage your full ministry team to help students understand more of God’s character?  Because of the vastness of God’s character, we suggest you engage your team through a versatile brainstorming tool called “three ways.”

When I (Meredith) watch the Food Network, chefs often offer a dish with one ingredient prepared three ways.  “You have salmon, three ways,” they explain, “a salmon carpaccio, a lightly breaded and fried salmon cake, and a salmon tartar.”  The chef wants the diner to experience salmon in a variety of forms.  We can take the same approach to exploring an attribute of God.

So, for example, you and your team might brainstorm together how you could offer God’s grace to your students in three different ways.  Perhaps you would come up with ideas like this:

  1. Creating a time of interactive worship in which students reflect on grace through songs and prayers, and write confessions to God and symbolically experience God’s grace through an activity such as leaving the confessions at the foot of a cross, burning them or tearing them up.
  2. In a smaller group setting, inviting students to make face to face confessions to one another.  Help them learn how to do this, giving them possible ways to share their confession as well as ways to convey forgiveness for another person verbally.
  3. When a situation arises that requires discipline and perhaps even a punishment to be given to a student, it may be an opportunity to offer them grace or advocate for grace on their behalf.

Your team could select a few of the attributes of God’s character that you know your kids need to experience or explore more deeply, then work together to develop three ways to convey that.

Focusing intentionally on helping your middle and high school students integrate life and faith and know who God is can help shape their view of God now and hopefully contribute to positive changes in their view of God after high school.  May we creatively help our students reimagine their life stories so they realize our God is not too small.

Action Points

  • If you were to ask the teenagers in your own ministry, how do you think they would describe God? What attributes or characteristics do you think they would emphasize?  Consider actually asking a few students this week, or informally surveying your whole ministry to get a pulse for how they view God.  Then follow up with a team discussion about what you learn.
  • Develop one of the ideas shared above for “engaging students” in your context.
  • Explore with your ministry team how the “three ways” tool might help you develop multiple avenues for communicating aspects of God’s character to students. Then choose one character trait to emphasize this month and brainstorm three ways to engage it!

This article was originally published at in December 2009.

  1. J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 7.
  2. 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 Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 105, 108, 109, and 116.
  3. See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Stuck At No

How Better Conflict Skills Can Improve Your Ministry

Aug 10, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

Our Family Ministries parent meeting had just finished, and I was doing the “pastoral” thing – standing in the back of the room smiling at people as they filed out the door – when an 8th grader’s mom approached me.  “I just wanted to let you know,” she said, “that Nate’s had a wonderful time in Middle School these last three years and we really appreciate all you’ve done.”

It was one of those comments you get from time to time and take with a grain of salt, knowing that there are at least an equal number of parents willing to tell you the opposite if given the chance. I thanked her and told her how much I’ve enjoyed having her son involved in our ministry.

“I know we got off to kind of a rocky start,” she continued, “but I’m glad things have turned out the way they have.”  She smiled and walked out, leaving me racking my brain to figure out what she was referring to.

After a while, I did remember having some sort of conflict with her.  What was that about again? Eventually I remembered a brief clash over the behavior of another boy in her son’s cabin at summer camp.  She wanted to know why we weren’t “in control” of certain kids so they didn’t expose others to inappropriate things.  After all, this was a Christian camp, wasn’t it?

The conversation quickly went south, if I recall correctly, when I reminded her that these were middle schoolers we were talking about.  It wasn’t what an incoming 6th grader’s mom wanted to hear.

Having been duly sparked, my memory started running through all the other conflicts I’d gotten into with both parents and senior leadership, from the mild (“Why don’t we do …[fill in the blank]?”), to the unforeseen (inviting kids to see the latest Harry Potter apparently doesn’t fly here) to the flat-out discouraging (“The kids aren’t enjoying middle school as much as before you came”).  Truth is, every incident that came to mind I know I could have handled better, which I suppose is part of why they were memorable in the first place.  And, despite what I’d like to think, the reason things didn’t go very well had more to do with my own ego than the unreasonableness of the other side.

Getting Past No

As William Ury points out in his book on negotiation, Getting Past No,  1  the natural human tendency when faced with conflict is to strike back.  We get defensive, offer excuses, or fight fire with fire.  And while such tactics might feel good in the moment, the reality is they don’t resolve the conflict. Instead they escalate it.  Power plays, Ury writes, just don’t work, in business or in life, because even if you “win” on this occasion, the damage to your relationship with the other person ensures that you will both lose in the long term.

If this is true in business, it’s even more true in the Church.  Beyond the question of what “works”, the vision that Christ gives his church compels us to approach conflict in a very unnatural sort of way.  As Jesus taught and put on display, the Gospel requires us to deal with conflict using radically different strategies than conventional fight-fire-with-fire tactics.  Instead, we are called to act consistently with grace, love, and respect.  Ego and power plays really don’t belong.  As Bill Hybels writes in Axiom, we need to “disagree without drawing blood.” 2

We know this, of course, but something inside of us chafes at it.  After all, what’s the alternative?  Are we supposed to just give in?  Does love mean not getting our way?  Should we listen politely and then ignore everything our critics say?  Or is there a better way?

In response to these concerns, Ury offers a five-step process (plus one pre-step) for approaching conflict that is useful in any setting, including youth ministry.

0) Prepare, Prepare, Prepare.

While conflicts do sometimes arise out of the blue, we often have some warning that they’re coming, and it pays to be prepared.  Youth workers, for good or bad, have something of a reputation for “winging it,” and this is not a time to fulfill the stereotype.  Think through your own emotions and objectives.  Then, as much as possible, put yourself in the other person’s shoes to do the same.  Try to anticipate what they want out of the conversation, and what they might say or do.  You won’t be able to foresee everything that might happen, but having fewer surprises sets you up to handle things well.  Plus, having well thought-out responses and objectives makes it way more likely that you will be heard when the conversation actually takes place.

1) Go To the Balcony.

Unfortunately, no amount of preparation fully prepares you for what you may feel when the attack comes. So when the inevitable urge to strike back and be defensive arises, take a deep breath and, like looking down from a balcony, try to get above it all.  As Ury says, “Objects react.  Minds choose not to…you need to step back, collect your wits, and see the situation objectively.”   3

This step is the key to all the rest because, as I’m sure you’ve experienced too, our reactions can quickly derail whatever conversation we might be having.  Sometimes a person will unknowingly push one of our buttons, other times we’ll be facing someone who knows that they can get power by provoking a reaction.  Whatever the case may be, staying calmand in control is crucial if we want to handle the conflict well.

Ury suggests a few strategies for getting to the balcony when things get heated:

  • We can pause and say nothing until we’re ready to respond well.
  • We can “rewind the tape” (a kind of dated analogy, but you get the point), walking back through what a person has said using phrases like “Help me understand” or “If I understand correctly you’re saying…” 4
  • Or, if nothing else works we can call a time-out, get some water, or take a bathroom break.

Whatever you need to do, get to the balcony!

2) Step to Their Side.

When someone attacks us or tries to power up, they’re expecting us to react in kind.  By doing something unexpected, we can take away the power of their attack.  The most effective way to do this is to step over to their side of the argument.  Rather than trying to reason with them or fix things, begin by listening – actively.  Make eye contact, nod, give verbal and non-verbal cues that you are hearing them, and paraphrase back what they have said to confirm you understand.

Ury argues that often, once the person feels heard, they will be more receptive to hearing you.  As you listen, try to get a strong understanding of the other person’s motivations and hidden interests, as well as where you share common ground and can agree.  Once they’ve finished, begin with where you agree, and show them that you value both them and the concerns they have.  Finally, defend yourself and your position in a way that won’t provoke by focusing on common ground.  This step is all about laying a strong foundation for steps three through five. 

3) Reframe.

Here is where you try to change the game by moving from a “me vs. you” to a “we” situation.  Hopefully you’ve been able to show that you take the other person seriously and genuinely want to work through this conflict to a solution.  Now build on that by explaining to them how you see the issue, emphasizing points of agreement.  If the other person doesn’t understand certain key issues, don’t tell them what they should think.  Instead ask them questions that allow “the problem [to] be their teacher.” 5 Walk them through the issues they may not have seen by asking questions that show you value them and their opinion.

Maybe the issue (as in the initial story) is centered on the language a certain boy used at camp.  Chances are the complaining parent hasn’t thoroughly thought through the reality that it isn’t possible or desirable to only let “good kids” attend summer camp, or to be closely chaperoning all kids at all times when there.  Instead of impatiently explaining this, ask questions like, “What do you think we should do when a kid we don’t know well wants to come to camp?”  Or, “One of the great things about camp is the chance for kids to have new experiences and a little more freedom than usual.  How do you think we could balance that better with preventing inappropriate behavior?”  Listen carefully to the answers; they may have some really helpful things to say!

Through it all, watch your tone and body language to make sure you aren’t coming across hostile or on edge. This may be the most significant challenge of all, so be sure to pay attention!

4) Build a Golden Bridge Toward a Solution.

Usually the person you’re in conflict with has talked this situation over with others before they came to you.  In the case of a frustrated parent, those “others” may have included other parents, members of the elder board, the pastor, or their kids.  This parent, therefore, starts the confrontation concerned that if they don’t get their way they will lose face in those other relationships.  What we can do is create an exit strategy for them that preserves their dignity.  Basically, we want to give them a narrative that frames what happened as a positive, so instead of “retreating” they’re actually “advancing to a better solution.” 6

If a parent has safety concerns, for example, you might invite them to help chaperone the next event and then give feedback on what could be improved in the future.  If the concern has to do with the depth of Sunday morning services, maybe you could agree to host a meeting with parents to gauge interest in a separate, more in-depth Bible study.

This can take many forms, but again, preparation is key.  Have some possible “Golden Bridges” planned out before you begin, so you can easily offer them a way out that also helps them save face.  To do this, ask for their help in developing a solution, use and refer to their ideas as much as possible, and look for concessions you can make that will be big deals to them.

5) Don’t Force; Educate.

When things seem to have stalled, the answer is not to go back to our default mode and begin the attack.   Instead, we should “use power to bring them to their senses, not their knees.” 7  Hopefully at this point you’ve developed a positive working relationship with the other person, so continue to ask leading questions that will help them see your side and where you can get together. Don’t pressure them into something they aren’t comfortable with; remember, you want the other person to walk away feeling affirmed, heard, and valued.

Beyond Just Nice

Conflict isn’t the sort of thing we go out searching for, unless of course we have some sort of pathology that probably should be addressed before we continue in Christian ministry.  Conflict’s uncomfortable, it’s painful, and it’s messy.  Conflict results in broken unity, busted relationships, and battered people.  And really, conflict usually ends in the sort of lose-lose situation we want to avoid.  It’s enough to make you wonder, is it really worth it?  Or am I better off just trying to be (as one of my seminary professors put it) a nice pastor in a nice church surrounded by nice people?

Unfortunately for us, niceness isn’t always the default setting in church.  We aren’t called to deal with idealized, happy, glowing-with-an-aura-of-nice sorts of people; we’re called to deal with reality.  And in reality, there’s conflict.  Our job is to deal with conflict in a way that is both productive and Christlike. Ury’s framework offers us a chance to do just that.  Sounds like a win-win to me.

Action Steps

  • Think back to a recent conflict that didn’t go as you hoped (could be with a parent, senior pastor, kid, spouse, or volunteer).  Which of Ury’s steps would have made the most difference had you practiced them in that incident?
  • The next time you see a conflict coming, take time to prepare before the storm hits. Consider what current issue or relationship is likely to raise conflict over the next few weeks and practice the pre-step strategies above in advance.
  • Plan out some strategies for “getting to the balcony” that will work for you when things get unexpectedly heated.  If you don’t have good reframing words and phrases in your vocabulary, practice saying them until they can become part of the way you handle conversations that move toward conflict.

This article was originally published at in July 2011.

  1. Ury, William, Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations, New York: Bantam, 2007.
  2. Hybels, Bill, Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008, 106-107.
  3. Ury, 37.
  4. This is also a tactic that Hybels suggests in Axiom. See pp.110-111.
  5. Ury, p. 80.
  6. Ury, p. 109
  7. Ury, p. 133

Take the Leap

Growth Through Risk

Aug 10, 2011 Fuller Youth Institute

July, 1987. High noon. A day that would live in infamy. On the pool deck, one terrified five year-old boy in elastic-waist swim trunks trying to fathom how plunging in headfirst would result in anything but certain death. In the water, one supremely confident father, also in elastic-waist swim trunks, patiently attempting to persuade his eldest son to dive. Elaborate bribes of candy and playtime were thrown around like rice at a cartoon wedding.

We must have been quite a sight for the lifeguards and other families at the pool that day. Back and forth we went for at least fifteen minutes, like two wrestlers angling tirelessly for leverage, neither quite gaining the upper hand long enough to pin the other. Until my Pops finally won. I fixed my gaze on the spot next to him, placed my right hand on top of my left and made a pyramid above my head. I then took a deep breath, leaned forward, closed my eyes, and waited for the reaper to take me.


My first dive.

Later that night, my dad proudly reminded me of my feat. I dived, and yet lived. I learned a lot that day about risk, trust, and courage. Those lessons, which came at such a high price to my young nerves, have paid many dividends in the decades since. Whether it was playing a big soccer game, learning a new instrument, applying to colleges, or asking my wife to marry me, my decision making abilities have been influenced, and significantly so, by my first dive. One might say it has helped with every leap since.

Cute story? Yes. But I may have done you a disservice by presenting it so simply. I may have derived some positive and useful lessons from that day, but in fairness I could have just as easily walked away with negative ones. For instance, “The Dive” could have been the birth of a paralyzing lifelong phobia of water, or elastic. It could have buried a splinter of suspicion between my father and me that years later festered into full-blown distrust. I walked away with a willingness to take risks, but I could have walked a way with a compulsion to avoid them. Here’s the difference-maker: interpretation.

Making Sense of Experience

My parents made a conscious and consistent effort to help me process that day in ways that were healthy. We’ve had plenty of laughs about it, sure, but we’ve also had a number of fruitful discussions to help me derive some really great outcomes from a scenario that might otherwise have led to some really bad ones. In other words, it is not strictly speaking the event that shaped me, but the interpretation of it – and my parents played a key role in that interpretive process.

During the journey of adolescence, young people become worker bees of interpretation, constantly examining the events of their lives from a variety of angles – some of which they have never considered before. Most everyone in a student’s life – family, peers, youth workers, coaches, even their Facebook friends – has some kind of opportunity to influence her interpretive mechanisms. Without a doubt, a large portion of my job as a youth pastor could be accurately described as equipping students to interpret their lives and their world through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Parents have already been doing this with their children long before I ever enter the picture.

Many, if not most, of these opportunities to teach interpretation occur spontaneously. However, what if we did not have to wait for fate to arbitrarily send these opportunities our way? What if we could create planned, thought-provoking opportunities and then help students make sense of them afterward?

I am not talking about trying to control every event in a student’s life (as if that were even possible), but rather strategically offering experiences that have the potential to challenge and stretch students, and then being a key part of the process of challenging and stretching.

This happens every time parents take their child to serve the homeless and afterward debrief things like poverty and helping others, or when a youth group takes students river rafting and then later leverages the experience into a conversation about community and our need for one another that evening around the campfire. The key element here isrisk, because it compels the student toward new thoughts and decisions. Without realizing it, many parents and youth workers already understand and believe in this model. Hopefully, by adding a little research-based context, we can maximize our future efforts in this vein for the benefit of students.

Anatomy of a Decision

Nearly fifty years ago, psychologist James Marcia published a theory of adolescent identity development that has been enriching research, parenting, and youth work ever since.   1  He argues that the two central criteria which mitigate a student’s journey through adolescence are exploration and commitmentexploration describes a student earnestly considering things like vocation, friends, sex, God, etc., and commitment is the moment when that student begins to make life choices based on her discoveries.

Marcia also observed something that parents and youth workers have long known from experience: some decisions are the result of a long process of balanced thought, while other decisions are not. Marcia nuances this into the following four categories:   2

  1. Identity diffusion occurs when a student is unable to, or not interested, in making a commitment to any particular identity. The 14-year-old girl who wanders in and out of youth group as predictably as she wanders from relationship to relationship with guys is diffused. She’s not looking to figure out who she really is – yet.
  2. Foreclosure occurs when students embrace clear commitments, but they’re really the commitments of their parents or culture, chosen without exploring options.
  3. Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a student wants to be.
  4. Those who resolve moratorium by making clear commitments have reached identity Achievement.

The following diagram may help:

By default, many if not most young people are either foreclosed or diffused on major issues (e.g. faith, sexuality, and so forth), meaning their views are either mainly those of their parents/coaches/youth workers/friends (foreclosed), or partially formed but amazingly easy to sway (diffused). Adolescence, after all, is a time of (re)establishing oneself as an individual in light of and against prior contexts.

In Marcia’s system, it is personal crisis that acts as a catalyst in the formation of a personalized individual identity, i.e. the “real me” that students are working so hard to forge. Precisely at this time is when parents and youth workers can utilize the controlled risk involved in experiences like rock climbing, snow camping, or justice experiences like World Vision’s 30-Hour Famine. In Marcia’s terminology, the element of risk here is “moratorium,” providing a powerful, attention-getting opportunity to help students think in new ways about what they believe. Ideally, a student emerges from one of these experiences with a commitment nurtured by the information we give them, and empowered by the fact that they – themselves – chose it.

The High Dive

An example might go like this: Annabelle is a high school senior whose grades and scores earned her a scholarship that would make her the first in her family to go to college, but the school is two states away, and Annabelle has never even left her area code. At first she was ambivalent (diffused), and then excited from the encouragement of her family (foreclosed)…until the reality of living far from home became more concrete (moratorium). The deadline to respond is edging closer, and Annabelle does not know what to do.

One Saturday morning, Annabelle’s mom takes her to the local indoor pool. They’ve done this before, and normally they swim a little and chat a lot. This time, however, Annabelle’s mom leaves her things on a chair, makes her way to the 10m platform, climbs all the way up and, to Annabelle’s shock, executes a perfect pencil dive into the water over thirty feet below. And then it’s Annabelle’s turn. After much gnashing of teeth, she finally gathers the gumption to duplicate her brave mother’s accomplishment.

Later, as they warm up over hot chocolate and celebrate their adrenaline high, Annabelle’s mother explains that even though she’s afraid of heights and was never particularly athletic, she always wanted to do that, and would not trade the feeling she has right now for anything. She explains that fear can help keep you alive, but when it dominates your decision-making, it can keep you from really living. By the end of their discussion, Annabelle realizes that the only thing holding her back from college is fear of the unknown.

Two weeks later, as she drops her acceptance letter to college into the mailbox, she remembers the feeling she had on the top of that high dive. She realizes that the decision she is making is not easy, nor risk free, but it is good.

The point is this: Annabelle’s mother brokered an experience of controlled risk and then guided the time of interpretation afterward.  Doing so awakened Annabelle to a reality she was not seeing, and gave her the ability to make an informed, wise decision.

Next Steps

What are your local “risk-rich” opportunities? Things like rock-climbing gyms (or real rocks), bodies of water, or go-kart tracks might be a good place to start. Who are some people who can resource “risk-rich” opportunities?

  • Make some calls. Can the places you’ve identified accommodate your family or group’s size and needs? Do you have to be 18 or over? (If so, what a great staff or family bonding exercise!) After that, make some site visits. It’s well worth the time it takes.
  • Cover your bases. If you are a youth worker, run the ideas by your supervisor(s), wise friends, key parents, and so forth. Also, permission slips are usually a good idea here!
  • Once you decide what to do, give plenty of advance notice to parents. It will equip them to participate in the process of post-event debrief and interpretation, and they will be much more forgiving if little Suzie indeed tweaks her hamstring or gets bit by a deer.
  • Recruit some students to be publicists. In my experience, most students jump at the chance to be the public face of something awesome. Their energy lends more credibility and momentum to an upcoming event than you and I could ever hope to generate.
  • Get by with a little help from your friends. The more adults can help out, the more the students can feel loved and be kept safe. This may be a great chance to invite some adventure-seeking types toward a unique, custom-fit role on the volunteer staff team.
  • Create time for your own post-event debrief to help students process and make meaning of their experiences in light of their ongoing identity development. If you're a parent, DON'T SKIP THIS PART!  With your own kids (and others if they've joined you), make space for this critically-important processing.


This article was originally published at in January 2011.


  1. James E. Marcia, “Development and Validation of Ego-Identity Status” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3(5), 1966: 551-558.
  2. As described in the upcoming publication from the Fuller Youth Institute Sticky Faith: Developing Faith That Will Last a Lifetime by Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford.