Forming Sticky Faith Every Day: New Series Starts in January

8-Week Curriculum and More

Dec 18, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute





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

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

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

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

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

Rhythms that will help them create Sticky Faith every day.

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

Each week of the curriculum we’ll provide:

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

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

3.     ideas families can try together.

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

The best part? It’s all free.

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

We hope you’ll join us!


Take me to the Sticky Faith Every Day Download page


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

Leading Through Conflict

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

Oct 01, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute


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

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

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




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

Transforming Mental Models

Sep 18, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Jesus was not done transforming their mental models. 

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

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

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

What would this look like in a church today? 

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

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



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

Sticky Faith Calendar Prompts

Aug 06, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Last Christmas, FYI regularly posted on Twitter and Facebook suggestions for youth workers to care for college students and connect with them when they returned home over break. As a youth minister, I (Matt) found these suggestions helpful. The suggestions were practical and fit well with the opportunities for connections that Christmas brings. Unfortunately, I had already planned on being with my extended family over Christmas and our ministry calendar was rather full, so the suggestions mostly went unheeded.

This made me wonder if there was a way to communicate Sticky Faith suggestions to the audiences that need them most in a manner that best fits their lifestyles. I know very few youth workers or parents who don’t use the term “busy” to describe their lives. What busy also means is that we often leave well-intentioned opportunities behind in an effort to deal with the urgent. Sticky Faith is best developed through being intentional with both how we spend our time and what we do. 

Leaders and parents need suggestions that prompt us to take actions that can encourage stickier faith in the lives of our churches and students. And we don’t always have time to go find ideas. So we created Sticky Faith Prompts.    

Sticky Faith Prompts currently includes three different online calendars with built-in prompts for three distinct audiences. These prompts are Sticky Faith suggestions intended to help the church and family keep holistic connectedness at the forefront of our minds. The Sticky Faith Prompts can easily be added to your iPhone, Outlook, iCal or Google calendar, which means the Prompts are available anywhere you can get to your digital calendar.

Sticky Faith Youth Worker Prompts

The Youth Worker Prompts are intended for leaders who are a part of the church’s youth ministry, specifically working with high school students. Other church leaders may find it a valuable resource for them as well, though. Youth Worker Prompts include both big picture suggestions and specific things that the youth worker can do to help develop Sticky Faith in the students they work with. While some prompts will help prepare students for college, others will focus on students who have left for college. Many prompts focus on students who are currently participating in the youth ministry and how best to connect them to the church, acknowledging that once they leave it’s exponentially more difficult to make those connections. These prompts will provide the youth worker with valuable Sticky Faith ideas throughout the year.

Sticky Faith High School Parent Prompts

The High School Parent Prompts are intended for parents whose kids are currently in high school. It could also be a valuable resource for adults who are investing in the lives of high school students. This calendar focuses specifically on activities that the family can do together. It gives parents some practical ideas of how to lead their children towards Sticky Faith, as well as how to intentionally work towards connecting their children to others in the church and the movement of God in the world. These prompts are also designed to lead towards and prepare families for the transition to college.

Sticky Faith Post-High School Parent Prompts

The Post-High School Parent Prompts are intended for parents who have college students, whether the college student lives at home or is studying abroad. It could also be a valuable resource for adults who have or are investing in the lives of college students. This calendar focuses on preventing college students from getting disconnected through various activities, conversations and check-ins. It also gives parents specific interaction and connection suggestions that can enrich their relationship with their college student. 

Let the Prompts Work for You

We are excited to offer these resources to you, another step towards intentionally moving towards Sticky Faith in your family and church. Follow the links below for the Prompts that best match your role in the life of students and put this tool to work.

We pray that the Prompts are a source of encouragement, not just another thing that you guilt yourself for not getting done.  Ultimately, the goal of the prompts is to encourage actions that promote Sticky Faith in all of us, especially the teenagers and young adults we care about.  

Get the Prompts Calendars Now





Spiritual Growth through Self-Authorship

Apr 23, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Spiritual growth.

Faith development.

Spiritual formation.

We use a variety of terms to describe how we help our students mature in living the life God has made them to live. The terms pepper our vision statements and websites, but if we’re honest they are difficult to define.

The charge we have as youth workers is to nurture growth. Whether you call it spiritual growth, faith development, spiritual formation, or something else, we face the formidable task of cultivating something in adolescents that mostly seems intangible

Whatever term we use, we are often expressing some of the following:

  • a student’s knowledge of God and the Christian story increasing
  • a student’s ability and willingness to internalize or “own” their faith
  • a set of beliefs by which students interact with their world and make sense of things
  • the process of acceptance into and participation with their faith community, denomination, or church
  • the work of God’s Spirit that is mysterious, unexplainable, and often only understandable through hindsight

Spiritual formation is all these things, and yet the sum of the parts seems like so much more.

These concepts are hard enough to define conceptually, but when we apply them to adolescents, the waters become even murkier. Take the story of Landon. Two years ago, I (Josh) went to summer retreat with 8th grade students. Landon came from a difficult home, seemed over-medicated, and was significantly more immature than his peers. Throughout the weekend we challenged the students in their faith, encouraging them to take the next step to which God was calling them. By my estimates at the time, Landon didn’t appear to make much progress.

Two days ago I talked with Landon again. He’s not the same 13 year-old he was in 8th grade. He’s 15 now, and he has definitely taken some of the steps in his faith that we challenged him to take two years ago on that retreat. His faith has matured—but is that simply because he has biologically and cognitively matured? I’d like to think that God had used the 8th grade retreat to make a difference, but is what I’m perceiving as spiritual growth also a mixture of the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social maturation he’s experiencing through puberty? Either way, it’s God who is making the changes in students like Landon.  As youth workers trying to join what God is doing, we want to know if there are better and more helpful ways. 

The more we analyze, describe and try to measure faith, the more elusive it often feels. This confounds most youth workers, leading them to argue that formation can’t or shouldn’t be measured or to reduce formation to simplistic behaviors.

We believe there’s a third way.

Growth and Transformation

Our pursuit of God is a transformative process.  The Apostle Paul describes this in his Epistle to the Roman Christians (12:1-2). Using the metaphors of their previous way of understanding the world, he instructs them, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed [italics added] by the renewing of your minds …”  Paul’s imperative for followers of Jesus is that they commit their whole person (body) completely (living sacrifice) to the process of resisting conformity to the world’s patterns (principally the violent patterns of the world that destroy life and relationships), and be transformed.

Transformation is the continual process of metamorphosis through the renewal of one’s center, leading to a more Christ-like way of living (“… that you may prove what is the good and acceptable will of God.”) This is a process that must ultimately be internally motivated, not dictated by a parent, teacher or youth worker. The result is not just Christian behavior. It is the way we follow Christ out of our deepest, most thought-out convictions.

Another name for this is self-authorship.

Jesus and Self-Authorship

What we assume when Paul exhorts Christians to be Christ-like (e.g., Colossians 1-2, Romans 8), is that he’s not asking us to literally say and do the exact same things Jesus did—otherwise, we’d all go around putting mud in people’s eyes, telling fishermen how to do their jobs, referring to religious leaders as snakes, and flipping over tables. The transformation process of becoming Christ-like means understanding ourselves and our world like Jesus understood himself and his world and then living and writing the story of our lives from that perspective.

Jesus understood his calling as Israel’s Messiah within God’s larger story of redemption for the whole world, and he lived in decisive ways that actually moved God’s story forward. Jesus lived as the co-author of God’s story, writing each new word on behalf of and with God. And as followers of this Messiah, we are also called to live this way. From this perspective, spiritual growth, faith development, and spiritual formation all point to our capacity, willingness, and intentionality toward joining Jesus in writing this grand Story—a story that is not only God’s story, but has become our story.

The concept of consciously living life as the author of your story is not solely theological. It is also psychological. In a 22-year study, researcher Marcia Baxter-Magolda has identified the concept of self-authorship, by which a person deeply and critically understands herself, her story, and her world, and lives accordingly. 1

Self-authorship theory proposes that people develop through three phases in life:

1.     Following formulas. In this phase, which lasts through childhood and much of adolescence, authority comes from outside the self—from parents and others. This external authority promises that fulfillment and satisfaction come from following certain formulas in life, relationships, career, etc.

2.     Crossroads. When a person begins to challenge those formulas or when the formulas do not deliver on their promises, the second phase begins. In this “Crossroads” phase, there is a tension between external and internal authority as a person places his own perspectives and thoughts alongside those given by parents and other authority figures.  This usually happens during the emerging adult years.

3.     Self-authorship. The final phase is reached at the point when the internal self becomes the authority, guide, and compass. Those who self-author balance their own expectations with others and are better able to maintain good relationships, make good decisions, and meet life’s challenges.

According to this framework, we are always answering three specific questions, and the process of answering them gives us the grounding and direction to self-author:

  • Who am I? (Intrapersonal)
  • How do I fit and relate with others? (Interpersonal)
  • How do I know what is true? (Cognitive)

As youth workers seeking to inspire spiritual growth in students, our teaching, mentoring, questions, and assessment also can be grounded in these three orienting elements. They raise the possibility of a holistic and transforming faith.

Ongoing Self-Authorship Questions of Identity, Belonging, and Mission

From our perspective, self-authorship is the goal for people’s spiritual formation. The goal is not so much an “arrival” as much as it a way of looking at the world that inspires mature, ongoing transformation. The concept of self-authorship is framed in the questions we ask and how we go about searching for answers. The quality is not merely in the answers but in the process of how we search for the answers. We have taken the concepts from Baxter-Magolda’s questions and adjusted them for our context by putting them into the categories of Identity, Belonging, and Mission. 

Identity: Who am I?

Belonging: What is my place?

Mission: Why am I here?

These are three questions that we’re all asking all the time, but this life-long journey to discover our Identity, Belonging, and Mission intensifies during the adolescent years.  With our students, we have situated the questions in terms of the good news of Jesus. Adolescents are constantly bombarded with potential answers to these three questions, but the good news is that our Identity can be made new and rediscovered in God, our Belonging is unconditional in the Church, and Christ invites us to join in his Mission. Here’s how it plays out for us and our students.

1. Identity

Who am I? This is the classic question of adolescence and is central to the human experience.  As youth workers, we encourage students to ask this question and to begin the life-long journey of answering it. Perhaps the best gift we can give our students is the freedom and security needed to begin the journey with imagination and without fear.

We must admit, however, that encouraging students to ask this question ignites a strong desire in youth workers to quickly and definitively answer it. We want to blurt out, “You are a person created in the image of God, you are a dearly loved child of God, a co-heir with Jesus, and God’s beloved!” But perhaps our impact can be deeper if we don’t simply give them the answer (like a movie spoiler), but rather invite them on a journey to discover their identity as God reveals it to them.  We want to affirm our students’ questions of identity and invite them to begin finding answers by asking a deeper question: “Who is God?” Jesus modeled this for us. He constantly found his identity in the Father who had sent him. We can see him doing this when he says things like, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

We have trained volunteers to teach students that this is not a formulaic process; it’s a mystical one.  When we have the courage to not only ask, “Who am I?” but to also ask, “Who is God?” the Spirit of God is faithful to take us on a journey of discovery that is rooted in the same story from which Jesus found his identity and self-authored his life.  This, of course, is the Good News—in Jesus, we are being re-made into the image of God. By God’s grace, we become co-authors with Jesus. God entrusts us to live in a way that actually moves God’s story forward, bringing life, restoration and redemption through Jesus’ Kingdom of grace and love.

2. Belonging

The process looks nearly identical with the question of Belonging: What is my place? In the same way that we are free to answer the question, “Who am I?”, we are also free to find an answer to this question of Belonging however we’d like.  But the good news is that God has created us and invited us to belong to God. As our students are asking, “What is my place?” we can help them to answer the question by inviting them to ask, “What is the Church?”

Again, we want to blurt out an answer that identifies the Church as the family of God. But we must create the space for our students to trust the Spirit of God to show them what it means to belong to Jesus’ Body and Bride by connecting them anew to this larger story of redemption. Then, like Jesus, each opportunity to include the outsider, extend forgiveness, offer reconciliation, live in community, and to show love isn’t just something good we should do as a Christian, but it is a chance to self-author, connecting our story to God’s larger story of redemption.

3. Mission

For some (unknown) reason, it is completely acceptable for adults to ask a twelve, fourteen or sixteen year-old the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” and expect an accurate answer.

Adolescents are increasingly bombarded with questions about what they are going to do with their life, yet in our context we see it as more helpful to invite students take a deeper look by encouraging them to discover their mission. “Why am I here?” is a question that goes beyond career or college choices, reaching to the depths of what it means to be human. We affirm whenever students ask this question, and we invite them to see the good news that we have been created and called to join the mission of Jesus.  So we encourage them not only to ask, “Why am I here?” but to also ask, “Why was Jesus here?” If students see themselves as connected to the mission of Jesus, they can become like him, self-authoring to bring about the fulfillment of his mission.

Prepared for the Life-long Journey

Encouraging the process of self-authorship through teaching young people to ask and answer their questions fuels a life-long faith journey. As youth workers, this approach gives us direction to work through the overwhelming complexities associated with development and the ability to resist the temptation of focusing merely on behaviors. Nurturing self-authorship encourages an ever-increasing (developmentally appropriate) capacity to see oneself and others as authors—authors who, like Jesus, live in decisive and intentional ways to join the Author in writing this magnificent, beautiful, blessed story of life, love, and restoration. This is the life-long journey youth workers are calling students toward. May our charge be nothing less.

 Action Points:

  • How are you defining spiritual growth? How do you think your students would define it? Ask leaders, parents, and students for their own take on defining spiritual growth/formation/maturity (whatever language you tend to use in your context).
  • How do you (and the other adults on your team) answer the questions, Who am I? What is my place? Why am I here? How are you helping students answer these questions?
  • What implications does the concept of “self-authorship” have for your ministry relationships and programming approaches?




  1. Baxter-Magolda, M. (2009). Authoring Your Life. Stylus Publishing

Q&A with Donald Miller & Steve Taylor

The FYI Blue Like Jazz Interview

Apr 10, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

The Blue Like Jazz movie releases around the country this weekend. I had the opportunity recently to sit down with the creators, author Donald Miller and filmmaker Steve Taylor, to talk about Sticky Faith themes within Blue Like Jazz and their hopes for young people who see the movie.

Watch this 6-minute synopsis of our interview and share it with other leaders and parents who are wondering about the film and its exploration of faith across the transition to college.




Free Discussion Guides for high school and college groups are available for download from Youth Specialties.




Dare to Disciplines

Spiritual Practices to Lead Teenagers Toward Deeper Faith

Apr 09, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

When the squirrels come to Jesus…

Our ninth-grade boys are affectionately known as “The Squirrels.”

The nickname captures their unceasing chatter and fast-twitch restlessness. So you can imagine the mix of excitement and fear that gripped me when every last one of them signed up for Winter Retreat. The weekend ended up a wild mix of sleeplessness, laughter, a few we-don’t-do-that conversations and some wonderful “aha” moments.

Near the end, Evan approached me and said he wanted to be a follower of Jesus. We celebrated and prayed, I encouraged him, and we agreed to meet soon to talk about next steps. He wasn’t 10 feet away when the thought hit me with a thud:

Next steps?!

Specifically, what next steps could I give this new believer so that he might know Jesus more? He was about to return to the routinized frenzy of school, sports, friends, and family. At most he could spend two hours per week at church stuff. Saying “read your Bible” or “pray” felt too simplistic and broad, and I also didn’t want to give him a laundry list of “don’ts.” But lest I do him a disservice, I had to give him something.

I was rescued from my inertia by another student, a senior, who wanted to ask me about some things he’d been thinking about. The conversation turned to prayer, and he marveled aloud how God had been so faithful over the previous year, and how he had seen this through his journal entries.  

And there was my answer for Evan: spiritual disciplines.

What are spiritual disciplines, and how can they be used in youth ministry?

Mythbusting Part I: Disciplines are Fringe & New Age-y

When I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” I was suspicious. They sounded like a Johnny-come-lately experiential fad that was cheekily attempting to replace tried-and-true practices like prayer and small groups.

But they aren’t that. In the first place, spiritual disciplines are not new; they are ancient. The Church has been blessed by them for centuries. Further, they are not so fringe; in fact, saying the Lord’s prayer, the ACTS prayer (a praying framework of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) or listening to worshipful music could all be considered spiritual disciplines. So could some other things I had already deemed orthodox, like journaling.

Disciplines Defined

So if spiritual disciplines aren’t new, what are they? Quite simply, spiritual disciplines are practices, exercises, and habits that create space for an encounter between God and us. Author and pastor Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains that the disciplines arose to meet peoples’ desire to know God more. They do not satisfy the longings of our souls by themselves, but rather prime us for the Spirit who does satisfy. 1

When my wife was in college, she found herself in a sorority house full of fun, intelligent girls but no sisters in Christ. Until she met one. And they committed to deepen their relationship. How? Coffee dates. Movie nights. Studying together. Walks around campus when the weather was good. Within weeks they were closer, and within months they had a bond that would extend beyond commencement.

And while they bonded over coffee and movies, it wasn’t the coffee and movies that bonded them. Coffee and movies merely provided the time and space for intimacy to occur.

Spiritual disciplines are like that. They are venues for us to be intimate with the Spirit, and for the Spirit to do its work in our lives. There are lots of different disciplines, many of which I’ve listed some at the end of this article. One of my favorite spiritual disciplines is focused, meditative reading of the Bible. I also have been greatly blessed by listening prayer, the prayer of examen, and fasting. In the time since I’ve started practicing a broader range of disciplines, I’ve grown closer to Jesus.

Some folks identify just a few disciplines, others upwards of 30. A number of people have categorized spiritual disciplines in a way that makes them easier to understand and approach. Dallas Willard offers a framework that has been helpful to me. He identifies disciplines into two major categories: Disciplines of Engagement and Disciplines of Abstinence. 2

Disciplines of Engagement are practices we add into our lives for the sake of spiritual formation. Disciplines of Abstinence involve making changes to things we probably do already in order to create space for spiritual encounter. For instance, we might engage in Bible study or a prayer exercise, and schedule regular times where we abstain from interacting with others, or some expendable part of our regular routine. The list below is partially adapted from Willard’s work:

Some Disciplines of Abstinence

+ Solitude. Purposely abstaining from interaction with other people for a period of time.

+ Silence. Closing off our souls from “sounds,” whether those sounds are noise, music, or words.

+ Fasting. Giving up the pleasures of food, or a certain kind of food for a period of time.

+ Simplicity. Abstaining from using money or goods at our disposal to merely gratify our desires.

Some Disciplines of Engagement

+ Listening Prayer. Spending time in prayer with our hearts and ears open, without much speaking on our part.

+ Prayer of Examen. Deliberately and prayerfully retracing our day/week and paying attention to our “highs” and “lows,” and inviting God into them. This ancient practice was pursued in earnest by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits (and namesake of my high school). 3

+ Meditative Reading. Focusing on a short passage of Scripture and reading it several times prayerfully (sometimes this is also called lectio divina).

Mythbusting Part II: Disciplines are diagnostic tools

So does that mean I can gauge my spiritual health by the frequency and quality of spiritual disciplines? No, of course not. Just as the health of my wife’s friendship isn’t defined by coffee dates, and that of our marriage isn’t defined by chores or Tiffany jewelry, spiritual disciplines are not necessarily indicative of spiritual health.

As we encourage students like Evan toward spiritual disciplines, we must help them distinguish between their relationship with Jesus and the ways they invest in that relationship.

The Fruit of Disciplines

Why encourage students to practice spiritual disciplines?

For starters, it helps them move from “religion about Jesus” to “relationship with Jesus.” The intimacy that students experience from practicing spiritual disciplines can lead to a living, authentic relationship of love, trust, and obedience in God. No longer will they simply memorize Scripture or repeat prayer requests; instead they will begin to love the Bible, love prayer, and most importantly love the God who first loved them. 

When times get tough

The intimacy students experience with God, and takeaways like greater familiarity with the Bible and the ability to communicate honestly with Jesus, can better equip them for difficult seasons. Not long ago, I heard a pastor share with his community about a sudden grave illness that had stricken his family. Despite the thick, depleting fog of shock, sadness, anger and confusion that so often accompanies these seasons, he found the Bible passages he’d recently memorized randomly percolating to the service. He had communed with God on a deep, intimate, personal level through the discipline of Scripture memorization, and it helped him cling to truth in the midst of a chorus of tempting lies.

Times of loss, pain, betrayal, disappointment, and loneliness are simply part of the human experience, and certainly high school. The intimacy that comes with practicing spiritual disciplines can help students trust Jesus to comfort and carry them during these times.

Each one teach one

Another benefit of teaching students spiritual disciplines is that they can teach other people, especially other students. Imagine if students were able not only to invite their friends to church or direct them to Bible websites, but also help them learn to do things like pray, listen, recognize God’s presence, and be still.

60% of the time, it works every time.

That line from Paul Rudd’s character in the film Anchorman helps me to remember that discipleship is not an exact science. Some students may go all-in right away. Other students might take much longer to try even the smallest of first steps. And that’s okay. Let’s be faithful in engaging the Spirit ourselves, and faithful in encouraging students toward the same.

Evan is not yet much of a journal-writer, but we’ve had a few good follow-up conversations about Bible verses I’ve asked him to check out. I’ve started writing down his prayer requests, and I’m looking forward to revisiting them with him soon. Baby steps are still steps!

When I’m tempted toward frustration with the pace, I envision Evan a year out of high school, wherever he may be, with a little bit of free time, and wondering what God has for him in this new season. That moment is crucial. If, in that moment, Evan feels equipped to channel his questions for God through practicing listening prayer, reading scripture, or some other discipline, then he has a pretty good chance for a faith that doesn’t just survive after high school, but thrives.

Action Points

  • Evaluate the use of disciplines in your own life. Pick a new discipline or two and schedule – literally schedule in your calendar – some times in the next week or so to try them out. If you already do one or more of them, keep a journal to track the experience more intentionally for a couple of weeks. 
  • Run some experiments! Invite a couple of students to try new disciplines for a season. These could be student leader-types, or just students you know would be open to something new. You may also want to have some volunteers take part as well. Give them resources, check in with them during the experiment, and debrief after.
  • Think about incorporating more disciplines into your next retreat/trip experience. The prayer of examen is a great journaling framework. Surprising, prolonged times of solitude and silence work well with students; on the winter retreat I mentioned earlier, I had our high school students spend 90 minutes in silence, and without exception students said it was the main highlight of the weekend.



  1. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2005), 15-23.
  2. Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).
  3. For more on Ignatius and Ignatian practices, please visit

Anxiety in the In-Between Stages of Our Lives

Healthy Strategies for Coping with Transitions

Mar 26, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

Photo by Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro.

In August of 2008 my wife and I found ourselves driving across the hot desert with our one-year old daughter as we made the 1,400-mile trek from Los Angeles to Dallas. The move was the culmination of a decision-making process that had begun in the fall of 2006, as we felt God encouraging us to make some changes in our lives. But here we are in the Spring of 2012 and all the hopes that we felt like that change would bring about in our lives feels so unsettled in many ways. Though we changed location, the transition didn’t lead to other changes we were hoping for in our lifestyle.

Why is that?

When I was doing research for my new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good. 1  I came across a wonderful book by William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. 2  I soon discovered that my wife and I had prepared our lives for a change, but we failed to adequately take into account the transition itself. Bridges explains the difference between change and transition when he writes:  

Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t…Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner re-orientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, that change doesn’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take.’ Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition.  3

I suspect that if you are like me, you prepare for lots of changes in your lives, the lives of your family members, and the lives of the kids you serve in ministry. But we may come up short in thinking best how to prepare for the transitions that those changes bring about. For example:

  • As parents and youth leaders we tend to talk to our kids a lot about the change of moving from high school into college, yet we don’t properly prepare them for the transition that awaits them. Change is going to college. But the transition involves tasks like learning to deal with peer pressure, self-managing projects at school, taking responsibility for one’s actions, dealing with confusion over majors and career choices, navigating sexuality on campus, or the constant wondering of where God fits into a college student’s life.
  • As youth leaders we talk to our kids about the change that divorce brings about in their lives, but we don’t adequately address the transition they encounter. Change is the divorce itself. But transition encapsulates the emotions that a kid might experience of feeling unloved, the disorientation of shuttling between two different homes, and the identity confusion of constantly questioning where they fit in and belong.
  • As parents and youth leaders we talk about the change of kids needing to “own” their faith as they become older, but we don’t talk about the transition that is involved. Change is making a decision about whether to go to church or not. Transition involves the struggle that many experience as they sort through what their essential theological beliefs are and how they are to be practiced; it involves the self-differentiation that it takes to stand up for what you believe when lots of your friends may be challenging those beliefs; it involves the restless wandering of trying to find a faith community where one can belong.

Transitional Anxiety

Why is having a proper understanding of change and transition so important?

Because it is in the transition, and in those in-between spaces, where so many kids experience anxiety. And when it is not faced, anxiety often leads to a lot of other issues in kids’ lives such as depression, anger, withdrawing, cutting, and even suicide.

The good news for us is that we are a transitional people, continually journeying through the wilderness as God draws us nearer and leads us to where he wants us to be. This journey through the wilderness is one filled with anxiety, but it has the power to lead us closer to God as we lean into our anxiety in hopes that God may transform it or rescue us from it.

A freshman college student may have recently made the change of leaving high school and entering college, but there is a world of transitions awaiting her. And it is on that journey through college that she will face many transitions that will create anxiety.

Another helpful way to frame idea of transitions and the anxiety that accompanies it is through the paradigm Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about in The Message of the Psalms. 4  Brueggemann writes that our journey in the life of faith is embodied by a steady movement from orientation, to disorientation, to new orientation. If we look back at the college student for a moment we can see that she has moved from a place of orientation (high school: where she experienced security in knowing) to disorientation (entering college: insecurity in not knowing), and will hopefully find a new orientation (life meaning that is anchored to the person of Jesus Christ) as she faces her anxiety and navigates through this transition.

As a person of faith and a parent of two young children I am best helped by the imagery displayed in Exodus 17:1 where one translation reminds me that God led his people out of the wilderness as they “journeyed by stages” (NRSV). I like this idea of journeying by stages as God leads his people on a stage-by-stage journey. The change is the movement from one stage to the next, but the transition is all that accompanies that journey between two places…fear, insecurity, lack of trust, disconnection, etc. And when kids find themselves between two stages of their journey, there is a great sense of anxiety in their lives as they have to decide whether or not to deal with the disorientation the journey has thrust upon them.

Strategies for Journeying With Our Kids Through Anxiety

I am a big believer in systems theory so I find it highly unlikely that there are anxious kids without anxious parents. 5  As I think about strategies to help our kids navigate the anxiety of their transition, I have purposefully chosen some exercises that involve the participation of both parent and child. My belief is that when parents engage their kids in these practices it will have the effect of not only helping their kids cope with their anxiety, but also help the parents cope in the process. Youth leaders and other caring adults can utilize most of these exercises as well.

Strategy #1:Talk About It

You might be amazed to see how helpful it is for people to just talk about their anxiety. If I can generalize for a moment, I would suggest that many in the Christian community at some point or another have met resistance from well-intending Christians when they mentioned their anxiety. Pastoral care must go beyond just telling someone “not to be anxious” because the Bible says so. Help your kids talk about what they are feeling.

My own experience as a therapist has reminded me just how big of a deficit there is in our understanding and expression of our emotions, especially for boys. It’s fairly typical that when I ask a guy in therapy how he is feeling, I get a blank stare in return. Talking about our feelings, especially anxiety, helps us build a vocabulary that enables us to better understand how we feel, as well as connecting us with the listener. As we connect with the listener it has the power of helping us not feel so alone. Here are a couple of tips:

  • To help a kid better understand how they are feeling, put a list of words on a page and have them circle which words describe them. 6
  • Model with/to your kids an ability to express your own feelings and a willingness to talk about your own struggles, such as anxiety. Talk to them about what makes you feel anxious. Let them know it’s okay to be anxious about things.

Strategy #2: Ask Questions & Listen

Anxiety can be a catalyst for growth in our lives, and it is a tool that God uses to speak to us. But it’s hard to know what God is saying and what God wants us to do with our anxiety if we can’t listen. If a kid is dealing with anxiety, one of the strategies may require you helping them ask questions of their anxiety, and then slowing down enough to hear what God might be saying to them in the midst of it. Any time I have anxiety I find myself asking God, “What are you saying to me in my anxiety? What are you trying to teach me? How do you want me to respond to it?” Or, “Why am I anxious? Is there something in my life that needs changing?” Here are a couple of tips:

  • Help your kid develop a list of questions they can ask God when they are feeling anxious, or when they find themselves struggling with a transition.
  • As a parent, model practices such as Sabbath, silence, and being still as a means to create space to hear God speak.

Strategy #3: Co-Create Meaning

In Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, he tells a great story about a father who realized that he had not created a better story for his family to live for. The father laments the various issues in his family, but ultimately comes to the realization that as he created opportunities for his family (i.e. raising money and building a house for a less fortunate family), they became more engaged with one another, and began to see that their lives had a new meaning that seemed to be invisible before. As kids make changes, go through transitions, and experience anxiety, they are often wondering what it all means. They may not phrase it this way, but questions like, “Who am I? What am I to do? How am I to be loved?” and “How do I become all that God has created me to be?” are resounding in some form or another in their mind. Here are a couple of tips:

  • Model practices that point your kids towards a life that is anchored in Christ. For example, it might be redefining “success,” talking about how you spend money, or by not putting emphasis on looks, clothes and exterior items. Help your kids see that meaning derives from a life in Christ.
  • Co-create a family story with your spouse and kids. Talk about what kind of story you have all been living, and whether or not it carries the meaning you desire. Then write together a new family story that has its meaning centered in Christ.

Strategy #4: Practice Self-Care

Caring for ourselves is often one of the most difficult things we can learn. One of the verses that has captured my attention over the last year is found in Luke 10:27:

“He answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

I have been learning to use this verse as a model for self-care. One of the ways that I love myself is to take care of myself, specifically my heart, soul, strength and mind. If I don’t take care of myself, I wonder if I really love myself, and ultimately it leads me to a place of not being able to love my neighbor. Someone who doesn’t practice self-care has nothing to offer their neighbor. They become an empty well with no living water flowing out of it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my heart (heart=emotional/relational connection)? Maybe it’s a date night, or family game night, or coffee with a friend.
  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my soul (soul=spiritual connection)? Maybe it’s reading a devotional, time in prayer, or sitting in silence.
  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my strength (strength=physical/health)? Maybe it’s running, going for a walk, or eating healthy.
  • What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my mind (mind=intellect)? Maybe it’s a hobby, or reading a book, or a deep conversation with a friend.

As we journey through life, we are going to experience changes that thrust us into a myriad of expected and unexpected transitions. But in those transitions when anxiety is most acute, we can practice some healthy strategies that allow us to give God our anxiety so that it can be transformed for positive growth in our lives and the lives of our kids.

Action Points

  • Create some space on the calendar this month for the family to play together (e.g. going to the zoo, movies, a sporting event, or the park), and use some of that casual time to begin asking your kids about their dreams for the family. This is a good time to brainstorm ideas and dream out loud together about creating a new story and brining more meaning to your family.
  • As a parent, pay close attention this month to the emotions of your kids. Look for an opportunity to share with them your own struggles in life (age appropriately), by using feeling words that help explain your struggle. This is an opportunity to share, not preach or lecture.
  • Using the four-fold model presented above on self-care, sit down as a family and talk about the ways that you can all assist each other in caring for yourselves, and therefore the family and others. Again, this is a brainstorming exercise that can be used to empower your kids to have a voice. Don’t use it as a time to tell them what to do. Rather, use it as a time to explore ideas together.


  1. Smith, Rhett. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?, 2012.
  2. Bridges, William, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, 2004.
  3. Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, 2004. xxi
  4. Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms.
  5. Smith, Rhett. Managing Anxiety in the Family: Strategies for Changing Our Relationship Dance.
  6. Hargrave, T. & Pfitzer, F. Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy, 2011. For example, some of the words that adolescents often circle are “alone, abandoned, not good enough, can’t measure up, worthless, devalued, powerless, etc.”

How Can My Struggles Help My Faith Stick?

Free Student Curriculum Sample

Jan 30, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

Curriculum Sample



From Faith to Faithing

Could Faith be a Verb?

Jan 30, 2012 Fuller Youth Institute

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

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

Konrad Witz paints it.

And that’s a big deal. 

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

Remember, this is Peter.

Jesus calls Peter the “rock” of the church.

Peter tries to walk on water.

Peter fails.

The rock… sinks.



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

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

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

Faith as a Noun

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

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

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

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

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

Faith as a Verb

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

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

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

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

Faithing as a Vessel

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

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

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

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

This is where the misunderstanding often happens.

Peter, Young People, and Faithing


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

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

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

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

Young People

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

These are the stories that must occupy our conversations.

These are the values that must inform our programming.

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

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


Action Steps

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




(Photo credit:

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