Sticky Changes

Becoming trail guides into new territory

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Story

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

A shared story. Of future hope.

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

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

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

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

Stories of God at Work Today

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

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

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

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

Your Stories of Hope for the Future

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

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

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

The Power of Shared Stories

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

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

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

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

Build a Team

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

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

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

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

Helping Your Team “Maintain Disciplined Attention”

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

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

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

1.   Pray.

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

3.   Report on work done since the last meeting.

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

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

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

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

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

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

Experiment around the Margins

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

Be Patient; Good Things Take Time

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

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

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


  1. Scott Cormode, Sticky Faith Summit, February 2010, Pasadena, CA.
  2. Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Bellknap Press, 1994).
  3. Scott Cormode has been incredibly helpful with our Sticky Faith Cohorts in introducing and leveraging this concept.
Published Nov 28, 2011
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