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) are studying over 400 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 7. ↩
- 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. ↩
- See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). ↩