Fuller Youth Institute


Photo by Luann Hawker.

He sat in my office, tears rolling down his cheeks, feeling overwhelmed by the pain in his life. Paul asked, “Why me? Why does everyone else have what I don’t—like a family and people who care for them? Why have I been abandoned? Doesn’t God care? If he cared, he would rescue me.”

His pain was real. I sat with him and listened. I, too, found myself asking those questions we all do at times. Why does suffering have to exist, and why does this person have to go through pain? Without answers that would help, I did the only thing I knew to do. I sat with him. I listened. I was present with him.

As the conversation continued, it was obvious that what he thought he needed and what he wanted was to be rescued... by God, by his community, by me, by anyone. This student longed for someone to make it better, to take care of him and take away the pain he was experiencing. It seemed reasonable enough.

He is not the first—nor will he be the last—student who has asked me to be a rescuer. I get it. The pain can be crippling, and may cause us to feel stuck.

Like us, when students are facing crisis and the pain in their lives, they are looking for answers and more importantly for relief. Before we examine ways we can respond, we need to start by asking why young people want to be rescued.

Why do young people want to be rescued?

Students today are facing pressures that students twenty years ago didn’t experience. In addition to academic pressures, they face family dynamics as well as societal challenges. They are facing and maybe even experiencing trauma, all in a social media-saturated era. News is immediate, instantaneous, and at times panic and fear-driven. Young people need adults to keep them grounded in this swirl of activity. According to the Search Institute, all young people need between 4-5 mentors in addition to their parents in order to become productive and healthy citizens.

Students can feel more vulnerable when this community is not in place. Paul was without family support due to the years of abuse and suffering he endured at their hands. He never seemed to recover from the loss of those biological ties. Many students in my youth groups over the years have suffered without this web of relationships and have operated from a place of crisis and fear. They may feel isolated, alone, unattached, and vulnerable. It is understandable why they want to be rescued. They may feel ill equipped to face the challenges and pain, and so escape becomes the option for providing immediate relief.

But not all students are lacking resources and support. Some students may be avoiding responsibility or facing reality. They may not want to do what is needed for them to find healing, wholeness, and purpose. Instead, avoidance, worry, and anxiety ensue, which can lead to bad decision-making.

Why rescuing is bad

Many developmental and education experts are concerned that when it comes to young people in our society, we tend to rescue too quickly. According to leadership specialist Tim Elmore, we hijack the growth process and development of the student when we don’t allow them to work through the pain at hand. “When we rescue too quickly and over-indulge our children with ‘assistance,’ we remove the need for them to navigate hardships and solve problems on their own."[[See http://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2014/01/16/7-crippling-parenting-behaviors-that-keep-children-from-growing-into-leaders/]] When a student is rescued from a problem, it removes the need for them to problem-solve themselves. Wendy Mogel, a leading researcher in this area, urges, “Remember that kids are hardy perennials, not hothouse flowers. Let them be cold, wet, or hungry for more than a second and they’ll appreciate the chance to be warm, dry, and fed. Abstain from taking the role of Sherpa, butler, crabby concierge, secret police, short order cook, or lady’s maid. Your children are hard-wired for competence. Let them do things for themselves."[[See http://www.wendymogel.com/articles/item/overparenting_anonymous/]]

In addition, when we rescue students, we replace the role that Jesus can and needs to play in their lives. As students turn to us and depend on us more, they may find their need for God diminished.

Why do we want to rescue?

In thinking about students’ issues, it is important that we examine our motives as well as the ways we respond to students in need. We need to honestly ask ourselves why we want to rescue students and fix the situation. Does it make us feel better? Are we trying to alleviate our own sense of responsibility or the pain of watching someone we care for suffer? In reflecting about Paul’s situation, I wanted to make it better. It pained me to see him in pain. I wanted to take the pain away and rescue him. The motivation may be innocent enough, seeking the well-being of the student. However, the action of rescuing can complicate what the student is going through and compromise how they recover.

What then is our role?

It takes time and patience to build trust with young people. The Search Institute researches the development of kids and teenagers, and the role of adult mentors in that development. They have identified several key conditions to developing this trust in your mentoring relationships, including:

  • reliability
  • consistency
  • patience
  • identifying and telling the student what positive qualities and behavior you see in them
  • listening to cultivate understanding (rather than just giving advice)
  • honoring confidentiality
  • allowing your students to make decisions for themselves

Developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell notes that young people themselves say we are more likely to influence their life paths if we possess the following six qualities:

  1. being supportive
  2. being an active listener
  3. pushing just enough
  4. taking authentic interest in youth as individuals
  5. fostering self decision-making
  6. lending perspective[[See Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “Six Qualities That Make You a Good Mentor For Teens”  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moment-youth/201301/mentoring-youth-matters]]

All of these qualities are crucial. In particular, decision-making helps students grow into adulthood. How can we facilitate their ability to walk through life challenges and make choices that are good and healthy? More importantly, as spiritual leaders, how can we point them to Jesus as the one who saves?

Jesus saves, restores and transforms

Jesus doesn’t simply rescue us from pain, but rather he saves, restores, and transforms. Jesus is making all things new. It is his transforming work in us and through us that brings healing and wholeness. Revelation 21:5 declares, He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Jesus’ work on the cross provided salvation to all. He saved us. In that sense he did rescue us. But rescue doesn’t always mean that our circumstances change or the pain is removed. We are promised that Jesus walks with us, but our immediate context may not be changed. We must help students understand the difference, and help them to engage Jesus who saves, restores, and transforms. We start by sharing how Jesus has done this in our own lives. We can share how we have crossed the difficult waters in our lives and how Jesus has met us in those places.

Best practices for caring without rescuing

  1. Practice the ministry of presence. Offering a ministry of a presence is a tangible reminder that the student is not alone. We are with them and God is with them. The love and presence of God is embodied as we are with the other person in their moment of crisis. A ministry of presence can bring comfort and express care without words. Presence encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This is sacramental presence. It is a revelation of Jesus’ care and compassion through listening, being with, and affirming.[[See “The Ministry of Presence: Being a Safe Place for Teens” on the FYI site at https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/ministry-of-presence.]]
  2. Offer stability. As we walk with students through their life struggles, we can demonstrate our commitment to them and provide stability through consistent investment in their lives over time.
  3. Be a safe place. Students need to have safe places to feel loved, secured, and cared for. They need to have safe places to develop their skill sets and decision-making abilities as well as to express their feelings and emotions. There are several ways we can create safe places for students.[[For further student on how parents can create emotionally and spiritually safe places for their teenagers, see American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)]]When students feel safe, there are several positive outcomes. Teenagers who experience increased well-being grow in self confidence, connectedness to community, and a more authentic life.
  4. Speak honestly. Rather then giving platitudes or pat answers, we need to speak with authenticity. We can’t be afraid of the hard conversation, but rather speak the truth in love.
  5. Validate their pain without giving easy solutions. The emotions students are feeling are neither wrong nor right, they are real. We need to bring value to that experience without trying either to explain or to resolve it.
  6. Increase our training. As mentors and leaders, it is part of our commitment to students to grow in our own training and skill sets. Books, articles, and workshops can help us to grow in our knowledge and experience so we can better see the signs of trauma and pain in a student’s life.
  7. Connect them with resources. Students will turn to us in times of need. One of the most practical ways to help is to provide resources including reading, skill-building, other adult mentoring relationships, and referrals to counseling or health professionals.

Action Points

  • Evaluate your own response pattern in situations of crisis with young people. Do you tend to react by rescuing, by listening, by getting out of the situation as quickly as possible, or some other response?
  • Think of a particular young person in your care who has a critical need right now. With another adult on your team, brainstorm a response that offers support without rescuing. Name other adults who can be part of the web of support for this young person, and if possible connect with this teenager’s parents about your ideas.
  • Share this article with your whole ministry team and host a follow up discussion about how this plays out in your ministry. Identify skill-building areas for leaders, and role-play interactions with students that model support without rescuing.

Week To Year

How to turn a week-long service trip into a year-long process of transformation

Matt Laidlaw

Photo by John.

If you’ve served in student ministry for any amount of time, it’s likely that you’ve participated in some type of mission, service, or outreach trip with your students. It’s also likely that some of your students came home from the trip saying things like:

“God changed my life.”
“I will never be the same.” 
“I’m not the person that I was before.” 

As youth workers, we have to celebrate when we hear students articulating moments of positive growth and transformation. However, we also have to grieve when we don’t see the growth and transformation manifested in their lives long-term. I’ve heard plenty of students and volunteers make pronouncements like this after an experience, only to profess a few weeks or months later that their lives are the same as they were before the trip and that the feel as if they’ve “lost” something since they returned home.

Or, if we’re all really honest, I bet some of us have had these experiences and uttered these words, only to very soon find our own lives looking and feeling very much like they did before the trip.

If we want to be faithful to our calling and faithfully steward the time, resources, and students we’ve been trusted with, we have to be asking: “How can service trips have the most possible impact on the lives of the people we’re serving AS WELL AS the students and volunteers who participate in the experience?

In a three-part blog series earlier this year (read part 1, part 2, and part 3) I shared the story of the history of our service trips, our transition process, and the new opportunity we innovated for our students and volunteers. However, the greatest of all of the lessons we’ve learned over the past eight years is the following:

The service or mission trip experience we provide for our students should last longer than the week we’re out of town.

I am convinced that it is our responsibility to pastor our volunteers and students through a year of transformation, by creating environments for individuals to prepare for, debrief, and process their experience on the trip.[[Please consider reading everything Dr. David Livermore has ever written. I recommend starting with Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence. You can find more information at http://davidlivermore.com/. Also see FYI’s work in Deep Justice Journeys: 50 Ideas to Move from Mission Trips to Missional Living, including the “Before, During, and After” model.]] Part of what makes jumping from one cause to the next so unhelpful for everyone involved is not just the lack of a relationship with those we’re attempting to serve, but also the lack of time necessary for students and volunteers to actually experience transformation because of their participation in these experiences.

For example, as we planned our trip to Detroit, we mapped out a year of simple and tangible ways our students and volunteers could helpfully prepare for, experience, and process this trip. I’ll share some examples from our own process in the context of a “Before-During-After” framework you can utilize in your own ministry.[[In Part 1 of my three-part blog series, I outlined a “9-month transition process” as we discerned and prepared for a new service experience. It should be noted that this 9-month process came before the 12-month process included in this article, bringing the entire process to a total of 21 months.]]


5-6 months BEFORE

Send students, volunteers, and parents basic information via email, snail mail, social media, and during large group programming about the upcoming trip. Include an invitation to join an information meeting the following month. In our context, this would always include links to pictures, stories, and highlight videos from previous service trips.

4-5 months BEFORE

Offer a trip information meeting that is open to all students, parents, and volunteers. Provide basic information about the trip details, trip costs, where you’re going, why you’re going, and details related to the application process. During our information meetings, we try to have several former students or current juniors and seniors who participated on the trip in the past to share a few brief stories and encouragements from their trip experiences.

3 months BEFORE

Application Process

Every student (and possibly every volunteer) who wants to participate on the trip should complete a handwritten application. Provide a clear application deadline and method of submission, the purpose of the application, criteria by which students will be selected to participate on the trip, and when and through what medium students (and parents) will be notified if they’re not selected to participate.

However, the application process should be less about providing you a tool to decide who should be going on the trip, and more about the beginning of the individual preparation and reflection process for the trip. We generally prefer handwritten applications rather than online applications because it is easier to verify if the student actually composed his or her application on their own.

Because Identity, Belonging, and Mission are the values of our ministry, our application invited students to consider questions that provide space to reflect on these ideas. In our ministry we consistently create environments for students to ask and answer the questions: “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” (Identity), “What is my place?” and “What is the Church?” (Belonging), and “Why and I here?” and “Why was Jesus here?” (Mission). Any questions that you can offer that will provoke students to reflect on their beliefs about who they are, their spiritual lives, and why they want to participate on the trip will be a helpful contribution to the process of transformation.

Depending on your context and the advanced commitment need (e.g. to plan international travel, raise funds, or meet a deadline based on an external agency you’re partnering with), the application process may need to begin farther out than three months.

2 months BEFORE

Pre-Trip Meeting #1

Your first pre-trip meeting might focus more on team building, trip logistics, raising financial support, and a deeper perspective on why you’re all participating in this particular trip or cause.

During the first meeting for our Detroit trip this year, we did a brief Bible study related to “The Greatest Commandment” (Deuternomy 6, Leviticus 19, Luke 10, Romans 13). We asked students and volunteers to come to our next meeting having thoughtfully considered the following homework: 

Describe a person/group/demographic of people that you feel biased towards negatively – A group of people you don’t like, that you judge, and/or that you’re afraid of.

Without making the experience feel too much like school, “homework” helps focus content of your meeting into one particular “take away” for your students and volunteers, and gives them a constructive way to focus their energy and excitement for the trip towards your next trip meeting. Some leaders also require students who are participating in an “away” trip to serve in some way “at home” locally during this preparation phase.

1 month BEFORE

Pre-Trip Meeting #2

The second pre-trip meeting should continue with team building, space for students and volunteers to share their thoughts and feelings based on the homework given at the previous meeting, and then a deep dive into information about the culture you’ll be encountering and the people you’ll be serving.

For us, this included a number of short videos and films related to the history of Detroit, the Muslim community in Dearborn, and creative solutions individuals are proposing to lead Detroit into the future. We invited students to consider the following questions and ideas to reflect on in preparation for the next meeting:

An impression…(How does this make you feel?)

I didn’t know that…(Something you learned)

I wonder if…(A question you have)

We then specifically asked them to research a specific problem or crisis Detroit is facing and a specific solution people are proposing to help Detroit solve this problem. Depending on your context, you might ask every participant to read a book related to the community or people group you’ll be serving among and then discuss it at your next meeting.

Some groups like to include scripture memory into this preparation phase as well, and in most contexts some time needs to be allotted for planning and carrying out fund-raising efforts.

1 week BEFORE

Pre-Trip Meeting #3

The final pre-trip meeting is an opportunity to continue team building, provide any remaining logistical information, and give students and volunteers space to share their reflections from the previous meeting and the information they gathered in response to the homework.

By allowing students to research the problems and solutions Detroit is facing, it empowered them to feel a small level of personal solidarity with those in Detroit before we ever arrived. It also “primed the pump” for them to have some categories for and ways of understanding what we might encounter in person. We’ve learned that if the staff “teaches too much,” or the students get a lot of information from a person in a position of authority before the trip, it is possible they will assume they are “experts” during the trip – which limits their ability to learn and process new ideas.

In preparation for departing for the trip, we invited students and volunteers to begin practicing transforming their opinions and judgments about anything new or different they encounter into a question.

The homework was to practice a game about our responses. The rule was that anytime you encountered something that made you want to say, “I don’t like…” or “That’s weird...”, to instead ask, “I wonder why that is?”


At the end of the day on every service trip I’ve participated in, the last thing I want to do is talk with anyone, let alone a large group of people. Everyone is usually physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. However, what I’ve discovered is that given the proper environment, students and volunteers are craving the opportunity to make sense of all they experienced that day. I’ve come to believe that when we don’t provide this space for our students and volunteers, we significantly minimize and limit the opportunity for transformation to take place in their lives.

Because of this reality, you should make it a priority to schedule 1-2 hours of debriefing time into every evening of your trip. Have your group sit in a circle together for this conversation, make sure that everyone is included and everyone has a voice (which is more challenging but no less important with large groups.) Despite your own fatigue, it’s up to you and your volunteers to lead this exercise by example and to create a safe and respectful space. Tell students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re going to do it. By the end of the week, students are usually familiar enough with the process that they can lead the conversation for the group.

Several years ago a friend of mine introduced me to a simple debriefing process called “E.D.I.T.” (Experience. Describe. Interpret. Transfer.). In practice, it looks something like this:

Part 1: Experience: Experience the day.

Experience the trip. Do what you planned on doing.

Part 2: Describe: What did we experience today?

Collaboratively re-tell the events of the day. Allow one student to speak at a time. If they miss a detail, a student can interrupt, fill in the detail, and continue re-telling the day. Allow this process to unfold until the story has been told all the way to your present setting.

Part 3: Interpret: What questions did today’s experience raise?

Allow students to ask questions about the experiences of the day. In most cases, don’t provide answers to the questions, but allow the group to sit with the questions and allow them to lead to other questions. A few questions can help get the conversation going:

  • “I wonder why…?”

  • “Did anybody else feel…?”

  • “Is it okay that…?”

Part 4:  Transfer:  In what ways am I different or do I want to be different because of today’s experience?

It is highly unlikely that anyone will experience or be able to articulate transfer or transformation while you’re on the trip. However, giving space for students to respond to this question on the trip will prepare them to be able to more confidently answer it after the trip.


1-2 weeks AFTER

Post-Trip Meeting #1

Invite students and volunteers who participated on the trip, their families, and anyone else from your church community to a large group gathering. During this meeting, invite students and volunteers to share stories from the trip, some of the questions they’re asking because of the trip, and how they’re different because of the trip. This meeting is essentially another venue for students and volunteers to participate in the E.D.I.T. process, having had some time to reflect on the trip and the opportunity to share this information with the group of people who supported their participation in this experience.

During our trips, we usually divided students and volunteers into “work teams” or “work families,” and allowing each group the opportunity to share with the larger group (and any guests) has worked well. This meeting is a great time for any mentors or prayer partners from the congregation to listen for clues about what they might want to follow up on individually with students in the coming weeks.

4-6 weeks AFTER

Post-Trip Meeting #2 + Writing Letters

This meeting should only be open to students and volunteers who participated on the trip, and is specifically focused on the “Transfer” aspect of the E.D.I.T. process. For clarity, what we mean by “Transfer” is the concrete and tangible ways individuals have experienced and desire to experience long-term life transformation. Essentially, this meeting is an open conversation for students and volunteers to share what “re-entry” into their normal lives has looked and felt like since they’ve returned home. Reserve the second half of the meeting for students and volunteers to write themselves a letter that will be sent to them at a future date. We usually guide them towards the “D.I.T.” part of the E.D.I.T. process. Encourage them in their letter to describe the trip, share the questions they’re asking because of the trip, and how they hope to be a different kind of person because of the trip.

2-4 months AFTER

Small Group Conversations

As the school year began and our small groups formally re-gathered after the summer break, we gave our small group leaders a short list of questions to ask any of their students who participated on the trip. The fact that our trip was in June made the fall a perfect time to reengage students about the trip. These conversations could take place in one-on-one situations or in the small group setting throughout the fall, with the goal of inviting students to describe the experience, share interpretive questions, or share what from this trip has been transferred into their lives in a different environment and with a different group of people.

5-6 months AFTER

Send the Letters

Sometime between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we mailed the letters students wrote to themselves in July. With a little extra time outside of school and with family during the holidays, we wanted students to be reminded of the experience, how they experienced change in their lives, and the kind of person they were hoping to become just a few months earlier.


We can’t measure or know the long-term impact service trips will have on our students and the world, but our role as youth workers is to do everything we can to steward the unique opportunity we have with our students because of these experiences. The students and volunteers at Mars Hill thought they were signing up for a week of service in Detroit, when actually we were inviting them into a yearlong process of learning and transformation. By resisting the temptation to jump from one “cause” to another with our students, not only do we better honor the relationship with those we’re attempting to learn from and serve, we also create environments for our students to experience long-term transformation and change. If we want our students to continue to become the kind of people who are making a difference in the world for the Kingdom of God, we have to be willing to do the hard work of maximizing the experiences on these trips for everyone involved.

Action Points

  • Write down one or two new ideas from this process that you would like to incorporate into your own service work in the coming year.
  • As you plan for mission and service trips for your ministry, map out the “before, during, and after” of the trip in a 6, 12, or 18-month process, setting milestones along the way that can become calendar reminders to keep engaged in each stage of the process.
  • Check out these two resources to help you plan and lead trips: Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence (David Livermore) and Sticky Faith Service Guide (Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin)

Photo by Miles Actually.

It was the beginning of the summer, and twenty students and leaders sat on the steps outside of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. They were waiting for me to introduce them to the city of Los Angeles, where they would be spending the next week serving various local non-profit organizations. This was their first trip to L.A.

I spent three hours walking and talking with them through downtown, helping them to experience the city through God’s eyes. I gave them tools with which to understand what they were seeing, and challenged them to ask questions and to be attentive to what was all around them. I began the city walk as I always do, with my own story.

Seventeen years ago I prayed: “Anywhere but L.A.” I was praying to God about the next season of my life. Any city was appealing to me except Los Angeles. After all, why would anyone want to live there? L.A. is dirty, crowded, and dangerous.

God has a sense of humor. Today my life and work in the city is focused on engaging and educating people about Los Angeles through city walks and immersion experiences. It has been a wonderful journey of learning more about the city while watching others discover the city for the first time. And now I love this city.

Why walk?

As the walk began, we arrived at the Biddy Mason wall. Biddy was a former slave who not only gained her freedom, but also was an early Los Angeles landowner and a founding member of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in LA. We were inspired by her courage and faith. When we walked into the historic 1893 Bradbury building, we were awed by the beauty of architecture and use of natural light. Entering into Grand Park near City Hall, we were refreshed by the huge fountain of water that gave relief from the heat. In the city there is both historical and spiritual heritage, and there are tangible indicators of God’s presence and peace.

Walking with students in the city has given me a unique lens through which to view it. They notice things that I don’t. They see the shades and colors, the joy, the play in the city. They also see the places of isolation and pain that I sometimes miss. Their tender hearts pick up on the hurt in the city. 

Driving through a city does not allow us to join fully in the conversation with God and others happening in the city. Driving in a city doesn’t give us opportunity to see people and dialogue with them. On the other hand, I’ve found that walking in the city provides an opportunity for us to experience it with all of our senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). Historian and architect Dolores Hayden describes why cities matter based on her years of experience and research in The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. She examines how people can connect with the history and memory of a city, as well as how people relate to their communities. One of the ways we do this is by walking and being present in the city.[1]

Why cities matter to God

In the beginning, God created.

God didn’t create in a vacuum, he created place and then created in that place. In the book of Genesis we read how God created the garden in which humans and all of creation would interact with each other and with God. Urban theologian Dr. Ray Bakke says, “Humanity’s story started in a garden but ends in a city.” Cities matter to God.

Got works, dwells, and redeems in a place. In John 1:14 “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message). In Jeremiah 29:4-7, God calls the exiled and relocated people to seek the peace of the city in which they now live. In the process, God would bring his peace upon them. God asks us not just to live in a city, but also to invest our lives in the city, build relationships, and dream in the city. Cities are mentioned over 1,200 times in the Bible. Cities are also now the places where people are dwelling in greater numbers. By 2030, some estimate that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities.

Colossians 1:16-20 tells of God’s reconciling nature. God redeems both people and places, making all things new. As we develop a “theology of place,” we become more committed to the community in which we live.

Why cities matter to young people

Youth long to make a difference and change the world, address injustices, and fight for freedom for the oppressed. God speaks to their passion by inviting them to journey with him in the city.  As the artist Propaganda urges:

You can have a heart that breaks for a dying city, yet have nothing to offer them. Wait! There’s the problem: "Them!" There is no them. Them is us! Culture is you. It’s me. We. We’re our city. We’re the culture. So we too are the problem. And our Savior: He, he wasn’t a commuter. He moved in. He spoke the language of the broken. He spoke our language…. The culture is us. It’s you. We’re participants. How could we possibly be the solution? We need someone to move in! And, the Savior moved in. This is your city. He came and walked the streets of your soul. And you, in the same vein, must move in. You go. You pray that the gospel prospers. ‘Cause if it prospers, you will, too.[2] 

Learning about the city helps us to be more attentive to God’s presence and creates a theology that is God-honoring, people-honoring, and place-honoring. In the city there are countless opportunities to make a difference and seek God’s peace.

Young people are looking to the church to teach cultural discernment—ways to understand and translate culture as well as how they can make a difference. Teenagers have passions, but sometimes don’t know how to connect their hearts with action that brings change. We can give voice to this, and provide students opportunities to engage their passions with the city in ways that will change them and their communities. 

When students engage their cities, they gain a greater sense of connection to their community, and grow in their own sense of well-being. Many of the Search Institute’s 40 developmental assets are about a student’s connectedness to their neighbors and neighborhood. Finally, students grow in understanding God’s heart for them as they see and experience God’s presence and heart for their cities.

Ways to engage students in their city

We don’t get connected by just reading or talking about a city. Research tells us that face-to-face interactions and relationships are what change us and our environments. For example:

One experiment performed by two researchers at the University of Michigan challenged groups of six students to play a game in which everyone could earn money by cooperating. One set of groups met for ten minutes face-to-face to discuss strategy before playing. Another set of groups had thirty minutes for electronic interaction. The groups that met in person cooperated well and earned more money. The groups that had only connected electronically fell apart, as members put their personal gains ahead of the group’s needs. This finding resonates well with many other experiments, which have shown that face-to-face contact leads to more trust, generosity, and cooperation than any other sort of interaction.[3] 

Here are a few practical next steps for helping students engage your city:

  1. Share with students what you love about your community. Ask your students to share their favorite thing about the city. Find ways to express God’s love your city and invite students in that process with you. (i.e. build relationship with and bless neighbors, pray in the city, beautification projects, etc.)[4]
  2. Learn together from the history of your city. For example, make it a group project to gather information, interview key leaders and neighbors, and learn from historical figures. In the example of former slave-turned-landowner Biddy Mason mentioned earlier, she also spoke Spanish fluently, was generous, an influencer in the community, and showed bravery beyond her circumstances. In her story we find courage and strength for the challenges we face. But her story too often goes untold in our particular city. Cities offer us many learning opportunities like this as we engage with their histories, but sometimes we have to search for hidden stories like Mason’s.
  3. Create a city walk or prayer walk with your students (praying for city leaders, schools, and shared spaces). You can include a treasure hunt (seeking out gifts in the city) or look for symbols in the city (i.e. the cross, heart, dove, etc.). Provide tools for them to understand what they are seeing and experiencing. (FYI has created a sample guide for an urban prayer retreat experience to help you get started.)
  4. If you are a suburban youth leader outside of a city, find a conversation partner who is knowledgeable about and/or leads walking tours in your community or nearby community. You might also explore questions with students around how your particular suburban area developed. What history do you know? What are the similarities/differences to the city? What is the unique gift and identity of the suburban context? Perhaps do a city walk in the downtown core of both areas to compare and contrast. 
  5. For those who serve in rural communities, identify the rhythms and seasons of your particular area. How is community experienced in your local setting? How are people and place defined? What are the natural and artificial boundaries? Walk and drive to various boundaries and landmarks (e.g. a lake, town square, historic landmark) and do something at each location to interact with the power of place. 

We are called to love our cities, to be part of our communities, to seek their peace and to work on their behalf. Helping students to encounter God in the city makes God’s love real for us and our cities!


[1] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

[2] Propaganda, “Justice and the Gospel,” Live Verge 2012: May 21, 2012.

[3] Edward L. Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier. Penguin Books, 2011.

[4] Thriving City Blocks (http://thrivingcityblocks.com/) is a great interactive resource that helps facilitate dreaming for and with your community.

Photo by ike hire.

This is the second of a 2-part series on calling that reflects on Fuller President Mark Labberton’s new book entitled Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. Mark draws on scripture to give parents a helpful framework for developing our kids’—and our own—sense of calling.

Read Part 1 Here

“'For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I’ve probably heard these words from Jeremiah 29:11 a thousand times, almost never in context. Usually we invoke this verse as a promise that God is going to give someone a job, help them out of a difficult situation, or make their college scholarship package line up perfectly so they can attend the school of their dreams.

And then there’s the aftermath.

When our dreams don’t seem to pan out in alignment with the plans God has—or not in the ways or timing we imagined—the results can be crushing for our faith. I have sat with many high school and college students in the fallout after these experiences, wondering what’s next, and wondering when God will show up to reveal those grand plans spoken of in Jeremiah.

As it turns out, the verses are written to give hope to a people in exile, encouraging them to stay right where they are, living in the land and seeking the peace of the city where they find themselves. In short, their calling is to wait and serve faithfully where they are planted. And while God does offer each of us a “hope and a future,” the co-opting of that phrase has perhaps done more harm than good in church culture.

After exploring what it means to reframe and relocate “calling” with our kids in Part 1 of this series, now we move to a few practical steps we can take.

Three paths forward: Leading our kids into calling

It’s one thing to tell our kids to live out their calling. It’s quite another to walk with them as they figure it out. Mark Labberton suggests three paths we might take:

1. The Path of the Beloved

“The love of God is the start and the finish of our vocation.”[1]

Before all else, we are created and invited into the love of God. This part of our vocation is a pure gift. One of the truths I pray over my children every night is that they are God’s deeply-loved children above all else. Whatever labels, adjectives, or titles the world may bestow upon them, this identity is core. It’s also the core of our calling to “love God, love others” (Matthew 22:37-39). Without knowing we are loved by God, being asked to love in return can feel like something we do to earn God’s favor.

You might want to pray a passage like Ephesians 3:16-19 for your children regularly:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Belovedness is something we have to live out with our kids. This means praying for them, yes, and also paying attention to how we place value on their performance and their behavior. When they fail, or when they succeed, they need us to remind them that their value doesn’t lie in either performance or behavior, but has already been determined by God.

2. The Path of Suffering

This love doesn’t always mean protection. Responding to the call as God’s beloved inevitably leads us down roads of suffering. This is both a mystery and an affront to the “Promised Land” vision of what we may have thought following Jesus might mean. As parents, none of us want our kids to suffer. But that’s the catch. Suffering is part of the path of discipleship, as Jesus makes painfully clear over and over (see Matt 16:21-26, Phil 2:5-11). Living in exile, suffering will be part of our story until Jesus comes to make all things new.

Paul prays, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10-11). I remember memorizing this verse in college, praying it over and over, and being struck by how unnatural it was to pray to identify with Christ’s sufferings during a season of life where I was supposed to be preparing for success in career and adulthood. How could suffering be linked to success? There is, of course, the narrative of “paying our dues” in working our way to the top of a particular career field. But that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus has in mind.

Labberton wonders, “What if our call is really one of deeply entering and loving a world full of suffering?”[2] As our kids encounter the suffering of others, wrestle with injustice, and serve among the marginalized, these experiences will indelibly shape their call, whatever line of work they may enter.

Megan was a girl in our youth ministry who is now in her 30’s. A mom of two biological children, along with her husband she sensed a call to explore interracial adoption. Living out this call has been anything from easy, as their family has now welcomed a son born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, several years later, a daughter came to them through a disrupted adoption. Between attachment issues, physical and emotional struggles, and becoming a “blended” family on several levels, I imagine Megan and her husband never would have dreamed the suffering this would involve. But at the same time, this suffering has brought deep joy, fulfillment, and a far deeper understanding of family to all six members of their household. I asked Megan about this, and she shared:

When we aren't willing to take on the suffering and hurts of one another, we often don't realize the hurt and suffering we further inflict by that rejection. I think as humans and especially as parents, our job in discipling our children often includes being willing to sit in their hurt and suffer with them—not take that suffering away from them. I find that when I talk to most of my friends, their goal is to take away hurt or protect their child from everything. Having our adopted children has really turned this notion on its head for me. Their biggest hurts and losses happened before I ever even knew them and I couldn't protect them. I think one of the best ways that I can lead my children toward greater connection with us as their family and ultimately with Jesus, is to continue to be present; acknowledging their hurts and sufferings and not always trying to fix it, but to just BE with them through it while they feel it. Sharing and helping to carry the burdens of my hurting children is one of the hardest seasons of suffering I've ever been through, but finding a way to build connection in that suffering is the greatest joy of my heart. There is something so healing for them when I say, "I'm here. I'm sorry that happened to you. I love you." It is not what we expected, and I don't think that my children's pasts is ever what Jesus wanted for them, but seeing redemption come from such hurt and loss is one of the best ways that he has shown me how to "know him in his death and resurrection." 

3. The Path of Wisdom

The third most important pathway our kids need to walk in order to discern call is the path of wisdom. Wisdom and its pursuit are the topics of a number of psalms and of course the entire book of Proverbs. This wisdom tradition sometimes feels foreign to us when we read these passages, in particular because our culture is so focused on the pursuit of knowledge (and possessions) rather than wisdom. Wisdom is something we grow into rather than grasp. And it’s part of the way our calling is shaped.

Labberton defines wisdom as “God’s truth and character lived in context.”[3] Jesus embodies wisdom by living out God’s will in action in his everyday encounters with people around him. So Jesus is what wisdom looks like. Sometimes he chose to act, sometimes to wait. Sometimes to speak, other times to speak through silence. We can invite our kids to be discipled by Jesus and by wise adult Jesus-followers who can help them grow in discernment in the little and big encounters of life.

This week my daughter announced that she wanted to speak out at a local school board meeting about an issue. In fact, she and a friend had already decided that they were going to do so. She also had a history test that would require study time, and the window of the meeting overlapped with her available time to study. As we wrestled with whether to stop her from attending the meeting or let her follow this passion to speak out, we decided that learning to use her voice in advocacy was probably more important than a history test. I’m not yet sure how the test turned out, but I am sure she won’t soon forget her experience at the board meeting. 

Labberton asserts that “wisdom leads people to acts of courage in places of need.[4] Whether that’s a local school board meeting, a global response to injustice, or befriending a classmate who is disabled, growing courage to act in response to need is part of discerning call. And allowing our kids room to experiment can create space for the opportunities that may ignite something deeper within them.

So What Does God Call Me to Do?

In a way these generalities about calling can feel like a cop-out. They don’t seem to answer the question of my specific calling very tangibly.

In response, Labberton suggests a helpful framework of “first things” and “next things” that I think can work well in conversations with our kids as they grow into an understanding of calling.

First things are what we already know from what’s revealed in scripture and most clearly through the life of Jesus. They are “normative for those who follow as disciples.”[5] Loving God and neighbor, growing in the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-23), and serving the poor are all part of the call for anyone who follows Jesus. Helping our kids learn to work questions or scenarios through “first things” lenses rather than simply “right or wrong” can build discernment over time.

Next things are tied to first things, but go beyond them into specific expressions. And sometimes these next things are clearer than others. This is where we might respond to a specific sense of call to work, ministry, marriage or singleness, advocacy, education, and service. Scripture is very passionate about the first things of loving God and neighbor, and often more vague about how that works out in next things. Labberton assures us, “We live out the extraordinary call of following Jesus (first things) right in the midst of the ordinary actions of daily life (next things).”[6] In that sense, our calling is always tied to today. Calling may be long-term, but it’s always lived out in what is presented to us today, by what and who are in front of us this day.

Look for Sparks

I often say my nine year-old has a natural gift for teaching. When she was a preschooler she would come home, line up her stuffed animals, and begin teaching them. She could reproduce the teacher’s voice and actions so much that it was clear she spent her class time absorbing her teacher’s every move. When she later learned to ride a bike without training wheels, her very first words were “Now I can teach Sylvia!” (one of our neighbors). Teaching is part of her DNA. Researchers at the Search Institute would call this a “spark,”[7] an activity or interest that helps a kid be their best.

Parents and other adults play critical roles in helping point out and foster sparks in kids. Our recent research behind the Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family explored how real-life families do this, and the biggest theme from those interviews was that parents keep showing up in their kids’ worlds, paying attention to their interests, and letting their sparks lead rather than forcing parental expectations on them.[8]

But here’s where it gets complex. Sparks don’t always lead to jobs, success, or even ways to use them every day. “God isn’t required to use our gifts in a constant or predictable way.”[9] Inventories that help us understand our personalities, strengths, and the ways we work with others are helpful, but they also have limits. Our kids need our help to learn to let these natural abilities play alongside the work they find before them and the context in which God has placed them.

The truth is, not everyone gets to choose their work. Sometimes we work to sustain life. Sometimes we are forced to do work. Sometimes our social situation, education, background, or skin color prevent access to the jobs in which we might find fulfillment. While that may not be a reality for most of those who are reading this article, it’s an inconsistency our kids need to know, because it’s reality for a majority of their global—and many local—neighbors.

At the end of the day, call is more about discipleship than about results. Labberton shares, “Call isn’t measured by outcomes—how much we achieve or accomplish—but through the process of following Jesus in and through it all. In the end, call is about continuous formation into the likeness of Jesus Christ far more than it is about finding direction or getting a job.”[10] We’re invited by the Apostle Paul, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). That’s a good verse to memorize with our kids as they sort out work and calling.

Fuller’s new Vice President for Vocation and Formation, Tod Bolsinger, asserts that vocation is something that is formed more than found. By that he means that we discover our vocation as we are shaped in a process of discovery and practice. Every Fuller student now wrestles with what we call the “central integration question” over and over throughout their study here. It’s not a bad question to begin with our own kids, even as we ponder it ourselves:

“At this point in your journey, how do you envision your call to God’s mission in the world?”

Wrapped up in the images of pilgrimage and vision, this question draws on our faithfulness to “first things” and invites us to articulate “next things.” But it’s always next things for now, at this point in the road. As we navigate these paths with our own kids, we’re invited to a similar faithfulness.

Because after all, our kids are part of our response to that question right now, at this point in our own journeys. 

Action Points

  • When you read about the paths of belovedness, suffering, and wisdom, which do you think you foster most intuitively already in your family? Which path represents a growth area in the way you help your kids develop a sense of call?
  • How could the “first things” and “next things” paradigm help your conversations with your kids (especially teenagers) about calling and vocation? Experiment this week in a conversation over a meal or a coffee date. Brainstorm together some people who might be mentors in particular areas of spark or skill that could help in the “next things” discernment journey.
  • On your own or with your spouse or a small group, read and discuss Mark Labberton’s Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today. Consider your own journey of discerning calling, and think about what parts of your story might be helpful for your kids to hear.

[1] Mark Labberton, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 103.

[2] Labberton, 125.

[3] Labberton, 117.

[4] Labberton, 119.

[5] Labberton, 87.

[6] Labberton, 89.

[7] See http://www.search-institute.org/sparks and Peter L. Benson, Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

[8] See chapter 5, “Connecting: Finding Ways to Relate to Your Teenager” for more practical ideas from our interviews with 50 families. Kara E. Powell, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family: Over 100 Practical and Tested ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

[9] Labberton, 144.

[10] Labberton, 135.

Photo by Alex Ward.

Helpful insights from Fuller President Mark Labberton

“You must be called to that.”

“You were made for this!”

“Find your calling, and everything will unfold from there.”

Our kids get all kinds of confusing messages about calling, gifts, career, and vocation. What’s more, calling tends to get mixed up with our anxiety about college, scholarships, career, and financial success in adulthood. In other words, my kids’ ability to “find their calling” and launch a career often can feel like a direct reflection on my parenting skills.

I’ve noticed as a parent that I often feel a tension between two poles when it comes to my kids and calling: On the one hand I want to stay silent and let them figure it out, careful not to over-affirm a gift or pursuit for fear it might feel like pressure. On the other hand, I want to point out things my kids are good at, ways they excel, and the sparks I observe that come to life in them.

I’m caught between wanting to affirm and empower, but not proclaim or pressure. Wanting to name what I see, but not force any of my kids into a mold. The other day my twelve year-old said, “I’m not really sure what I want to be yet,” and my first reaction was to blurt out, “You don’t have to know! You have plenty of time to explore that.” In hindsight, I’m not really sure that’s what she needed from me.

But I’m not really sure what would have been more helpful, either.

In the midst of this ambiguity about calling and vocation steps Mark Labberton. A parent, pastor, scholar, and now Fuller’s President, Mark’s new book entitled Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today draws on scripture to give parents a helpful framework for developing our kids’—and our own—sense of calling.

What Calling Is—And What it Isn’t

It might be helpful to start by describing what calling is not. Calling is not just about work, or a specific job. It is beautiful when work and calling line up well, but this synergy isn’t always part of real life.

Call is also not just about “me.” Our American individualism sets us up to see everything through “me-colored” glasses, but God invites us to remove those lenses to see something bigger.

What is call, then? Call is about flourishing, about becoming all we were created to be. But it’s not just for our own good—it’s for the good of all. Call is something that all of God’s people experience, and is meant to be grounded in shared vocation in community.

Most centrally, Labberton grounds his understanding of calling in Jesus’ words to “Come, follow me.” When Jesus makes this invitation, it is not simply about spiritual salvation. It’s much more. “The heart of God’s call is this: that we receive and live the love of God for us and for the world.”[1]

This understanding of calling is also rooted in Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:36-40 about the greatest commandment: ““‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

So at the core, we can help our kids explore call as following Jesus toward loving God and loving others.

Two Ways to Reframe Calling for Our Kids

1. Relocate Call as Real-time Discipleship in Exile

Where are we called? Sometimes those of us who happen to be born into dominant culture in the U.S. (white, educated, middle/upper class) are raised to see our faith as a way to help fulfill our dreams. These dreams are squarely centered in the American Dream of getting, having, claiming, and buying in order to procure happiness. Christian consumers have a hard time awakening to our “Promised Land” approach to faith and life in America. Our tendencies to think of America as the land of God’s blessing and opportunity might actually cloud our ability to see where we really live.

Labberton counters that we are not in fact living in the Promised Land but in exile.[2] Exile is the biblical image for God’s people living as strangers in a strange land. Christianity is not the prevailing influence in the culture in which we are raising our children. This doesn’t mean we need to run away or hide from the world, but instead to love it and seek God within it. The words of the prophet Jeremiah to a people in exile ring out to us, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer 29:7)

This gives us a provocative image of real-time discipleship. Labberton shares, “Every believer and every community of believers needs to recover our identity as followers of Jesus and learn to practice it in daily life, in the context of the real world.”[3] It turns out that this call isn’t about winning or having it all. Instead it is about serving, and about following the humble downward journey of Jesus to the cross. Teaching our children verses like, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11) can disrupt visions of the American Dream, but probably only if we consider their implications for our own lives as well.

Encourage your kids to think about what it might look like at school or on their sports teams to serve others in simple ways. Talk with your kids about the ways faith influences your work and your involvement in the community. Consider volunteering together with your family at a local food pantry, home for teen moms, or a ministry that serves refugees or immigrants in your community. Engaging marginalized people—and the systemic issues that impact them—can open up great conversations about living as Christ’s people in the midst of exile.  

2. Refocus Call Within Community

To whom and to what am I called? Young people need to know not only how they can find that out, but where and with whom they can explore these conversations.

For various reasons, our congregation has often become a safe haven for young adults who are tired of trying to figure out their call alone. I asked Sonia, one of our pastors, to share some of the backstory of how we began to create groups that intentionally explore questions of vocation together. Sonia explained that the leadership group began observing a general tendency among members in their twenties to question everything:

They wanted to tear down the expectations that had been established for their lives by American culture, family systems, and evangelical church culture. Their questions were often coupled with depression and a lack of confidence in whatever transitions they were in the midst of—finishing college or graduate school, experiencing broken relationships, traveling (and often serving the poor) abroad and finding their view of the world and of themselves dismantled.

In response, the congregation gathered a group including the pastor, a young professional, a psychologist, a theologian, a college graduate, a stay-at-home mother, and a working mother. These seven grappled with things of vocation. Out of those conversations and stories they developed a 20-week “vocation group” process.

We don't pretend to have direct answers for discerning another's calling, but we commit to journey alongside them. As we developed a curriculum, we found it necessary to bridge together our memories and hopes as persons, the tasks that we do for work, and our membership and participation in the body of Christ. One outcome for us was an articulation that vocation, in the Christian community, cannot be separated from discipleship. So we created these groups to explore vocation together as a shared journey. 

Labberton also emphasizes the importance of working out vocation within community. In our culture we often simultaneously seek and avoid community, and most teenagers feel this tension exponentially in that they are constantly wrestling with exploring their identity in relation to themselves and others. This makes “community” a tricky construction, and often ends up being more like a house of cards. Moving from mere connection to true communion with one another is a challenge of our time, embodied in most of our churches in the struggle to move from proximity to actual relationship. Being near one another and being truly known are two very different things.

One of the best gifts we can give our kids, then, is our help in creating a supportive web of relationships with both peers and adults. It’s from within this interconnected web that calling often emerges and begins to be lived out. Parents can become catalysts for this type of community by connecting their kids with adults who share some of their interests, or who live out their calling in varying ways that might inspire kids with contours of call beyond your family. Sometimes “my” vocation can only be discovered in the midst of “our” shared vocation.

Now that we’ve relocated our discovery of call within the context of exile and of the faith community, in Part 2 of this series we will explore three pathways for helping our kids walk in their calling.

Action Points

  • Explore the idea of “exile” with your kids. What does it feel like to live their faith day to day in their schools and other contexts as followers of Jesus? When does it come easy, and when does it feel like a challenge?
  • Look at biblical stories where vocation plays in. Jesus’ calling of his first disciples is embarrassingly filled with unlikely vocation changes: fishermen, tax collectors, Pharisees become followers of Christ. Earlier, the shepherd David becomes a king. The exiled Jewish girl Esther becomes queen of Persia. Alongside our love for planning the future, are we willing and open to the surprising disruption God might bring to our call?
  • What adults are already in your kids’ lives who could help explore elements of calling? Based on their interests, passions, and gifts, are there other adults who might be helpful dialogue partners for your son or daughter? What next step could you take this week to nurture the extended faith web around your kids?

Read Part 2


[1] Mark Labberton, Called: The Crisis and Promise of Following Jesus Today (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 14.

[2] Labberton, 55.

[3] Labberton, 39.

Photo by Marmalade Girl.

If your youth ministry doesn’t have kids with special needs, you’re among the rare exception. The bigger question usually isn’t whether they are among our group, but what we are going to do in response to their particular needs as we lead.

In our first article in this series, “Refusing to Ignore Teenagers with Special Needs,” we looked at the landscape of disability among young people in our culture, and shared five ideas for working toward inclusion in youth ministry.

In this article we look to a seasoned practitioner who cares deeply about kids with special needs, and who has been working to integrate the principles of Sticky Faith in her ministry.

Until this past August, Katie Garvert was the Access Ministries Coordinator for Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Katie led the church’s special needs ministry for 9 years before returning to teach special education in the public school system. Under Katie’s leadership, Access Ministries served more than 100 families through respite events, sibling retreats, overnight camp for students with special needs, and parent support groups. Katie also directed the church’s deaf and hard of hearing ministry. You can read more about Katie’s work on The Inclusive Church website.

I visited Katie recently to hear more about her work and how it might help each of us in our own contexts.

Tell us a little about how your church included students with special needs, and your role in that process.

Katie Garvert: Our church adopted the view that there is no single way to do special needs ministry. Every person with special needs is different, and how the church defines inclusion for each of them may be different. It’s all about figuring out what works for the student, their family, and the church. Our big-picture goal was to provide a sense of belonging inside the bigger Body of Christ.

My job as the special needs ministry leader was to make sure each child, student, or adult with special needs had the support they needed to experience success at church. The resulting accommodation plan could look different for each person. Nearly always we would meet with the individual and their family to learn about and observe their abilities and needs. In many cases I would take what I learned about the student and then work behind the scenes to equip and encourage their respective ministry leaders.

Sometimes we would determine that the individual with special needs and/or the ministry leaders could benefit from dedicated assistance. In those cases, it was our ministry that trained a buddy to shadow the student during their participation in the children’s ministry, youth group, or wherever. And then for a number of students with more complex needs, our ministry offered an alternative environment with sensory activities and sensory-friendly Bible teaching. Some of our ministry participants thrived in our ministry’s sensory room every week while others only needed it for a few weeks. The sensory room also offered a landing spot for students who needed short breaks from their regular ministry environment. Many kids need access to a place they can recollect for a few minutes if they become over-stimulated.

How were you first exposed to the Sticky Faith idea?

A couple of years ago, our family ministry team was reading Sticky Faith at the same time my small group was using the book as a parenting study. So I had the opportunity to process the ideas in the book from the perspective of both a ministry leader and a parent. Like others reading the book, my husband and I could relate to the stories and statistics of students who veered off the path and experienced life pain through the early adult years. Our staff and the other parents all loved the idea of creating a “sticky web” of relationships for the kids in our respective ministries and our own home.

How can a Sticky Faith philosophy apply to students with special needs?

In special education, we often use the term “delayed” to describe a student’s development pace. While it may take longer, the individual with a learning or developmental delay can make progress and often catch up to their peers.

The same may be true for the spiritual development of someone with a disability. Just because a child or teen doesn’t grasp all the concepts their peers do at age 9 or age 19 doesn’t mean they won’t eventually get there. And as church leaders, we often forget about the student who is delayed yet very capable of spiritual growth. Just like you and me, people with disability are hardwired to have a relationship with our Creator. They too yearn for God’s grace and love. Many of these same individuals will wrestle, some profoundly, with God’s purpose for their life. I’ve seen this firsthand working alongside kids and adults with a wide range of disabilities. So the Sticky Faith concepts are still relevant to students with special needs, sometimes just a little later in their life or after repeat exposure.

After reading Sticky Faith, our church began placing a higher value on intergenerational relationships. We wanted to make sure our kids had the opportunity to interact with believers across different ages, life stages, and interests. And with the Sticky Faith 5:1 adult-to-kid ratio in mind, we started asking the following question for each of our teens: “Who are the five people speaking into this student?” This exercise provided a huge “aha moment” for our disability ministry when we realized that virtually none of our students had one, let alone five, meaningful relationships.

The reality was that our kids with special needs only had one significant relationship outside of their parents: a teacher or educator. It became very obvious that these students were even more isolated than typically developing youth. Immediately I started working to create a relational net for our teens with special needs. Like every youth, these students needed a “sticky web” in order to grow into their faith.

My job did change as I dedicated more time and energy searching for the right people to become what we called Sticky Faith “investors.” It was a process, and it didn’t happen overnight. I also began to see the value of facilitating relationships before our students hit middle school and high school. In many cases it takes months, if not years, to identify and “grow” people who can influence and work alongside students with special needs. As a result, I found myself taking every opportunity to dialogue with virtually everyone I encountered inside our church. I was always asking questions and listening for life experiences that could match the needs and interests of individuals in my ministry.

The Sticky Faith initiative also changed my focus as I shifted away from an administrative mindset and adopted the approach of a people-leader and relationship builder. At times this created more work, but it gave me a renewed sense of purpose in my job. And it was especially fulfilling when I began to see our students reap the fruits of their growing number of relationships within our church. I had a front row seat to meaningful life change.

Let me share four ways and four stories that illustrate how we experienced God’s blessings through this shift:

1. We intentionally involved our students in the broader work of the church.

Each week we made the church’s master prayer list a key part of our ministry. In our learning environment for older students with disability, we would take the updated list and divide prayer requests among our participants. After a devoted time of prayer, students volunteered to write notes to the people they prayed for. As more church members began receiving notes and learning they had been prayed for by someone inside our ministry, we saw the church’s view of our ministry change. Suddenly, people began to see our students’ value inside the Body of Christ. Church members who were hurting deeply appreciated the prayers of our ministry participants. And suddenly these same people had something to talk about with our students when seeing them on campus. Some prayer recipients even sought out our students to say thanks. This interaction was often significant for our participants with special needs, and it provided an easy entry into relationship.

2. We found unconventional places to create meaningful relationships.

The adult volunteer running our church’s technology booth agreed to allow several students to help him with sound and lights. This church member quickly recognized the opportunity to make a real difference in these kids’ lives when he adapted his technical service to include relational leadership. Today, this guy has untold influence over a number of kids who were quirky and struggling to fit in in our youth group. Some of these kids have identified special needs. And they now have a connection to other students and to a leader who shares their same spark for technology. This normal volunteer has created an accidental discipleship group, where he leads the students serving under him in a time of discussion and prayer after each media event. As a result of this older believer’s investment, we have several vulnerable teens making huge strides in their own faith journeys.

3. We learned to network outside our own ministry circle.

One Sunday a visiting mother dropped off her young daughter in our church nursery before heading to worship. No special instructions were left, and our volunteers assumed the new child was just like every other busy preschooler. But the childcare workers soon noticed differences and pulled me in for advisement. After several weeks and a delicate conversation with the mother, we discovered the child was blind. This single mother was in need of help and her daughter, who was the age children begin to learn to read, needed to learn Braille. As we were brainstorming ideas, I recalled a past conversation with a church member who talked about working with a little girl who was blind on a mission trip. Remembering this church friend’s heart for a child in South America, I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to reach out. A relationship began after this church member, who wasn’t involved in our special needs ministry, sent an email to the struggling mother. Today, nearly three years later, this church member is the single strongest influence in that family. As the girl with special needs ages into our middle school ministry, we already have one Sticky Faith investor who can help us identify and recruit others.

4. We saw God provide purpose and redemption for Sticky Faith investors.

Several years ago a family in our church adopted three children internationally. One of the children began exhibiting signs of special needs, including Reactive Attachment Disorder. (RAD is a syndrome where children have trouble attaching to their adoptive parents due to earlier trauma or neglect.[1]). As this adopted daughter aged, her challenges escalated, sending the entire family into turmoil.

Our ministry team connected this family to another church member, who years earlier had adopted a son internationally and had walked a similar path. This more experienced adoptive father stepped in, investing hours in the family and particularly the struggling daughter who was approaching middle school. Because he could understand the family’s pain, he earned the right to influence all of them. Our ministry team watched God use this man profoundly in the life of a hurting child whose early life experiences had left deep scars. And his help improved the trajectory of the entire family. At the same time we witnessed God using the Sticky Faith investor, we saw God blessing him as well. This man was still grieving the pain of his own adoption experience. It was through his work with the other family that he was able to catch glimpses of God’s eternal plan for his own pain.

Action Points:

  • As you read this interview, did you think of a student with special needs who before now has been relatively unnoticed by your ministry team? Do you know much about this student’s capability for spiritual growth? Identify one action step to help you understand and aid this student in their faith formation.
  • Make a list of good networkers inside your church. Schedule a time to meet with them individually. Share your vision to find Sticky Faith investors for each student with special needs. Ask the networkers to brainstorm ideas and to identify contacts across the church. Go to these meetings prepared with a mental inventory of the students’ needs and interests. (Be careful to respect students’ privacy and to share information in a manner that protects each person’s dignity.)
  • Begin identifying and building a relationship with potential Sticky Faith investors. It may take time to determine and develop the right people across the church. Be mindful of selecting and equipping people who have the emotional capacity and appropriate level of spiritual maturity. (Hint: Look for people who take a marathon approach to relationships. Sprinters will often fizzle in special needs situations where an abundance of patience is required.)

Photo by David Thiel.

Every kid has special needs. But John’s quirks were a little different than his church leaders were accustomed to. As John aged out of children’s ministry and into his teens, his leaders worried about how they could weave him into the student ministry, in particular how he’d fit in a small group.

John’s nearly constant desire to recount stats from his beloved sports team wavered between fascinating and irritating. And when John wasn’t giving a play-by-play of a recent game, it was hard to follow his train of thought, creating labored interactions for his peers. So they tended to avoid him.

Other times he became an easy target for jokes.

His youth ministry leaders tried to connect with John, but struggled to read him emotionally. It wasn’t uncommon for John to show visible signs of frustration or anxiety whenever there was a schedule change or new visitor. Yet when discussion turned to a sensitive or emotional subject matter, John seemed lost or distracted. This “disconnect” could create awkward moments for his small group. More than once, John blurted out a random sports fact, interrupting the group dynamic at an inopportune time. And his interjections could come off as disrespectful, especially if they happened on the heels of a peer’s vulnerable prayer request.

Admirably, John’s parents were committed to his regular church attendance. However, John’s youth leaders silently wondered how they could include John in the student ministry environment without compromising the other students’ church experience.

John lives daily with a diagnosis of autism. And if he’s not already in your youth group, he will be soon.

The Rising Rates of Teenagers with Disabilities

More kids like John are becoming part of church youth groups everywhere. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports a 16% increase in the prevalence of childhood disability between 2001 and 2011.[1] While the number of kids with physical disabilities decreased (notably), the diagnoses of mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions jumped a whopping 21% for this same population. We know from other studies that these changes are largely attributable to the escalating rise in autism specifically. It is currently estimated that 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 120% surge in diagnoses between 2002 and 2012[2].

Keep in mind these numbers only account for children who have been identified after being tested and then receiving a formal diagnosis. So the real number of kids with autism is likely somewhat higher. With each new promotion year, the growing number of children with autism are becoming teenagers with autism. That means they’re entering your church youth ministry.  

As with any special needs diagnosis, autism spectrum disorder is complex and requires a largely individualized approach. A broad range of learning styles, behaviors, disabilities, and abilities (that are sometimes unusual) fall under the ASD umbrella. And the degree of impairment varies widely. One individual with autism may require assistance with basic life skills while another needs little, if any, support. As result, many high-functioning students with autism have more in common with their typically developing peers than with other kids sharing the same diagnosis. For this reason there is no one-size-fits-all solution for including students with ASD. Autism doesn’t always show up in the form of a physical or intellectual disability. In fact, almost half (46%) of individuals identified with ASD have average or above average intelligence levels.[3]

Oftentimes, autism presents itself in the form of awkward social interactions and unexpected behaviors. These attributes can present unique challenges for a youth ministry environment, where nearly every aspect of programming revolves around personal connection and relationship. But there is hope for kids like John who have autism, and for their student ministry leaders.

Is Inclusion Even Possible?

While “John” isn’t his real name, John is a real student at a real church in suburban Atlanta. When John transitioned out of children’s ministry and into youth group, the student ministry team worried about including him.

But that was four years ago. John has since become an integral part of the same circle of boys, now sophomores in high school. One of John’s small group leaders, Ben Nunes, reflects on the early days: “Before we figured out a few key strategies, there were weeks we spent more time managing John than doing anything else.” But Nunes quickly points out, “John needed time to acclimate to us. And we needed time to figure out what makes him comfortable as well as how to avoid or overcome what makes him nervous.”

Nunes acknowledges, “Interruptions and awkward moments still occur.” But he quickly asserts that he would no longer call them interruptions or awkward moments, “It’s just what happens with John.” Everyone in the group has grown past the discomfort. The unexpected is now expected and rarely do John’s “quirks” get noticed anymore. Nunes insists that the quality of the group’s interactions have not been compromised. Instead, he contends that the guys have bonded partially due to the shared experiences that John has serendipitously created.

John’s integration into the student ministry hasn’t been without hiccups. Small group outings and youth group events nearly always pose a challenge. And the solution is different every time. Sometimes John participates after his parents have coached leaders through anticipated obstacles and prepared him for the new experience. Other times John will skip the event because his parents and leaders have determined he is not yet ready socially or developmentally. John is more likely to attend short, structured group events and forego the more fluid or open-ended get-togethers. And when John does come to extra activities, his father often comes along as an additional adult support.

John’s small group leaders hope he can join the rest of the group on next year’s youth retreat. But the ministry team also appreciates that his parents have taken a thoughtful approach in years past, electing not to send John because he wasn’t ready for sleepless nights and cafeteria-style serving lines. The small group leaders respect that John’s parents have a good handle on their child’s growth pace. And by sometimes taking the hard decisions off the shoulders of the student ministry team, John’s parents consistently set everyone up for success.

Best Practices for Inclusion

For the past five years it’s been my mission to help churches successfully include children with special needs. I’ve conducted dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews with ministry leaders and credentialed professionals working with individuals with disability. And I’ve hopped on planes to visit churches across the U.S., going into Sunday settings to see first-hand what’s working when it comes to including kids with neurological differences. A number of best practices continually resurface in my research. And below are a few favorite ideas worth sharing. Please remember that every student with special needs is unique. The strategies that work for one individual may not work for another who has an identical diagnosis. And an approach that fails the first time can yield success after repetition. It’s all about getting to know the student and trial and error. While these ideas are shared with autism in mind, they are transferrable to a wide range of disabilities and unique needs.

1) Develop a good relationship with parents.

When church leaders demonstrate a genuine desire to include a student with special needs, they increase the odds of having a healthy and trusting relationship with the parents. An honest line of open communication between the church and the family can be critical for success. Many problems can be solved (often before they happen) when a parent does not fear being turned away and shares more openly about their child’s obstacles.

2) Prepare the student ahead of time.

We all know that it’s difficult to enjoy what’s going on around us when we are preoccupied with worry. This is an ongoing problem for many students with autism because anxiety and autism often go hand-in-hand.[4] In fact, anxiety can be the root cause of undesirable behaviors sometimes associated with autism. If a student tends to run away, hide, or show visible signs of agitation around the time of a change, odds are high that the student is anxious about a current or upcoming activity. With careful observation, leaders can usually identify the cause of the undesirable behavior and then prevent or resolve the trigger. However, it is always smart to remove any element of surprise for the nervous student. Advance preparation eases worry and reduces the likelihood of negative behaviors whenever unfamiliar faces, different rooms, or new activities are going to be introduced.

The following tools and strategies may help some students:

  • Offer an advance tour of ministry space and other relevant church environments.

  • Send pictures and names of key faces the student can expect to see.

  • Provide a map of the church campus, labeling rooms and highlighting travel routes.

  • Create a visual schedule with activity times, locations, and brief descriptions.

  • Use a stopwatch or visual timer as a countdown for current and upcoming activities.  

3) Provide printed guidelines for each ministry setting.

Every board game comes with a set of printed instructions. The instruction sheet establishes the purpose of the game and the rules for play. Ambiguity is removed and all players start with an equal understanding of what they can and cannot do during their turn. Some kids with neurodevelopmental disorders need the same type of instructions for “how to play” in the church youth group. Concrete guidelines can help the student who does not catch on to the unwritten rules of play that are typically communicated through social cues.

Because kids with ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, OCD, and many other disabilities are simultaneously dealing with internal tension (e.g. overstimulation, hyperfocus, nervousness, impulsivity, physical pain, hyperactive “running motor”), they easily miss what’s going on around them. A list of clearly stated “Do’s and Don’ts” along with a simple objective statement for each ministry setting may seem insulting, but is actually helpful for some students. Keep in mind that the rules should not be used as a way to shame or embarrass an individual who needs things spelled out literally or who requires regular reminders. In some cases it is best to provide the guidelines discreetly through email or private conversation.

4) Facilitate interaction for the student who struggles to communicate.

While ministry leaders can’t remove every obstacle, they can prompt and model interactions between the student with special needs and their peers. This often requires a leader to learn more about the communication abilities of a particular student and to create some out-of-the-box solutions. For example, a leader may learn that a student who rarely speaks during small group is actually an extrovert on social media. Odds are high that this silent kid in the corner will interact more with the small group via text or group chat. So in addition to asking discussion questions when the group is gathered, the leader also challenges group members to respond to posted discussion questions via text or a shared (and parent approved) chat app. This type of interaction is helpful for a student who:

  • Processes auditory information at a slower pace (i.e. doesn’t think fast on her feet)

  • Struggles to articulate thoughts

  • Speaks with inaudible, mumbled, or labored speech

  • Experiences distraction or overstimulation in the live group setting

  • Fails to interpret subtle, non-verbal, face-to-face communication

5. Remember that inclusion is more about a mindset than a perfect set of strategies.

Like John, not every student with special needs can successfully participate in every ministry activity. And that’s okay. What the student with disability really needs from a youth group is a sense of belonging. Inclusion happens when an individual feels known and accepted for whom God created them to be.

Action Points:

  • As you read this article, did a student’s face come to mind? While reflecting on their unique traits or needs, create one action step to follow up based on these ideas.
  • Do you have a student with challenging behaviors possibly attributable to a disability? Many behavior dilemmas can be prevented or eliminated once you identify the “trigger”. Take a sheet of paper and create 3 columns. In the middle column, note the undesirable behavior. To the left, describe events preceding the incident, and to the right note what happened after or in response. Keep an ongoing log for recurring behaviors. Journaling the behaviors and surrounding facts will either help to identify the cause or serve as the starting point for solution-oriented conversations with parents.
  • For a student unable to do all the same activities as their peers, write down two possible action steps to help them experience a sense of belonging inside the ministry.
  • Identify a knowledgeable person in your community whom you can approach to ask for guidance related to special needs inclusion. Write down their name and contact information. Good sources include:
    • Speech language pathologists
    • Occupational therapists
    • Pediatric physical therapists
    • Special education teachers
    • Social workers

Stay tuned for more in this series, as we address questions like, “Is it ever okay not to include a student?” And “How do I handle other kids, or other kids’ parents, who complain about the effect of special needs kids on themselves/their kids?

[1] http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/08/12/peds.2014-0594.abstract

[2] http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html. The possible cause(s) behind the surge in autism is the subject of much debate and research.

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

You Get What You Are

Modeling Sticky Faith

Shares Sep 01, 2014

This article is adapted from chapter two of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.  To find out more about this book or our new video curriculum for parents, please visit stickyfaith.org/guide.

“I’m Kah-wa Powell.”

What our youngest child, Jessica, lacked in pronunciation of the letter r, she made up for in her gusto for pretending to be me. Every day for two months, she plunged into my bedroom closet, grabbed as many items as her five-year-old fists could carry, and then wore them over her own clothing. Her favorite items were my black leather boots, an orange blouse, a turquoise scarf (trust me, it isn’t as eighties as it sounds), a gold linen dinner jacket (okay, that is as eighties as it sounds), and a wool hat.

Regardless of how you evaluate her fashion sense, if you saw her walk around our house, you’d see that she had a sixth sense for imitating me. Stumbling awkwardly in boots that were twice her size, she’d grab my briefcase on wheels and stride across our wood floors, proclaiming to all other family members, “I’m Kah-wa Powell.”

It was even more adorable than it sounds.

It got less adorable when Jessica started imitating facets of my parenting. She’d stand in our living room, wag her finger at an invisible daughter and sternly warn, “Jessica, you need a better attitude.”

Imaginary Jessica didn’t seem to improve. My daughter’s remedy? More wagging of the finger, mixed with, “Jessica, go to your room.”

Sometimes she’d invite friends to join in the dress-up play. Jessica was always “Kah-wa Powell,” and the friend was usually talked into being “Jessica.” What did they do together? Play cards? Color at the kitchen table?

Nope. “Jessica” usually spent most of her time on the couch, receiving a lecture from “Kah-wa Powell”.

One Friday afternoon, another mom and I were invited to watch a “play” that the two five-year-olds had created. In this play, there were no fairies, doggies, or princesses. The “story” (if you’ve watched your five-year-old child’s plays, you know that the quotes are warranted) revolved around my daughter playing me and giving her “daughter” a grim lecture.

The other mom and I laughed (somewhat awkwardly) at the scene. But long after the other family walked down our driveway, one question sat on the front steps of my heart: Was that my daughter’s primary picture of me?

Jessica mirrored to me a posture and a tone of voice that was everything I didn’t want to be as a mom. As she acted out her version of how I corrected her, I knew I was the one who needed correcting.

3 Sticky Findings

As our team has surveyed others’ research on family faith as well as analyzed our own studies of over 500 teenagers and 50 parents, we have identified three “Sticky findings” that are important for parents who want to model vibrant faith in front of their children and teenagers.

Finding #1:  We Will Get What We Are

After studying the faith development of more than three thousand young people nationwide from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon families, Christian Smith and his team concluded, “The best general rule of thumb that parents might use to reckon their children’s most likely religious outcomes is this: ‘We’ll get what we are.’”[[Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), 57. The importance of parental example is confirmed in a number of studies, including Pam E. King and Ross A. Mueller, “Parental Influence on Adolescent Religiousness: Exploring the Roles of Spiritual Modeling and Social Capital,” Marriage and Family: A Christian Journal 6:3 (2003): 401–13.]] As important as this guide’s other ten factors are in building Sticky Faith families, the reality is that in general, the primary influence in a child’s faith trajectory is his or her parents.

As with all research, please take this with a grain of salt. Or even a mountain of grains of salt. You might have a very different faith journey than your parents’. You might have multiple kids who are choosing different faith paths themselves.

While there is no foolproof formula, in integrity as a researcher I need to be clear: your strategy for developing a Sticky Faith family starts by assessing the vibrancy of your own faith.

Finding #2:  We Will Get What Our Kids Think We Are

Here’s something fascinating. As important as our faith lives are in influencing our kids, multiple studies of teenagers indicate that more important than what parents believe is what teenagers perceive they believe.[[W-N. Bao, D. H. Whitbeck, D. Hoyt, and R. C. Conger, “Perceived Parental Acceptance as a Moderator of Religious Transmission among Adolescent Boys and Girls,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (1999): 362–74.]][[L. Okagaki and C. Bevis, “Transmission of Religious Values: Relations between Parents’ and Daughters’ Beliefs,” Journal of Genetic Psychology 160 (1999): 303–18.]]

When I was a high school student, our youth pastor decided to make the focus of one of our Wednesday night meetings this question: If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

To my surprise (and dismay), I was one of the three students picked to be on trial. Friends of mine from youth group then gave testimonies about both my character and my behaviors. I remember sitting on a grey plastic chair in the front of our youth room, palms sweating and heart pounding, wondering if there was going to be enough evidence to convict me.

There was. In my opinion, barely.

Because that sort of mock trial can easily become emotionally manipulative and guilt producing, I don’t recommend trying this at your home church. But given the research on Sticky Faith families, I hope you reflect on this question: If I were on trial for being a Christian, what evidence could my kids offer to convict me?

Finding #3:  There Are Many Ways to Build and Model Sticky Faith in Front of Your Kids

As we interviewed parents who had developed enduring faith in their kids, this theme emerged: they made the cultivation of their own faith a priority.

While that was a nearly universal goal, there were no universal steps parents took to make that goal a reality. Each parent seems to find their own channel to stay in tune with Jesus.

Some hold traditional “quiet times,” often in the morning before children are looking for breakfasts and backpacks.

Others prefer to journal in the evenings while kids are sleeping or studying.

Some like to sit.

Others feel closer to God while moving—while jogging, walking, gardening, or even driving.

Some need quiet.

Others prefer the stimulation of a good sermon or great worship music, or even the background noise of a coffee house or the morning bus commute.

The length, location, and posture of parents’ time with God varies. What is constant is their recognition that regular (generally daily) time with God needs to be a priority in their schedules.

Sticky Ideas

In order to understand how creative families are embodying these three findings, we interviewed 50 amazing parents nationwide. Their ideas inspired and encouraged us, and we hope they do the same for you. Here are just a few:

Same Time, Same Place

Of the parents we interviewed, the majority were most successful in carving out time with the Lord when they found a consistent rhythm.

Same time.

Same place.

Every day. Or at least most days.

Even if it wasn’t daily, it was consistent. One busy executive found it challenging to carve out time with the Lord on weekdays, so he spent an hour reading the Bible and praying first thing every Saturday morning. While he wished he spent such focused time with God more frequently, he rarely missed his Saturday routine.

Personally, I double my chances of working out if I plan the day before when I’ll make it to the gym. I triple those chances if I put on workout clothes as soon as I get out of bed.

For many Sticky Faith parents, identifying a consistent time and place similarly increases the likelihood of developing their spiritual muscles.

A Running Conversation with Jesus

While regularly scheduling time to pray, read Scripture, and meditate is hard, I find a second practice of some parents even more challenging. And convicting.

Several parents we interviewed found great spiritual strength by maintaining a regular conversation with Jesus. They would comment that they “pray all the time” and maintain a “regular conversation with Jesus” in the midst of work and family responsibilities.

As one parent described, “Whatever happens during my day, I keep my conversation going with the Lord.”

Some parents find that praying some or all of the “daily office” of fixed-hour prayer (common in Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions) helps pace their day with “God pauses.” Whether on their smartphone or in a book, these excerpts from scripture and the prayers of others can be a catalyst for ongoing conversation with God.

In talking with these parents, I don’t sense that they do this because it’s merely a good idea. To them, it’s like a spiritual oxygen mask, helping them stay calm and breathe when they hit turbulence.

A Day a Quarter

Cliff, a dad of two teenagers, has found he connects with God best when he isn’t rushed or preoccupied with his next meeting. So Cliff sets aside a day each quarter as his time away with God. Grabbing his Bible, a few books, and a lunch, he heads to a nearby park, lake, restaurant, or friend’s vacant house for the day. (Cliff lives in Minnesota, so the time of year makes a big difference in where he holes up.) These quarterly days are Cliff’s lifeline, enabling him for the next three months to be the disciple, leader, husband, and dad that he longs to be.

Praying with Your Calendar

If your calendar seems too full for any of these ideas, perhaps prayer itself is the solution. Abigail, a mom with college-age sons, has found that taking time to pray actually gives her more time to pray. How does that time-math work?

When Abigail prays with her calendar in front of her, the Lord often gives her a sense of what is most important. As a result, she inevitably eliminates some of the items crowding her to-do list. Prayer helps Abigail become more able to identify those tasks that can wait, or even better, don’t need to be done at all.

Community as a Portal for Spiritual Growth

Many parents we interviewed mentioned the catalytic role of others in their own spiritual growth—particularly close friends, mentors, and fellow members of Bible studies or small groups. When parents’ frustration or fatigue makes them blind to God’s vision for their lives or families, it’s often others who show them the way.

As with other ideas that further spiritual growth, these relationships almost always take planning. One single parent makes double dinner every Wednesday night, carefully placing extra plates in the refrigerator with her kids’ names on them, so she can make it to her Thursday night small group. That additional work is worth the payoff that comes from spiritually rubbing shoulders with other women every week.

Our Family’s Steps toward Sticky Faith

Take a few moments on your own, or with your spouse, your friends, or your small group, to reflect on some potential next steps toward Sticky Faith.

Sticky Findings

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being “we stink at this” and 5 being “we rock at this”), rate your family on the research findings shared above.

1.     I myself have the vibrant faith I hope my kids will have as adults.

        1          2          3          4          5

2.     My kids observe me living out my faith in our home and community.

        1          2          3          4          5

3.     I make the cultivation of my faith a priority in my schedule.

        1          2          3          4          5

Sticky Ideas

1.     What are you already doing that is helping you model faith in front of your kids?


2.     Given your ranking of the findings in the previous section, as well as the ideas you’ve read in this chapter, what one or two changes might you want to make in your family?


3.     What can you do in the next few weeks or month to move toward these changes?


This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people. Read Part 1 here: VIA MEDIA A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People.

If you’ve been around teenagers very long, you’ve probably found yourself scratching your head more than once about young people and digital media. What’s going on here? What does it all mean? Even the most tech-savvy adult can find it hard to keep up or comprehend.

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing danah boyd, author of the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. (read FYI’s initial review of the book.) boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, a Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Fortune magazine nicely summed up boyd’s substantial resume by calling her “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet."[[Ones to Watch: Danah Boyd <http://archive.fortune.com/galleries/2010/fortune/1010/gallery.fast_risers_under_40.fortune/index.html>]]

With that in mind, our hope was to draw from boyd’s expertise and provide some additional insights that relate more directly to Christian parents and youth leaders. We were pleased to find that a lot of what boyd had to say resonated strongly with the stories and strategies FYI has shared through this series, and in our new book The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family.


Fuller Youth Institute: A lot of parents and leaders ask us about how to help young people set better boundaries with digital media. What have you learned about how teens and families navigate this?

danah boyd: When parents are looking for limits, I start by asking: why? Are they trying to limit their child’s sociality? Most do not think of it in those terms but that’s what the limiting often creates for youth. Youth aren’t avoiding face-to-face; they’re going online because true, non-surveilled face-to-face is rarely an option. 

I also find that many parents hate when phones are seen as a disruption, but are completely unable to check their own practices around this. So many teens that I meet complain that their parents place restrictions on their technology use that they don’t abide by.

Teens are fully aware of when their parents are being hypocrites. So my advice to parents is to start by collectively constructing household rules that *everyone* (parents and children) agree to. This is so much more productive when negotiated as a household, not top-down.


FYI: What do you see as the biggest disconnect between how parents think about media and technology as compared to their teens?

DB: I get very frustrated when parents – and other adults – focus on the technology because it’s the thing that is new, rather than putting teens’ technological practices in context. Teens aren’t turning to technology because it’s inherently attractive. They’re doing so because it’s the one way that they have to connect with their friends in a culture in which we’ve placed heavy restrictions on teens’ mobility and social opportunities.

With this in mind, my first advice to parents is: step back and try to appreciate your kids’ practices in the broader context of their lives. Most youth are trying to find their way in this world and it doesn’t help when parents get all judge-y.

The second thing that I’d advise parents is to build a wide support structure for their kids, including other trusted adults they can turn to and a strong parent-child communication framework rooted in trust and respect.


FYI: What do you wish more adult youth leaders (pastors, coaches, extracurricular instructors) would talk about with young people regarding how they use social media and digital technology and the common issues that arise?

DB: From my perspective, the key is for youth leaders not to focus on the technology but to help young people work through the struggles that are very much shaped by their age, status, and position in society.

When technology enters the picture, it’s often what makes teens’ struggles very visible. I often think back to the amazing work by Jane Jacobs where she highlighted how safety isn’t about law enforcement, but about a collective willingness to pay attention to everyone around us.[[See: Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. Random House LLC.]]

I wish that adult youth leaders would be willing to enter teens’ networked lives when they’re invited to do so and be respectful of what they find. But when it comes to talking with them, the key is to get beyond the technology and get to the root of what’s happening. It starts by neither fearing technology nor presuming it to be the center of everything. It’s simply that which mirrors and magnifies everyday life.


FYI: Roughly one-third of the sample group of teenagers in your research self-identified as Christian (Protestant or Catholic). Generally speaking, did anything stand out to you about the Christian teens you interviewed?

DB: To be honest, not really. By and large, they struggled with the same issues as non-Christian youth, although they sometimes narrated their struggles in religious terms. For example, one young woman I met explained to me that bullying was not an issue at their school because it was a Christian school. And yet, she proceeded to tell me all about the various rumors, gossip, and drama that ensued—unable to recognize that this was precisely what many adults meant when they used the term bullying.

I did find that religious teens often had a wider variety of non-school social connections and were more likely to have a non-parent adult that they could turn to, but this applied to all religious youth, not just Christian youth. There’s no doubt that the church can and often does provide teens with a critical support structure, and this is very important.


FYI: A lot of churches and ministries have been trying to integrate social media into both their marketing and outreach, and their teaching curriculum materials for young people. Are there any best practices you might recommend with regards to using it more effectively in either of those respects? Any common pitfalls leaders should avoid?

DB: I get why folks want to use social media to market to youth, but youth want social media to be their own. Valuable marketing occurs when youth pull on something that’s created by ministries and make it their own, not when it’s simply broadcast out.

Thus, my advice would be to focus on creating media that teens can appropriate, remix, or otherwise engage in and see what clicks based on what they choose to share. But above all else, don’t try to be “cool” by directly targeting youth. Work with youth to co-create this stuff. That is the core of authenticity for them.


FYI: Youth ministries devote a lot of time to service projects and helping those in need. In your experience, what are some good ways to get young people active and more meaningfully involved with causes they care about online?

DB: There are two paths in which young people typically get involved with service-oriented and activist work – 1) it’s normative [[This term is used a lot in academic circles and refers to how what we are exposed to growing up we then assume and take for granted as being the normal way of doing things.]] in their communities; or 2) they personally develop an interest in the work.

The former used to be driven by religious organizations, but is now dominated by collegiate expectations that applicants have done such work. This has distorted participation in service and social justice work in problematic ways. The latter, developing a personal interest in the work, used to be more rare and harder to find. This was, in part, because even if a teen had an interest in, for example, an environmental cause, finding a way to engage deeply was difficult at best if it wasn’t normative in their hometown. 

Here’s where the Internet shines. Young people take their interests and find common ground, build connections and imagine how they might fit into the broader efforts. This cognitive and social work isn’t a waste of time; it’s a critical part of developing a sustainable service practice. Rather than dismissing their digital connecting around service, embrace and promote it. It’s step one. When young people are connecting online to develop passion to do service work, they’re much more likely to stay engaged than if they’re simply doing it to list it on their college application.


FYI: What are your thoughts on where things might be headed with digital technology and young people? What do you think will be the major concerns five or ten years down the road?

DB: While I expect that the specific fears and anxieties may shift, the general ones will remain. We are afraid of and for youth; we’re concerned about their sexuality, mental health, and social well-being; we worry about their status and position within this world. Whatever new technologies emerge, we will plug these into the broad concerns that we always have about young people. 

This is why I think that it’s so important to put technology into perspective. We used to be afraid of novels because we were worried that youth would disappear into fantasy worlds and be unable to connect. We feared radio, television, comic books. Each new media is feared, but the fears themselves aren’t that different. The key is to appreciate how hard it is for young people to navigate this world and appreciate their commitment to figuring it out. New technologies are part of that, but what youth need now, more than ever, is the freedom and support to explore. I worry that, in our culture of fear, we’ve done youth a significant disservice. And I’d like us to step away from fretting over technology and focus on the love and attention that teens need from us.

Our thanks again to Dr. boyd for taking time to connect with FYI. A digital version of the book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, has been made available for free to parents and youth leaders and can be downloaded here.

VIA MEDIA Part 1: A New Look @ Navigating Digital Technology with Young People
VIA MEDIA Part 2: How Young is Too Young for Digital Technology and Social Media?

VIA MEDIA Part 3: Sticks and Phones: Preventing Digital Bullying
VIA MEDIA Part 4: My [Own] Space: Supervision vs. Surveillance
VIA MEDIA Part 5: Cheat Codes: A Quick Guide to Teens and Video Games
VIA MEDIA Shoot to Kill: The Real Impact of Violent Video Games

Survive The Summer Playlist: 10 Free Resources

Shares Jun 17, 2014

Photo by Chris Martin.

Whether you’re already a few weeks into the summer rhythm or just getting your toes wet, we’ve compiled a playlist you can return to again and again for ideas to boost your ministry this summer.

1. The best family summer ever

Ideas to help families connect before summer slips away.

2. Help parents create a summer technology covenant with their teenagers

Here are a few samples you can pass along.

3. Using social media to strengthen family bonds

A practical guide for parents who might be feeling powerless and clueless when it comes to leveraging technology to boost their relationships.

4. Beyond Camp-As-Usual

Sticky Faith approaches to more intentional camps and retreats.

5. How do you help faith stick beyond camp?

Programs end, but practices don’t have to.

6. Sticky Faith camp ministry ideas from camp leaders themselves

Six ideas you might not have thought about.

7. Three ideas for improving your camp experience this summer

If you still need more camp encouragement!

8. Taking the pastor to camp

This idea rocks.

9. Twenty Ideas for Grandparents

Summer is a great time to boost the grandparent connection! Encourage them with this best-of list.

10. Parenting strategies for launching kids into adulthood

One to share with parents of recent grads and rising seniors over the summer. And actually, here’s part two as well.


Start thinking about ministry planning for next year! This free sample from our Sticky Faith Launch Kit can help you rethink your volunteer training rhythm.


Like this playlist? Here are 20 more ideas for transition season!