Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace

Creating a Rule of Life in a 24/7 World

Feb 26, 2014 Jude Tiersma Watson

Photo by borealnz.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message

What do rhythms look like in a world where everything from groceries to gas to the Internet is available twenty-four hours every day?

Growing up on a dairy farm, rhythms were a natural part of my early life. Now as an urbanite, I find myself longing for rhythms to give some order to life in the city. In my rural upbringing, we adapted to natural rhythms. Now, living in a nonstop city, we have to be the initiators of our rhythms. One way to do this is to learn from the ancient practice of creating a “Rule of Life” for ourselves, our families, and perhaps even our communities.

What is a Rule of Life?

What provides the support and structure for you to grow? A decade ago, I had given this little thought. I used to think that life would get less busy next year, or the year after, but the opposite seemed to be true. Now I realize that in our society and in our ministries, filled with endless options and opportunities, I need to be more careful about the form that my life takes.

A Rule of Life provides a way for us to be more intentional about our lives and the ways we want to invite God to transform us. We can pray for God’s work in and through us, to become more Christ-like, but this does not always happen automatically or randomly. Thinking through our life patterns adds a layer of intentionality to our desire to see our lives transformed. You may already have an informal life rhythm, or “rule” of life, without calling it that—patterns that you have developed in your spiritual life. Or perhaps rhythm has eluded you, in particular as you’ve become busy with well-meaning ministry work.   

Some of us might resist the idea of a “rule” as restricting our lives, but the intent is to create a guide that shapes our lives and allows us to thrive. This use of the word “rule” is from the Latin regula (not from lex or law). A regula serves as a guidepost or railing—something to hang on to in the dark that leads us to where we are going 1

This guidepost is sometimes described as a trellis—a support for a plant such as a grapevine. Without a trellis, grapevines would wallow in the mud after the rain, rather than being lifted above the ground. The grapevine might produce some fruit, but in a rather disordered way. Tied to a trellis, however, far more fruit is produced.

The trellis does not have value in and of itself; it does not exist for the sake of the trellis. Rather, the trellis provides the structure for growth and thriving.

Like a grapevine, humans too need structure and support for spiritual growth. Similarly, we find that spiritual fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, and others have space to flourish. Marjorie Thompson observes, “Otherwise our spirituality grows in a confused and disorderly way. The fruit of the spirit in us gets tangled and is susceptible to corruption, and the beauty of our lives is diminished. We need structure in order to have enough space, air and light to flourish. Structure gives us the freedom to grow as we were meant to.” 2

The History of Living in Rhythm

Historically, a Rule of Life ordered the shared community ethic of those residing in monasteries as part of a religious order. Centuries ago (A.D. 540), Benedict of Nursia crafted his “Little Rule for Beginners” for those who wanted to live faithfully in uncertain times. Initially this “rule” governed life among the Benedictines. Describing a pattern of life, it nurtured a communal spirituality that came to characterize that particular religious order. Following their rule, the Benedictines became known for their rhythm of work and prayer, and the practices of listening and hospitality.

In more recent years, writing a “rule” has been discovered and adapted by laypeople of many Christian traditions as a way to order our lives and grow toward holiness. Our times, like those of Benedict, are characterized by much change and transition in the world around us. Those of us in ministry know that the demands and uncertainties of life and ministry can lead to chaos in our personal lives, or a sense of going from one thing to the other without much intentionality. The urgent can so easily begin to control our lives. We are told to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19), but sometimes life itself seems to drain us of life.

Our Creator God set the example for us with the rhythm of creation. God created in six days, and then rested. Why did God rest? I used to think that Sabbath was to rest up for the week to come, so that I could be more productive. This flies in the face of a true Sabbath, however, a day for the sake of life, not productivity. Sabbath reminds us that life is a gift to be received. 3

God certainly did not need to rest in order to be more productive the following week. By resting, God modeled a life pattern for his children to follow. God stopped, ceased his work, and saw that it was good. For many of us, this is the commandment we so easily ignore. We do so for the sake of the Kingdom, or so we think, but we ignore this at great cost. Establishing the Sabbath rhythm anchors the rest of the rhythms in our lives. Here are a few other historical examples of leaders who followed a particular rule in their lives:

  • Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker hospitality homes, had a rule that sustained her through such an intense ministry. She read the Bible and received the Eucharist each day, kept a prayer journal, and disciplined herself to see Christ in the faces of the poor.
  • Desmond Tutu, the spiritual leader and friend of Nelson Mandela who helped South Africa move out of Apartheid, refers to his “substantial spiritual rhythm” that sustained him through years of struggle. Tutu got up early to spend time with God, prayed the daily office, took monthly quiet days at a retreat center, and made a longer yearly retreat.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. developed a rule that guided the protests of the civil rights movement, sometimes called the ten commandments of the non-violent movement, to which all participants had to agree. His rule considers both specific practices as well as the inner attitudes or postures beneath those practices. They include: meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus; remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory; walk and talk in the manner of love; pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free; observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy; seek to perform regular service for others and the world; refrain from violence of fist, tongue or heart; strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health; follow the directions of the movement. 4

How to Write Your Rule

A rule of life can be either personal or communal. We will begin with tips for creating your personal rhythm, but this also can be very meaningful if done with your family or community. A personal rule is not individualistic. It might include a family rhythm as well. I’ve shared some of my rule for this year as an example below, which involves my husband in some elements.

Benedict begins his Little Rule with the word “listen.” Our rule is made out of the raw material of everyday life, not an escape from life. This is the life we have been given, no other access to God than the here and now. So we listen to our lives and to God speaking into our lives.

Here are three questions to consider as you ponder your rhythms:

  • What am I attracted to and why?
  • Where do I believe God is calling me to stretch and grow?
  • What kind of balance/rhythm do I need in my life? 5

Our rule is a blend of the places we more naturally relate to God, those practices we are drawn to, and places we need to grow. I am drawn to solitude and silence, and include a time of silence in my Rule. When I am out and about, however, I can get easily distracted, so I include a practice that reminds me to pay attention to God in the midst of my active life. This is one place God is calling me to grow.

A good starting place is recalling the rhythms in your life that have sustained you, that fit you well, and that use your natural ways of talking to God. God always works with who we are. If you have been praying the Psalms for many years, or listening to worship music, and it continues to be life-giving, do not throw that out. But perhaps there are rhythms that are no longer suited for you, that are like a yoke that does not fit very well. Perhaps it is time to let that one go. What might be a posture or practice that fits you better at this season in your life?

The idea is not to overload ourselves with practices that are unsustainable. This is not for the sake of the practice, but to be more like Jesus, to come closer to Jesus, and to find a healthy yoke that is life-giving.

Prayerfully consider just three practices to include in your Rule of Life, as well as a posture you want to live into. This is your personal rhythm. Three may not seem like much, but a rhythm needs to be realistic and sustainable. Remember that this can be tentative. We live into it, and if it does not fit well, we can adapt it.

Each year I reevaluate my Rule of Life, and typically alter one aspect of it. Not everything is included in my rule, but the aspects I will focus on this year, places where God is forming me. Other years I have included one on Sabbath, but that is not my focus this time. This year I have added a line on hurry. I heard someone quote this from Dallas Willard, and as I paid attention and listened, it seemed to call my name. I hurry too much. I need to grow in this, so I added it to my Rule for this year.

Posture also matters, and I have started adding a posture that I want to work on. A posture is a way of being. Postures I have included in the past are humility and gratitude. This year my posture relates to my tendency to hurry everywhere. Sometimes people say to me, “I know you’re busy, but…” When I look at the life of Jesus, his life was full, but he was not always in a hurry.

Jude’s Rule of Life for 2014


  • Morning: 30 minutes of solitude, followed by reading scripture with John.
  • Throughout the day: Pray the Jesus Prayer as a way to pray without ceasing, with special attention to praying while walking the streets of my neighborhood. (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.”)
  • Evening: Reflect on the day with John, using the Examen. End the day with a prayer from the Celtic Prayer Book
  • “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” (Dallas Willard)
  • Remember daily that life is a gift.

After a few months, I evaluate my Rule and see how it fits me. Is it a life-giving Rule, or does it feel like a burden? If so, how can I make adjustments?

Sometimes life gets in the way, and we lose our rhythm. Rather than feel defeated, I remind myself that this is an “unforced rhythm of grace.” God’s mercies are new every morning, and we can begin again, any time of the year.

Life Rhythm For the Sake of the World

At a conference a few years ago, I heard a Father say, “One monk finds peace, one thousand find salvation.” I sometimes remind myself of this. My rhythms are never just about me. We need to start with ourselves, but we live our lives in the world. Jesus is our example here – he sometimes withdrew from the crowds, but he did not stay there. He lived his life in the midst of people’s demands, just as we do. Our rhythms are for the sake of life, not only for our individual lives, but also for the world around us.

Action steps

  • Take a temperature reading of your own life rhythm. Do you feel more chaotic than you’d like to feel? Write down the elements of your spiritual life that make up the “Rule” you practice now, if any.
  • Read back through the “How to write your Rule” section of this article and the three questions to consider. Then form your own list of 1-3 practices and a posture, if that resonates with you.
  • Share your rule with a friend, spouse, or spiritual guide, and invite them to check in with you about how it’s going in a month. Consider making adjustments as necessary based on what’s life-giving and what feels like more of a burden.

Additional Resources

Derkse, Wil, The Rule of Benedict for Beginners. The Liturgical Press, 2003.
Macchia, Stephen A., Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way. IVP, 2012.

  1. Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of Benedict for Today (HarperSan Francisco, 1991), 7.
  2. Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: A Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (John Knox Press, 1995), 137.
  3. For more FYI resources on Sabbath, see “Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City” and “REST: The Four-letter Word of Youth Workers?
  4. Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, 140.
  5. Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast, 143.

In The Aftermath Of Suicide

Helping Communities Heal

Feb 26, 2014 Mary Glenn

Photo by Thomas Frost Jensen.

“Student committed suicide, please call ASAP”

The text flashed across my phone while I was sitting in my Tuesday night Bible study. It’s the kind of text I have received countless times before, and it’s never easy to read. A 14-year-old boy killed himself after school. As the local senior police chaplain, I was called in to provide support, grief care, and help to school personnel who were dealing with this trauma. 

When I arrived at the school the next morning, I was asked to meet in the vice-principal’s office with the student’s teachers and guidance counselors. These staff members were in shock, wrestling with grief and guilt. They asked the “What if” questions; What if I missed something? What if I could have stopped him from doing this? What if I would have known the pain he was in? 

One of the student’s teachers stated, “There is nothing you can say that will convince me that it isn’t my fault. I missed the signs. I could have stopped it.” What someone feels in that moment is real—as real as it can get. I can’t talk someone out of feeling guilt, but what I can do is listen with care, offer compassion, and help people understand some of the dynamics of suicide.

As youth leaders, mentors, and those invested in young people, suicide rates should concern us. Why are so many kids killing themselves, and how can we begin to understand the complexities of this issue? When kids commit suicide, the community is left with questions, grief, and anger. What can we do to help communities heal from this trauma?

Suicide Rates Remain Too High

Young people are killing themselves at alarming rates. For ages 10-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. 1  In fact, “More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined!” 2

We need to be concerned not just about completed suicides, but also about suicide attempts. Teens attempt suicide more often than complete it. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools found that “16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey. Each year, approximately 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at Emergency Departments across the U.S.” 3 All teens are at risk, but boys are the most likely to die from suicide attempts. While girls are more likely to report attempting suicide, 80% of suicide deaths are boys. 4 Culture also plays a role in who attempts and completes suicides. Among our most at-risk teens are Native American/Alaskan Native youth (who have the highest rate of suicide-related fatalities) and Latino youth (who are more likely to report attempting suicide than their non-Latino peers). 4

Why Are So Many Kids Killing Themselves? 

We will never know exactly why a student took their life, but there are ways to recognize and identify if a teen may be in trouble. Potential teen suicide risk factors include: 4

  • access to lethal methods
  • depression/mental illness 
  • divorce/family changes 
  • drug/alcohol abuse, alcoholism in the home
  • exposure to domestic violence
  • family history of suicide
  • feeling that their life doesn’t matter, lack of self-worth/value
  • feeling that people don’t know/care for them
  • history of previous suicide attempts
  • identity issues
  • incarceration
  • lack of community/isolation
  • loss/grief
  • moving to a new/different community
  • physical, sexual abuse or emotional neglect
  • stressful event
  • victim of bullying

The top three methods used in the suicides of young people include firearms (45%), suffocation (40%), and poisoning (8%). 7  I have found this to be true in my own experience, as the majority of youth suicide cases I’ve responded to involved a firearm, usually belonging to a parent. 

Several factors can put a young person at risk for suicide. However, having these risk factors does not always mean that suicide will occur. One of the most significant risk factors for teen suicide is depression. As the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health states, “It is estimated that depression increases the risk of a first suicide attempt by at least 14-fold. Over half of all kids who suffer from depression will eventually attempt suicide at least once.” 8 Further, fifty-three percent of young suicide deaths involve substance abuse.

One study revealed that teens under 18 who lost a parent to suicide were three times more likely to commit suicide than children and teens with parents living. 9  After the 2008 economic downturn, several parents in my community took their own lives due to the financial stress they were facing. I have responded to teen suicides where the young persons’ death was preceded by one of their parents taking their own life. When a teen loses a parent, their vulnerability increases greatly. 

Finally, untreated and undiagnosed trauma contributes to feelings of hopelessness that can lead to suicidal actions. Teens are being exposed to trauma at concerning rates. Movies, video games, TV shows, and violent life experiences imprint images on the brains of young people. Our eyes and minds process and record trauma (what we have seen and experienced) in our memory. As a result of this trauma, teens can struggle with flashbacks and disturbing memories and emotions, which if left undiagnosed and untreated, may result in teen suicide. 

Suicide Is A Complex Reality 

After a suicide, we may find ourselves asking many “why” questions: Why did this happen? Why couldn’t I stop it? Why didn’t I see the signs? We are looking for explanations. Sometimes it’s helpful to keep reminding one another that suicide is one person’s decision. We may feel responsible and blame ourselves, and at the same time be angry that this teenager didn’t even give us a chance to help them. Anger is part of the grief process and a normal reaction to teen suicide. We may be plagued with a complex mixture of emotions such as guilt, anger and lack of closure. All are valid and real. 

In the majority of attempted suicide attempts, there were signs. 10  However, it is almost impossible to discern unless you are the person contemplating committing suicide. People mask their emotions. The “What if?” questions won’t bring the person back. Replaying of the last conversations and interactions we had with the student won’t change the reality. One person’s suffering, sadness, and decisions have repercussions that reach deeply into the community.

The Deep And Ongoing Impact Of Suicide 

I was a youth pastor for 15 years and have served as a police chaplain for almost 15 years. My first police chaplain call was to give a death notification to the family of an 18-year-old (the only son in the family) who committed suicide. The parents were confused, sad, and devastated. Their lives were turned upside down on hearing the news. 

Suicide can also expose us to trauma as those who help in the aftermath. Trauma is a result of exposure to a critical incident or distressing experience and, if left untreated, it can result in PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or other issues. We can’t control when tragedy happens, but we can help lessen the impact. This is called trauma care. As those who work with young people, we need to care for ourselves so that we can help offer care to others. This may mean finding a safe place to process our own traumatic stress from being part of the situation. 

We all grieve differently. It is important that we give ourselves and each other space and time to grieve. Grieving collectively (e.g., funerals) plays a key role. Together we can remember our lost loved one. Sometimes one death can bring up previous loss and grief. While I was talking with one of the teachers of the 14-year-old who committed suicide, she was filled with grief not just from the recent student suicide but also from an accidental student death ten months previous. Both of the students were in her class. She was feeling the loss of the first student as she was processing the reality of the second student’s death.

Best Practices For Healing

The loss of suicide brings permanent changes. In the aftermath of death, we enter into what is sometimes called the “new normal.” We long to return to the days of old, before this loss. The reality is, we can’t. We must step into the new normal and find ways to deal with the loss. Grief is an important part of this process, and it is imperative that we grieve well. 11 In the article “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned about Trauma”, Catherine Woodiwiss offers several best practices in dealing with trauma and grief, including: 12

  1. Be present with people
  2. Healing takes time
  3. Grieving and healing are both social experiences
  4. Don’t offer cliches or comparison
  5. Allow people to tell their own stories

Recovering from teen suicide certainly takes time. But we are not guaranteed that we will be stronger after this, or that we will find full healing. Be careful not to make promises to yourself or anyone else that this will be the case. 

Below are some additional guidelines that will help us find healing for ourselves as well as those around us who are struggling with the grief following teen suicide: 

  1. Ministry of presence. We can embody the peace and presence of God by being present with others, sitting with people in the midst of their pain. During our own grief we need not isolate ourselves, but rather invite community to journey with us. 
  2. It’s not okay, but it won’t always be this way. Clichés we use on ourselves and with others can bring more pain. The fact that this student was in pain and took their own life changes us all forever. Yet things won’t always be this way. Eventually we can begin to rebuild life after loss.
  3. Face down the guilt, shame, and anger. We may feel like we could have done something. Going down that road won’t bring them back. The teen we loved made a decision and took their own life. They are gone and we can’t change that. But the emotions we feel are real, and we need to create healthy space for feelings to be expressed. 
  4. We can’t change the fact that a teen took their life, but we can lessen the impact of the death on our community. Participating in group processes like CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) debriefs can mediate the impact because they offer opportunities to talk through the loss with others. CISM is a process by which we discuss what happened, what we saw, felt, experienced, etc. in a group setting with others who are going through this with us. This isn’t equivalent to professional therapy, but is a way to lessen the intensity of the loss by giving a safe space in a group guided by a facilitator. Professional therapy, pastoral counseling, and grief counseling can also assist in community healing. Be sure to be prepared with referrals of local helpers for young people and their families. 
  5. Acknowledge the impact of the death imprint. When we see or experience something traumatic, our brain takes a picture of what we see or what we can imagine. That death imprint stays with us. Smells, sights, and sounds might cause the memory and pain from that event to be recalled. Be patient and sensitive with yourself and with others when this happens. 
  6. God is with us. In the midst of the loss and pain, we must remember that God is always with us. In Psalm 32:7 we are reminded that God keeps and surrounds us: “You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance.”   Feeling alone with our grief can overwhelming. But we are promised that God is with us. 13
  7. Cling to hope! Even when we don’t feel it, hope is there. In the midst of losing our loved one, hope helps us to see what is ahead and to look to the future rather than being stuck in the present and past. 

Action Steps

  1. Assess your own grief process and management in dealing with loss and death. What are your best self-care practices? 
  2. Read an article or book on loss and grief. Discuss it with your small group or in community with other leaders. How does your ministry handle loss and death well? What could you put in place to respond better? 
  3. Begin building (or revisit and strengthen) a database of local caregivers who can help after tragedies like suicide or other deaths. 
  4. Learn more about suicide prevention and warning signs. Part 2 of this article will provide more tips for prevention. 

Additional Resources

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) 

American Association of Suicidology (AAS)

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 

Glover, Beryl S. and Glenda Stansbury. The Empty Chair: The Journey of Grief After Suicide.

Hsu, Albert Y. Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. 

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) 

National Mental Health Association (NMHA) 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

New Hope Grief Support Community

Shaw, Luci. God in the Dark: Through Grief and Beyond. 

Steel, Danielle. His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina. Delacorte Press, 1998.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center 

The Centering Corp (Grief Resources):

Yancey, Philip. The Question That Never Goes Away (Why). 

Reimagining The Gospel In Relationship, Part 2

The Gospel In Youth Ministry

Feb 11, 2014 Tommy GivensSteven Argue

Photo by Thomas Frost Jensen.

You can read the first part of this article here: Reimagining The Gospel In Relationship, Part 1.

Forming the young in the colorful story and life of the gospel will not simply play to the insecurities of their parents and guardians. Often it will exacerbate them.

As a story of the most troubling kind of self-giving, it will subvert their elders’ tendencies to patronize them with it and turn their elders into fellow learners of the gospel, something the young desperately need to experience with adults. It will help them find in the Bible not pat theoretical answers but a morally complex story that enables them to struggle through the complexities of embodied life with hope, a story where doubt is not inimical to faith but a mode of it and where failure is not a threat to God but what God makes his own.

That our children might “lose their faith” or figure among the statistics of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, or quitting school can inspire toxic fears in us. Instead of patiently digesting their doubts with them (with Israel, with the psalmist, with the disciples, with Jesus, and with others of the Christian past) and helping them pick up the pieces after they’ve made big mistakes, we can let our fears crowd them out of a home for the difficulties of real life. But the gospel story of the Bible is all about God’s hospitality amidst those difficulties and God’s power in Christ to embody that patient, if painful, welcome.

Above all, perhaps, forming the young in the gospel will school them in the arts of friendship at a time in their lives when nothing is more important than making good friends. If the gospel is especially about the way God empowers people to love one another, then friendship names this power at its most intimate. Friendship is what Jesus told his disciples he was teaching them when he washed their feet and then loved them to the death. Friendship is not simply something modeled for us in a few stories of the Bible or one of many topics covered in the Bible. It is the way God has drawn near to us, through much suffering, so that we are able to draw near to God and to one another. Friendship is thematic to the story of the Bible and the wisdom it offers along the way, reaching its fullness in the gospel about Jesus.

Friendship is of course not a theoretical matter that you can put up on a PowerPoint slide for a youth ministry lesson. It is a quintessentially practical and complex reality learned through the testimony of others, modeling, and trial and error. I am afraid that for most of our young today, friendship is at best a tangent of the gospel, and they do not have many good adult friendships around them from which to learn or in which to participate. Most of what we call friendships are short-lived, involve very little sharing of goods and life with one another, and depend on some industry of entertainment to get us together. They seldom move far beyond initial attraction, appeal, or mutual interest. But the art of friendship according to the gospel story is a matter of lasting commitment, mutual vulnerability, and subtly growing in love for one another through suffering and rejoicing together.

In attempting to school our young in the arts of friendship by the light of the gospel we will have to show them that while being the same age is often an occasion of friendship, it is not a precondition of Christian friendship or community. The body of Christ takes up our manifold differences, including those which can divide generations, and enriches them so as to make us colorfully one. If church tends to further institutionalize the segregation of the old and the young, we cannot teach them what we have learned about friendship, we cannot learn from them how to be friends, and we cannot engage in the hard work of befriending the young without pretending to be peers. That work involves telling and re-telling the gospel story faithfully as well as practicing the gospel by making our lives more hospitable to one another:

  • the young and old doing things together,
  • adults learning to enjoy doing things that the young enjoy,
  • being faithful to one another when we fail and when being together is painful.

Describing friendship as thematic to the gospel story will empower us to practice and teach the arts of friendship. And learning those arts will increase our ability to say and to see the way that God has made us God’s friends and the way that friendship is still unfolding among us according to the gospel.

Insights from a Youth Ministry Practitioner: Steve Argue

When Tommy shared his insights into the gospel with the Sticky Faith Cohort, I remember remarking that his insights were beautiful … and probably shot over the bow for many youth ministries. This view of the gospel is challenging both theologically and programmatically, as it forces youth workers to reconsider the assumptions that drive our teaching, small group dynamics, retreats, volunteer expectations, ecclesiology, and ministry success.

As our own church’s youth ministry team has reflected on what “gospel” means, we have learned from Scot McKnight’s work that there’s a difference between cultivating a “salvation culture” and a “gospel culture.” A salvation culture attempts to “get people saved” by getting them to believe the right things. A gospel culture attempts to capture the imaginations of people through living as a community that practices good news—the good news that was anticipated throughout the first testament and then established through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. We cultivate a gospel culture not by passively believing what Jesus did, but by actively joining Jesus in what he continues to do, by the Spirit within our faith communities. 1

For a year, our student ministry staff focused on making intentional shifts from methods that contributed to a salvation culture toward practices that fostered a gospel culture. We have learned to:

1. Help students frame the small stories in the big story

A simple way we did this was by putting up a slide up every week listing all the books in the Bible. We would remind our students that Bible tells the story of God’s interaction with people. For example, then, if we taught from a passage in the Gospel of Mark, we would highlight that book on the screen, so that students could see from where in the biblical account the particular story emerges. Through this, and through our teaching, we show students how to read and interpret the scriptures by modeling each week that scripture passages are more than random stories, rules, or belief statements. They are embedded in the bigger story. 2

2. Encourage students to learn how to believe, not what to believe

What one believes, by itself, fails to bring belief into everyday life. It gets “stuck” at youth group or church, unable to connect with the rest of a person’s family, friendships, neighborhood, choices, or aspirations. As Tommy mentioned, the gospel honors the complexity of peoples’ lives. Encouraging students to move beyond what to how to believe prepares young people for a life of dynamically maturing faith beyond high school. We practice this by creating space every week and every trip for students to raise questions and express doubts. We want them to know that the mystery of the gospel can connect with the complexities of their lives. We want them to know that questions and doubts are not the opposite of faith, but part of it. 3

3. Remind volunteers and parents that the gospel will make things messier, not neater

Many adults want youth groups to be a “safe place” for their teenagers. While we want it to be a positive place, I don’t think we can guarantee that it’s a safe space. Kenda Creasy Dean reminds us that any young person who begins to embrace the gospel will become a “menace to society,” confronting societal norms of injustice, oppression, and power often invisible to adults. 4

Attempts to use religion to spiritually domesticate students, to perform for adults, or to control their friends, their libidos, or their risky behaviors, fail to comprehend the power of the gospel and the transformative power of the Spirit in their lives. We have learned that if we open ourselves to the messiness of the gospel in students’ lives, they will get in trouble for rejecting adult expectations, they will want to go overseas rather than to college, they’ll visit the dangerous parts of town, and they will ask adults to help them through abuse, eating disorders, depression, pain, forgiveness, family crises, and friendship challenges. A “relevant” gospel is a messy one that messes us all up, in the name of Jesus. We’ve had to prepare our volunteers and parents for this beautiful-scary-messy reality.

4. Realize we need them

I have reminded our volunteers and parents that the teenagers in our community are the prophets. They actually believe that they are being invited into a bigger story that inspires faith in fresh ways and often confronts the limits of our programming. In short, we need them for our own understanding of the gospel. When we recruit volunteers, we tell them that they might change a students’ life, but more likely they (the adult) will be changed by those students. Our very interaction with adolescents may save our own souls, if adults are brave enough to go there. This is good news. This favors a gospel culture.

Action Points

  • How do you explain the scriptures to your students? Do you (and your adult leaders) understand the bigger story of the Bible? What steps can you take to help your students and adults understand the whole story?
  • Is your youth group a gracious place for students and adults to ask questions and express doubts? What might it look like in your context to cultivate environments that encourage them how to believe, not just what to believe?
  • What are the possibilities and challenges with being open to the “messiness” of students embracing the gospel? What do you see already? What might you need to anticipate?
  • Where do you think your volunteers or parents need to grow most in their own understanding of the gospel and gospel culture?

  1. Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The original good news revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
  2. For additional resources on how to explain the Bible within a larger narrative, check out Mark Novelli, Shaped by the story: Helping students encounter God in a new way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2008); V. Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002); N.T. Wright’s For everyone series.
  3. See “From Faith to Faithing” on the FYI site for more exploration of this process.
  4. Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the quest for a passionate church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 33.

Chip Heath on Becoming DECISIVE in Ministry: The FYI Interview

Feb 11, 2014 Kara PowellJake Mulder

For nine months, I (Jake) had been planning my community’s largest annual outreach event for junior high students. Nearly 1,500 had already purchased tickets for an all-night lock-in consisting of all-you-can-eat pizza, non-stop games, and most importantly, no sleep. The event was a 25-year tradition and a rite of passage for many 11-14 year-olds.

But three days before the event, we hit a problem.

I was on the phone with the City Public Health Director. In less than a week, a serious virus had swept through twenty-five area junior high schools, and nearly twenty percent of the city’s students were home sick. On the phone, he said, “Let me get this straight… One out of every five students already has this virus. You want to gather 1,500 of them, stay up all night and weaken their immune systems, move them around in buses, and make them play games and interact in small indoor spaces? You’ll effectively transport this virus to every family in the community. I’m begging you to cancel this event!”

I really didn’t want to cancel.

Each year, hundreds of unchurched students got connected to churches through this event. Given the scale, it was impossible to reschedule. Plus it meant a lot of time, money, and excitement washed down the drain. 

I had a difficult decision to make.

As leaders, we are faced with hundreds of decisions in our lives and ministries every single day. Some are important and life changing:

  • Should I stay in my job or quit?
  • Do I marry him (or her)?
  • Do I confront my friend about that conflict, or just let it go?

Others are (arguably) less important:

  • What should I have for breakfast?
  • Tall, Grande, or Venti?
  • The red shirt or that new green plaid one?

While we all know it’s important to make good choices, when was the last time you actually reflected on your decision-making process?

Perhaps you make a list of the pros and cons. Or you pray, and wait for God to reveal the right answer. What about the really big decisions that might affect dozens or, in the situation above, thousands of people? Do you use the same process or a different approach?

How do you decide?

Calling for Help from the Experts

In order to help people make better decisions, New York Times best-selling authors Chip and Dan Heath researched the best decision-making literature available. They share the findings in their new book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. The rest of this article lets you peek into the insights provided in Decisive, focusing on the principles and practices most relevant to youth workers and church leaders.

The Decision-Making Process

To begin, think about a decision you made in the last week. It might have been at work, with your family, or while you were getting ready this morning. As you made that decision, chances are you went through the following four steps: 1

  1. You encountered a choice.
  2. You analyzed your options.
  3. You made a choice.
  4. You lived with the decision you made.

Most of us wouldn’t argue deeply with that framework. But what really happened? We might not be aware of as much of that decision-making process as we think.

Villains of Decision-Making

The challenge, explain the authors, is that this process does not exist in isolation. There are villains that plague each of these steps: 2

  1. As you encountered a choice, narrow framing made you miss other options.

Narrow framing is the tendency to focus on one option and ignore the others. You may narrowly frame a decision as, “Should I quit my job or not?” instead of additional questions like, “What are the ways I could make my job better?”

  1. As you analyzed your options, confirmation bias led you to gather self-serving information.

“Confirmation bias” is the human habit of forming a quick belief about a situation and then looking for information that builds or affirms your belief. The authors share the example that when someone asks, “Do these jeans make me look fat?,” he or she is often seeking reassurance rather than the truth.

  1. When you made a choice, short-term emotions may have tempted you to make the wrong one.

Perhaps you’ve purchased a car (or cell phone, outfit, etc.) from an experienced sales person. The purchase may have felt so right when you were in the store, but once you were home, you immediately regretted it. Chances are your short-term emotions were responsible.

  1. As you live with the decision you’ve made, you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold.

The challenge of confidence about the future is that you don’t know what you don’t know. Your church may have developed the best outreach strategy in the world, and as a result you’re confident hundreds of people will join your church. But what happens if the largest employer (or two) in your community shuts down and half the town moves away?

How to WRAP up those Villains

While understanding the decision-making process and villains is helpful, thankfully Chip and Dan don’t stop there. They also suggest strategies for defeating each of the villains, and in the long run, to make better decisions. They refer to this as the WRAP model: 3

            Widen Your Options.

            Reality-Test your Assumptions.

            Attain Distance Before Deciding.

            Prepare to Be Wrong.

Strategy One: Widen Your Options

The first villain of decision-making is that narrow framing makes you miss other options. To fight this, you can first widen your options by asking questions like: 4

  • What am I giving up by making this choice? As you consider this question, new opportunities will likely emerge.
  • If I couldn’t select any of the options I’m currently considering, what else could I do? As your current options vanish, you’ll likely discover new ones.

Second, you can multitrack, which means to consider more than one option simultaneously. If you find yourself stuck in planning a new program or ministry, it might be helpful to ask six different people to brainstorm ideas on their own. Then, bring them together and have everyone share what they came up with. You’ll probably see possibilities you didn’t consider before.

Third, try to find someone who’s already solved your problem. While this may seem obvious, it’s amazing how often we fail to do so. You might be able to find another person or organization that has solved the same problem. You might also be able to look inside your self or organization to identify “bright spots.” 5 If you were trying to exercise regularly, a bright spot would be several times in the last month when you actually went to the gym.

Strategy Two: Reality-Test Your Assumptions

The second villain, confirmation bias, leads you to seek information that will confirm your original assumption. To fight this, try to consider the opposite of your instincts or ask questions that would disconfirm your assumption. 6

Next, try to zoom out (by looking at statistics or getting an outsider’s perspective of your situation) and zoom in (by getting close enough to the situation so you can trust your instincts). For example, users on a website like Yelp may give a restaurant low ratings overall (zooming out), but the text of the reviews might rave about the chips and salsa (zooming in), which is the one thing you really wanted! Finally, you can run smaller experiments that allow you to test your theories before making a final decision.

Strategy Three: Attain Distance Before Deciding

The third villain, short-term emotion, can lead you to make the wrong decision compulsively. It’s important to attain some emotional distance before taking a big leap. 7

  • One idea is to think through how you might feel about your decision 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now.
  • Another idea is to ask, “What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?" 8
  • A third is to identify your core priorities, which are your emotional goals, aspirations, and values that are important to you long term. Clarity on these core priorities will allow you to be more consistent and accurate in your choices.

Strategy Four: Prepare to Be Wrong

The fourth and final villain is over-confidence about the future. One helpful approach for fighting this is bookending, which is to consider a range of possible outcomes, from the very good to very bad. 9  Think ahead to one year from now, and what would have to happen for your decision to be a big success, a big failure, or somewhere in between.

Applying Decisive to Youth Ministry and Church Leadership: Q & A with Chip Heath

Beyond being a best selling author and professor at Stanford University, Chip Heath is also a friend of the Fuller Youth Institute and a Sunday school teacher at his home church. Below, he’s answered several of our questions about how to apply his research to youth ministry and church leadership:

What is particularly challenging about the decision environment of ministry leaders?

Only a foolhardy Fortune 500 CEO would dare to trade decision environments with a minister—business is way easier. In business we air out the arguments and then the boss decides. The issues are typically fact-based. In contrast, ministry leaders must often shepherd groups through highly emotional decisions and in church settings, we’re often trying to reach consensus. That means that, as a ministry leader, your skills as a decision coach are particularly important.

How are teenagers unique in their decision making?

They’re not. A few years ago researchers were agonizing about teens framing their decisions too narrowly. 70% of the time when a teen was making a decision they were considering only one alternative. That was shocking! Then some different researchers looked at how many alternatives were being considered by adults who were making big decisions at their workplaces. Turns out the adults were considering only one alternative 71% of the time. In terms of biased decision-making, we share a lot in common with our teenage selves (albeit with less acne).

How does God’s will factor into the decision making process?

Agonizing decisions often become less agonizing when we think about our core priorities. Our priority as Christians is to respect God’s will, but often it’s hard to stay in touch with that when facing the emotions of a tough decision. That’s where something like 10/10/10 can help—the 10 month and 10 year time frames are more likely to prompt us to think about God’s intentions.

Why is thinking about what advice you’d give your best friend so effective?

Research has shown that when we give advice to someone else we focus on the most important dimension of a choice. We might get caught up in a spat over a small point of difference, but our friends can say, “Look, just concede the point; it’s minor compared to the value of your relationship.” When we imagine advising a friend who is in our situation, we turn that eye for the most important inward on ourselves.

How has studying decision-making changed the way you make decisions as a leader? How about as a parent?

As a leader it’s focused me more on process. Leaders can build routines that help repair biases of decision making. For example, groups consider a wider set of options when, just before a group discussion, everyone just takes a moment to write down their preferred alternative before the discussion starts. That prevents the group from getting on a roll with the first alternative that is thrown out and never considering others. That’s an example of the kinds of simple repairs you should look to implement as a leader.

As a parent I’ve gotten more interested in trying to teach my girls, ages 6 and 11, the value of thinking consciously about the decision process. I suspect my efforts will come back to haunt me when they reach the teen years: I imagine them saying, “Look, Dad, I think you may have a bit of a confirmation bias against this trip. Can we widen our options here?”

Resources to Go Deeper:

While this article provides a basic introduction to Decisive, we strongly recommend you read the book in order to discover many more stories, strategies, case studies, and answers to practical questions. You can also visit for more helpful leadership resources.


  1. Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (New York: Crown Business, 2013), 18.
  2. Decisive, 18. See all of Chapter 1 as well.
  3. Decisive, 23-24.
  4. Decisive, 32-89.
  5. Decisive, 73.
  6. Decisive, 92-153.
  7. Decisive, 156-192.
  8. Decisive, 173.
  9. Decisive, 194-238.

Reimagining the Gospel in Relationship, Part 1

What Does the Gospel Mean for Teenagers and Friendship?

Jan 29, 2014 Tommy Givens

Photo by Thomas Frost Jensen.

While we often focus on what the gospel means for our relationship with God, it's sometimes much harder to talk about what that means for everyday life and ministry. We asked Fuller professor Dr. Tommy Givens to share about these connections with our Sticky Faith Cohort, and wanted to let you in on part of that conversation about how young people can live out the gospel in their relationships.

What is the Gospel?

Most of us have grown accustomed to a gospel that is a boiled-down series of abstract statements to be “believed.” They are typically colorless statements about God’s love, sin, and Jesus’ death. People must accept their truth in order to go to heaven and live a “good life,” which is described as vaguely as it is variously. This disembodied gospel supposedly positions people to make “a decision for Christ,” and is to be their frame of reference for everything.

The problem with this gospel is that it narrows our focus to a realm of theories about God and the world that cannot do justice to the complex drama of life. It places Jesus in that “spiritual” realm and diverts our gaze from concrete matters that are central according to the biblical history of Israel, Jesus, and the apostles.

As a guide for youth ministry, it easily becomes little more than the cipher for responding to the many insecurities that our youth and our world inspire in us today. Suddenly the focus of the gospel becomes premarital sex, drugs and alcohol, obeying parents, apologetics, and some kind of inner peace. While claiming to be the central truth of the universe, it neglects the matters that shape the lives that people actually live in the world:

  • the integrity and depth of friendships;
  • the way people share material goods and the health of their lands, bodies, and places;
  • deep social differences and practices of forgiveness;
  • and war.

By making the primary concern of the gospel the “beliefs,” “spiritual life,” “heart,” and “afterlife” of a person, these life-shaping matters become so many “topics” that the Bible may happen to address, but not matters of the gospel itself. The result is a gospel that underestimates the difficulties of life, promotes pat answers to hard questions and shallow interpretation of the Bible, and is boring.

We should not be surprised that young people find a lot more life happening away from church if church is about this gospel.

Do I really believe the gospel I preach?

I witnessed this phenomenon of a colorless gospel in the last church that I served in Spain. Like many other places in the world, the church in Spain is struggling to integrate and maintain its youth in the life of the community. In my church, the youth leaders eagerly planned youth gatherings devoted to therapy for students’ inner, “spiritual” lives and to recreation (so they would come).

In those gatherings we talked a lot about Jesus’ dying for our sins as a sort of transaction, about “the afterlife,” and about the temptations of young people that we adults felt the most acutely. Meanwhile, most of the adults did our own thing. As the youth grew older, they did not need the church to live the lives they wanted to live, and not necessarily because they wanted to live “immorally.” The subject of church life was simply not especially compelling or illuminating, and the rest of us had largely failed to nourish the kind of relational bonds that the young would miss as they drifted away from us.

Over time I began to suspect that something was wrong with my gospel. The poverty of my church communities seemed to reflect the poverty of the gospel under which we lived. I slowly realized that the gospel is not a series of abstract statements but a living story. Jesus proclaimed the gospel that the kingdom of the God of Israel, with all of the promises of peace, justice, and healing that that entailed for the people of God and others according to the prophets, was drawing near. In the book of Acts, every time an apostle presents the gospel, it is not a sequence of abstract truths that claim the audience but a story, usually going back to Abraham, then passing through the exodus from Egypt and the giving of God’s law for the people, the establishment of the kingdom under David in the Promised Land, the widespread injustice among the people that led to their warring with one another and their being exiled through war with Gentile empires, and then the coming of Jesus as Messiah to answer the hopes of the prophets: hopes for peace, justice, and healing that Jesus himself began to enact in his life and surprisingly in his death; hopes embodied in the resurrection of Jesus’ body; hopes being fulfilled by the Spirit of Jesus’ resurrection in and through the community of his disciples who are telling this story.

Even in Athens, to people unfamiliar with this Jewish past and hope, the Apostle Paul presents the gospel as a story (Acts 17). He tells the Aeropagus council of how the God for whom he speaks created the world, has made all of its peoples from one person, and allowed them to spread across its surface to where they now live by the blessings of the earth. He proclaims to them that this God whose name they do not know has now sent one human being in this great human family to rule with justice, establishing his power by raising him bodily from the dead.

The gospel that positions both Christians and non-Christians in the New Testament, then, is not a series of ideas. It is a contextually sensitive rendering of the history in which they bodily find themselves, a story through which the God of Israel has been gathering a very imperfect people in order to bless them and the whole world in and through them with embodied life together to its fullest. The meaning of key terms to which we have tried to boil the gospel down—God’s love, sin, salvation—must be found in the colors and contours of this story.

To believe the gospel, then, is not to assent to a series of abstract statements but to participate in the growing life of this people as followers of Jesus by the power of the Spirit of his resurrection. We might say in a nutshell that the gospel in the New Testament is simply that “Jesus is Lord.” But as soon as one makes that assertion, she or he has to say who Jesus is and how he became Lord, and that is what the story of the gospel is about.

What Does “Jesus Is Lord” Mean Practically?

When we say Jesus is Lord, by which we mean Lord of everything, we have typically left behind the biblical story of Israel, of Jesus’ life, and of the apostolic communities. Consequently, we do not know where to concentrate our formation in the life of the gospel. Lord of everything becomes Lord of anything, and in youth ministry we find ourselves focusing on what our ill-formed fears and the market have led us to obsess about.

Does Jesus’ being Lord make us feel better inside?

Does it make us want to go to college and be responsible adults?

Does it keep us from smoking, drinking, and doing other drugs?

Does it make us wait until we are married to have sex, or enable us to prove that our ideas are right and others’ are wrong? Without the living story of Jesus’ lordship, we will assign its power to whatever we are the most insecure about, and that is a pathetic lordship if ever there was one.

Jesus’ being Lord of the world means a lot of things, but the focus of it in the Bible is primarily how it empowers people to treat one another. This is the claim the gospel makes on both those teaching it and those being taught. It is a claim on their relationships, their patterns of community. The law of God has always been about how the love of God is revealed in our loving one another. In the Gospels the power of Jesus brings people to the table who have been estranged and teaches those gathered to share their food, their possessions, and their lives with one another. He shows his disciples how to love one another by the way that he loves them, by giving all of himself to them, by emptying himself to the point of washing their feet as their slave, telling them that this is what friendship means, and by dying for them at the hands of the enemies whom they hate and whom Jesus teaches them to love.

Jesus’ way of loving and gathering people challenged the existing political and economic authorities and structures to the point that they tried to crush his power through the shame of crucifixion. But the resurrection showed that Jesus’ love to even the extreme of dying shamefully for his friends and enemies conquered death itself: it swallowed up the force that causes bodies and the rest of the earth to decay, the fear of weakness that tears us apart from one another and leads us to attack and use each other. This resurrection is the dawn of peace with God and one another.

Acts and the rest of the New Testament tell us how the practical power of Jesus’ love goes on to bring together people who’ve been hostile to one another. It enables them to stop hoarding from each other, to stop killing each other, to stop exploiting each other, and now to love God and each other by the power of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is a power of God that the empires of the world cannot stop, just as the prophets foretold, and the ironic heart of this gospel is that this victorious fullness of God’s power is revealed through the emptying of God’s self, for us and for the whole world. This embodied love of God to the depths even of the cross is the source of our embodied power to love one another and thus the life of the gospel.

Action Steps

  • Consider the extent to which your youth ministry conveys the gospel as a living story in teaching and practice.
  • Work at making your youth ministry a place of hospitality, digesting the fears of both the young and their parents rather than merely stoking those fears.
  • Make it a regular practice to ask students what it means to say “Jesus is Lord” in all aspects of our lives, including the very practical daily realm of friendship.
  • Open the scriptures to the young not as an answer book, but as the story and wisdom where we learn good living slowly and through struggle, where the teacher too is challenged, and where the truth can be subtle.

Family in the City

Redefining what family can look like in the urban context

Jan 13, 2014 Mary Glenn

Photo by Roman Kruglov.

I was 6 years old and it was a typical Sunday afternoon. We had all attended morning Mass at our family church, spent the day together, and shared dinner at the restaurant we frequented on Sunday nights. When I say family, I mean my mother, her brother and sister, their spouses and children, my grandparents, and me. The dinner would usually be uneventful (as uneventful as it can be with an Irish grandmother, Portuguese grandfather and five rambunctious grandchildren). Sometimes extended family and friends joined us. 

I do remember the evening occasionally ending in colorful family fights including yelling, name-calling, and children being whisked away to their respective family vehicles. Sometimes it would be weeks before we would reassemble as a family, usually the result of my grandmother’s pleading and sweet-talking. 

This is what my family looked like. It’s all I knew. 

My mother became a single parent when I was only two years old and worked tirelessly to support us. During this time, my grandmother was entrusted with my daily care. My grandmother’s investment was not only invaluable, but is also the reason that I am a grounded individual today. She provided me the necessary attachment and sense of belonging that every child needs. My grandmother held our family together. I was seven years old when she died, and that was the day that “family” as I knew it disappeared. 

In my teens, I began to search scripture to understand God’s heart for the widowed, orphaned, and marginalized. Although I wasn’t widowed and I wasn’t orphaned, I wondered if I fit into that category of people God was talking about. Does his heart weep for me, too? Do I belong to his family, any family, or have I been forgotten? I wanted to understand God’s heart for those of us who struggle to find belonging, identity, and family. I wondered, what is the church’s role in creating this family environment, making sure that all feel valued and loved? 

As a teenager, the church became family. But as I grew into young adulthood, I realized that the church often felt like a place for biological families. There was an unspoken expectation that once you turn eighteen, you either get married or join the singles ministry. 

A few years ago, I visited Ellis Island in New York, where a century ago immigrants came across the Atlantic in hopes of finding a better life. Many left tight-knit communities for the new world of the crowded city. The church often played a key role in helping these immigrants assimilate by inviting them into their homes to share life together. 

Could the church in the city look like this again today? 

What is Family?

In the movie Up, young boy scout Russell asks Carl, an elderly widower, to help him earn a scouting patch. In the process, they discover that they not only need each other, but they also fill the void of family that has been left by others’ absence. Children without families (whether through abandonment or becoming orphaned) are more at risk for a plethora of issues including attachment disorder, developmental delay, and neural atrophy in the developing brain.

I served as a youth pastor in an urban context for over fifteen years, and many of my students lived in challenging home environments. Due to parents’ economic, emotional, or mental instability, at times I found myself offering basic care or even my home to students. Just like the students in our ministry, many youth find themselves without one or both parents. According to UNICEF and Childinfo, “Around the world, there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have lost one parent. There are 17,900,000 orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets and lack the care and attention required for healthy development. These children are at risk for disease, malnutrition, and death.” 

While orphaned children have an obvious need for community, each of us also has that need. Pastor and author Erwin McManus shares this about our need for family-like relationships as children and as adults:

"The more isolated and disconnected we are, the more shattered and distorted our self-identity. We are not healthy when we are alone. We find ourselves when we connect to others. Without community we don't know who we are... When we live outside of healthy community, we not only lose others. We lose ourselves...Who we understand ourselves to be is dramatically affected for better or worse by those we hold closest to us." 1

Our identity is found in community, as is our sense of peace and hope. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (Mother Teresa). As my friend Dr. Jude Tiersma Watson says, “We belong to each other, and together we belong to God.” Our sense of self comes from God as experienced in family (biological, adoptive, emotional, and spiritual). But sometimes these families can be places of great pain and loneliness. 

Labels can Hurt

 A few years ago, I spent a holiday with a dear friend of mine and his family, who I have known for many years. I know these people care deeply for me. During a prayer time, the patriarch of the family thanked God for their amazing family and for me, their guest. Even though I know they deeply love me, it was painful to hear them call me their “guest”. 

Sometimes we unintentionally say things that reinforce a sense of isolation and lack of belonging.  It is not just how we label ourselves or how other people label us that hurts; it is about how people define family. Is a family only defined as a mother, father, 2.5 kids and a dog? What do you do when you don’t have a family, or you have a family that doesn’t look like other families?

The family of God

The church has the potential to be the expression and experience of home and family in the city. The communal identity formed in a church environment can provide each member with a greater sense of shared and individual value, connectedness, and purpose. In each other we can see the presence of God most vividly. I am grateful to a family who spiritually adopted me many years ago and included me as one of them, even going as far as calling me their “daughter.” I was living in a new city and felt very much like I was on my own. This family was a gift from God to me. They included me in family traditions and holidays, were sacrificially generous to me, and we shared major life milestones. They helped me to remember what it was like to belong to a family. 

How do we become the family of God? One of the ways we can do this is through spiritual adoption. Spiritual adoption happens when two or more people commit to share life together. Spiritual adoption might involve a spoken covenant, or might be less formal. This kind of adoption invites the new family member into the traditions and rhythms that make the family unique. 

In the New Testament, Jesus introduces spiritual adoption to his dear friend John (who is about to lose a friend) and to his mother (who is about to lose a son). In preparing them for the void his death will cause in their lives, he leads them into a spiritual adoptive relationship. On the cross, Jesus explains this concept in John 19:25-27: 

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. 

The language that Jesus uses in this text is also legal adoptive language. He is directing Mary to take John as her son, and John to take Mary as his mother. Jesus urges them to adopt each other, caring for one another’s needs. 2

I have experienced this in many ways in my own life as a spiritual mom and older sister to many students in ministry, and as a spiritual sister to dear friends. I have been adopted by adults who have filled a spiritual parental role in my life, which has contributed to my sense of well-being and confidence in Christ. Both youth and adults need to be part of families. As family ministry expert and researcher Diana Garland observes, “Followers of Christ are not to be bound by the structures of legally recognized or biologically based relationships. Rather, family relationships are defined by relationship process—loving one another, being faithful to the same Lord, and adopting one another as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.” 3

How do we begin to create family-like contexts in the church? It can start with conversation and breaking bread together. Dinnertime can be one of the best times of the day; it can also be one of the loneliest. What a blessing it is to share the experiences of the day over a meal together. It’s a gift to extend your family boundaries to include those who may have no one to share meals with, including them as your own. For youth and adults who eat many of their meals alone, an invitation to share a meal is a gesture of kindness and inclusion. This can be an important first step to experience family life together. 

Legal Adoption

The legal adoption of children and youth is another way the church can provide family. Adoption requires an incredible amount of support within and outside the adoptive family, and churches can offer an extended family web of relationships to all involved. 

In the Greater Los Angeles Area, there are too few foster homes for children in need. 4 This is a problem in many urban environments throughout the U.S. and the world. According to the AFCARS Report (No. 19),  “In the U.S. 400,540 children are living without permanent families in the foster care system. 115,000 of these children are eligible for adoption, but nearly 40% of these children will wait over three years in foster care before being adopted.” Could the church be the answer to the problem facing many of our cities? Could the church provide the needed belonging to many of these vulnerable young people? If not adoption, perhaps we can become mentors and spiritual caregivers to kids in foster care.

Adoption is not just a tool to help a child belong, but this creation of a new family greatly increases their chances of success in life. What are the implications of young people (particularly those in the foster care system) growing up without a family? According to one source, “Each year, over 27,000 youth ‘age out’ of foster care without the emotional and financial support necessary to succeed. This number has steadily risen over the past decade. Nearly 40% had been homeless or couch surfed, nearly 60% of young men had been convicted of a crime, and only 48% were employed. 75% of women and 33% of men receive government benefits to meet basic needs. 50% of all youth who aged out were involved in substance use and 17% of the females were pregnant.” (Fostering Connections). Lack of care can lead these young adults down a discouraging and hopeless path. According to the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, “Nearly 25% of youth aging out did not have a high school diploma or GED, and a mere 6% had finished a two- or four-year degree after aging out of foster care. One study shows 70% of all youth in foster care have the desire to attend college.” For some, a lack of family can lead to failing academic performance, financial instability, inactive citizenship and struggling emotional health. This should concern us. There are children, teens and adults who are surviving without a sense of family. 

Doing Family in the City

For all of us, no matter the shape of our families, this is not “us and them,” those with family and those without. This is about all of us who are part of the family of God being more intentional, inclusive, and conscientious of the community we create. We are all strangers to this land, but not without a home. We belong to God and our home is in him. God calls us his sons and daughters. We are kin, and this kinship is not one of unequal relationship but one of mutuality. As Father Greg Boyle shares in Tattoos on the Heart, “Kinship—not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.” 5

What are some of the ministry implications for those of us who live and serve in the city? Could we potentially see healthier cities and healthier youth as a result of more intentionally building family?  Might we see an increase in test scores, mental and emotional health, and economic stability as people feel more secure in who they are because of the family community experience? I believe the answer is yes. The Search Institute has conducted extensive research, identifying 40 developmental assets (positive experiences and characteristics) that are the critical building blocks needed for youth to grow into healthy adults. The positive family experience plays an important role in the asset-building experience. Asset building is a practical way to begin nurturing familial environments with urban youth. 6

I believe the greatest outcome is that this way of sharing life pleases the heart of God. God wants us to share the journey in the city. My favorite African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Let’s invite others to go together with us and be “family in the city.”

Action Points

  1. Reflect on the ways that you define family. What might be some ways you can grow your boundaries and experience of family to be more inclusive of others? For example, invite youth and/or adults to join your family/community during a meal time, seasonal activity, or tradition. Perhaps create new traditions together.
  2. Gather other leaders and identify the issues and concerns that families in your context struggle with. Perhaps there is a large percentage of fatherless households, or substance abuse is particularly prevalent. Brainstorm practical ways your ministry can offer family-like support to the various types of families you serve.
  3. Become a mentor or a spiritual parent to a young person.
  4. Consider how your congregation is supporting kids in the foster system and the people and families who care for them. Are there ways you can more intentionally create a sense of family within your congregation for these kids? 

Learn more about the Urban Youth Ministry Certificate Program

  1. Erwin Raphael McManus, Soul Cravings: An Exploration of the Human Spirit (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 17.
  2. Additional scripture passages that describe family include Mark 3:31-35, Ephesians 2:19, Galatians 6:10, Paul’s letter to Philemon.
  3. Diana Garland, Family Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 50. Also see David Fraze’s article for FYI, “Something is Not Right: Revisiting our Definition of Family.”
  4. Sandy Banks, “Too Few Foster Homes for Children in Need,” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2013.
  5. Father Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 188.
  6. Learn more about asset building in urban kids in this article by Kara Powell and Pam King, “Your Kids: Half Full or Half Empty?”

God Is Not Santa

Sticky Faith Launch Kit Free Sample

Dec 16, 2013 Kara PowellBrad M. Griffin

This excerpt from the Sticky Faith Launch Kit is a Bonus Idea in one of the volunteer team training sessions on the Gospel. The Launch Kit includes six months of team training guides to deepen your team’s understanding and contextualization of Sticky Faith for your ministry.

In some ways, students see God like Santa. Santa is good, of course. Santa gives you good things on Christmas. And Santa is omniscient, just like God. 1

But there are other ways students see God like Santa.

Distribute the lyrics to the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” perhaps singing it together. Or play this clip from the movie Elf.

Discuss the song—and these specific lyrics—for a few moments with your team. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” 2

In a nutshell, that is the way many kids and teenagers see God. He’s very much like Santa. God sees you all the time. He knows all about you. And most of all, he knows if you are good or bad, and he wants you to be good. And when you try to be good, it’s for goodness’ sake, not for Christ’s sake or the kingdom’s sake.

Santa cares most about your behaviors—how well you keep to the do’s and don’ts—so that you can stay on the nice list and off the naughty list. Santa’s goodness to you is contingent on your actions. And Santa’s ‘gospel’ is about moralism—it’s nice to be nice and it’s good to be good.

That’s not really “good news” at all, is it? One of our goals, then, is to remind young people (and one another) that God is not Santa.

How do you remind students that God is not like Santa?

Specifically in this season, what does it look like to proclaim and live the true gospel in your ministry? 

  1. For a theological exploration of this idea of God and Santa, see Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, especially pages 26-28.
  2. John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” 1934.

Helping Kids Keep the Faith

Four Research Insights Every Parent Needs to Know

Dec 16, 2013 Curtis Miller

Photo by Dustin McClure.

My wife, Meredith, and I welcomed our son into the world last January. Like most parents, we have a lot of hopes for him. We hope he’ll be happy and healthy. We hope he’ll be compassionate and independent. We hope he won’t grow up to be a Yankees fan.

But of all the various things we hope for his life, there is a clear one at the top: We hope he grows up to love and follow Jesus. I would venture to guess that most Christian parents would say the same.

Which is why as a parent I’m thankful there’s research being done on what helps kids stick with faith into adulthood, or what FYI calls Sticky Faith. The status of the next generation of Christians has been the cause of much hand-wringing, guess-making, and anecdote-peddling for about as long as there has been a next generation to worry about, but only recently has there been much reliable data from which parents and youth workers can learn. 1  What’s even better is that more and more consensus is building around what actually works in helping faith stick into young adulthood.

A new addition to that body of research comes from University of Southern California sociologist Vern L. Bengtson in his book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations. The book arises out of a 35-year study of families begun in 1970, and focuses on the question of how religion is passed across generations. 2  This multigenerational study dispels certain widely-held myths and brings to light some very useful findings.

Here are four key findings most relevant to families and congregations:

1) Parents’ Influence is Crucial

There is a common belief in our culture that parents wield less and less influence over their kids these days, and that those kids are increasingly abandoning the beliefs and values of their families of origin.

It is not true. It probably never has been.

What is true, according to Bengtson’s study, is that young adults today are just as likely to share their parents’ faith as they were in 1970. This is true whether you’re looking at religious affiliation (What religion are you?), religious intensity (How religious are you?), religious participation (How often do you attend?), Biblical literalism (What’s your view of the Bible?), or civic religiosity (How important should religion be in public life?). Across all these markers, parental influence is just as high as it was a generation ago.

In other words, parents continue to be the single greatest influence on their children’s faith.

(A quick aside: Grandparents, interestingly, are a close second. The study found that grandparents, especially grandfathers, who are highly religious were more likely to have grandkids who were also highly religious. It turns out that grandparents might be an underutilized asset in many churches and youth groups, not to mention families themselves. Here’s an article from Kara Powell with Twenty Ideas for Grandparents you can pass along right now!)

There are some differences in parental influence when the data is broken down by religious tradition, however. Mainline Protestant and Catholic parents appear to have less influence on their kids than they did in 1970. Evangelicals, Mormons, and Jews all have about the same influence. But those with no religious affiliation (often called “Nones”) are significantly more influential in their kids’ faith now than they were a generation ago.

In other words, the widely discussed “rise of the Nones” is not due to unprecedented numbers of young people abandoning their childhood faith. It seems largely due to families of Nones passing on that “None-ness” at a much higher rate than in the past.

The bottom line: Parents matter. They matter a lot. That’s a very hopeful message churches could be sending to parents who are worried about their kids’ faith.

2) Bland Faith Doesn’t Transfer

The data, according to Bengtson, “indicates a trend towards polarization in religious intensity over time." 3 In every way that the study tested, those at either end of the spectrum of religiosity (either very religious or not at all religious) transferred that quality to the next generation at significantly higher rates than those in the middle. For example, parents who attend church “weekly or more” and those who attend “never” passed that quality on to their kids 59% and 55% of the time, respectively. Those who attend either “monthly” or “once a year,” on the other hand, had young adult children who fit into the same category 31% and 26% of the time. Similar statistics carried across the various measures of religiosity.

Bengtson says that one reason for this data “is parental behavior, such as role modeling and consistency. If the parents are not themselves involved in religious activities, if their actions are not consistent with what they preach, children are rarely motivated to follow in their parents' religious footsteps." 4

One of the biggest steps churches can take, therefore, to help spark faith from generation to generation is to encourage and equip parents in their discipleship. When a kid sees and hears that faith actually makes a difference in Mom and Dad’s lives, they’re much more likely to follow suit.

3) The Power of a Close Relationship

This may be counter-intuitive to a study about faith transmission, but the single greatest factor in whether a parent successfully imparted their faith to their children was the quality of their relationship with those children. By every measure in this study, a young adult was more likely to share their parents' religious beliefs and participation if they felt that they had a close relationship with those parents. This held true for all of the religious traditions studied.

Of particular interest is what happens when you break down the data between fathers and mothers. While a close relationship with her mother does significantly improve the odds of a child sharing Mom’s religious beliefs when she becomes an adult, the relationship with her father is far more predictive.

This effect is greatest when the data focused in on Evangelical and Mainline Protestants. Among those groups, a close relationship with Mom has a very small effect on the likelihood of religious transmission, while a close relationship with Dad has a gigantic effect. For young adults from Evangelical families, 71% of those who had a close relationship with their father shared that Evangelical faith, compared with only 46% of those who did not have a close relationship with their father. While this is only one study, these findings are certainly worth wondering about.

Churches who want to see faith shared between generations need to encourage and equip parents to build warm, affirming, close relationships with their kids. God loves and is patient with us. Is it any wonder that when we do the same for our kids they’re more likely to meet that God?

4) Love the Prodigal

This close relationship becomes even more important when a child walks away from God.

Even the best parenting can’t guarantee that children won’t for a time walk away from the faith they were raised to believe, but what happens next can be the determining factor in whether those children eventually return. "The prodigals in our sample were rebels who later came back to the family religion; in almost every case we found that their parents have been patient and supportive – and perhaps more tolerant and open than they had been before the prodigal's departure." 5  It turns out that the best way to bring a prodigal back is to love them even more tangibly than before they left.

You’d think that as Christians we wouldn’t have to hear this truth. After all, Jesus compares the Father’s love for us with a father who runs with joy to meet his lost son (Luke 15). But we do need to hear it. Our love and acceptance of our kids is never more important than when they rebel against us. It is then that they will truly see the God who searches after and even dies for them. And it is then that we will truly see the God who forgave and pursued us even when we had rejected him.

Action Points for Families

  1. Take a look at the faith you’re passing on. With the help of your spouse or a trusted friend, ask yourself: What practices and/or beliefs do you hope your kids will inherit from you? How do they see those things naturally and consistently displayed in your own life? Where could you be more intentional about passing faith on?
  2. Get a hand from Grandma and Grandpa. Is there a grandparent or another senior adult who can reinforce what you hope your kids learn about Jesus? Maybe they can take the grandkids to church one week, pray with them, read the Bible with them, or talk about their own relationship with Christ.
  3. Learn from your kids. Ask your kids how they know Jesus is important to you and that you love him. See if they’ve noticed your faith. Say something like: “Jesus is really important to me, and I was wondering if you felt you could see that in my life?” You might learn a lot from their response.
  4. Spend regular quality time together. Find out what your kids most like to do with you, and plan ways to turn up the warmth in your relationship. Especially if this is new, it may be a little strange at first. That’s okay! Keep at it, building a normal routine of fun and meaningful time together. Maybe you can start a new tradition like After-School Ice Cream Day on Wednesdays, Dinner/Breakfast Date on Thursdays, Hiking Day on Saturdays ...
  5. Get help. Sometimes a family needs an outside perspective to help get the warmth back in a relationship that has grown a bit cold. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to find a counselor who can help. A warm relationship with you is a significant force in your child’s faith development, and it’s never too late to work at restoring one with your child of any age.

Bonus: Watch a video of Dr. Bengtson presenting in a research colloquium at Fuller to hear more insights from this study!

  1. See FYI’s Sticky Faith resources; Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0; Chap and Dee Clark’s Disconnected; Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, Souls in Transition, and Lost in Transition; and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian. Together they paint a very complementary picture of adolescent and emerging adult spirituality and the transfer of faith to the next generation.
  2. For those interested in the basic methodology: the findings come from a 35-year longitudinal study of families drawn from a representative sample of southern California in 1970. Those families were surveyed and periodically interviewed from 1970-2005 about a variety of topics, one of which was religion. The sample is therefore not nationally representative; for example, it has a relatively higher percentage of people with no religious affiliation than it would if the sample were taken from the South or the Midwest. It also includes fewer racial/ethnic minorities than would likely be the case if the sample were taken today rather than 1970.
  3. Bengtson, Vern L. with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 61.
  4. Ibid, p. 72
  5. Ibid, p. 189

Redefining the Youth Worker

Book Excerpt on Reimagining Our Role

Dec 16, 2013 April Diaz

Photo by Silence à gogo.

This excerpt from Chapter 3 of April Diaz’ Redefining the Role of the Youth Worker: A Manifesto of Integration highlights the process April’s church went through to describe what they were looking for in a youth ministry leader. Inspired by their participation in our 2010 Sticky Faith Cohort, April’s church took a risk to reshape what it means to embrace teenagers in the life of the congregation. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from the Youth Cartel.

After nearly 15 years of youth ministry, I simply got tired of getting the same old results from my blood, sweat, and tears. I was tired of seeing the teenagers I’d loved and poured into over the years walk away from Christ and his church after leaving the safety and comfort of their homes and our ministry. For several decades, the church’s approach to youth has more or less looked the same; but student culture, educational systems, and families have changed significantly.

We realized it was time to take another look at our deepest dreams and discern what must change in order for us to realize those dreams.

Redefining the Role

Our journey has been a long one—haphazard at times, seeking how and what this would look like for our community. When we moved from reimagining to redefining the role of the youth worker and youth ministry at our church, we made a dogmatic statement: We were NOT hiring a youth pastor.

A “youth pastor” job title came with very clear expectations of what this person would and would not do. We needed to re-envision our community toward what this person would be responsible for, as well as the church’s vision regarding youth. Who we hired would be just as important as what we held him or her accountable to do (and not do!).

I grew up in a small, über-conservative church. During college, I volunteered at a small charismatic church and a mid-sized Baptist church. My pastoral work has led me to two megachurches in two different parts of the country. I’ve spoken, consulted, and become friends with leaders from a broad spectrum of economic, social, ethnic, and theological perspectives. Now, when I look across the landscape of youth ministry, I see smaller American churches, urban ministries, and the global church actually engaging in the lives of teenagers. And they’re doing so in ways that reflect our redefined youth ministry roles.

Due to a perceived lack of resources, our brothers and sisters in these contexts have been “divinely forced” to utilize the whole community as they train up the “next generation.” I’ve heard the lament as smaller churches or urban ministries long to hire a youth pastor or additional staff to serve teenagers. But I want to commend our co-laborers for their approach. The ways they’re investing in teenagers are precisely what larger churches or megachurches want more of—more care from the whole church, more parental involvement, and a long-term view of faith development. The silos that many churches must tear down in order to bridge the generations simply aren’t a problem in those smaller contexts. They are, in fact, leading the resource-laden ministries in this respect.

One time after I’d finished speaking on this vision, a key leader in Latin America came up and hugged me, and then he whispered in my ear, “This is what the Latin church has been doing for years. You’re right on. Thank you!” We should be thanking you for your faithful service and leadership—especially when you were told you were doing something wrong, that you needed larger crowds, fancier technology, flashier gizmos, or more “fun events” on your calendar.

After the assessment and waiting periods in my local church [described in chapters 1-2] came to a close, we began hammering out the details regarding the kind of key leader we wanted to bring on to our team. Very soon, we determined a job title.

We would hire a Student Integration Pastor.

Philosophical Shifts

 In the big picture, the role we envisioned for our Student Integration Pastor was to contribute to and collaborate with the broader church for meaningful, intentional, and mutual ways of integrating teenagers into the life of the church. That’s quite a mouthful.

What do all of those polysyllabic words really mean?

In the beginning, we looked to the unique, God-given fingerprint of our church. As a part of the global church, God has invited our local church to make a unique contribution in the kingdom, and we wanted to remain faithful to that calling. For us, our Purple Cow (Seth Godin’s infamously coined metaphor) was that this person had to be a third-culture person, having the “mindset and will to love, learn, and serve, even in the midst of pain and discomfort.” We were committed to bringing someone onto our team who could adapt to multiple cultures and contexts, work with a wide range of people, and be energized about melding two different cultures together while creating a third culture. We knew this “new way” would be uncomfortable and painful for our church members who were used to a generation of traditional youth ministry and perfectly comfortable with it.

Next, we wanted to go headlong into an intergenerational approach to youth ministry. Since I was an Advisory Council member of Fuller Youth Institute, at that point our church had been digging into the Sticky Faith research for more than five years. We believe in it.

Paul’s words to young Timothy about the relationship between the older and younger generations deeply resonated with us. Paul compels his young disciple, “You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2, NLT.) In other words, a symbolic baton should be passed from mentor to mentee who then, in turn, becomes a mentor for another. Jesus modeled the same powerful approach as he walked with twelve men who became world changers. The power isn’t found in the large crowds; it’s found in the investment that’s being made into a small group of believers who then turn their world upside down!

We dreamed our community would become a place that echoed Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:12 (NLT), “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity.” Our lead pastor, Dave Gibbons, frequently says we are a church for the “next” generation, and our prayerful desire is that the youth will lead the church in many ways—in worship, prayer, evangelism, and care for the poor. These two scriptures highlighted our vision for the student integration pastor.

We put a stake in the ground by saying that mutual, intentional, and meaningful togetherness would be a distinguishing quality of our church. Yes, teenagers need age-appropriate gatherings and equipping, but this approach should be the exception, not the rule in terms of our thinking and calendar plans. We believe in using an age-appropriate version of the broader church vision and practical experience to help our teenagers make the transition into the whole church post-graduation.

If the youth ministry’s vision and practical experience are completely different from that of the whole church, then we’re essentially giving our teenagers a bait-and-switch. No wonder they don’t know how to choose a church, connect in the adult community, or translate their youth group experience once they exit our youth ministry bubble.

Along those lines, we determined that our student integration pastor would be collaborative and big-picture. In all things, our youth ministry would look at ways the entire church was growing and developing, and then consider how that growth might intersect with our teenagers. Beyond collaboration between the youth ministry and the whole church, we must take a closer look at the families within the church as well. Every family has something to offer. We would look for those strengths, call them out, and invite our families to help us develop our teenagers. Far too often and for too long, the students’ immediate families and their spiritual family have been downplayed in our efforts to create safe youth ministry havens for teenagers. We believe it takes a village to raise a child, and that village needs to be much larger than a siloed youth ministry.

We also identified that our Student Integration Pastor needed to be highly relational, not programmatic and segmented. In many churches, a disproportionate percentage of the youth pastor’s time is invested into creating programs, not walking with people. What if we turned that ratio upside down?

I’ll never forget the staff meeting where our lead pastor challenged us to get out of the office and spend more time with our people. He said we weren’t getting paid to build programs and sit in our offices. And then he charged us to spend twenty hours or more of our work week with people. I remember shaking my head. That’s impossible, I thought. It was impossible within the constructs I had built.

In the years since that meeting, we’ve managed to turn things around. Now our team spends a great percentage of their time investing in people over programs. We are held accountable for walking with a few for maximum impact.

The last primary characteristic of the Student Integration Pastor is that he or she should be a champion for teenagers. This person would be the lead banner-waver reminding our church of their responsibility of spiritually forming teenagers. He or she would educate, cast vision, and inspire the people in our community, making sure they know not only how incredible teenagers are, but also what they need to develop a lifelong faith. This leader would give voice and hope to a generation in need of both.

Beyond Student Integration Pastor

Yes, we took great pains to evaluate the old and redefine the new role of our point leader. Yet by the very nature of the position, it was clear this transformation went way beyond a pastoral role. These changes would impact, infiltrate, and influence every person within our community. We weren’t simply scoping out a new reality for the point leader; we were reimagining every person’s role. This implicates a necessary role change for everyone in the body of Christ.

The road to change has been anything but easy. But day by day, year by year, we are seeing this new vision come to life in our congregation.

Questions to Consider

  • What about the idea of “redefining the youth worker role” resonates with you?
  • What are some of the unique characteristics about your context that will frame your conversation prior to any changes?
  • Specifically, what values or characteristics of youth ministry might need to be redefined in your context?
  • Where are these desirable characteristics already at work in your church?
  • Who else needs to be part of this conversation?

To explore this conversation further, check out the rest of April’s book or visit her blog. You might also be interested in joining a Sticky Faith Cohort or checking out the Sticky Faith Launch Kit for more tools and dialogue about leading change in your ministry. 

Getting the Job Done

Leading On Without Dropping the Ball

Nov 25, 2013 Mark Maines

Photo by vancouverfilmschool.

This is part three in a series on evaluation and strategic planning connected with the release of our Sticky Faith Launch Kit. While the specific strategies discussed here are not included in the Launch Kit, they complement the change process in ways we hope you’ll find useful in your context. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

“All great ideas degenerate into work for someone." 1

These words from Peter Drucker, the “father of modern day management,” can become the stumbling block for many ministry leaders like you and me. Once we cast our vision and put well-formed plans in place, there is no other option than to roll up our sleeves and get to the work.

Previously in this series on strategic planning in youth ministry, we explored how to assess your ministry and how to plan your work. Now we turn our attention towards execution.

We might be tempted to think that execution is simply “administrative” or detail work. However, according to authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, “Execution…is a leader’s most important job." 2  They explain that across most organizations, only 50% have an intentional planning process. Of these, only half are able to successfully execute what they planned to do. This means that only 25% of most businesses have a culture of execution.

Imagine the wasted time, energy, resources and lost potential. Bossidy and Charan conclude, “Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today. Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes." 3  If they are correct, how much bigger is the execution issue in churches and other ministry organizations in which our work is often not as thoroughly and routinely scrutinized as in the business world?

Execution is a difficult issue to address in ministry contexts because we often confuse what we think God will do and what we as spiritual leaders must do. Our job includes the five principles of focus, simplicity, competence, passion, and evaluation.

Principles of Effective Execution

1. Focus on what is essential: Creating clearly-defined priorities with lasting results

“To thrive in this world will require of us a new skill. Not drive, not sheer intelligence, not creativity, but focus.” 4  Here are several things that will increase your ability to identify and concentrate on the most critical issues:

  • Look for low-hanging fruit. Once you have identified your critical issues and have developed your plan, bring sustained pressure against those things until you have finished the task. Begin by looking for “low hanging fruit,” or “early wins,” to encourage your team along the way.
  • Arrange regular and intentional communication of completed action strategies. For most organizations, it is helpful to meet once a month as a leadership team with a focus on operational issues, or “what needs to be done now?” items. Then, a monthly meeting is scheduled in which the team discusses completed tasks as well as progress and amendments made to future tasks. This type of regular communication keeps team members informed, focused, and aligned.
  • Ensure that team members deliver their work on time, according to the plan. Accountability should remain flexible and tailored to suit the needs of each team member. Accountability that works for one person may not work for another. Your role is to think through what each team member needs in terms of personal accountability and then come up with a process that offers that needed accountability. Failure to hold all staff accountable will place an unwarranted burden on those whose “yes” means “yes” and whose “no” means “no.” Accountability is a gift we offer to each other and should inspire us to new levels of achievement, not make us want to quit. So offer it to others in way that brings encouragement, motivation and edification to your team. In the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but it is miles ahead in results." 5

2. Simplicity: Keeping the main thing the main thing

The Pareto Principle, or the “80/20 Rule,” was coined by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed that 80% of economic growth came from 20% of the population. This has been found to be true in many other organizational situations and helps us to focus our resources on the most productive outcomes. If we know that 80% of our results come from 20% of our activities, following the tactics below will help us best use our scarce resources of time, money, and people.

  • Keeping things simple keeps them focused. Determine which aspects of your ministry yield 80% of the results. Invest heavily there and limit time and resources to the rest.
  • Create a “Stop Doing List.” When thinking through all the demands of your work, identify those activities, meetings and projects that do not directly support the execution of your plan. Then learn to say “no” to those things. When you must say “yes” to another initiative that appears strategic, it should also mean you say “no” to at least one (preferably two) other items that have been less than productive. This will help keep your work balanced and not as complex. This will also be one of the hardest things you do in ministry, as it will involve carefully thinking through the implications of saying “yes” and “no” to various people and tasks within your church.
  • Do not confuse “need” with “vision” or “urgent” with “important.” Need-driven ministries often run out of resources and energy before they can accomplish their objectives. This is because they are often pursuing the “urgent” and not the “important.” Doing the “important” things is often more critical than taking care of the last minute detail that is demanding your attention.

3. Competence: Doing what we do well

We tend to enjoy watching a professional at work who is good at what they do. Whether it’s a skilled athlete, a symphony violinist playing masterfully, or a youth worker who just intuitively knows how to relate well to students, their skill inspires confidence and encourages other teammates to do their best. Following the strategies below puts competence well within the reach of all leaders and ministry team members.    

  • At the heart of execution is decision making that is timely, effective, and appropriate. Decisions that are not made are opportunities that are lost. Learn how to make them, and learn when they need to be made. We might be tempted to abstain from the responsibility of making certain decisions; however, it is our job to embrace even the most difficult circumstances and to move forward in those decisions the best way we know how. If we find ourselves in the place of not knowing what to do or lacking wisdom, we can “ask God, who gives [wisdom] to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” 6
  • Attract and recruit skilled people who understand what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. In other words, don’t allow just any person who is interested in your ministry to be involved in your ministry. Look for and recruit people who are self-motivated, self-disciplined and others-oriented. In ministry, we neither have the luxury of extra dollars nor extra people to motivate our volunteers. This makes attracting skilled people who initiate the right things absolutely necessary. “Lack of resources is no excuse for lack of rigor - it makes selectivity all the more vital.” 7
  • Train your leaders how to address a future that is uncertain and not very well defined with confidence as well as competence. Jesus uses a parable to ask an important question in his sermon on the mount: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified [trained] will be like the teacher.” 8  Jesus highlights the necessity of training in the discipleship process. If we want to become like him, we must be trained by him. Therefore, if we want others to become like him, we must train them like he has trained us. We must ask ourselves, “Who are we training, and how are we training them? And if we are not training our people, are we inadvertently leading them into a pit? In order to prevent this, determine what your team needs to know and how they need to be trained in order to follow Jesus well and to live out his call on their lives.
  • In the spirit of continuous improvement, slowly but consistently elevate the average by “raising the bar” in your expectations and standards of performance. This will help produce above average-results from your people.

4. Passion: Harnessing the Leader’s Energy, Influence & Commitment

Execution will not happen without the energy that comes from an inspired and involved leader. Leaders who bring the “spark” that releases the energy and competence of each person on the team tend to practice the strategies below.

  • Understand your commitment to the mission is just as necessary as your energy and influence. When we describe a person’s personality with the word “passionate,” we are generally describing their energy, influence and emotions. However, the more ancient, traditional definition of the word “passion” is “suffering.” Viewed through that lens, ministry becomes a call to a long-suffering commitment. It confronts us with the question, “Are we as committed to our cause and the suffering it might entail as we are to the energy and influence that accompany our roles?” Both “passions” are essential for execution. The energy and influence of an effective leader is a key element of success, but without the relentless resolve of the leader pointing in the direction of the future, leadership teams will lose heart and lose their way.
  • Cast and re-cast a compelling and inspiring vision. We must do anything and everything we can to help our people see the big picture. Every time you meet with your volunteers, a parent, or your lead pastor, let them know where you are going and exactly how you are getting there. People join organizations for a clearly defined mission or purpose; they leave for lack of a compelling and inspiring vision. Help people see where it is you are going.
  • Live out your values, every day. Philosopher Dallas Willard urged, “We are becoming who we will be forever.” 9  With every decision you make, you have the opportunity to become who you want to be forever. In doing so, you seize the opportunity to model to your people who you hope they become.
  • Provide adequate resources for the assigned priorities and action strategies. Generally it’s the team leader who can secure sufficient resources for the entire team. This includes adequate financial resources to launch initiatives and assuring that compensation for your staff is fair and adequate. Nothing is more frustrating to people than to embrace an inspiring vision and plan without a corresponding plan to secure the resources that will be needed. “More bricks, less straw” did not work well for the Israelites in Egypt; it will not work well today.
  • Provide encouragement. In my experience, I have learned that when people leave churches or organizations, they primarily do so for relational reasons, not institutional ones. This means respect, appreciation and gratitude can make the difference from someone being connected to our ministries and someone deciding to leave. Appreciate the whole person, and remember, “The last responsibility of any leader is to say ‘thank you.’” 10

5. Evaluation: Staying on Track

When we get to the end of the road, we need to take the time to look back and review what went well and what we could have done better. Evaluation closes the planning process by cycling us right back into the continuous loop of assessment, planning, execution and evaluation.

Take time to ask these questions together:

  • Is the vision clear and understood by everyone?
  • Are priorities clearly defined with enough action strategies to complete the goal?
  • Are the dates that have been set realistic?
  • Are team members adequately trained and equipped?
  • Have we allocated sufficient resources to the task?
  • Are we experiencing increased traction and momentum?
  • Are the results the ones we expected? If not, what do we do with that?

Christian ministry was designed to be a team effort. Therefore, execution is a team effort. Our plans cannot predict the future nor do they guarantee success. Planning, however, does provide an integrated framework that enables our work to become more visible to ourselves and to others. It invites each member to contribute his or her part to the whole in a manner that is clear, compelling, and appreciated. As a result, the processes of assessment, planning, and execution helps each member of the body of Christ reach their full potential.

Action Points

1. Youth workers are infamous for dropping the ball when it comes to carrying out plans. How do you see faithful execution of your ministry plans leading to better (and more sustained) momentum from your team? How important do you think execution is – both to you and to your team – and what difference does that make in how you carry out ministry?

2. When you evaluate your typical follow-through on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate yourself on executing plans made by your ministry team? What about plans you make yourself? Do your ratings tell you anything about your values?

3. What are the three biggest hindrances or frustrations you tend to face in the execution process in your ministry? What practical steps can you take to reduce or improve those hindrances/frustrations? Who else could you involve in that process?

4. If you don’t already regularly do this, get a team together (create one if necessary!) to help you evaluate your youth ministry’s progress toward its mission and goals. You might try looking specifically at execution based on the five elements of focus, simplicity, competence, passion and evaluation.

5. Looking at your own passion for working with students, is it characterized more by your energy and emotions, or by the type of long-suffering commitment described above? What impact does your passion have on follow-through?

6. Where do you tend to stand on the continuum of “God will lead us, so we’ll let him work out the details,” and “We have responsibility to work alongside God, so we always need to make a plan and carry it out”? How does your view mesh with the rest of the team you work with, and how does that impact the level of conflict or team dynamics in your ministry? After reading this article, with whom could you dialog about the principles outlined above and the ways they relate to your ministry?


Originally published as “Evaluation Part III: Getting the Job Done“ by Mark Maines for FYI in August 2006. This version has been updated from the original.

  1. This quote was taken from a course lecture given by Peter Drucker at the Peter F. Drucker & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.
  2. Larry Bossidy & Ram Charon, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (New York, Crown Business, 2002).
  3. Larry Bossidy & Ram Charon, 5.
  4. Marcus Buckingham, The One Thing You Need To Know (New York: Free Press, 2005), 25.
  5. Terry Paulson, They Shoot Managers Don’t They (Santa Monica, CA:  Lee Canter & Associates, 1988), 104.
  6. James 1:5, NRSV.
  7. Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 15.
  8. Luke 6: 39-40, NRSV.
  9. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), 11.
  10. Max DePree, Leadership is an Art (Doubleday, New York, 1989), 9.