Fuller Youth Institute


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

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

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing danah boyd, author of the book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. (read FYI’s initial review of the book.) boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft, a Professor at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Fortune magazine nicely summed up boyd’s substantial resume by calling her “the reigning expert on how young people use the Internet." 1

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

When technology enters the picture, it’s often what makes teens’ struggles very visible. I often think back to the amazing work by Jane Jacobs where she highlighted how safety isn’t about law enforcement, but about a collective willingness to pay attention to everyone around us. 2

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

DB: There are two paths in which young people typically get involved with service-oriented and activist work – 1) it’s normative  3 in their communities; or 2) they personally develop an interest in the work.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Ones to Watch: Danah Boyd <http://archive.fortune.com/galleries/2010/fortune/1010/gallery.fast_risers_under_40.fortune/index.html>
  2. See: Jacobs, J. (1961). The death and life of great American cities. Random House LLC.
  3. This term is used a lot in academic circles and refers to how what we are exposed to growing up we then assume and take for granted as being the normal way of doing things.

Survive The Summer Playlist: 10 Free Resources

Shares Jun 17, 2014

Photo by Chris Martin.

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

1. The best family summer ever

Ideas to help families connect before summer slips away.

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

Here are a few samples you can pass along.

3. Using social media to strengthen family bonds

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

4. Beyond Camp-As-Usual

Sticky Faith approaches to more intentional camps and retreats.

5. How do you help faith stick beyond camp?

Programs end, but practices don’t have to.

6. Sticky Faith camp ministry ideas from camp leaders themselves

Six ideas you might not have thought about.

7. Three ideas for improving your camp experience this summer

If you still need more camp encouragement!

8. Taking the pastor to camp

This idea rocks.

9. Twenty Ideas for Grandparents

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

10. Parenting strategies for launching kids into adulthood

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


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


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

Photo by Ciaran Cuffe.

As Jesse looked around at his community, he saw both problems and potential.

Like many communities, there were concerns rising about issues like teen depression and potential gang activity. And like most communities, there were less opportunities for mentoring and support than there were kids who needed them.

The faith community, school district, and local nonprofits for the most part remained siloed in their separate approaches to address kids’ needs.

There must be a better way, Jesse thought. The solution that emerged out of his own passion was Community gardens.

As the Executive Director of Kingdom Causes Alhambra/Monterey Park, a local community-mobilizing ministry focused on capacity building, Jesse Chang began to partner with others to plant community gardens on school properties in neighborhoods within his city. In close connection with the school district (about half of whose students qualify for free or reduced lunches), local leaders were matched with students in order to build collaborative gardening projects that would support both students and their neighborhoods.

There’s a Chinese Proverb that suggests, “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now.” Jesse discovered that community gardens can be one powerful way to invest in growing students and to give them opportunities to be asset builders.

The Goal: Building Assets

Under Jesse’s leadership, four gardens have been planted in the local Alhambra Unified School District, with plans to begin two more sites in the next school year. These school gardens are a model of the impact of community gardens on asset building. Asset building is a process that focuses on the strengths of individuals and communities (rather than just looking at deficits) and builds upon those. This positive model flips the typical “glass half-full” way our society tends to look at teenagers and their situations. Rather than see more problems, an asset-building approach sees more potential.

Based on research with over three million kids, Search Institute has identified forty building blocks of healthy development known as Developmental Assets that help children and young people grow up to be healthy, caring, responsible, and engaged. Assets are grouped into “external” assets (support, empowerment, boundaries, and use of time) and “internal” assets (commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity). Through their research, Search has determined that teenagers are more likely to become healthy and engaged adults when they have an average of 27 of the 40 developmental assets in their lives as teenagers. 1

Jesse and his team of leaders focus on building the empowerment assets through the gardening project, including “community values youth,” “youth as resources,” and “service to others.” According to Jesse, the core group of engaged students has begun to demonstrate not only these outcomes, but also increased responsibility and positive identity. The vision is for the youth program to grow into an entrepreneurial business class within each school.

Planting the Seeds

There are several indicators that the students’ involvement in school gardens has increased their developmental assets. One student shared how involvement with the school gardens grew his commitment to learning. This student said, “Before the gardening class happened, my grades were sliding. But now with the garden, I am more connected to the school and my grades have improved.” Jesse reports that this particular student has grown in his self-esteem. He even agreed to speak in public forums about how involvement in the gardening project has impacted him.

Civic engagement such as service to people, the community, and the environment builds the health and well-being of students and makes communities stronger. Community gardens have been proven to serve as an onramp to this kind of service. 2

In the gardening process, students are involved in the initial planning and design, preparation of the land, planting the seedlings, and cultivating the gardens. This includes designing the space and choosing what’s planted. Through sweat and determination, students are able to literally see the fruit of their labor. Students have been surprised to see how much they actually care for the garden, and how invested they are in its success. The gardens connected them to each other as they cared for the land together.

The process of preparing, planting, and sustaining the gardens and relationships requires a long-term commitment and investment. For the school gardens planted in Alhambra and Monterey Park, the school principal has served as the gatekeeper who commissions the garden and identifies the champions in the school who will sustain the longevity of the garden as an educational and asset tool.

Jesse serves as the project coordinator. He has developed a local network of resources (of materials, funds and volunteers) in this multiethnic community that ensures the creation and maintenance of the gardens. For example, Jesse was able to contact a local tree trimming company and secure wood chips for free mulch as a gift-in-kind. It was a win-win: the garden needed the mulch and the company needed a place to donate their wood chips.

School-based models of community gardens are not the only ways to partner. For example, churches can work collaboratively to plant a garden in their neighborhood, perhaps in an underused space or even on a church campus. The key is to identify champions and committed partners.

Places to Grow

Like any collaborative project, community gardens are not without their challenges. For this particular school garden project in Alhambra, the challenges included determining how to integrate the school garden more deeply into the teaching and curriculum. Jesse notes, “While there is an intrinsic value of having a place of beauty (for example, one of the elementary schools’ classes insisted on moving their picnic bench right next to the garden), the garden still needs to be valued by the whole school community to succeed.”

In addition to school gardens, neighborhood outreach and local park community garden projects can be challenged by the determination of who will make the decisions and lead, who will be partners, and who will actually do the regular work (not to mention how the fruit of their labor is shared!). The start up phase requires commitment and investment of time by partnered leaders. There may be cultural and language barriers, as well as socioeconomic differences that create potential for misunderstanding. The initial buy-in of the various entities can be a challenging hurdle, especially securing consistent adult leadership for garden projects that depend on kids. 

In addition, sustainability is a challenge, considering budgets are tight and both students and teachers move on from one year to the next. Students may find others areas of interest or feel the demands of keeping up with schoolwork. The process of determining ongoing funding sources can cause tension. There are a number of grant opportunities available for community garden projects, but someone must be committed to seeking these out.

Benefits of Community Gardens

The benefits, however, tend to far outweigh the challenges. School staff and students take pride and joy in telling the story of “their” garden. The garden also gives them an opportunity to know where their food comes from and understand the creation process.

The outcomes from community gardening include:

  • Provision of locally-grown food
  • Increasing care for the land and civic engagement
  • People coming together around common goals and shared work
  • Students empowered by the tending and cultivation process
  • Creating places of beauty, often in spots that have been local eyesores

California poppies and stalks of Kulli Black Incan Corn have replaced barren dirt patches. Unused plots on the school grounds have become sources of sustenance and beauty. Students and teachers have been inspired to spend more time in their outdoor classroom space. They have been surprised by how the fruit of their labor is in demand by local chefs and restaurateurs.

One meta-study found that community gardens tend to boost the overall health and financial growth of a community. 3  The study concluded, “Community gardens appear to lead to increased community development, especially increased social capital. Gardens provide a space for neighbors to get to know one another and organize in support of other important neighborhood issues.” Benefits extend beyond increased neighborhood connectedness and empowerment. These gardens can actually infuse new life into the local economy. This is accomplished through job creation, on-the-job training, and development of skills and knowledge.

Participants in these studies listed “helping others” and “improved neighborhoods” as a benefit of the community garden. Other benefits included decreased racial discrimination, increase in neighborhood engagement, and lowered crime rates. Relationships in the community were strengthened as well as a sense of ownership, belonging, connectedness, and safety.

Through the work of their hands and care of the garden, teenagers can produce food for themselves and their community while learning the fundamentals of social enterprise as they sell the produce and plants they grow. They are more connected to their schools and communities, understand their value and contribution, and increase their own skill sets and experience.

God Planted a Garden

“God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasure” (Francis Bacon). Gardening is a profound activity with spiritual rhythms in which we can participate. Through the original garden (Genesis 2), God created a rhythm of life. Jesus illustrated this rhythm in the parables of the vineyard and of the farmer sowing seeds. The story of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) teaches us about the growth process and the impact of one small seed.

The act of gardening is about process as much as the end result, requiring both time and commitment. Caring for the land is a deeply spiritual exercise, with theological implications rooted in the power of place. God teaches us commitment to place by creating in a location. God’s act of creation was done on the earth, in a garden. We are reminded in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” God redeems both place and people, and he calls us to the same kind of commitment.

We plant seeds with students through investment of time and mentoring. God grows the seeds in them and brings them to full harvest. As it turns out for Jesse’s neighborhood and maybe for yours, gardening provides one more way for students to build assets and engage with their communities. 

Action Points

  1. Find out where and how you (and your youth group) might get involved in existing school and community gardens in your city/neighborhood. Check out these community gardens as examples:
  2. Find out how to start and manage a community garden. Here are a few resources:
  3. Engage students in the process of planting a church, neighborhood, or school garden. Involve them in the collaborative process of determining the objectives and outcomes as well as strategies.
  4. Check out Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets for great research and practical ideas on how to build assets in teens and also ways to help them to be asset builders in their schools and communities.

  1. For a few additional free FYI resources on asset-based ministry, see “Turning Towards Holistic Ministry,” “Unearthing the Whole Truth about Holistic Ministry,” and “Asset-Based Teaching.”
  2. The Search Institute and the University of Rochester, 2013 for the Roots of Engagement Citizenship study http://www.search-institute.org/sites/default/files/b/Roots_of_Engaged_Citizenship_Initial_Findings_Report.pdf . The purpose of this 2013 study was to understand how youth become good citizens by identifying the developmental roots of active participation in communities and society. The study asserted that civic engagement is good for young people's well-being and functioning in other areas of life, and that youth civic participation makes communities and societies stronger.
  3. Lindsey Jones, “Improving Health, Building Community: Exploring the Asset Building Potential of Community Gardens” (Evans School Review Vol. 2, Num. 1, Spring 2012).

Photo by Joshua Michael.

It was the day my students exploded.

One of my most faithful and exuberant leaders announced that she was leaving. Her announcement was like letting a skunk loose in the center of a middle school dance. It stunk, and so did the rest of our team as we tried to help students understand that everything was going to be okay.

When the time came, we cried, ate cake, and did a sendoff. But none of it really addressed the loss that our team and students were feeling. Since then, I have tried to do a better job of preparing both students and staff for transitions that impact our ministry.

The Ever-Changing Ministry

As much as we are inclined to seek stability and predictability, we must be prepared for the inevitable. Essentially all ministry is transitional; once I realized that, I was able to get better at preparing people for it. In light of Sticky Faith research and curriculum, I have found it even more important to think about both student and leader transitions.

The culture of any youth ministry changes from year to year based on natural student transitions. When it comes to personnel, whether it’s the head of staff or the part-time intern, a successful change in leadership preserves both students’ and parents’ trust and allows them to adapt to new challenges with imagination and maybe even enthusiasm.

Four Strategies to Mitigate Pain and Loss in Transition

I recently had a conversation with a youth leader who was preparing to leave his position. Though it was under good circumstances, the senior pastor asked him to leave within three weeks of the announcement in order to make the goodbye “less painful,” even though the leader did not have another job and there was no plan in place to replace him. This pastor did not seem to be taking into account the relationships that the youth leader had built over time. Rushing the youth leader out the door may actually end up leading to more confusion and hurt.

Effective transition requires authentic communication about the transition and an honest look at the needs of both the leader and the students. This approach preserves trust for all involved. The Center for Strategic Planning has a great list of messages to communicate in times of change. The list includes communication about important questions like:

  • Why change?
  • What will happen if we don’t change?
  • What will it be like to change?
  • What will not change?

I would add to that list a few statements about the individual who is leaving: How will this affect my relationship with them? How can I best support them?

Here are four ideas we can focus on to help mitigate the pain of transition:

1. Help students grieve the loss without languishing in it.

Failing to acknowledge and sit with people in their grief—however great or small—will inhibit your ability to help them up. Grieving real loss is an adaptive process. Adapting means accepting the loss, defining and solving real and felt problems, and emerging from the loss by looking for the next opportunity together. 1

In our case, the leader to whom we said goodbye led a small group with students who had grown close not just to the leader, but to each other. Her leaving was difficult on that group, but we made it unbearable by simply selecting a replacement leader and announcing it to the girls. As a result, the girls shut down and disengaged. We never really allowed them the freedom to use that group as a means of grieving; instead, we carried on as though the curriculum was more important than their leader. We all lost.

2. Acknowledge the impact of leadership, with the focus on the impact (not just the leader).

The impact of relational ministry needs to “provide the context for understanding and participating in discipleship,” 2  according to youth ministry theologian Andy Root. Root explains that relationships are the tangible place where adolescents live and practice their faith. The authenticity of those relationships, not the giftedness of the leader, provides the context of discipleship. Living that out in word and in action allows the space for students to explore the shift in relationship. As we come alongside them through relational transitions, pointing to the work of Christ in us all sets us on solid ground.

3. Continue YOUR ministry, not that of the previous leader.

When the removal of leadership gifts leaves a vacuum, it is very tempting to step in and fill that hole. DON’T.

God has given you specific gifts for this ministry and you need to stay true to those gifts. 3  Allow God either to fill the void or to leave it empty. This is most important when we try to fill a relational hole.

Several years ago, I followed a friend as the leader of a youth ministry. I wanted to continue some of the things that he had done, and so I co-opted some tools that he had been using. For example, I repeated a phrase that he had often spoken to end prayers. A couple of months after he left, I got a call from my friend saying that a frustrated student had contacted him about my attempts at imitation. Needless to say, I stopped using his words.

4. Build a network of adults around every student.

One of the things we have taught in our ministry team is that while caring for students, we also live out our faith in front of and with students. That includes living out faith through the inevitable transitions in our own lives as adults.

We need to build a network of adults around students because of the nature of adult life. People change jobs, get married, or any number of other factors that may result in having to say goodbye. As Sticky Faith research pointed out, the task of connecting five adults to one student is really an invitation for that student to be in relationship with many adults. 4  One of the ways a ministry can strategically support this is to give opportunities for adults who are not regularly part of your ministry to come and tell their faith stories to students. Whether that is during large group meeting, a retreat, an event, or a small group, it’s important for students to begin to listen to the faith stories of other adults. When we did this as a series, it was amazing to see the relationships of those adults and students grow as a result of sheer exposure.

Preparing Seniors for Their Own Transition

Just as important as it is to help our leaders transition, it is perhaps even more important to prepare our students to leave our ministries. Here are a few strategies we can employ:

  1. Communicate with students about the transition to life after high school before and after they transition.
  2. Help students anticipate that change. Find opportunities for students to talk about the stresses and joys of the coming transition.
  3. Take opportunities to discuss the importance of their faith now, and help them develop a plan for pursuing faith and people of faith when they leave the ministry.
  4. Continue your ministry with them. Just because they are gone does not mean that you get to stop your relationship. Continue to reach out and encourage other adults to do the same.
  5. Most importantly, live your life and faith with them. Celebrate with enthusiasm the things that need celebrating, and allow for grief over the things that need grieving. (Here are 20 more ideas and tools for helping students during transition seasons.)

In our ministry we’ve hosted a small group for seniors that meets throughout the year to prepare for and talk about the transition. We provide a space and a context for those seniors to have honest conversations. We’ve also invited college students to speak to the group about their experiences after leaving the youth ministry, sometimes over Skype. This ends up serving a dual purpose of reconnecting with the college students as well as the seniors in the room.

Action Points

Paying attention to these transitional moments in the lives of students and leaders takes some initiative and intention on your part. Here are some questions that you might ask of yourself and of your staff:

  1. Think about the last few staff or volunteer transitions your ministry has experienced. What went well? What could have gone better?
  2. What is your current practice of transitioning students out of high school? Do your leaders know this practice well enough to articulate it? How effective has it been?
  3. Given your ministry’s existing needs and resources, what part of your transition practice would be the most important to build upon? What would success in that area look like?


  1. Heifetz, Ronald A. 1994. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 236
  2. Root, Andrew. 2007 Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books. 206
  3. Heifetz, 271.
  4. Powell, Kara E. and Chap Clark. 2011. Sticky Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 101

FYI Playlist: 20 Free Resources for Transition Season

Shares May 05, 2014

Photo by heddaselder.

It’s May. That means it’s transition season.

As a ministry leader, you’re gearing up for transitions of all kinds: one grade to the next, elementary to middle school, middle to high school, JV to varsity teams, school-year to summer ministry calendar, and perhaps the most anticipated: high school graduation.

Twenty years ago I walked across the platform in my high school gym and received my diploma. I thought I knew a lot about life—what I would study in college, where I would live, who I would marry.

I was wrong about all of those things. And probably a lot more I can’t remember.

Looking back now, what I see most is that I was overly naïve and underprepared. To some extent, no one could have helped me. But as we’ve learned over the past eight years of studying young people and listening to leaders from across North America, freshly minted grads like me could use some more clues for what’s coming.

Whether you’re thinking ahead to graduation or to other transitions or milestones coming soon, we thought we’d assemble a handful of free FYI resources you might find useful in the coming season. Then we came up with a few handfuls, so here’s twenty-five! Bookmark this one, and keep coming back this summer when you need more help.

1 Transition Prayers: A sample liturgy that my church used for back-to-school season last fall, but could easily be adapted for an end of school worship service.

2 Milestones of Faith: Creating rhythms through rites of passage across every grade of the school years. Here’s one from another church teaching 4th graders to risk. And if you’re dying for more help with crafting rituals and rites of passage, here you go.

3 Anxiety in the In-Between Stages of Our Lives: Healthy Strategies for Coping with Transitions (ideas for students and parents from a licensed therapist)

4 Sixth and Ninth-Grade Blessing Ceremonies: Ideas from a Texas church

5 What You Need to Know About Faith in College: Three ministry leaders share honestly with students about what’s coming.


6 How Do I See Myself After Graduation? A free downloadable curriculum sample to use with seniors or grads!

7 Vision Plans: One church’s unique approach to blessing graduates

8 Grad Gift Bibles with a Twist: Intrigued?

9 The Jacket: A video and discussion guide about what can happen when we treat faith like a jacket, especially when young people leave home for the first time.


10 Emergency Response Plans: Helping students prepare ahead of time for when things go downhill.

11 How Can My Struggles Help My Faith Stick? Another free curriculum sample for grads!

12 A brand-new Sticky Faith Story about Confirmation and getting adults to write down their wisdom for students. Plus this post about Confirmation, and this one with more ideas!

13 What You Need to Know about Life After Youth Group: Believe it or not, your students have no idea what life will look like beyond your care. Here’s a good discussion starter for that hard conversation.


14 Sticky Faith Deployed: Helping young people prepare for military service.

15 Grad Summer Ideas: including weekly discussions, plus posts about a senior retreat and church visit field trips.

16 How Can I Find a New Church? Free curriculum sample via Youth Specialties!

17 How Can I Manage My Life After High School? Yet ANOTHER free curriculum sample to use with grads!!

18 Out of the Nest: Tips for parents to successfully launch kids into college

19 College Transition Packages (it’s not too soon to develop a great idea for August.)

20 And finally, Don’t Send Them Off Without Leads!


Here are some not-free-but-hopefully-still-awesome resources if you have any cash left at the end of your ministry budget year!

Sticky Faith Teen Curriculum: 10 Lessons to Nurture Faith Beyond High SchoolSpecially-designed to use with juniors, seniors, and grads.

Can I Ask That? 8 Hard Questions About God & FaithA high school small group curriculum to help them face what’s coming while they’re still in community with you. We know a number of churches who are using this for their summer small group series. And oh yeah, we have a free sample of that one too.

Photo by Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro.

Can I tell you a secret?

Will you promise not to tell anyone?

Am I safe with you?

If you’re like me, I’m guessing you’ve been asked questions like these before. Teenagers, like all of us, long to have safe places to be heard, known, and loved. But what makes students feel safe? And what does “safety” actually mean?

Providing safe places for students results in emotional well-being. Ultimately, reflecting God’s love and care for our students also helps them to feel free to be the people God has made them to be.

Students at Peace

A young person’s well-being is impacted by their environment, including their community, family relationships, and support. Research on well-being encompasses emotional, mental, and physical health as well as social competence and healthy relationships. 1  In other words, well-being is a comprehensive term that indicates wholeness, safety, rootedness, and a sense of being at peace with self, others, and God. Teenagers who know they are loved and have purpose in life feel this sense of wholeness.

But for many, that peace is elusive.

What Makes a Teenager Feel Safe to Share?

There was a knock on my office door. It was one of our ministry’s high school students. She was a youth group leader, and overall a good kid at seventeen. But she wanted to talk with me because she’d been hiding a secret.

Earlier in the year, she had fallen in with the wrong crowd. She got involved in drugs and partying, involving some choices that she now regretted. Shame and fear now consumed her. She anticipated rejection both from God and from her church family. She came to me hoping that her secret would be safe, and that I would still love and care for her. She was looking for a safe place where she wouldn’t be judged or rejected; she was looking for help with how to begin again.

The biggest enemy of safety in teenagers is insecurity among their peers. In a Girl Scouts report entitled “Feeling Safe, What Girls Say”, surveys and focus groups with girls ages 8-17 revealed girls’ primary concerns as being made fun of, being teased, and not being accepted, all ranking higher above their concern for natural disasters and their physical well-being. When they feel insecure, they don’t feel safe. When they feel unsafe, they have challenges in making decisions and have difficulty paying attention in school. The girls in the study said that people matter more than places when it comes to safety. One 16-year-old said, “It’s not where I am but who I am with that makes me feel safe.” Trusted relationships that create support and value for teens lead to a sense of emotional safety.

What’s the Impact When Teens Feel Safe? 

When young people feel protected, there are outcomes beyond “safety”. Teenagers who experience increased well-being grow in self confidence, connectedness to community, and a more authentic life. Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence identifies kids’ five emotional competencies basic to social and emotional learning that are a result of a sense of well-being:

  1. Self and other awareness: understanding and identifying feelings.
  2. Mood management: handling and managing difficult feelings.
  3. Self-motivation: being able to set goals and persevere toward them with hope.
  4. Empathy: being able to put yourself "in someone else's shoes" and show that you care.
  5. Management of relationships: handling friendships and resolving conflicts.

Our investment today with our students can reap benefits for years to come. In my own early years, my grandmother played a key role. She made sure I knew that with her I was safe and valued. She communicated this through words, prayer, and presence, which I carry with me today as an adult.

Ministry of Presence

I became a police chaplain 15 years ago while serving as a youth pastor at a local church. Police chaplains provide spiritual and emotional care for law enforcement officers and communities at large. Central to that impact is our “ministry of presence.” 

In “Toward a theology of the Ministry of Presence,” Neil Holm defines this concept as “a faith presence that accompanies each person on the journey through life.” This presence in each of us reflects God’s presence, love, and peace. Central to this ministry philosophy is the idea of “being with.” The love and presence of God is embodied as we are with the other person in their moment of crisis.

A ministry of presence can bring comfort and express care without words. Presence encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This is sacramental presence. It is a revelation of Jesus’ care and compassion through listening, being with, and affirming.

During the baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks affirmation and value over Jesus in Matthew 3:17 saying, “This is my Beloved Son, with him I am well pleased.” Ministry of presence communicates the beloved value of God over each person no matter where they are on the faith journey. Ministry of presence reminds individuals that they are made in the image of God and are deeply loved by him.

Not Just a Friend: Defining and Understanding Your Role

We begin creating safe places for students by embodying the presence of Jesus. As we recognize our roles and responsibilities, these are a few key areas to think through:

  1. Understanding the nature of your relationship and the role you play. We often wear multiple hats in a relationship, including youth leader, mentor, and friend. It is imperative that we recognize our role as an adult in their life. I am not a teenager’s peer, and not just a friend.
  2. Establishing boundaries for both our students and ourselves creates expectations and responsibilities. An example of a boundary is confidentiality. If we are pastors, we are obligated by clergy confidentiality. Confidentiality means that we keep things shared in confidence, or privacy, within the context of the relationship. We also must know when to keep and when to break confidentiality. For example, in many states, adults who work with kids are generally considered mandated child abuse reporters. If a student confides that they are being abused, the adult leader is required to report the abuse. If a student threatens to take their own life or someone else’s life, the adult is required to report that information to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. We need to be careful not to make promises that we can’t and shouldn’t keep. Understanding your church/organization and state regulations about confidentiality (and how to limit liability) is a necessity and will create safe boundaries both for you and for the students.

A few years ago, one of the students in my youth group called me late in the evening. She had been abused by a parent, had run away, and now wanted me to come pick her up. She wanted me to create a safe place for her. She also wanted me to keep her secret. However, this was a secret I could not keep. As a mandated reporter of child abuse, I had to file a report to the Department of Children and Family Services. For her well-being, my own sense of ethics, and the requirements of the law, confidentiality did not apply here. I was obligated to report the abuse, a decision that may have initially left her feeling betrayed, but in the end reflected me being a safe place. (For more information about determining if an adult is a mandated reporter in a particular state, please see https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/manda.pdf)

Ways to Create Safe Spaces for Students

Parents and Caregivers

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), there are several ways parents create emotionally and spiritually safe places for their teenagers, beyond providing a safe and loving home environment:

  • Create an atmosphere of honesty, trust and respect.
  • Allow age-appropriate independence and assertiveness.
  • Develop a relationship that encourages a teen to talk when he or she is upset.
  • Teach responsibility for teen's belongings and others’.
  • Teach basic responsibility for household chores.
  • Teach the importance of accepting limits.

Youth Leaders and Mentors

As youth leaders and those committed to the well-being of young people, there are many things we can do to create safe places for students, including:

  • Use your observation skills (paying attention to what they say/do and don’t say/do), utilize active listening, ask thoughtful questions.
  • Discuss issues honestly, creating an environment that breeds authenticity and respect.
  • Help students to walk through crisis situations, questions, and general teenage struggles, pointing them toward positive ways to move forward (i.e. conflict resolution skills, increasing their emotional and social competencies, and positive self image.)
  • Keep your commitments to them, but don’t make promises that you can’t keep.
  • Do not try either to fix or to judge their pain and suffering.
  • As appropriate, share your own struggles and stories with students; this will create trust and credibility.

One of the most important things we can say and do to help a young person feel safe and secure is to remind them of their core identity as God’s beloved son or daughter (Matthew 3:17). Knowing who they are will significantly shift their perspective and sense of emotional safety. Praying this truth over them, speaking it to them, and treating them in this way will reinforce that they are more than the world around them might say.

Action Points

  1. Identify, assess, and nurture your “ministry of presence” with students. What skills and strengths do you bring to this role? What might you need to develop further?
  2. Become familiar with your church/organization and state requirements and expectations regarding confidentiality, as well as policies about being alone with students or allowing them into your home or vehicle. Communicate these boundaries as needed to students.
  3. Share your own story and lessons you have learned or are learning with students; this will help to cultivate safety, credibility, and trust.
  4. Evaluate ways to make yourself and your team more available to your students. Look at other examples of how to create safe spaces and community. Read Father Greg Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart, rich with examples of how to create safe places for young people in danger.

Can You Doubt Too Much? An Interview with John Ortberg

Shares Apr 07, 2014

Photo by Willow Creek D/CH.

This article is part of a series celebrating the release of our newest Sticky Faith curriculum resource, Can I Ask That? Co-author Jim Candy caught up with his mentor John Ortberg, a popular author, speaker, and senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, to ask him about the role of questioning in faith. Ortberg is the author of Know Doubt and a host of other books.

JIM: Ok, first question. Why are doubt and questioning important to faith development?  

JOHN: Doubt and questioning are critical to faith development because young people need to make the faith their own. They can’t simply inherit or adopt it from their parents or other family members. It’s very important for churches to understand that faith cannot be conjured up by an act of the will. A young person’s sense of certainty about faith is a result of studying, learning and pondering. It’s not something that happens just by direct effort.

JIM: Got it. So can you doubt or question God too much?  

JOHN: Well, my friend Dallas Willard used to say, “We should ruthlessly follow the truth wherever it leads.”  So I don’t think it’s possible to sincerely ask questions or follow trails we don’t understand too much. It’s a very good thing to do.

However, we are not just computers or machines. Our thoughts are tied to feelings and our desires, and it’s certainly true that we all have a vested interest in what we want to believe. Some people want to believe in God and so they are more likely to do so. Others don’t want to believe in God and they are more likely not to do so.

If my behavior is lined up in a way that makes me not want to believe in God because I don’t want to be accountable to him, then I’m likely to have more doubts. They aren’t doubts that simply reflect intellectual processes; they reflect the behavioral pre-commitments I have already made. Discerning with folks when wrong behavior or flat-out sin is producing doubt, as opposed to the process of sincere questioning, is one of the most pastoral functions for church leaders.

JIM: Ok, but then how does the Church decide what challenging issues are critical to agree on and which issues leave us room to disagree?

JOHN: Well historically the church has laid out what beliefs are most central by way of creeds, and that’s one of the reasons why creeds can be helpful. When it comes to faith, we want to focus on the beliefs that are most central and make the largest difference to our lives. 

Does God exist? Is there a Trinity of mutual self-giving love that is at the core of reality? Do the Scriptures properly understood and interpreted give us unique knowledge about this God? It’s very important for the church to help young people understand which claims are most central to faith, and what issues are just controversial and hotly contested, but don’t rise to the level of creedal affirmations.

JIM: Right, but even though there is agreement in certain areas, do you think there are ways young people are being left unprepared for faith when they leave high school?

Young people are all too often leaving high school without the deepest, most thoughtful, most reflective views of the Christian faith on critical questions. Science in particular is an area where young people are often given not only bad science, but also very often bad interpretations of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis.

Young people need to have close relational connections with folks they know and trust. A great deal of the preparation of the mind doesn’t involve just “the right answers.” It involves a relationship with somebody before whom a young person can muse, reflect, express doubts, and be able to think things out themselves. There is simply no substitute for being able to think for yourself.

JIM: Right, but that's pretty scary for some people. Can churches help? How do you think churches should be addressing controversial issues of the day with young people?

JOHN: I think the church ought to be asking young people, “What are your main questions?”  

We then ought to bring folks in who are able to speak into those questions fairly, accurately, and civilly. At our church a couple of weeks ago, we actually had a worship service where representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Secularism, Judaism and Christianity each described what their own faith tradition believes about central questions so that people in our church could hear them directly. Too often, non-Christian views end up being portrayed inaccurately or even caricatured by people inside the church. People inside the church may have good intentions when they do this, wanting to reaffirm students’ faith, but ultimately, a failure to listen to or accurately represent another viewpoint will undermine faith because people will be led into doubts when they realize they have been misled. Controversial issues ought to get an even-handed hearing in the church.

Join the Conversation: #CanIAskThat?



Photo by Anaïs.

Note: This article is Part 2 in a series by Mary Glenn, youth worker, police chaplain and faculty member in FYI’s Urban Youth Ministry Certificate program, on teen suicide. You can read part 1 about responding to suicide here.

I was asleep when the phone rang. It was about 11:30 p.m. One of my students was on the line.

“Hi Mary, I just wanted to say thank you for all you have done for me. And I wanted to say goodbye.”

By the time I responded, he had already hung up. This student had expressed sadness over a recent breakup. I knew he was depressed, and I believed he had access to a gun. I quickly realized that this was not a routine phone call. This was his goodbye call to me. I had to react now!

But what do I do? I immediately called one of my volunteer leaders to call the student back and find out where he was. Then I called the police. This situation needed an immediate response.

Thankfully, the student survived. He is now a healthy, joyful adult with a family. But this was a pivotal moment in his life.

In part 1 of this series on teen suicide (In the Aftermath of Suicide: Helping Communities Heal), we talked about the realities of suicide and what we can do when our own schools, neighborhoods, or churches encounter it first-hand. In part 2, we will explore how can we turn suicide response into prevention. What can we do to stop teen suicides before they happen?

Indicators and Signs to Look Out For

As someone who loves teenagers, you can increase your awareness of teens who might be struggling with depression and contemplating suicide. Here are some of the indicators to watch for:

  • Changes in behavior (i.e. school performance)
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • A victim of bullying
  • Social isolation or social withdrawal
  • Showing signs of depression including loss of pleasure, frequent sad mood, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, feelings of failure or shame
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Threatening suicide, expressing suicidal feelings directly, or bringing up the topic of suicide
  • Developed a plan for suicide

In response to indicators like these, here are some things we can do to help:

  • Remain calm
  • Engage them in conversation
  • Ask them if they are contemplating suicide
  • Listen and be present
  • Remind them of your care and love for them
  • Accept their feelings
  • Be compassionate and understanding
  • Reassure them that there is help
  • Do not judge
  • Develop a plan for help

Ask them if they have thought of a plan for suicide. If so, don’t leave them alone. Remove any means for self-harm, and contact necessary parties (parents, police). 1

Most importantly, if a young person asks you to keep a secret about their contemplating suicide, that is a secret you can neither make nor keep. You can say, “I want you to know you can trust me, but I need you to know that I can’t keep what you just shared a secret. I’m going to walk with you through this process of telling your parents. You will not be alone in this.”

Remember, no one should handle this situation alone. Building partnerships with parents, mental health professionals and school staff in your community will be key. In fact, part of prevention is building ongoing relationships with these community partners such that when a tense situation arises, you know who to call (and so do they) for additional support.

Be a Voice of Hope

In any community, teens can feel lost, overwhelmed, hurt, confused, alone, and disconnected. All young people have needs for attachment, affirmation, and a sense that their lives matter. These needs quickly become thrust to the surface when they aren’t being met and when adolescent emotions run high. Jeremiah 17:9-10 in The Message translation reads, “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.” God perceives things as they really are. When teens face disappointment and rejection, these feelings may deceive them into believing things are worse than they really are and may convince them that there is no hope. Suicide becomes a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Teenagers may feel trapped in their circumstances. They want to stop the pain. Sometimes the first thing we can do—and perhaps the most consistent support we can offer—is to give young people an anchor of hope. 

Without jumping too quickly to platitudes, verses like Hebrews 6:19 can be helpful as we counsel and pray with young people: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” An anchor is what keeps a ship grounded, connected, and steady in the midst of storms. We may similarly find ourselves drifting in life or in our emotions, but hope, the anchor of our souls, reminds us of who we are and whose we are. Hebrews 10:23 follows, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful”. Jesus has better things ahead. He has purpose for our students’ lives. Our perception of hope can change based on our feelings and emotions, and for some young people, the fight can be overwhelming and paralyzing.

As youth workers, mentors, and family members who care about teenagers, we can be a voice of hope. Speaking hope and future into students’ lives is a first step in helping them work through pain. What isn’t helpful is minimizing their pain or promising them that everything will be okay. From my training in intervention and suicide prevention, here are a few examples of what to say in a situation like this:

  • “I am so sorry that you are going through this. I am here with you now; you are not alone. Together we will find you the help you need.”
  • “Right now it may feel like there is no way out, but the way you are feeling will change.”
  • “I may not know exactly what you are feeling, but I care about you and I want to help.”

From Suicide Completion to Suicide Prevention

In the aftermath of actual teen suicide, friends and classmates can be left confused and sad. There are ways we can help our students work through their feelings and emotions, even potential thoughts they may have about suicide, including:

  • Acknowledging what happened
  • Asking about their feelings
  • Honestly answering questions about suicide
  • Asking the young person if they are thinking about suicide
  • Reminding them to talk to adults if they have concerns (and you can help them come up with a list of people to talk to). 2
  • Remembering the student who committed suicide, celebrating their life, and remembering it annually (i.e. planting a tree in their memory, sharing stories about them).

A few years ago I responded as the police chaplain to the suicide of a popular, beloved 16-year-old student. He was involved in sports and service clubs, and was loved by both students and teachers. I led debriefs for teachers, students, friends, and family. His funeral drew the attention of the community with almost 1,000 in attendance at his memorial service. As chaplains responding to the crisis, we worked in partnership with school staff, parents, crisis counselors, and others.

People from across the community came to try to make sense of this tragedy. Why would this student, who seemed to have it all, take his own life? His memorial service was conducted by three police chaplains; his death provided an opportunity for us to educate people about suicide prevention.

During the memorial service, we spoke from John 12:24, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  We handed out stalks of wheat and encouraged the students to live their lives to the fullest. The memory of their friend now lives in them. We encouraged them to tell others that they care for them and reach out to those who may feel hopeless. When the seed dies, hope, life, and purpose can result.

Grieving and remembering together is an important step in the healing process. Life can come from loss, and death and pain can be redeemed. Together we can work to prevent teen suicide.

Action Steps

  1. Develop partnerships in your community with mental health professionals, school staff, and parents. Working in collaboration with all of your partners in the community requires that there is ongoing communication before the crisis and that everyone knows the role they play in students’ lives. Of course there can be overlap in care, but we want to make sure that all the people in a student’s life will cover the needs the student has.
  2. Observe if there are there any indicators that any of your students may be at risk (see the list in the first section). What kind of action steps will you take?
  3. Mentor a student. Play a proactive role in a young person’s life. Work to find other mentors in your community for those young people who seem most at-risk for suicide or other threats.

Additional Resources

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org

Los Angeles County Youth Suicide Prevention project http://preventsuicide.lacoe.edu/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Suicide Prevention Resource Center www.sprc.org

A Book We Read That Also Reads Us

A Conversation about the Psalms with Dr. John Goldingay

Shares Mar 24, 2014

Photo by Kevin N. Murphy.

"If you open to the middle of the Bible, you'll probably be in Psalms."

"The Psalms are like the worship music of the Old Testament."

Those two sentences summed up my (Jesse’s) knowledge of the Psalms for the first twenty years of my life. I memorized Psalm 23 as a kid, and I knew some of the "Greatest Hits" like Psalm 8 and Psalm 139, but for the most part, they remained a mystery.

Some exploded with happiness and thanksgiving, others with sadness and anger, and many of them had images and words I did not understand. 


Maybe you can relate.

But as it turns out, we can understand and experience the Book of Psalms as a wonderful, intricate blessing once we have a little training, and there are few persons better suited for that task than Fuller Seminary's John Goldingay. Dr. Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller, and has published extensively on the Old Testament in general and Psalms in particular.

Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Goldingay about the Book of Psalms and how we might mine them in our youth ministries for the treasures they offer. Here are some of his insights:

What is the Book of Psalms, and why is it in the Bible?

One of my starting points for understanding the significance of the Psalms is what Paul says about being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians. In Ephesians 5:18-20 he writes, Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, in Ephesians 6:18, Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 

For Paul, being filled with the Spirit is going to issue in praise, and in thanksgiving, and in prayer. In the course of doing that, you're going to speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. He's not just talking about The Psalms. One can see in the New Testament how people's praises are psalm-like; for instance, Mary in the first chapter of Luke. But when Paul starts by saying "speak to one another…", he's at least including the Psalms that we've got in the Book of Psalms, and his assumption as a Jew that that would be the case fits with the nature of the Book of Psalms in itself. That is, the Book of Psalms is in scripture to tell people how to pray and praise. It doesn't work on the assumption that everybody knows that instinctively. It works on the assumption that we need to be taught how to pray and praise.

One of the indications of that in the Book of Psalms itself is the very fact that it is divided into five books. In English translations, it starts with Book 1, and at the beginning of 42 it says Book 2, and at the end of 73 it says Book 3, and so on. What does that make you think of? It makes you think of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch. So, there are five books that tell us about how God created the world and how God got involved with Israel, and what life ought to be like in light of what God has done for God’s people. And there are also five books that model for you what praise and prayer are like.

It's interesting and significant that they don't tell you how to be involved in praise and prayer by giving you a list of principles. What they do is give you a collection of 150 examples of the things you can say to God. That's the way to go about teaching them. The Psalms are there to enable Israelites, and now Christians, to know how to go about praise and prayer. As we want to be able to help people to learn to praise and pray, the model the Psalms suggest is that we show people how to praise and pray by praising and praying, and drawing others into it.

Some psalms seem really joyful, others sad and/or angry, and still others a mix of emotions. How would you explain the differences to a teenager?

Now I would have thought that teenagers are the last people who need the differences explained to them! Teenagers know better than anybody how to move between those kinds of feelings. They are probably less inhibited about doing so than grown-ups. Moving between these emotions is part of being human, both as a teenager and an adult. There will be times when you're joyful, times when you're sad or angry, and times when you're a bit mixed up about things.

The great thing about the Psalms is that they invite us to share those feelings with God. In fact, they set before us several examples of things you might want to say to God along those lines. I sometimes categorize them in three sorts of ways.

1. One is a psalm in which we say to God, "You're great! You're great!”

2. Another in which we say, HEEELP!!!

3. And another in which we say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

Those three ways of talking to God are the ones that dominate probably something like 135 out of the 150. We're spending some of the time in praise of who God is, the great things that God did for his people, and the great person that God is. 

Then, much of the time, what we experience doesn't match that.

We find ourselves going through an experience that shatters the kind of assumptions we've been taught, or acquired, about the kind of person God is— God's power, God's faithfulness, and so on. There are scores of psalms that express sadness and anger about how things are. Both kinds of psalms are there, and they're interwoven.

You might have thought that you'd get fifty psalms of praise, then fifty psalms of protest, and then fifty psalms of thanksgiving. It doesn't work like that. They are all mixed up, which is neat in itself, because life is like that. So there are these many psalms that protest the way things are not working out the way you would have thought, given what you know about God.

And then there are the psalms that come from the other side of that experience, where God has acted in the way you pressed God to do; or where you've come to see things in a different way. Even though the situation hasn't changed, you have. One way or another, you come out the other side, able to say again that God is great, God is powerful, God is faithful, and so on. But now you're able to give thanks to God, and it's praise again.

The Psalms themselves are as often addressing other people as addressing God. What they're doing is urging other people to join in praise, and not least urging other people to join in praise for what God did for me last week. Because what God did for me last week is important for everybody else. It builds up everybody else's faith.

Based on the Psalms, what is okay to say to God, and what is not okay? What are some helpful examples of honest communication from scripture?

As far as I can tell, you can say anything to God!

Now, it's a kind of strange thing that in the Old Testament, and the Psalms in particular, people don't address God as “Father” the way that we do. But you can tell from the Psalms that they have a child's understanding about the way in which you can come to God. You can come to God and batter on God's chest in a way that a child does.

Now, maybe they don't talk about God as “Father” because it was too cheap and easy, and many other cultures in that time assumed that their god was “Father.” But they evidently related to God as father. Now as a father, I hope it's the case that my kids could have said anything to me. And the Psalms assume that it's like that with God.

Now, the fact that you beat on the chest of God doesn't mean that eventually, sometimes, God may answer back. A great thing about the story of Job is that Job beats on God’s chest for ages and ages, and eventually God answers back. Job perhaps slightly wishes he hadn't said some of those things, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a real relationship. Real things go on between Job and God. When we do speak to God like that, we risk hearing back from God, but that's great because there's reality there about a relationship! Nobody has to mince words. We don't have to mince words with God, and God doesn't have to mince words with us. So I don't think there's anything that you can't say to God. But when you speak to God, you may find there are no limits to what God may say back! 

You once wrote, “As we read the Psalms, they read us.” What do you mean by that?

In a number of the Psalms, one can't be quite sure what the backstory is behind the words. No matter how hard you try to understand it, you still can't get to the answer. It’s in connection with that aspect of the psalms that I say the Psalms read us. If the text can be read in two sorts of ways – for instance, is the fact that things have gone wrong in my life my fault because I've sinned, or is it something totally inexplicable, and it's simply God's fault? – the Psalms won't tell the answer to that question. The psalm you’re reading tests you. It works as the Word of God on you, by the fact of you having to examine yourself, and ask the question, If I were to say that psalm, what would I mean?

What the writer of the psalm meant, and the background of the psalmist's life, are irrelevant to the question, “What's going on in your life that means you need to pray one way or the other way?" That’s what I mean when I talk about the Psalms reading us. They reveal what’s going on in our hearts and minds.

An example is Psalm 139 that talks about God having access to us anywhere, and nowhere we go will we be out of God's reach. Is that good news or bad news? The psalm doesn't make it clear. You have to ask yourself, “Do I think that's good news or bad news for me right now, and why?” 

What are some ways that leaders can help young people connect with God through the Psalms? 

In any psalm, there are things you don't quite know the meaning of, but that’s okay. A problem for pastors is the fear to utter the words, “I don't know.” Many pastors and leaders think they ought to have the answer to every question.

I don't think it's that difficult to understand nine verses out of ten in the Psalms, and if there's one verse you don't understand, that’s okay, we don't know the answer to that, that in itself says something. One of the most important things I say to students when they ask a question is, "Oh, I don't know the answer to that, I'll go and look it up and try to find out, and tell you next week." 

If leaders can help young people read the Psalms in a way that allows the Psalms to read us and what we are going through, that is a great place to start. Also, if you want to know how to pray for other people, especially for justice, psalms of protest are the answer. We don't just pray them for ourselves. We pray them for other people.

Action Points

  1. Choose some verses from the Psalms and ask students to identify a time when those verses may have described their feelings. For instance, Psalm 59:17 (I will sing praises to you, my strength, because God is my stronghold, my loving God) might remind them of an answered prayer, or a big “aha” moment on a missions project or at a camp. Psalm 88:9 (My eyes are tired of looking at my suffering. I’ve been calling out to you every day, LORD—I’ve had my hands outstretched to you!) might describe a time of loss or disappointment.
  2. Invite students to start reading through a few psalms and then to stop once they find a verse that describes something in their lives right now. You might have students start with different psalms, or have everyone read the same ones.
  3. As a leader, find a psalm that describes you right now, or might have described a significant moment in your life, and then share the psalm and why it connected with you. That will model for students how you want them to engage the Psalms.
  4. Try to tease out any taboo or hesitance your students might feel about speaking from the heart to God. Questions like, “When have you had words you wanted to say to God but didn’t say them?” or “What words aren’t okay to use with God?” might help get the discussion started. Then look to the psalms of lament to find examples of using bold language with God.
  5. Commit as a group to reading a particular psalm throughout the week, and then let that kick off discussion next week. This might work especially well in small groups.
  6. Encourage students to write an original psalm. Many of the Psalms leave out specific names and details, and focus instead on the feelings and experience of the author or on the character and works of God. A modern day psalm might start something like, “Today you reminded me how much you sacrificed for us, because you love us,” or “I prayed to you every day this week and asked for help, but you have been silent.”

Can I Ask That? Free Sample Download

Shares Mar 10, 2014

This is a free sample from the introduction and first session of our all-new high school curriculum, Can I Ask That?


Download the full sample now


Stephen was in his first week at college. He was interested in a class he’s signed up for called “The Bible as Literature.” The professor seemed really fun and obviously brilliant. Stephen figured she probably knew pretty much everything about the Bible.

“Welcome to class,” Dr. Swanson smiled at the start of the opening session. “We’re going to begin with Jonah.”

The students stopped staring at their phones and looked up. It only took Stephen about ten seconds to notice the girl two chairs over from him. He knew there would be hot girls in college.

“Many of you have heard the Bible story of Jonah, a man who was swallowed by a big fish,” Dr. Swanson continued. “But does anyone here actually believe that happened?”

Stephen looked around the class to see if anyone else would raise their hand. No one did and, most importantly, the hot girl kept her hand down … so he didn’t raise his hand either.

“Exactly,” the professor continued. “There’s no way Jonah could have been swallowed by a fish. It’s just a literary device.”

A literary device?

The professor explained how ancient writers used stories like this to illustrate a point. In fact, the prof continued, the story of Jonah was similar to other stories written by other ancient writers. Not only was it not a real story, but it was just a borrowed story from ancient fiction.

Inside, Stephen panicked.

Why didn’t my youth leaders at church talk to me about this in high school? Were they hiding something? he wondered. Is this professor telling the truth?

As the prof continued, Stephen started wondering if the entire Bible fit the category she assigned to Jonah: fiction. He had always loved his church and Jesus as best he could, but his whole world was suddenly filled with doubt about his faith.

Surprised at himself, Stephen started to ask himself a deeper question.

Is faith in God something you do when you’re a kid, just until you know better?