FYI

In the Aftermath of Teen Suicide, Part 2

Working Toward Prevention

Mar 24, 2014 Mary Glenn

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

Mar 24, 2014 Jesse OakesAnnie Neufeld

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. 

Selah.

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

Mar 10, 2014 Jim CandyBrad M. GriffinKara Powell

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?

 

DOWNLOAD THE FULL INTRODUCTION AND SESSION 1


 


I Doubt It

Making Space for Hard Questions

Mar 10, 2014 Brad M. GriffinKara Powell

Photo by lauren rushing.

I (Brad) remember as a child in the ‘80s seeing vivid televised images of starving African kids. Grotesque, overwhelming images. 

I can actually recall sitting in my brother’s bedroom watching Ethiopian famine vaulted to a little television screen in central Kentucky, and feeling completely helpless to do anything about it. I also remember wondering why God didn’t just fix it. Why God didn’t pour out rain over Africa or make some kind of manna appear to end the famine. Why God couldn’t figure out how to make suffering stop.

Why, God?    

Those two words have punctuated the beginning of a faith crisis for more than a few believers through the ages. Especially when marked with big questions about the world or about personal circumstances for which easy answers simply don’t come.

Unfortunately, many of us have experienced periods of questioning that were met with silence, trite fix-it Bible quotations, or a well-meaning “Just have faith” from those around us. In short, our questions and doubts were pushed underground and either blocked out or left to grow like cancer until they overtook our faith.

Whether students in your ministry or kids in your home are disturbed by today’s wars and famines, or wondering about God’s goodness in the midst of fifth-period algebra, their questions and doubts are begging to be known.

The question before us is: Will we let them be known?

Doubt in the Research

Some of us may come from traditions or training that suggest that doubt is troubling or even sinful. But our Sticky Faith research findings show that doubt can help form our faith in stronger and perhaps more lasting ways. 1

1. Doubts happen

Seventy percent of the students in our study of youth group graduates reported that they had doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith, and just as many felt like they wanted to talk with their youth leaders about their doubts. Yet less than half of those students actually talked with leaders. Likewise, less than half talked with their youth group peers about their doubts.

So if you do the math here (and at FYI we can’t resist), that means that seven of every ten students is struggling with doubts—but only one or two of those ten is likely to have had conversations about those doubts with anyone. In other words, a lot of kids are wrestling with tough questions alone and in silence.

When we asked our students in college to reflect back on the doubts they remembered having during high school, their responses tended to cluster around four central questions:

  1. Does God exist?
  2. Does God love me?
  3. Am I living the life God wants?
  4. Is Christianity true/the only way to God?

As we've shared these questions with leaders and parents across the country, one of the resounding responses has been that these are questions adults have, too. Perhaps when we're silent about our own faith questions, our kids don't know they can ask them out loud.  

2. Safety matters

Safety to express doubt seems to be connected with stronger faith. High school seniors who feel most free to express doubt and discuss their personal problems with adults show greater faith maturity in college. Further, among those who had doubts and did talk with leaders or peers about them, about half found these conversations helped them. This helpfulness was also linked to stronger faith.

It might be that simply creating safe spaces for young people to explore hard questions can deepen faith. 

3. Students’ view of God makes a difference

When young people feel safe to share doubts and struggles with peers and adults, they also feel more supported by God. Our study explored correlations between a scale measuring this concept of “God support”—the extent to which someone feels that God cares about their lives, feels close to God, and feels valued by God 2 —and a number of other factors. Safe environments for expressing doubts were positively correlated with God support in those analyses. Talking with adults about doubts is also linked to feeling supported by God. And feeling more supported by God is linked to stronger faith maturity as measured in other scales. So it seems as though there’s a connection between students’ perception of God, their perceived safety to express doubt, and their actual faith maturity.

4. Doubts aren’t necessarily the end of faith

Lest we be misunderstood, simply having doubts doesn’t transfer into more mature faith. 

For many students, struggling with faith can in fact lead to weakened faith, at least in the short term. One of the scales we incorporated in our third-year survey was the “Spiritual Struggles Scale.” 3 Students were asked to indicate the extent to which each item on a list of religious struggles (e.g., “Felt distant from God,” “Questioned my religious/spiritual beliefs,”) had described them in college. We found that the more frequent students’ experiences of struggling with belief, the less likely they were to show Sticky Faith. This left us to wonder whether these students received the support they needed in the midst of their struggle.  

On the other side of struggle, we asked students about various events and the extent to which they strengthened or weakened faith. 4  Interestingly, experiences of loneliness, anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed seem to push students toward God. These feelings were reported as strengthening faith, and when we analyzed them alongside measures of faith, we found strong correlations.

The same was true of dialogue with other students. In fact, the stretching experiences most connected to Sticky Faith were interactions with other students; particularly with people of other faiths, and with students of other cultures/ethnicities. We often fear that the increased diversity of lifestyle and belief that many students encounter in college will weaken their faith; in our research, the opposite seems to be true.

Other research has found similar connections between college students’ faith and experiences. In fact, some studies have shown that faith can grow as we encounter the following sorts of significant struggles as well as engage with new people: 5

  1. Exposure to diverse ways of thinking, whether through other students, classes, or some other source.
  2. Multicultural exposure, through mission trips, living in another culture, befriending someone from another culture, or even reading about people from other cultures.
  3. Relationship, health, or emotional challenges like significant illness, conflict with parents, or other negative experiences.

In her classic study on crisis and faith, Margaret Hall discovered that those who showed the most spiritual depth after experiencing crises were those who had consciously reoriented their faith in order to overcome the crisis. In other words, they were attentive to the ways their faith must change so they could climb out of the pit of despair. 6

One student in our study described a similar experience:

Entering my sophomore year of college, I became very, I guess, disappointed with life. I had all these ideas about college and it wasn’t necessarily going how I wanted. I was feeling very far away from God and very dry spiritually, struggling to find a church and a church family where I could fit in at school. And as I went through that long struggle, basically spiritual darkness … when I came out of it I found God kind of waiting for me on the other side, and realized that he’d been with me through that struggle, through that time of question and doubt and searching.

Making Space for Doubt

Thankfully, we don’t need to leave young people doubting alone in our ministries or our homes. Below are some ideas for creating space in our relationships and programs with adolescents where their questions can be both heard and unpacked.

1. Creating Safe Zones

The perception that “good Christians don’t doubt” can easily (and sometimes unintentionally) be fostered in youth ministry. This understanding can be intensified by the letdowns that may follow retreat and camp highs and hype, haunting students who wake up the next week and don’t “feel God” as viscerally as before.

Our responsibility to the kids in our care includes creating safe places for questions that emerge along the faith journey. In the family, small group settings, mentoring relationships, and in the context of the broader youth ministry, how are doubts and struggles being voiced, and how are they being received?

One ministry we know is working to create space for struggles and doubts to be safely heard. They now close each session of their fifth-and-sixth-grade group with 56 seconds of silence where kids can write down any question on a note card. The hope is to make asking questions a normal part of faith development starting in early adolescence, even if those questions don’t all get answered right away.

Another church from one of our Sticky Faith Cohorts is working hard to create space for doubt in the midst of its Confirmation program. At the conclusion of the six-month process, most students write a statement of faith. Last year one student felt safe enough to write a “Statement of Doubt” instead. This allowed her to share openly with the community that her own journey of faith wasn’t yet at the place of trusting Christ. Several months later, she came to the point where she had wrestled through her doubts and decided to be baptized as an expression of her newfound trust. Alongside her were several adults who had supported her, prayed for her, and walked with her through her valley of doubt to the other side of faith.

2. Learning to Lament

While scripture doesn’t always give us answers to all our questions, the Bible does have a surprising place where doubts and struggles are freely expressed: the book of Psalms. While we tend to think of the psalms as a book of praises, the writers of the Hebrew songs and prayers that became their worship book were not afraid to ask God to show up in the midst of ugly situations. Out of the 150 psalms, over one-third are considered laments. 7

A lament can be defined simply as a cry out to God. It’s both an act of grief and of asking for help. In fact, lament is usually something we do in the dark places—often the darkest points of our life journeys. For example, Psalm 88 ends with the phrase, “darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18). 

One of the most frequently-asked questions in scripture is “How long, oh Lord?” It’s an important question because it calls God to do something to end our pain or the pain of others. Laments like this don’t answer all of our questions, but lamenting can be a helpful part of strengthening our faith by reminding us that answers aren’t everything. As the psalmists proclaim over and over, the unfailing love of God isn’t wiped out by anything: not our crises, not our doubts, and not even our sins. 

By weaving lament into our corporate worship and prayer life, we open up the possibility that kids might feel freer to share their own hard questions, and maybe even write or sing their own psalms of lament.

3. Preparing Seniors for Doubt and Dialogue

During our research, one youth pastor from Tennessee shared with us: “Every year in the fall I get phone calls—usually in the middle of the night—from students after they get a campus ministry visit where they’re asked if they ever doubt. If they say yes, they’re told they don’t have enough faith. They call me back confused, asking, ‘Is it okay to doubt or not?’”

Some students will leave our ministries or homes and face new questions and doubts in college that they haven’t wondered about before. Giving them a healthy heads-up about this before they leave home can help doubt become a building block for new, deeper faith.  

Alongside new doubts in college is often new dialogue. Students need to understand the basics of Christian faith in order to discuss their faith with others, and training in core beliefs (sometimes called apologetics) can be helpful. However, learning to argue about faith may not be the most helpful approach. Reflecting on her teenage years, author Alisa Harris writes about her own experience of being trained to give these kinds of responses: “I was taught that faith was so simple and easily grasped that I could argue someone into it, which ended up shaking my faith when I found that belief wasn't simple, and argumentation and evidence could only take me so far.” 8  As we prepare seniors for talking about faith after high school, we will do well to avoid oversimplifying belief into neat tenets that resolve every question with a proof-text answer. 9

In response to youth workers' requests and in partnership with youth pastor Jim Candy, we've recently released a curriculum for high school students called Can I Ask That? The small group discussion format is designed as a tool to help you engage dialogue around some of these tough questions while students are still with you in high school ministry (or it could be used by parents as well). Learn more.

Falling in the Light

One of the things we do in my (Brad’s) church is regularly remind ourselves to live out our core values. In affirming authenticity as one of those values, we state that as we struggle and stumble through our faith journeys, “…we encourage one another to ‘fall in the light’—to readily admit our mistakes, not to hide or try to cover them up.” 

Falling in the light. I like that image not only for thinking about mistakes, but also about our fall into questions and doubt. When students around us fall into seasons of uncertainty, let’s help them fall in the light of Christ and Christ’s people, ready to catch and hold them through doubt and back into faith.

Action Points

  • How do you tend to respond when a student asks a hard question about God? What do you think your first response does to open up space for more questioning or shut that space down?
  • Share this article with others in your ministry or with other parents. Then get together and share ideas for how you can collectively make it safe for kids to express their doubts and struggles.
  • Gather a group of students and ask them for their perception of whether it’s okay to share faith struggles in your ministry (or do this with your kids at home). Ask for their input on ways you can create a more supportive environment as well as actively seek answers to the questions that arise.

 

This article originally published in Fall 2011 on stickyfaith.org. Adapted and updated March 2014.


  1. Portions of this article are adapted from Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith: Youth Worker Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). Also see http://stickyfaith.org/about-sticky-faith for more details about the research, spanning six years and including nearly 500 students from across the U.S.
  2. W.E Fiala, J.P. Bjorck, & R. Gorsuch, “The Religious Support Scale: Construction, validation, and cross-validation,” American Journal of Community Psychology (2002: 30, 761-786).
  3. Adapted with permission from Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S., & Lindholm, J. A. Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives. SanFrancisco: Jossey- Bass, in press. And Astin, A. W., Astin, H. S. , & Lindholm, J. A. “Assessing students’ spiritual and religious qualities.” Journal of College Student Development, in press.
  4. Adapted from the HERI 2007 College Students’ Beliefs and Values Follow-Up Survey, UCLA.
  5. For example, see Gay Holcomb and Arthur Nonneman, “Faithful Change: Exploring and assessing faith development in Christian liberal arts undergraduates,” in Dalton et al (eds), Assessing Character Outcomes in College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, New Directions for Institutional Research No. 122, 93-103).
  6. Margaret Hall, “Crisis as Opportunity for Spiritual Growth,” Journal of Religion and Health (Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 1986, 8-17).
  7. For a very helpful introduction to psalms of lament, see Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A theological commentary, (Augsburg Old Testament Studies; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
  8. Alisa Harris, Raised Right: How A Young Culture Warrior Went from Belligerence to Burn-Out to Love, excerpted in YouthWorker Journal, http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-culture-news/11655043/
  9. Interestingly, Christian education doesn’t inoculate students from doubt either. In an opposite twist, one study of nearly 3,500 college students found that students at private Christian colleges were actually more likely to struggle spiritually than students at public universities or non-religious private schools. Alyssa N. Bryant and Helen S. Astin, “The Correlates of Spiritual Struggle During the College Years,” The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 79, No. 1 (January 2008).

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

Practices:

  • 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.
www.ruleoflife.com
www.urban-monk.org


  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) www.aacap.org 

American Association of Suicidology (AAS) www.suicidology.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org 

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)  www.nami.org 

National Mental Health Association (NMHA) www.nmha.org 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org

New Hope Grief Support Community www.newhopegrief.org

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 www.sprc.org 

The Centering Corp (Grief Resources):  www.centering.org

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 http://heathbrothers.com/resources/overview/ 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?”