Fuller Youth Institute


Photo by Amanda Tiption

To help you hit a home run with your parent training this year, the Fuller Youth Institute is debuting the DVD release of the new Sticky Faith Family Training five-session video curriculum. In fact, throughout the month of August we are offering resources, blog posts, and practical tips for parents to help develop lasting faith in their kids. Stay up to date by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Follow the conversation #stickyfaithfamily.

This back-to-school season you might be like me. Wondering what kinds of challenges and discoveries await my kids this year.

Wondering what will happen in their friendships.

Wondering how they will grow—physically, spiritually, and a host of other ways—over the next ten months.

But underneath these questions lies another question we wonder about. We wonder how our kids will perform. How they’ll measure up against their peers in class and in sports or other pursuits. How they’ll take more steps toward the successful adulthood we dream about for them.

These underlying questions loom beneath the surface like a sleeping giant. A giant of fear and anxiety. This giant occasionally bothers some parents, and continuously torments others. It’s the reason we push our kids to add that extracurricular activity, volunteer a few more hours to boost their resume, and take the “zero period” class at 7am each weekday to get a little bit ahead of the curve.

As we head back to school this year, it’s time to wake that giant and slay him.

Here are three strategies to help you win that battle:

1. Challenge “success” as the ultimate goal.

Is “success” really the goal for our kids, or is it something bigger? Societal definitions of success have driven us to push our kids to exhaustion. This “race to nowhere” has been well documented, but the system that drives teenagers to burnout and busyness still pervades most communities. And most of us parents are complicit.

The folks at Challenge Success, a Stanford-based group taking aim at the performance-driven culture that leaves high school students “overloaded and underprepared,” offers some helpful tools for parents you can review right now. Especially check out the page of brief free videos for parents on questions that might be bugging you about achievement, homework, scheduling, and play.

2. Help them find their own sparks (not yours).

While you might have a plan for “elite” sports, cello lessons, and chess club, your son or daughter may secretly wish they had more time to pursue what they really care about. Gather your courage and ask whether they really want to do all the things you’re signing them up for, or if other interests sound more life-giving.

Explore together what the Search Institute calls “Sparks”—interests that spur engagement and passion in kids. When young people discover and develop sparks, and have adults in their lives who support these sparks, the research shows that they tend to thrive in a lot of other areas—yes, including grades. The Thrive Foundation for Youth has a whole set of free parent resources on sparks.

If you’re getting anxious about questions of vocation for your older teenager, here’s a two-part series from our archive about helping your kids find their calling.

3. Ask different questions.

I don’t know about you, but my questions before the start of school often center around logistics—supplies, schedule, clothing, and carpool. As our kids get older, they need us to help them reach a more reflective space as they head back to the classrooms and hallways of their new daily routines. Take each of your kids for a one-on-one conversation over milkshakes (or whatever you like to do together) and ask a few questions like this:

  • How do you want to spend your time outside of school this year? How can we make sure to include some down time and some family time in your schedule?
  • What do you hope for this school year? What are a couple of things you’re excited about?
  • What is one fear you have as you head back to school?
  • How can I help? Is there any way I’m trying to help that just makes things worse?
  • How can I pray for you?

And finally, here’s a little perspective from expert Madeline Levine, cofounder of Challenge Success, about taking the “30-year” view of our kids’ development.

Now, take a deep breath. School’s almost in. Let’s slay some giants.

Photo by Ken Gilbert.

To help you hit a home run with your parent training this year, the Fuller Youth Institute is debuting the DVD release of the new Sticky Faith Family Training five-session video curriculum. In fact, throughout the month of August we are offering resources, blog posts, and practical tips for parents to help develop lasting faith in their kids. Stay up to date by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Follow the conversation #stickyfaithfamily.


“Mom, you’re not working out much anymore. You used to work out lots, but I haven’t seen you work out in a month."

If you had heard my nine year-old’s tone of voice, you’d realize it wasn’t really an accusation. More of an observation.

But actually, her observation wasn’t accurate. I was doing my workout DVDs (my favorite way to squeeze a workout into my mornings) just as much as always. But I had changed locations. Instead of doing them in our family room, I was gravitating to the back of the house as my workout space.

I was still working out, but my daughter never saw me do it.

Yesterday I spoke with a young woman in her twenties who has drifted from the faith. Once an active member of her high school youth group, she never found a church or college parachurch ministry that fit. One decision led to another and she is now pregnant. Her picture of motherhood had always involved a husband and a supportive community. The good news is she has the latter, but she’s about to give birth to a daughter and she’s missing the former.

I asked her how her parents and her congregation had responded well to her journey, as well as what she wished they had done differently. One description of her dad and step-mom haunted me. Natalie shared with me, “Our family always attended church, but I never saw my dad or step-mom pray or read the Bible on their own.”

One of the themes in our research for The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family book and Sticky Faith Family Training film curriculum is that our kids mirror who we are and what we do. More accurately, our kids mirror what they see us doing. 

As a parent, that’s both encouraging and terrifying.

Now let me try to throw a little more encouragement in your direction. As we interviewed parents who had intentionally developed long-term faith in their kids, they clearly made the cultivation of their faith a priority. But there were no universal steps these parents took to make that goal a reality. Each parent found his or her own unique way to stay connected with Jesus.

Some liked to sit and journal; others liked to walk and pray.

Some preferred to read Scripture in the morning; others who were anything but “morning people” carved out time before bed.

Some needed quiet; others preferred worship music or even the background music of family life at home.

As you dive into new back-to-school routines, how are you going to visibly demonstrate your commitment to Christ to your kids in a way that fits you?

Note 2 key words in the question above: “visibly demonstrate.”

Taking our research to heart, this summer I’ve rearranged my morning routine. I am a morning person (if you’ve received a 5:12 am time-stamped email from me, you have evidence of this). Before our research, I preferred to spend my time with the Lord first, workout second, and dive into email third. That way I could pray and journal before my kids woke up.

But that meant my kids never saw me.

Now some days I spend time with the Lord first thing (which is still my favorite time); other days I wait until my kids are up and I sit on the blue couch in our living room so they can see me when they pass by. My time is a bit less focused, but I’m choosing to visibly demonstrate my commitment to time with Jesus to my kids. Even if I do get interrupted and asked about the carpool schedule for the day.

My husband has an hour commute, so he often prays in the car. Thanks to our research, he’s talking more about what he’s praying about. That way, even if our kids don’t see him, they hear him talk about his prayer life.

For both Dave and me, these changes took us no extra time but increase the probability that our kids will have long-term faith.

Based on our research, I can’t help but wonder two questions:

  1. How are we as parents showing our kids our faith?
  2. What small tweaks could we make in our schedule, or our conversations with our kids, that would give them better glimpses into how Jesus has changed our life?

How else do you try to show your kids your faith?

Photo by Cuba Gallery

Today’s guest post is by Rose Lee-Norman, Associate Pastor of Family Ministry at Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis, MN. Rose is a Fuller grad and was part of the 2014 Sticky Faith Cohort with the team from Sanctuary.

A shared story is powerful.

It creates identity, connection, and meaning between people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected.

Creating this shared story, however, can be difficult. It’s even more challenging when a community is diverse and this story is meant to include all generations. Sanctuary Covenant Church, an urban, multiethnic, multigenerational church in Minneapolis, has been on the journey of creating a shared story through intergenerational worship.

Over the past four years, Sanctuary has worked to create Intergen Sundays.

Our two main goals for each Intergen Sunday are:

  1. To create meaningful connections across generations
  2. To model our faith to our children and youth through worship.

We have had some wins and some losses as we’ve strived to figure out how to accomplish these goals. Here are a few our wins in creating a powerful story across generations:

1) Define shared language: Telling the story

Last year a few staff members and I had the privilege of being a part of the Sticky Faith Cohort. This was a significant step in our process of creating a successful intergenerational story. Through the Cohort we were able to solidify language to help our community understand why intergenerational relationships are important and how they are instrumental in contributing to lasting faith in young people.

I recently polled a broad section of our church and, while they were not all 100 percent cheerleaders of Intergen Sundays, they were able to clearly articulate the purpose of Intergen Sundays. This was a big win for us.

2) Create warmth and connection: Kites flying high

During one recent Intergen Sunday, our church was exploring the role of the Holy Spirit, so we decided to do the obvious: make kites! During the service, people broke out into intergenerational groups. Each group decorated a kite using symbols for the Holy Spirit. After the service, we all went out onto the lawn and flew our kites together. It was inspiring to watch this beautiful picture of warm intergenerational relationships unfold.

From our staff processing, we have learned that for an Intergen Sunday to be successful, we have to include an activity or way in which all generations connect with one another.

3) Include all generations: Every voice, every story

One major thing we learned through this process is the importance of including all generations. Our Intergen Sundays could not be viewed as simply a youth or family Sunday—rather, the voices of our young adults and O50 (over 50 years old) needed to be represented clearly.

On a recent Intergen Sunday, we had our worship band play a well-known song and a talented choreographer and her children went down to the front and began to lead the congregation in a simple, upbeat dance. During this dance, each generation was represented and welcomed as we celebrated and worshipped together. It was such a diverse, intergenerational view of heaven that it brought me to tears!

At the same time, we have also learned that sometimes we need to offer children’s ministry for our youngest children during the abbreviated sermon and activity time on these shared Sundays, and that’s okay.

While we have had many ups and downs in our experiments with Intergen Sundays, my encouragement to other leaders is to create a shared story: define shared language for your community, create a space of warmth and connection, and include all voices in your story.


Read this article to learn more about the journey of Intergen worship and practical ideas for Intergen worship from Sanctuary Covenant Church.

Photo by Marines

Today's guest post is from Alan Mercer, Executive Pastor of the Leawood campus of Christ Community Church in Kansas City, KS. Alan was part of the 2011 Sticky Faith Cohort.

It’s been an emotional week in our home. Our oldest son is home for a short ten-day leave before he heads to Okinawa, Japan for three years with the United States Marine Corps. Throughout the past nine months since Ethan left for boot camp, we have prayed every day for him to find some sense of community wherever he lands. God has come alongside him and our family and answered our prayer in two remarkable ways.

The first has been our church’s military support group. The group is mainly older men, most of them veterans, who are almost like grandparents to Ethan. There’s Mike, a 75-year-old USMC gunnery sergeant who has taken Ethan and our family out to dinner to share stories and bits of encouragement. Today, Ethan helped Mike celebrate his 75th birthday. Why? Because Mike is an important part of his life.

Then there’s Emmett, who has been investing in Ethan and encouraging his love for all things military since he was in grade school. And men like Walt, who served in special operations and has pushed Ethan to be more physically fit. And there are are the other enlisted men who have tried to be there to support and encourage Ethan along the way. As we look back, Ethan has had men all along his path who let him know that he is not alone in this process.

This group is a lifeline for Ethan and our family. They meet regularly and pray for our active-duty military personnel, as well as their families. They support them through letters, packages, and prayer. They support the family by asking about our service members almost every week. The 5:1 community that has been built for Ethan through this band of support has been astounding. 

The second way God has answered our prayer for community involves a couple named Brad and Sue. Brad and Sue live 20 minutes from Camp Pendleton in California, and while Ethan has been stationed there these past few months, they have adopted him into their home for long weekends. They have treated him like their own son. Feeding him (no small task), taking him to see the sights of San Diego, letting him sleep in a warm bed and live in a “normal” environment. Most importantly, they have taken him to church. The weekends Ethan has spent with this family have been life-giving and sustaining for him. Brad and Sue adopted a soldier and kept his faith alive by giving it the shot of refreshment it needed throughout his training process.

When I stop and think about our military support group and Brad and Sue, I am humbled.

When I see our attempts to be an intergenerational church and provide 5:1 support for our teenagers, I see this as a great example of how well it can work. I see several people stepping out of their comfort zone and taking a risk to get to know a young person based on only loose connections and affinity. And I see that risk paying off in the life of a young person in ways we may never really know.

What can you do? Take a risk! Reach out to a student or a child in your church, or a college student or young adult, and get to know them.

Invest in them. Encourage them. Love on them.

The church is a family of families. We need more adoptive parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings to take up the challenge.


Need specific ideas for supporting young people in the military? Here’s a helpful resource!

Photo by Tristan del Castillo

A lot of times, we as youth leaders feel like we have to say exactly the right thing to students. Have you ever gotten the “You have five seconds to impress me before I check out” vibe? I have. Even with seven years of youth ministry experience, that’s intimidating. We feel like we have a short window to cover all the necessary conversational topics that are important to a student.

How’s school? What’s up with basketball? You have a crush on anyone?

When I first started youth ministry, I would ask questions like these to my students. I remember taking Eric out to lunch for the first time, and I asked him every possible question that I could think of. While those questions may be well intended, to use a phrase from the “improv” comedy world, they are very “agenda-driven.”

I started taking improv classes last year. The biggest insight you learn through improv is the art of developing deep relationships. Improv comedy is funny because of relationships, nothing else. It’s not a funny tag line. It’s not doing something goofy on-stage. It’s simply, relationships. You know how you don’t develop a deep relationship with someone? Asking them a laundry-list of questions that you have already developed in your mind before you meet with them, get a quick response, and then move on to your next question. That’s not a conversation; that’s an agenda.

In improv, we learn about a simple concept. Listening. It’s not rocket science, but it proves to be difficult. Let me give you an example from what I have actually seen in improv:

How’d you do on your Math test son?

I failed.

That’s too bad, Billy. Hey, what movie do you want to see?

If you’re an audience member watching this scene, you’re probably bored out of your mind. I was bored just writing that. I’m glad that’s over. You’re watching a scene with a dad and son that’s not going anywhere. The dad is going back and forth asking questions and no relationship or depth is developing. He’s ignoring and disregarding the fact that his son failed a test. But the truth is, people do this in improv because they’re not listening. Instead, they have an agenda, which is to find something funny to say. How much different would the scene look if the father leaned in and asked his son about his test and why he failed. We can discover so much depth behind a shallow answer rather than moving on to asking about the movie. That’s the gold in improv. A deep, specific relationship. It’s not about the math test, it’s not about the movie, it’s about the dad and son.

The same applies to our students in ministry. There is more depth available in our conversations with students, but we have to listen and lean in. My improv teacher describes it as dropping your agenda and listening for that one thing that sounds a bit interesting, off, or weird, and then diving in.

Recently, I took out one of my students, Jon, to dinner and asked him one question:

What’s the hardest thing you’re facing right now?

That one question sparked a two-hour long conversation. Why? Because I stayed in it. I invested in his answer and dove in with him to see how I can best walk alongside him. I could have taken his answer and followed up with another question that I thought of ahead of time, but I decided to listen, drop my agenda, and lean in.

Students are waiting to share with someone they trust. But they will only trust someone who will listen to them. And that will build a relationship that lasts. 

One of the bravest things a leader can do is drop the fig leaves. To be the “naked and unashamed” of Genesis 2, instead of the “covered” of Genesis 3.

It’s terrifying.

No, I could never tell you that, because you might judge me. No way, I’ll never share that, because he might not respect me, or they might fire me, or she might not love me.

So we cover up, and continue to lead our students and congregations quite happily from behind our fig leaf armor.

Dr. Richard J. Mouw served as President of Fuller Theological Seminary for 20 years, and he just made a 10 minute video detailing his struggle with addiction. “I’m an alcoholic. We moved to Princeton and all I did was drink. It got really bad, in the first three weeks I realized this could be the year in which I died.” *Drops fig leaves* *Walks offstage*



One theologian says it this way: "Contrary to what people often think, the key to easing people's suffering is not in offering some insidious theodicy, but in allowing a place for people to mourn, and to meet others who know what it is to have been burned by that same black sun.  This is not about providing an answer, but rather offering a site where we can speak our suffering.  This may seem a little depressing, but such spaces are really sites of liberation and light."[1]

A church is a group of people who have stopped pretending. How can we create churches where it is safe for our young people, and our adults, and even our leaders, to drop the fig leaves and be naked and unashamed about who we really are and what we’re really like?

1. Explore the Fuller Institute for Recovery Ministry site.

There are countless books, videos, and stories that will help your community become a safe and helpful place for people in recovery.

2. Explore the The National Association for Christian Recovery site.

This is a virtual Mecca for anything regarding recovery ministry: topically organized articles, online training courses, referral lists, even video workshops.

3. Read Bridges to Grace: Innovative Approaches to Recovery Ministry (Leadership Network Innovation Series).

If you are a youth leader or senior pastor and want to be better equipped to think systematically and organizationally about recovery ministry, this book is a brilliant place to start. It highlights what’s actually working in innovative churches across the country, weaving personal accounts with practical steps.

We’d love to know:

  • What other resources have helped you drop the fig leaves, whether it’s about addiction or some other struggle?
  • What have you done to help teenagers and emerging adults share their struggles with you?

[1] Peter Rollins in a 2008 blog post. http://bit.ly/1QC3O7x

Photo by Anze Osterman

Sometimes Christians worry so much about certainty, we forget that our greatest heroes weren’t that certain about Jesus.

Take the disciples. Throughout Matthew there is an emphasis on the twelve disciples and Jesus’ investment in them. Twelve is a perfect number. It restores the hope of Israel. It’s everything the people were hoping for.

And then it’s broken.

At the end of Matthew, in the context of Jesus’ ascension, it’s no longer the perfect twelve. It’s the eleven left. And among them, it’s not the eleven resolute disciples, it’s what Fuller President Mark Labberton calls the eleven believer-doubters.

Because there at the ascension, we find that they gathered and worshiped him “…but some doubted” (Matt 28:17). This is the context for what we often call the “Great Commission.” Turns out it was given to eleven believer-doubters. They were hanging on, but some of them just barely.

This is astoundingly good news for us. Those who are given the charge to take good news to all the world are eleven believer-doubters. Which means our name could be added to that list.

Young people all around us are wondering if they can follow Jesus despite their uncertainty. They wonder if faith is more about getting it all right or entering a mystery. They wonder if they can trust God despite their biggest questions, and if God in fact is big enough to handle those questions.

Jesus’ response seems to be a resounding “YES.”

Watch Mark Labberton’s message of this great hope we carry as followers of Jesus:


Photo by Tyreke White

Michael Hidalgo has been described by Margaret Feinberg as “a voice you can’t afford to miss.” He serves as lead pastor of Denver Community Church, which has grown from forty people to over two thousand under his leadership, and was my church for several years. We recently caught up with Michael to ask him a few questions about his new book, Changing Faith: Questions, Doubts & Choices About an Unchanging God (InterVarsity Press).

FYI: What have you learned about doubt and faith that prompted you to write Changing Faith?

MH: Growing up in the church, I learned “doubt is bad.” What I’ve learned since then is that doubt gives us a chance to learn, experience, and grow more than we ever could. If we don’t ask the hard questions, how can we ever expect to find deeper truth?

This is exactly why I wrote Changing Faith. What I realized was many who had the courage and conviction to voice their questions, doubt, and skepticism were not faithless but faithful. They knew the answers they had were not enough, and they trusted God enough to ask. What I saw time and again was a deeper faith as a result of asking the questions. I want to invite others to do the same.

FYI: You share about some of the struggles that followed you through middle school. Can you tell us a bit about who or what helped you through this difficult season as a young Christian in middle and high school?

MH: Well, I can tell you honestly things did not really improve. As a matter of fact, I was not crazy about God when I was in middle and high school. Looking back, I was convinced that God was angry at me and was just waiting for his opportunity to strike me dead. I walked away quietly out of sheer terror.

In this midst of this, there were a few people – and I mean few! – who did not try to rescue me or fix me or save me. There were a few who loved me for who I was in all of my “messed-upness." Looking back, those were the people who saved me from a lot of bad choices. Not because they “preached” at me about my sin, but because when things got tough, I knew I could talk to them.

FYI: Have their been any role models or mentors who have encouraged you to feel more comfortable wrestling with doubts?

MH: When I finished college, I was filled with inner turmoil and questions. Then I met a pastor who surprised me because he did not seem bothered by my questions or unease about Christianity. He listened to me, and understood my journey to that point. In fact, he affirmed my questions.

It was so disarming, it opened me up to listen to him. And rather than try to persuade me or answer all my questions, he helped me ask better questions and gave me more things to think about. He taught me how to navigate the difficult terrain of the Christian faith, rather than pretend it was simple.

Since that time I have met many others like him. They all share the same quality: They do not try to answer my questions or explain away my doubts. Rather they guide me and lead me through them. Which speaks toward their humility, and ultimately their trust in the Spirit of God to speak.

FYI: As adults we often avoid talking with young people about doubt or difficult questions because of how challenging it can be for us—our intentions may be good but we’re scared of saying the wrong thing. What would you say to encourage another pastor who might be more timid about addressing some tougher questions?

MH: First, don’t tip-toe around. It looks like you’re hiding something! Students have amazingly accurate authenticity meters. Rush right into it. Affirm it. Remember that questions are how we learn. As little kids we point at things and say, “What’s that?” That’s the first stage of learning. And the way we learn never changes, the questions just get more complex. So, first, affirm the fact they have the courage to ask questions.

Second, ask them more questions, and better questions. What I mean is there is always something driving a question. If someone asks, “How can God be all-powerful when there is so much evil in the world?” That question is coming from somewhere. Mine that out. Learn why they are asking the question. Then guide them in their thinking.

Third, remember that people today have access to all kinds of information thanks to the Internet. What we need is not more information, but to learn how to think critically and how to assess the information we have access to. We have to keep this mindset front and center.

FYI: The title of our Can I Ask That? series refers to how young people often feel like certain questions aren’t “allowed” to be asked at church. I appreciated how Changing Faith both demystifies and addresses a lot of questions that are similarly taboo among many adult Christians. As a church leader, what questions do you wish others in leadership would ask more often? What would be a “Can I ask that?” question that you think is worth confronting for a pastor or ministry leader today?

MH: The most common question I receive as a pastor is, “What do you believe about …?” What I wish is that someone would ask, “If I were to follow you around for a month, what would I say your life is about?” I say this because we are fixated on what people believe about all sorts of controversial issues. But what about how I treat my wife? Or how much money I give away? Or how I serve the poor? Or how I parent my children? Or how I deal with lust?

We need to close the gap between orthodoxy and orthopraxy and remember – we show others what we believe by what we do. We see this in the gospels over and over when people ask Jesus questions. They say, “Rabbi, what must I DO to inherit eternal life?” Notice they don’t say, “What must I believe …?” They understood that practice reveals belief far more than what we articulate.

Photo by Justin

 “Her wallet was stolen and over $700 was spent on her credit card.”

A ministry leader stopped by recently and told me that their newest volunteer had driven a student home from weekly Bible study and realized soon after that her wallet was missing. Over the next day or two, her credit card was used for hundreds of dollars in purchases.

Neither the ministry leader nor the volunteer wanted the student who had stolen the wallet to be arrested, convicted or incarcerated. Instead, they wanted a process that would hold the young person accountable for her mistakes, facilitate healing and trust between everyone who was impacted, and develop structures that would prevent the situation from reoccurring. So, I connected the ministry leaders with a trained facilitator of restorative justice.

- Johonna Turner

 “We don’t think these students are “one of us”. Is there another church better suited for them?” 

While working as a youth pastor in a local church, a few of our students invited some unchurched high school friends to youth group, which raised concerns among several elderly members and parents in our congregation. Our traditional ethnic church was experiencing both a generational and cultural divide. There was hurt and misunderstanding all around. We worked to educate and bring understanding, but some students left the church, never to return. We needed different tools to help walk our church through these conflicts.

- Mary Glenn


Restorative justice resources were needed in both stories. Our hunch is that others might benefit from these important tools too.

Through restorative justice, students can identify and resolve conflicts, restore values, repair relationships, and establish dignity while learning the building blocks of peacemaking. This is the first article in a two part series that will explain the restorative justice (RJ) model and suggest ways to integrate it into your youth ministry/group context. Through our combined experiences of youth worker, educator, researcher, and police chaplain, we have seen restorative justice used as a powerful tool for reconciliation.

What is restorative justice?

Living in a judicial society, it can be challenging to reconcile biblical and societal justice. How can we teach youth to embrace and live out the justice of Jesus?

Harm is a key concept in restorative justice. Wrongdoing is understood as harm—a violation of people and of relationships, rather than as crime—a violation of rules and laws.

The RJ approach emphasizes repairing harm and involving all affected parties in creating healing solutions. A practice or process based on RJ accomplishes three broad goals:

  1. It addresses both needs—the needs of those who have been hurt, as well as those who hurt them.
  2. It provides accountability for wrongdoers so that they are empowered to take responsibility and make amends.
  3. It compels communities to work together in resolving conflict and harm together.

The development of RJ can be traced back to indigenous communities around the world, as well as Mennonite communities in North America.[1] It was initially conceived as an alternative response to individual acts of wrongdoing. However, it is now increasingly embraced as an approach to facilitating wholeness within groups and whole communities.


Does RJ really work? What does social science research tell us?
  • As a whole, existing research confirms that RJ processes prevent further wrongdoing more effectively than criminal justice. Restorative justice is the basis of New Zealand's entire juvenile justice system and is increasingly used as an alternative to standard legal proceedings as well. Adults who participated in New Zealand’s restorative justice conferences were 23% less likely to commit another offense than those who went through the criminal justice system.[2]
  • Restorative justice helps people who have been wronged experience a stronger sense of justice. An analysis of the 22 key studies measuring victim satisfaction found that, “Compared to victims who participated in the traditional justice system, victims who participated in restorative processes were significantly more satisfied.”[3] Howard Zehr explains this is because RJ directly addresses the core needs that arise when people are violated—the need for safety, answers, voice, empowerment, vindication, and validation.[4]                                          
  • Restorative practices help young people learn new skills for creating and maintaining healthy relationships. At one urban middle school in Michigan, “Nearly 90% of participating students reported learning new skills in their restorative experiences, and 86% reported using those skills to peacefully resolve or avert conflicts after their restorative interventions.”[5]

What is the biblical and theological framework for RJ?[6]

According to theologian Derek Flood, the primary metaphor of sin in the New Testament is one of sickness, not crime. In essence, a crime is a symptom of a deeper sickness. This means that in addition to one taking responsibility for our own behaviors, we must also analyze the negative behavior and attempt to understand and address its root causes. Flood uses the example of a bully whose behavior is rooted in feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. Focusing on healing can lead to restoration.[7]

This focus on healing and restoration lies at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Matthew 5:21-26 provides detailed instructions on how to resolve and find healing in our conflicts. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (v.23).

This reconciliation is a form of justice that leads to peace. The Hebrew word translated as peace in the Old Testament is shalom, and in the New Testament Greek it is eirene. Shalom connotes a sense of wholeness, well-being and prosperity. Likewise eirene refers to wholeness, the restoration of relationship and healing. Together, these two words appear over 550 times in the Bible. These comprehensive concepts of God’s peace and justice express society as God intends it.[8]

Restoration and reconciliation begin with understanding how we identify, label, and value one another. Long-time gang worker Father Gregory Boyle starts his book with the invitation to see this population differently: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”[9] Each of us is made in God’s image, and this is the first label we must apply to every person in front of us.


What does restorative justice look like?

Two RJ techniques are peacemaking circles and restorative chats.

A peacemaking circle is a structured dialogue process that brings people together to understand each other, work through conflict, and learn from one another. Literally sitting in a circle provides equal footing as well as connection.

Picture this:

You and the students in your youth group are seated in a circle of chairs. You light a candle and read a passage of scripture such as 1 Peter 2:5 (“You like living stones are being built together...”). You hold your talking piece, a small stone, in your hand and explain that like stones, we are designed to work together and become more beautiful over time in God’s hands. Next, you introduce the guidelines of the circle: “Respect the talking piece (only speak when you have it), speak from your heart, listen respectfully, and maintain confidentiality. Next, you ask each student to name a value that they would like to express during your time together. One student says honesty. Another says respect. Another says love. These are the values at the foundation of your circle. When the stone returns to you, you ask another question. You might ask the group to share their perspectives on a concern (e.g. the relationships among youth and adults in your church) or share stories of personal experiences (e.g. a time that you felt excluded from a group or a time that you felt like you truly “belonged”). You share your own response to each question first, modeling vulnerability.

While organizing and leading circles to address deep conflicts or repair harm requires training, it is fairly simple to set up and facilitate this kind of talking circle for many situations.

Restorative chats are informal conversations designed to help people address their own harmful behavior and help people harmed by their actions.[10] Whereas circles are formal, structured group dialogues, restorative chats are typically brief one-on-one conversations between a teacher and a student, or a youth pastor and a young person or volunteer, for example.

Picture this:

A member of your youth group used Twitter to publicize an embarrassing story about another group member (shared in confidence during your last group session). You speak with the student whose personal story was shared, asking a series of questions that help her to talk about what happened and what might make things better. Later, you talk with the student who shared the story and ask him a series of questions to help him to reflect on the hurt he caused and how he can make amends.

Restorative Questions: To help those harmed by others’ actions:[11]

  1. What did you think when you realized what had happened?
  2. What impact did this incident have on you and others?
  3. What has been the hardest thing for you?
  4. What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

Restorative Questions: To help those who harmed others:

  1. Tell me more about what happened.              
  2. What were you thinking about at the time?                            
  3. Who has been affected by what you have done?                                        
  4. What do you think you need to do to make things right?                                           


Bringing restorative justice in your youth group

While there are a broad range of methods for restorative justice, there is one underlying philosophy: Justice is restorative when we focus on making things right. The ultimate mission is to bring connection, healing, and shalom to places of disconnection, trauma, and wounding.

  • Facilitate peacemaking circles: When someone feels offended by another’s actions, lead students through a process of repair and healing utilizing the peacemaking circle.[12]
  • Identify and describe how labels and beliefs about others might keep us from being in good relationships with each other.
  • Teach about the power of giving and receiving forgiveness.
  • Model and encourage taking responsibility for mistakes. (e.g. not following through on your commitments, not showing up when you said you would.)
  • Provide outlets for adults and young people to make amends when they have harmed others and to re-enter the community in healthy ways. (e.g. If a young person is disruptive in youth group or if an adult speaks to young people disrespectfully, facilitate a process of honest conversation and forgiveness).


Action steps
  1. Get training in restorative justice (in prevention and response) for yourself, adult volunteers, and youth. Helpful links are provided in the “learn more” action step below for more information, training and research on RJ.

  2. Be an example! Teach students by modeling RJ when conflict or harm happens.
  3. Share your experiences. There are few examples of RJ among church youth groups. As you implement RJ into your youth groups please share stories and outcomes with us and others who are furthering this movement.
  4. Learn more. Here are some resources on restorative justice and related approaches:

Note: In part 2 of this article series, we will address issues regarding re-integration, collaboration, and systemic impact.



[2] New Zealand Ministry of Justice, “Reoffending analysis for restorative justice cases 2008 - 2011,” New Zealand Ministry of Justice Web site.

[3] Jeff Latimer, Craig Dowden, and Danielle Muise, “The Effectiveness of Restorative Justice Practices: A Meta-Analysis,” The Prison Journal Vol. 85 No. 2, June 2005, 127-144.

[4] Howard Zehr, “What Does Justice Require for Victims?” Eastern Mennonite University, May 17, 2013. Lecture.

[5] Abbey Porter, “Restorative Practices in Schools: Research Reveals Power of Restorative Approach, Part II,Restorative Practices E-Forum June 6, 2007, International Institute of Restorative Practices.

[6] Several denominations and Christian organizations (I.e. the United Methodist Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Catholic Church and the Mennonite Church) have adopted restorative justice and invite their members to do the same.

[7] Derek Flood, Healing the Gospel, (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012), 17.

[8] Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, (Scottsdale, PA: Harold Press, 1990), 130-132, 153.

[9] Fr. Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, NY: Free Press, 2010), .xiii.

[10] International Institute for Restorative Practices; Samantha White, “Time to Think: Using Restorative Questions.” Restorative Works Learning Network, January 2012.

[11] Samantha White, “Time to Think: Using Restorative Questions.” Restorative Works Learning Network, 2012.

Photo by The U.S. Army

After the Vietnam War, many service members returned back to their hometowns only to be spit on amidst a flurry of scathing remarks. That rarely happens today, as that greeting has generally been replaced with a warm, "Thank you for your service."

That’s nice, but it may not be enough. It is time for us to take a step back to reflect on what we are communicating with this message.

Why “Thank You” isn’t enough

In the statement, "Thank you for your service," we really have not communicated solidarity or support for these young persons. We are more like baristas passing out a "thank you" instead of a latte, sending our troubled and hurting service members out the door alone.

It's time for this to change. As a military chaplain, I hope to offer some practical ideas to address the gap in strong relational support networks for young people entering military service. They need help creating and supporting a sticky web of relationships for before, during, and after their service.

Sharing our pain, sharing our joy

There is one evening in my life that I will never forget. I was sitting in the house of an acquaintance from church. It was an old house, perfect for college students. News had just gotten out to the church that my high school sweetheart had been killed in a car accident. Her tires slipped on some black ice in a storm, and the Thanksgiving dinner we shared with family would be the last time I would share how thankful I was for this person I cherished so deeply.

My friend was sitting on a couch across the room from me. I was sitting in an armchair, a manifestation of my emotional state of feeling alone. I was broken. I needed help.

Much of the conversation is a blur to me now. My friend tried to empathize with me in my pain. He tried to connect with the lost boy in the body of a grown man across the room, but was struggling to find the right words. He was certainly not alone. The number of people who came to me with nice words in the weeks and months following the accident was staggering. Unfortunately, most of the sentiments offered felt more like awkward reminders of the pain that I didn’t need to be reminded about.

Then my friend said something different to me. His words felt like a cool, moist breeze on my dry and cracking heart.

I know this isn’t much, but I want to be in this with you. I want your pain to be my pain, and I want my joy to be your joy.”

Those words would change my life. He meant everything he said.

My friend’s witness to the self-giving love of Christ and commitment to support me through thick and thin has taught me a great deal about what it means to follow Jesus. Most specifically in my own life, my friend’s words have fueled my calling to being an Army chaplain on many days that I doubt that call. I remember back to that evening he committed to stand beside me through the challenges that lay ahead, and I am reminded of those young service members in uniform that similarly need the love and support of Christ in the flesh.

Help for teenagers entering the military

The truth is that the transition from being a teenager into the military is rough. It is rough for many reasons (leaving home and enduring boot camp are two of the big ones), but the challenge becomes even more pronounced for service members when they deploy and are engaged in combat.

Younger service members who deploy are more likely to incur a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to be susceptible to drug and alcohol addiction, and to attempt suicide than their older counterparts.[1] Support is needed for these young persons. 

This is where the Sticky Faith community kicks in. In a report from the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, it was determined that young service members and veterans need support, but that many are not seeking out the appropriate resources. Thus, the study suggests a need for lay-providers (friends, family, and clergy) to also be trained to support young men and women experiencing the costly effects of military service.[2] In other words, there is a need for our Sticky Faith webs to be just as developed and present in the lives of our youth entering the military as those going into the workforce and college.

Building a 5:1 community

One of the most practical ways that we can offer our support to young people entering and returning from military service is to integrate a model of 5:1 community. Based on FYI’s Sticky Faith research and the work of Chap Clark, 5:1 refers to the strategy of inviting five adults from your community to support every one young person. It is a concept that emphasizes the importance of mentorship and discipleship in the lives of youth, fivefold.

As young adults wrestle with the challenges of military service, a web of supporters from home that is committed to supporting young service members is invaluable. However, I often find that adults don’t really know what to do to live out that support. They lack ideas for how to respond to those young people along the way.

Consider using the following idiom (typically used in emergency scenarios) as a way to think about how to effectively support those service members to whom you have committed your support:

Look, listen, and feel. 
  1. Look. There are two ways to “look” into the lives of those young service members we support. The first is through time spent in face-to-face interactions. These times are precious and can be rare. If the young person is home on leave or holiday, take advantage of every minute you can get to communicate that you are still “in this” with the person. Communicate to them through words and actions that you are truly committed to supporting their spiritual life of discipleship. When you can’t see them literally face-to-face, make use of video calling applications to bring a visual connection to your long-distance conversations.

    The second way is to connect to the young person via the social media portals that they utilize and, quite literally, look into their life. In today’s world, a person’s social media interactions can say a lot about how they are doing. If you are committed to supporting this young person, commit to keeping up with their life to communicate with them in relevant ways and show that you are paying attention to what’s happening to them in this new season.
  2. Listen. I was recently at an event speaking with families of deployed soldiers, and the one piece of advice that I gave to everyone in the room upon their soldier’s arrival home was this: listen. It is incredible just how much a person can heal from internal wounds and difficult experiences if we encourage that person to share his or her story. Unfortunately, often times service members are unable to talk about their stories for one reason or another; but if the people who are committed to supporting these young persons are committed to listening to their stories on an ongoing basis, they are more likely to feel our support when it is needed. Here are a few tips while you listen:
  • Remember that you never will completely know what someone else is going through. Don’t try to communicate to a hurting service member that you “know” what she or he is going through, but instead let them know that you are in it with them.
  • If you’re a parent, try to listen openly to your daughter or son without letting your own emotional reactions to their experiences hinder the healing and restoration process. Sometimes parents’ emotional response can actually shut down important sharing.
  • If you’re a ministry leader, it is okay not to have all the answers. Sometimes the most theologically sound answer to a difficult question in regard to violence or war is, “I don’t know…”
  1.  Feel. If you don’t feel the effects of the experiences the young person to whom you are committed is going through, repeat steps #1 and #2. When we do feel the effects of the young service member’s experiences, and commit to sharing the joys and pains of life with this person, then our emotions and gut reactions can fuel a life of deep and committed prayer. In the words of Oswald Chambers, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.”[3]

Healthy reintegration into the community and into family life mentally, emotionally, and spiritually necessitates a robust web of support for young people in the military. I often receive mailers from the Wounded Warriors Project, and on the back of the envelopes read the words, "The greatest casualty is being forgotten."[4] As families and churches connected to military service members, we have a responsibility to our young brothers and sisters in Christ not to forget them. In fact, not only do we have a responsibility not to forget these young people, we have a responsibility to intentionally remember them.

Action points
  • Think about the young people you know who are heading into military service. How can you and your church community provide a consistent web of support around them as they go?
  • Similarly, what young people do you know who have returned from serving, in particular those who deployed overseas? Who could be part of a support network for these vulnerable young people?
  • If you are a parent whose son or daughter is heading into the military, talk with them about their support network of adults, and offer to help them build this network prior to service. You may want to reach out to these adults directly, and share this article as a resource.

[1] Gallup Poll: Deployment Taking Greatest Toll on Young Service Members, 2010.

[2] “Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery” edited by Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox, 2008, p 109.

[3] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, October 17 devotional entry.

[4] www.woundedwarriorproject.org