Fuller Youth Institute


“Leadership begins with listening.”

This mantra, provided by Dr. Scott Cormode link here at Fuller Seminary, quickly becomes one of the backbones of our Sticky Faith Cohorts. In order to train congregations in building Sticky Faith changes, we help them understand not only what to change, but how to bring about that change. Leaders quickly learn that listening to others (students, parents, volunteers, congregation members) is a key first step in changing a church culture.

That’s why I was especially intrigued with Jon Stewart’s interview with Cass Sunstein, a faculty member at Harvard. In research described in Sustein’s book, Wiser, Sustein studied the effect of spending time with like-minded people. For instance, he examined somewhat “liberal” folks in Boulder, Colorado who spent time only with others who were similarly “liberal,” and replicated the same analysis with more “conservative” folks in Colorado Springs.

His finding: A short discussion with like-minded people made liberals more liberal, and conservatives more conservative. This “echo chamber” effect has been demonstrated in multiple settings when similarly-minded men and women spend time with each other.

How does this relate to leadership and changing church culture? 

If we’re only spending time with people who are like us—or share our viewpoints—we become closed to fresh perspectives. We become more firmly stuck in our ideological ruts, making it harder to leave those ruts even when and if we eventually want to. 

Seeing this interview has made me ask myself a handful of questions:

1.How much time am I spending interacting with people, and media, who have different political viewpoints than me? One of my close friends listens on the radio to NPR and watches Fox News as her attempt for bipartisan information. I probably am not capable of that sort of stretching, but how much am I listening to contradictory political views?

2.How much am I listening to people in different socio-economic statuses?

3.How much am I learning from and interacting with folks from different ethnicities or cultures than me?

4.As I seek to make change at Fuller or in my own church, how am I doing at seeking out different viewpoints?

Of these 4 questions, I feel good about 2 of my answers, and not-so-good about the other 2. 

How do you try to love, listen, and learn from folks who are different than you?

This post is part of a series celebrating the release of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. We’re interviewing parents who serve, think, and write about faith, family, and ministry.

Our three-question interview this week is with Jeremy Zach. Jeremy is a Fuller grad who has been a great dialogue partner with FYI over the years, first as a youth pastor and blogger, and now as an Orange Specialist. Jeremy and his wife became first-time parents earlier this year.

Jeremy, as an Orange Specialist, you spend time with youth leaders nationwide. Based on your conversations with leaders, what advice would you give leaders who want to support families that perhaps they haven’t heard before?

Supporting families is hard – very hard. And student pastors have a very hard time embracing this reality. Believe it or not, supporting and engaging 25% of the parents on your student ministry roster is a huge win.

The student ministries who support parents effectively take many intentional small steps over time. Parent support is about trust. Trust takes time. Over time (3 to 5 years) of small strategic steps, your youth ministry will begin to have a higher engagement level of parents.

They key is to believe as though every family wants your support. So what are practical ways to support families?

Last April we asked 25 of the student ministries who have most successfully partnered with parents to share their tips. Our team compiled their best practices and created a blog post highlighting the top 20 ways these ministries partner with parents. Here’s the link.

Hopefully one of these 20 ways can help you take a next step to support families.

What have you learned from your wife about parenting?

My wife has this insane ability to be fully present with our daughter. She can unplug from work and life’s stress and give our daughter the attention she needs. I, on the other hand, cannot. I am always distracted. It’s hard for me to turn off my brain off at home.

My wife has graciously taught me how to be an attentive parent by modeling what it looks like to be fully present when I am with our daughter. I know being attentive to my daughter is huge! So now my goal every day is to make my daughter laugh hysterically. Right now she loves playing peekaboo and watching me dance, so I can count on doing one of these two things to get her to start laughing. My wife not only taught me to be attentive, but also to have fun while doing it. I never thought being a dad could be so much fun while learning so much in the process.

Having been a youth worker for a while but a parent for only a year or so, what do you wish you knew about parents when you were starting out as a youth pastor?

Parents are always exhausted. Every parent told me that being a parent is tiresome. But I never knew how tiring it would really be. I wish I would have prepared more. I only have one kid and two cats at home, and I am tired all the time.

So for youth pastors who are starting out and not parents, my advice is to do five all-night events for your youth group in a row, and you will just begin to get a glimpse of what it is like being a tired parent. And being a parent of a teenager is even more emotionally exhausting. I think if I had known that parents are often so tired either physically or emotionally, I would have had an easier time understanding why most of them had bags under their eyes as they dropped their son or daughter at youth group.   

Photo by Wonderlane.

“Dave, have we booked our hotel for our overnight?”

After searching our respective e.mails, we realized we hadn’t. We had cleared our calendars for 24 hours and asked my mom to stay with our kids, but we hadn’t finalized one important detail:  where we would actually sleep.

Great. One more task I’ve got to cram in a busy Saturday—before the room rates jump.

As I scanned the internet for the cheapest hotel, it suddenly struck me, “Wait a minute. Taking 17 minutes to find a hotel so my husband and I could have a relaxing (and romantic!) overnighter is actually a good thing.”

An hour later, I turned my attention to sorting pictures on my computer so I could create a photo album of the last two years. Our family is great at taking pictures; we’re not so great at organizing them once we download them. (What is “DCIM” anyway?)

I dreaded the hours…and hours…it would take to sort our thousands…and thousands…of pictures. But as I clicked through family memories, my attitude once again shifted. I had the charming experience of looking through treasured memories and the delight of capturing them forever in a photo album.

I love my friend, Margaret Feinberg’s, new book, Fight Back with Joy. As I’ve been ruminating on her insights—and asking myself what causes me to lose my joy—I’m realizing it’s often the little things.


Sure, I’ve had those seasons when there are major joy stealers in the life of our family or others who are important to us. Cancer. Unemployment. Divorce.

But most of my day-to-day joy is stolen when I view good things as tasks. When blessings become burdens.

Like when I try to surprise my kids with breakfast in bed, and since I’m rushing to get the bagels and fruit and nuts (our stand-by no-cook morning protein) on plates, I end up resenting them. Even though it was my idea.

Or when I really want to spend time with the Lord in the mornings, but I squeeze it in between working out and a shower, and it feels like just one more “to do.”

What would happen to us this new year if we viewed our blessings as gifts and not duties?  Sure, going to work, doing the dishes, and drafting e.mails to colleagues all have an element of “task-i-ness” to them. But at the core they represent the blessing of providing for our financial needs, enjoying nutrition, and using our gifts to help others.

So much of what we do every day is actually a gift from God. And from others who invite us into their lives. We just don’t see it that way.

This year may we claim Margaret’s goal and “fight back with joy.”

Photo by Ginny.

Every Sunday during Advent, the five Powells gather around our dining room table for hot chocolate, a discussion on the significance of the birth of Christ, and Christmas carols. 

Except for last Sunday. Both of our daughters were in tears, and Dave and I were ticked off.

Five minutes before we were starting Advent, one of our daughters had been exceptionally unkind to the other. We intervened and tears flowed.

Then hot chocolate got spilled, which didn’t help.

That particular Sunday advent pretty much stunk. 

As we were tucking one of those daughters in bed, she continued to cry. She didn’t want to talk about what was bothering her (which is the first time she hasn’t wanted to share her feelings with me). So I gave her some space and came back to her room ten minutes later. She was still in tears.

I sat on her bed, stroking her back. She finally opened up. She shared how she felt about how we had disciplined her, as well as some struggles she had been having with friends. I can’t give more specifics here, but let me just say, she shared honestly and passionately. I told her when she finished, “You are so right. You see things so clearly.”

Dave came into the room and he and I both had the chance to remind our daughter about what God sees in her. And what we see in her.

As a family experience, that Advent Sunday was a miserable failure. But here’s what I’ve learned in research for The Sticky Faith Guide For Your Family: The relationship matters most. More important than any single family experience, or any holiday tradition, is that my children know that I love them, I like them, and that I am for them.

So the next time you have a holiday flop (I’m sure I’m in for at least one more before New Year’s), ask yourself: Even if the experiencer or tradition fails, how can our family relationships be strengthened?

Photo by Sarah Goldschadt.

One friend collects ornaments from all her family trips, so her memory-filled tree looks amazing. In stark contrast, most of the ornaments on the Powell family tree come from boxed sets we bought on clearance years ago.

Another friend makes multiple homemade treats for her family and friends during December. Through the month of December, we Powells continue our usual dinner routine of simple four-ingredient-or-less dinners, with leftovers on subsequent evenings.

Still another friend decorates the outside of his house to look like a winter wonderland. We Powells spend four minutes tossing some Christmas lights into our bushes and call it done.

I can’t keep up with my friends.

But here’s the good news:  I don’t have to.

As parents, we worry that the holidays will cause our kids to compare their gifts with their friends’. But if we substitute the word “experiences” for “gifts,” then we’ve named a comparison trap that we adults are prone to experience. We might not care as much about what our friends receive as gifts, but we can easily feel insecure if other families’ holidays seem more peaceful. Or more memorable. Or more homemade. Or more fill-in-the-blank-with-any-adjective-you-want.

But here’s what I know about family holidays:

  1. We often only see other people’s best, while we’re well aware of our worst.

    Families don’t always look as cheerful as on Christmas cards, and houses aren’t usually as clean as they are for holiday parties. That other shiny family has its own dull moments also.
  2. Comparison is never good. 

    If I compare myself to others who are in a particularly hard season, it’s easy to feel smug and proud. If I compare myself to others who have it “better” than me, it’s easy to feel insecure and ungrateful. There’s no good that comes from comparison.
  3. Every family does the holidays differently. Figure out how you do holidays best.

    Your holiday will look different from your neighbor’s, or your best friend’s, or mine. That’s great. You have different traditions. You have different family rhythms. You have different family members.
  4. Show yourself and your family members grace when that supposed “special moment” falters.

    Sometimes our actual experiences will fail to match our vision for what that experience could be like. People are grumpy when it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree. Your kids don’t thank others for gifts as you’d like. When (not if, but when) your family experiences fail to live up to your expectations, remind yourself that God shows us grace constantly. We can show the same to our family.

This holiday season let’s stop comparing our worst to other people’s best.

Photo by Nino Ortiz.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

In this final installment of our panel discussion, we’ll get some of the best tips and strategies our contributing leaders have concerning how to help young people navigate digital technology as they begin to date.

Fuller Youth Institute: The whole process of flirting, dating, being in relationships, and the like has changed quite a bit thanks to digital tech. As you talk with teenagers about this, how do you address the issues of what is helpful and appropriate (or not) in romantic relationships online as opposed to in “real life”?  


Annie Neufeld: Students will often tell me about having “conversations” with peers of the opposite gender when they really mean they were communicating by text. Ultimately during these “conversations” there are generally misunderstandings, mixed messages, and hurt feelings. I tend to tell students to make a general rule that they will not have important conversations over text. Wait to be in person or at least have conversations over the phone.

I also advise our young women to not put too much hope in “flirting” over text. Young people are so much less inhibited over text—they say and do things that they would never say or do in person. This gives our young women and men a false impression of the other person. It also creates a false sense of intimacy—it is often difficult to maintain the same kind of texted witty banter in real life…and then everything gets confusing.


Billy Jack Blankenship: I definitely think a good rule of thumb is to never argue or fight over text, and young people are often the worst about this. All you get from texts are the words—no tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. That makes it incredibly easy for miscommunications to happen, or for people to say things that they wouldn’t face-to-face or over the phone.


Annie: Sadly, it is simply part of our culture that young people are hard-wired to have difficult conversations in this manner. And why wouldn’t they? Why would you want to risk rejection face to face when you can do it over text? This is a difficult habit to break in our young people, but I think it is essential to their ability to learn what real connection feels like with someone of the opposite sex.


Billy Jack: I encourage young people that all digital conversations should lead to, or point to conversations in person. “I miss you, when can I see you next?” as opposed to “I miss you, let’s text for the next hour.” I try to model this behavior too—when my wife calls or texts I will call back and let her know that we will talk it through in person. We only text quick details. Similarly with students, if we text back and forth past a few minutes I tell them we need to talk in person—let’s set up a time to talk.


Brad Howell: We need to develop healthy habits when using digital tools to nurture relationships. There is a host of things we could discuss, but top of the list should be any activities that deny another person’s full humanness. In relationships I think this involves being mindful about whether we are using technology to try to control or manipulate other people for our own purposes.


Annie: We have to show students—even though it is so awkward, that you can actually love someone better in person through empathy and respect; your ability to have difficult conversations improves every time you have one. Getting in touch with difficult feelings doesn’t have to be scary and can point to Jesus—vulnerability is a good thing and is a window to God’s heart. As the adults in their lives we have to show them that there is something more valuable than avoiding awkwardness.


FYI: It might be helpful to note here that research has found that many young people worry about parents taking away digital privileges if kids share about negative experiences. As a result, young people “are unlikely to be the ones to bring up the subject.”[1] It is helpful for parents to be really clear that honesty (within reasonable limits) will not be used as an opportunity to take away their privileges. The way young people incorporate digital technology into their relationships may seem foreign or unnatural to us, but it is important that our focus remains on the who rather than only the how.


[1] Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2013). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books. p. 101


Photo by Kasia.

The Powell family Christmas cards include a picture like this:



Cute family, right?  Love them to death.

But here’s another picture our photographer took a few moments earlier. Truly, we weren’t trying to fool around in this picture. She just captured us in a very Powell moment.



Looking back, I should have put both these pictures on our Christmas card. Because both represent all of who we are. The full spectrum of the Powell family.

I cherish every Christmas card I receive. I open them, put them in a basket on my kitchen counter, and then re-read them a second time over Christmas break. I love seeing and reading about my friends’ and family’s years. 

But let’s be honest:  No Christmas card ever tells the full truth. It’s impossible to; there just isn’t space. Plus we inevitably filter out the less pleasant parts of our family, or our year, and showcase only the highlights. (Same thing with social media. We’re prone to share our highs and hide our lows.)

It’s too late for me to re-do my Christmas card. They’re already ordered and on their way to our house for our family to stuff, stamp, and label. But as each of us opens Christmas cards and sees our friends’ and family’s smiling faces, let’s remember that life has both grins and tears. And let’s celebrate that Jesus—the Emmanuel—is with us through it all.

This post is part of a series celebrating the release of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. We’re interviewing parents who serve, think, and write about faith, family, and ministry.

Our latest three-question interview is with Brooklyn Lindsey. Brooklyn writes about youth ministry, parenting, and faith, serves students, and is an advocate for justice. She parents two daughters alongside her husband Coy, who is also a pastor.

So often we hear about all the negative impacts of being a pastor’s kid. How do you hope being a pastor’s kid positively shapes your children?

Last year during our youth ministry gatherings I noticed that my oldest daughter (7) was becoming more engaged in our Wednesday night group. She would sit on the front row with the teenagers who have loved taking care of her during the first years of her life. She sits in a way that reminds me of how brand new 6th graders sit on the front row. Wide-eyed, quiet, taking everything in.

I have to remember that she’s 7 and not 11, that she’s little, not yet big. The positive of this is that she is seeing herself as big before she actually is. She is imagining faith in the future as she watches kids who are older than her worship, learn, and serve. She sees what I do and wants to help. Sometimes I let her give a point of my talk or ask her to have a conversation with me on stage. I want her to know that our relationship is real life just as much as my preaching position is. Her voice is valuable just us much as mine. 

As a middle school pastor, what mistakes do you see parents of middle schoolers making?

There are two mistakes I see middle school parents making. 1) They struggle seeing their child as a becoming adult. 2) They miss the chance to lean on God in prayer more than they ever have before.

A couple of years ago I started meeting with middle school parents once a month on Sunday mornings for a parent and youth leader forum. We talked about developmental changes, the differences between guys and girls, texting and social media, spiritual formation, discipline and freedom. Every parent brings a different set of experiences because their child is the only child just like theirs.

I feel like the mistake that parents make is letting this truth—that their child is unique and different—block their vision from important steps their kids may need to take. Many believe that certain tasks and responsibilities are important to learn in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, but their feelings that their child is still a child keep them from acting on them. I may say, “it’s time to let your young teen make some mistakes on their own.” A parent may say, “yes, that’s a good idea.” But their imagination hasn’t shifted yet to their child becoming an adult, one who is going to need to know how to communicate, act, and respond like one.

Sometimes this means bringing their 11 year-old into the adult worship service, even when they feel like “they’re too young and too distracted” for it. Sometimes this means having important conversations about uncomfortable topics. Sometimes this means loosening the structure to give their kids a place to find themselves in it. And because we love our children more than life itself, we forget that God loves us like that and wants us to give our desires for ourselves and for our children to him. Parents get so busy trying to make sure that everything in their child’s life is as perfect as it can be that they forget that the perfect love of God is able to hold all of our concerns and challenges in a place of peace.

What has your own church’s children’s ministry leadership done to empower you as a parent?

The coolest thing our children’s ministry has done to empower me as a parent was to partner with us. They recently chose to implement Orange Strategy—a strategy that combines the light of the church and the heart of the family. Every week we receive what we need to share God’s love and truth with our children. They believe that we’ll be the most influential people in our kid’s lives when it comes to their faith formation so the shift to helping us do that better has been incredibly empowering and helpful.

This post is part of a series celebrating the release of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. We’re interviewing parents who serve, think, and write about faith, family, and ministry.

I am grateful this week to share a three-question interview with my friend Virginia Ward. Virginia is a mother of two and urban youth ministry veteran on the East Coast. Virginia serves with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship Black Campus Ministries as the New England BCM Director.

You and your husband are both in full-time ministry. In what ways has that been a blessing for your kids? In what ways has it been a burden for them?

The environment full-time ministry provides allowed for our sons to have both parents present in their formative years. We attended sporting events, took family vacations, and made sure their academic path was supported straight through college. 

My husband and I are third generation pastor's kids. We understand the pressure of living in a glass bowl with the expectation of being “perfect Christians.” At times it was difficult to provide space for them to own their faith and walk the tightrope of being a pastoring parent. Open and honest conversations about faith as a family proved to be a great tool in developing spiritually mature young men. 

Your kids are now young adults. Looking back, what did you do well as a parent? What do you wish you had done differently?

The best gift I feel we offered our sons consisted of lasting memories from their childhood. Every birthday was celebrated, holidays honored, and each family member respected. We grew together as a family and were not afraid to apologize when we, as parents, were wrong or acted out of anger.

Although we had family devotions and taught our children to pray at an early age, I would have loved to continue praying together as a family more often. As our sons grew their schedules varied and family devotions were reduced. Prayer is binding glue to any family, and I still enjoy our prayer times as family today.

Much of your life has revolved around urban ministry. How has your time in urban contexts enhanced your family life?

I believe urban ministry has a pulse like no other ministry! Our family understands the complexity of urban life, and each member is able to thrive in multiple settings. Raising two African-American sons in the city is a blessing because they have learned how to make critical choices daily. We have also watched them share their blessings with their peers.

Urban ministry has enhanced our family life in three key areas. Ministry in the city:

1. Calls us to seek the peace of the city through prayer. 

2. Draws us to do our part to help build our city.

3. Reminds us to ask the Lord of the harvest for more laborers.

Our family is vested in the city and loves the people of our communities. We understand that we are a blessed family who is called to bless other families. 

Photo by jcarlough.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

Read X1  |  Read X2  |  Read X3  |  Read X4  |  Read X5

Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this installment we’ll explore the conversations these leaders have had with parents and young people about the more recent phenomenon known as sexting.

Fuller Youth Institute: There is a lot of parental concern about sexting, but recent research suggests that the percentage of young people who have appeared in, created, or received sexually suggestive images is about 10%; and for explicit messages around 1%.[1] Then again, as we explained in an earlier post [link to the mini-series intro], it is tricky to discern how much confidence to put into research on sensitive topics like this.

What has been your experience with sexting, both in terms of it happening among young people you know and also in the perceptions of how pervasive it is?

Mike Park: Most of the young people that I talk to (and this could confirm the premise of the question) say that sexting does happen but that they don’t do it themselves.

Matt Laidlaw: Similarly, in my conversations with students, all of them are “aware” of sexting but most haven’t participated in it. That said, I have talked to a number of young women who have experienced sexting and bullying simultaneously—male students were manipulating their friendships with these girls in order to receive inappropriate pictures from them. For these girls, this bullying impacted how they viewed themselves for a long time. They hated that these guys talked to them like that, and hated that they “gave in” and sent the boys what they wanted. If we want to talk about sexting, we need to keep talking more broadly about identity, forgiveness, and healthy relationships with our young men and women.

FYI: You’re right about the premise of the question; people tend to read statements like “10% of teens” as one in every ten teens, but phenomena like this happen more or less in different contexts. So one school might have 0% of students sexting whereas another could have 30%. It varies quite a bit.

Brad Howell: The perception of sexting’s pervasiveness is much higher than it actually is, and some adults talk as if apps like Snapchat exist only so teens can share naked pictures of themselves without getting caught. That being said, this 1% stat seems low to me. It may be true if it includes a wider age range of adolescents, as sexting is more of a high school issue. It gets going around 15 years old, and the rates increase until about age 17, where it seems to stabilize and remains consistent into adulthood. Either way, mid-adolescents understand that they have the ability to affect others, but do not have the life experience to understand the ripple effects (or relational consequences) of those actions.

Adam McLane: I think it is important to frame sexting by looking back at history and recognizing that there have always been versions of this type of adolescent behavior. Yes, a percentage of teenagers share sexually explicit stuff. But not all of them do—the perception seems to be that if you leave a teenager alone with their phone they will pull down their pants and snap a photo! While I don’t think sexting is a good thing, I tend to see it as “normal, deviant behavior.” In other words, the same kids who are exchanging sexually explicit images today are the exact same characters who tried to get a girl to take her top off at a high school party in the 1990s. That said, I think there needs to be a line of delineation between self-created explicit images versus finding explicit images online and sharing them. The latter seems more common than the former, much more common than 10% in my opinion.

FYI: Here are a few additional insights on sexting:

  • Since 2009, a number of state governments have passed laws that address sexting. These laws are aimed primarily at child pornography, but most do not allow for two minors to voluntarily share explicit images. Parents and leaders should inquire as to what the law is in their state and make sure young people are aware.
  • As we have said often throughout this series: online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior. Parents should gauge their concern about sexting according to their concern about how sexually active their son or daughter is offline.

Read X1  |  Read X2  |  Read X3  |  Read X4  |  Read X5


[1] Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2014). “Sexting” and Its Relation to Sexual Activity and Sexual Risk Behavior in a National Survey of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health; Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. (2014) Trends in Unwanted Online Experiences and Sexting. White Paper by The Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire.