Fuller Youth Institute


Photo by: Jack Toohey


You may have heard the sky is falling.

Churches are closing their doors.

Young people are walking away from faith.

So how bad is the bad news, really? It’s a question you may have wondered, and one we certainly ponder here at the Fuller Youth Institute. Our FYI team approaches research with a hopeful posture, so we wonder not only what the bad news may be, but also what good news is out there. First, the bad news:

Churches are shrinking

Most churches in America are not growing.

According to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center, the share of adults in the US who identify as Christians fell from 78 to 71 percent between 2007 and 2014. The increase in those who identify as “religiously unaffiliated” (meaning atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) jumped by almost seven points, from just over 16 to 23 percent. 

This well-publicized “Rise of the Nones” varies by denomination. 

Mainline Protestantism has experienced the greatest dip in numbers. From 2007 to 2014, mainline Protestant adults declined by about 5 million.

Roman Catholic adults dropped nearly 3 million.

Adults in evangelical denominations, as well as adults in nondenominational churches with evangelical leanings, actually grew from 60 million to 62 million. 

However, while total number of evangelicals has increased, the percentage of Americans who identify as evangelicals has actually decreased almost one percent from just over 26 percent to just over 25 percent.

Even though these shifts represent major downturns in three of our nation’s largest Christian traditions, not all denominations are experiencing a slump. In particular, several historically Black Protestant denominations remain relatively stable. And outside the US, some traditions are seeing growth globally.

To summarize, no major Christian tradition is growing in the United States today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that’s as good as it gets.

Churches are aging

Most churches in America are also aging.

While young adults ages 18-29 make up 22 percent of the US adult population, they represent less than 10 percent of churchgoers. 

In a recent 10-year study of congregations, people over age 60 increased by five percent and people under age 35 decreased by five percent.

Many churches see their average congregant age increase year by year and wonder what all the graying heads mean for the future of the church. 

Young people do walk away

Alongside this shrinking and aging, churches are watching young people walk away. 

A major turning point for young people’s faith in America tends to be high school graduation. Multiple studies highlight that about half of youth group seniors drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school. We’ve spent the past decade studying how to reverse this trend through our Sticky Faith work.

Some—perhaps more than half—of those who drift from the church end up rejoining the faith community, generally when they get married and have children. 

But even those who return have made significant life decisions about worldview, relationships, and vocation—all during an era when their faith was shoved aside. The consequences of those lasting decisions are often tough to erase.

But bright spots are on the horizon

The data is clear that shrinking and aging are the default for most American congregations today. But that’s not the way it has to be. And it’s not happening in every church. Four years ago, we set out to learn from churches that were bucking this trend. 

As Kara shared recently, our team at the Fuller Youth Institute spent the past four years studying over 250 congregations of diverse sizes, ethnicities, and geographic regions that are unlocking the potential of teenagers and emerging adults

These churches joined us for one of the largest and most collaborative studies ever conducted on the topic, involving over 20 denominations, 25 expert advisors, 1,500 research participants, and 10,000 hours of staff research time. 

All that work was focused on learning more about what’s going right in the church.

There is hope

Yes, it might feel like the sky is falling for the church in the US. And some days it may feel that way in your own congregation. 

But we have great hope that God is still—as always—at work in the church, through the church, and for the church so the church can be all it was meant to be in the world. 

Stick with us—we can’t wait to share all we’ve been learning about churches growing young


I Want Updates On Growing Young

Announcing Our New Project: Growing Young

Helping Young People Discover And Love Your Church

Shares May 23, 2016

I’ve never heard God speak to me audibly. But four years ago as I was praying about the research God wanted the Fuller Youth Institute to do after Sticky Faith, I was pretty sure he pointed me in the right direction.

That particular morning as I was praying and journaling about our future, I wrote these thoughts: “Sticky Faith studied young people themselves. Now we need to study congregations that are really good at reaching young people.”

Those fairly vague phrases penned on a yellow tablet on the navy blue couch in my living room evolved into a dream—the passion of which has startled even me.

I can think of no better way to change a country—any country—than through a reinvigorated church. I can think of no better way to change a church than infusing it with passionate young people.

I can think of no better way to develop passionate young people than to help them understand that God’s grace, love, and mission answer their deepest heart cries.

Telling A New Story

There’s so much bad news about churches today. Legitimately so. The best data shows that most churches are shrinking and aging.

But in the midst of this depressing landscape, there are amazing churches beating the odds. They are heroic. And they are bright lights in the midst of the all-too-often gloomy narratives and research about churches.

Funded by four amazing foundations, the primary goal of our last three years of research has been to understand how and why exemplary churches are effectively engaging 15 to 29 year-olds.

Put more simply, we studied churches that are growing, and growing young.

The Process

How did the Fuller Youth Institute team study these “bright spot” churches?

  • Nominations: We received nominations of 363 amazing churches from 35 highly respected leaders, ranging from denominational and national leaders to academic scholars.
  • Stage One: We received surveys from the senior pastor and youth and/or young adult pastor at 259 of those churches.
  • Stage Two: We interviewed 41 of the most noteworthy churches. Almost always by telephone, our research team conducted one-hour interviews with a total of 535 young people, parents, church staff, and volunteers across these congregations.
  • Stage Three: We sent teams of two or three researchers to visit 12 of these 41 congregations. By spending a handful of days at each congregation, we were able to experience both their congregational worship services and age-specific ministries, as well as conduct in-person interviews and focus groups with young people, parents, volunteers, congregational members, and leadership staff.

In total, these three stages of research helped us amass over 10,000 hours of research personnel time, 10,000 pages of data, and interviews or surveys with 474 young people and 799 adults.

To our delight, these congregations represented amazing diversity in size, geographic region, denomination/tradition (or lack thereof), and age. Particularly thrilling is that over half of the churches we studied during the project were not predominantly white.

In other words, there are no insurmountable barriers for a church determined to grow young.

Coming This Fall: Growing Young

One resource that showcases all we learned is a new Growing Young book that Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin and I wrote that will be released on September 20th with Baker Books. 

Growing Young walks through the six core commitments we’ve found to be most common in churches growing young, and also the ten things you don’t need to reach young people. (Spoiler alert: a super cool senior pastor in skinny jeans is on the “ten things you don’t need” and not one of the “six core commitments.” Some of you are exhaling a sigh of relief at that one.)

I care about books like this one because they change how people think. I care about changing how people think because that changes how we love and serve all generations, but in this case, teenagers and emerging adults.  

More than any other book project, Growing Young has expanded my vision for all God intends for every congregation. And our research has given me confidence that change is feasible for any church. Including yours.

There’s more to come.

Our team is spending all summer developing additional tools to help your church grow young. I don’t want to spill the beans yet (and in all candor, we are still figuring out exactly what those tools are), but we aren’t going to leave you alone in the change process. We are going to walk with you. And learn with you and from you.

It’s going to be a grand adventure. Journeying with you is going to make it even better.


I Want Updates On Growing Young

Photo by Jonathan Nardi

“You’re so addicted to that phone!”

“You can’t stop playing that game. It’s like you’re addicted.”

“Why are you such an addict with social media?”

Ever heard phrases like this from parents to teenagers—or maybe from your own mouth?

You don’t need us to tell you that mobile devices are pervasive in our culture, specifically among teenagers. Roughly 3 out of 4 teenagers own a smartphone today in the US, granting unprecedented access to and constant contact with their peers and indeed the entire world.

Last week Common Sense Media released a comprehensive research brief on technology addiction among kids and teenagers. Addiction has been a buzzword swirling around young people and digital media for a while.

We’re as concerned as anyone about this at FYI. So much so that recently we researched and developed a resource for parents called Right Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital Media World. As parents and researchers, we agree that families need deeper understanding and more sanity around our digitally-connected lives. Or as one mom shared with us, we need more thoughtful things to say to our kids than just “Put that thing down!” 

That said, we all need to exercise caution before assigning language like “addiction” to technology use. Here are three reasons why calling your teenager a technology/cell phone/social media/gaming addict might not be a good idea:

1. It’s probably not addiction.

According to the Common Sense Media report, one out of every two teens “feels” addicted to their mobile device. But what does that mean? How is it defined? In particular, how do young people themselves understand addiction?

In the medical and psychological world, the term addiction refers to a behavior that is persistent, pervasive, compulsive, and that interferes with daily life on a regular basis. While we might nod our heads when we think about device usage in light of this, truthfully most of us are unqualified to diagnose addiction. Further, it’s telling that so few of us seek treatment for our kids for these “addictions.” It seems we’ve mainstreamed the term as something we don’t really take seriously.

It’s possible that our over-naming and normalizing of addiction language could actually prevent us from seeing and treating true addiction. This is a problem. It’s especially problematic because some young people are, in fact, addicted to aspects of technological interaction. Compulsive gaming and online pornography use offer some of the most evident examples. But if we call everything addiction, parents and young people will grow less and less likely to seek help when it’s really needed.

2. Addiction language is stigmatizing.

If one out of every two teens feels addicted to devices, nearly two out of three parents feel the same way about their kids. This tells us that parents may be using “addiction” language as they talk with their kids about device usage. Especially since 66 percent of parents feel like their teenagers spend too much time on devices.

Further, about one third of both parents and teens report arguing on an almost daily basis about device use. We’re left to wonder how often that word “addicted” comes into play. When it does, how do young people feel? Have you ever been called an addict? Addiction carries a stigma, it’s shaming, and it can define someone by their behavior.

Young people are growing up in a world where digitally-connected media forms are all around them. This is the only world they’ve ever known. They are trying to figure out how to navigate that world, and they also happen to be drawn like sponges to most of what the digital world offers. The last thing they need from us is to be shamed for trying to stay afloat on the only waters they’ve sailed.

Most of the time our attention is more effective than shaming. Even when we suspect true addiction, opening with accusations is rarely effective.

3. We don’t know enough yet about how technological shifts are actually changing us.

This line from the Common Sense Media report sums it up well: “Research on Internet use and children is complicated and varied and, most importantly, woefully incomplete.” In our own research for the parent guide Right Click, coauthor and media researcher Art Bamford came to much the same conclusion after extensive literature review. We just don’t know enough yet.

First of all, very little in-depth research is conducted with teenagers or children. The vast majority of actual research on digital media has been done with adults over age 18. This is primarily because it’s much easier to get studies of adult subjects approved by research ethics boards, and parental permission is required before studying minors, so researchers tend to stick with adults when it comes to legitimate studies.

Second, this is all so new that there has not been enough time to research the long-term effects of most kinds of digital media use. Again, especially among children.

There are things we do know that apply to adults and kids—like heavy media multitasking doesn’t actually work for any of us (our brains aren’t wired for it, no matter what we might think). But there’s a lot we simply do not have research data to explore. Prematurely suggesting that technology use is going to cause any number of positive or negative outcomes in your child’s future is simply guesswork.

And like many areas of life, balance is emerging as one of the more helpful early indicators of navigating the digital world well. But you probably don’t need research to know that.

So how can we talk about digital media in our family instead?

If calling our kids addicts doesn’t help, what does?

For starters, parents can turn the mirror toward themselves and ask questions about what their own behaviors model for their kids.

According to the Common Sense report, nearly 80 percent of teenagers report checking their devices at least once hourly, but so do nearly 70 percent of parents. Kids agree something is amiss here. Nearly half agree that their parents are regularly distracted by devices when teenagers are trying to talk to them. Half of them also see their parents checking mobile devices while driving, and while two thirds say there is a “no device rule” at the dinner table, about a third say their parents are likely to break that rule during dinner. Finally, a third of kids ages 8-13 say they feel unimportant when their parents are distracted by their phones.

How can we begin to talk about and create healthy boundaries around media use in the home? Here are five quick tips and resources you can access right now: 

1. Set media boundaries … together.

As parents, we are both the gatekeepers and the empowerers of our kids’ media engagement. Sure, school plays a role in ways we sometimes can’t regulate. But we often have more purview than we realize over media choices. Of course we face the classic plea of “everyone’s doing it.” But ultimately? No, your fourth grader doesn’t “need” a smartphone. Or your eighth grader, honestly. That doesn’t mean you are a bad parent for giving them one. It does, however, mean we are accountable from the moment we allow our child to access a device, app, game, platform, or interface for what they are seeing, saying, doing, and sharing. That’s a big deal.

While we hold the bottom line as parents, that doesn’t mean we should dictate every rule and regulation in the home. The best boundary-setting around media use happens when parents and kids talk together about what a “normal” routine should look like, and then hold each other accountable. If that’s a tough conversation for your family, we’ve created a free downloadable tool you can use to have a fresh conversation with your family this week.

2. Learn how to review apps.

Or better yet, require your kids to complete this Request for App form and give you at least 24 hours to make a decision before they download anything. This brief form pushes them to do a little research on things like privacy, sharing, and personal information the app will collect. If you don’t like forms, the questions themselves can help guide a less formal conversation with your teenager.

3. Don’t let gaming game you.

Wringing your hands about the new games your kids acquired recently—or about how much time they’re sinking into playing? Here are ten things every parent should know about gaming to give you a leg up in this game.

4. Draw the age line.

Have a kid under 13 asking to use social media? Here’s an easy way to say no: the law. Read more about why, plus a handful of other tips on making age determinations and helping them join social media.

5. Have a good answer to the retort, “That’s not fair!”

Not all kids are ready for the same things at the same time, and that’s doubly true with technology. As your kids begin to use new technology, you might find that one takes care of their device while another is careless, or one makes good choices while another struggles. Here are some tips for navigating this dilemma.

Finally, keep in mind that teenagers still typically prefer face-to-face interaction with their friends. They use social media and devices because they can, and often because they feel like they have to, but they’d rather be hanging out in person most of the time.

In other words, most teenagers aren’t addicted to media; they’re obsessed with each other. Just like always.

We can affirm the positive sides of social interaction among teens, and as parents we can work to facilitate it. That might mean intervening at times to take a text conversation to real life (“How about we invite her over to hang out with you?”) or restricting device use when kids are together in person (“For the next hour, all devices in this basket. We’re going for ice cream phone-free!”)

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about the insights and strategies we’ve shared in Right Click, go ahead and download a free chapter now. We’d love to help! 

Photo by Joebelle

We’ve all been there.

Ministry gets discouraging. We feel stuck. We’re not sure we have been doing the right things or investing our time in the right places. We would love to see more change, but we’re just not sure how to make it happen.

I remember one season when I thought our small group approach had grown stale. So I tried four different small group models in one year. Four! Leaders and students got so fatigued by the constant change that by the time I introduced the next plan, it was mostly met with blank stares. Defeated, I ducked my head and fell back into a rut that I knew wasn’t the best way to accomplish our goals. I couldn’t see a better way forward.

We’ve heard similar stories from leaders who wonder about implementing Sticky Faith in their contexts. They quickly nod their heads when we share what Sticky Faith is all about, or they tell us about their excitement after reading a Sticky Faith resource. But then they’re stuck figuring out what to do next. Or discouraged because they tried something and it failed.

Have you ever found yourself making one of the following statements?
I want to equip young people with lifelong faith, but I have no idea where to start.

In my first youth ministry job, I inherited a model high on fun and emotion but low on depth and long-term transformation. I had ideas about how our ministry could look different and what students could look like as thriving young adults. I just didn’t know how to get from where we were to where I hoped we could be.

My church is too small—or too big—to build an effective youth ministry.

Those of us with only a handful of students showing up in our ministry are worried that our efforts will have little impact, especially when families see “regular” attendance as “once every three weeks.” On the flip side, those of us overwhelmed with a crowd of kids every Wednesday night can hardly keep things under control. Deeper discipleship seems daunting in both scenarios, as does fostering “real” community.

I don’t think we have buy-in from parents on changing our youth ministry.

If we’ve heard this once, we’ve heard it ten thousand times. Leaders worry that parents are either too disengaged, too distracted to give enough energy to support a change, or so committed to youth-ministry-as-usual that they will shut down attempts at change out of fear. Sometimes these worries about parents are well-founded; other times leaders simply haven’t worked to cultivate enough trust among parents to secure their partnership in bringing about change.

I don’t think we have buy-in from our senior pastor to try new things.

Man, have I blown it on this one! Once I actually went directly around my pastor’s “no” to do what I thought was the best idea for our ministry. It didn’t go so well for me. More often, we hear from leaders who have pleasant, but distant, relationships with their senior pastors. They struggle to get enough attention to move ideas forward that require the whole church to respond or change.

Yeah, we tried implementing change. But it never really got off the ground.

Our big launch flopped. Our four-week series fizzled. How many times have you caught yourself saying some version of, “We tried that, but…”? I actually caught myself saying this last week about my own youth ministry! Sometimes we’re not very persistent. Other times we invest so much with such futile results that we give up. Change is hard, slow, and not for the faint of heart.

If you can relate to any (or all!) of these scenarios, we’ve got your back. In fact, we developed a resource just for you because leaders like you asked for it and we decided we couldn’t NOT do this to help.

In response, our team built a toolbox of resources called the Sticky Faith Launch Kit that not only addresses all of the scenarios above, but also drips with bonus products that are almost embarrassing to list because of how much we’re giving away along with the book:

  • Over 20 videos to use with your team or your whole church
  • Six months of volunteer training sessions to help deeply root the vision and practically apply the philosophy
  • Over six months of scripted email templates to use with parents to make your work easy and make you sound awesome
  • Seminar outlines and media to make you look awesome in front of parents and your entire church
And that’s only half of it.

The real heart of this resource is a step-by-step guide for forming a launch team and leveraging that team to effect deep culture change in your congregation. This is not a quick-fix resource. It’s a proven process for shifting your ministry and your own leadership toward more effectiveness.

We call the Launch Kit “Your next 180 days toward Sticky Faith” because it is truly a journey. We have spent the past handful of years walking with churches like yours through implementation issues related to team dynamics, leadership culture, organizational changes, and church structures. Taking the best of what we’ve learned from other leaders, we packaged it in one of the most practical resources FYI has ever developed. Plus a lot of our own heart, sweat, and tears. We published it ourselves, at a financial risk, without a cent of author royalties, because we believed in it that much.

Step one is to make sure you don’t start this journey alone. Get a team around you of people who care about young people. Then let us be part of your extended team. There’s no need to remain discouraged or stuck. Here’s help.


Order the Launch Kit today

“How long... to sing this song?”

These lyrics from the 1983 song “40” animated the deepest groanings of a generation—or two!—through the music of the band U2.

I (Kara) have actually sung these lyrics live with Bono (well, along with the 40,000 other fans at the concert in the late '80s). The words resonate so deeply because they speak authentically about human experience.

Questioning God.
Questioning life.

The words are directly from Psalm 40, one of the many lament psalms that articulate these questions and cries in expressions that translate across centuries. But sometimes these words and phrases leave us even more confused.

Eugene Peterson describes reading the psalms as a 12-year-old boy and being utterly perplexed by the language.

But the more heread, the more he was introduced to the power of metaphor, until ultimately the psalms “showed me that imagination was a way to get inside the truth.” Pairing that imagination with Biblical scholarship, eventually Peterson rephrased the psalms—and then the rest of the Bible—into modern language through The Message translation.

The Message translation deeply moved Bono and U2 in the early 2000s, and when Peterson found out about this, his first response was, “Who’s Bono?”

This exclusive new short film released today by FULLER studio  tells the story of how these two imaginative human beings eventually corresponded, developed a friendship, and finally met.

Bono recently paid a visit to the Petersons’ home in Montana. David Taylor, Fuller’s Brehm Center director at our Texas campus, sat down for a chat with both of them in this rare and intimate interview.

They talk about raw emotion, cursing, Scripture, and violence. They wonder together what it looks like to respond to the real world authentically before God. Bono asserts, “The only way we can approach God is if we’re honest—through metaphor, through symbol.” Peterson follows, “Praying isn’t being nice before God . . . The psalms are not pretty; they’re not nice.”

This authenticity about life and prayer has fueled U2’s music across three-and-a-half decades.

Often what draws young people to music is its openness to releasing the full emotion of life. Or as Bono explains, “The truth can blow things apart.” We found in our own research that the vast majority of Christian teenagers have significant questions and doubts about God, but precious few talk to anyone about them. That’s tragic, because it’s not doubt that is toxic to faith, it's silence.

One of the best things we can offer to young people when they struggle is a relationship where they can be honest, raw, and lay everything on the table.

A lot like the psalms.

We’re grateful for these two leaders who help all of us crack open the potential of the psalms—for ourselves, and for young people.

You’ll find the full 20-minute film and a boatload of helpful resources at Fuller’s all-new FULLER studio site.

Watch Film Now

Fuller Seminary announces the launch of FULLER studio—an online site of formation resources for the Christian church and all who seek deeply informed and embodied spiritual lives. FULLER studio offers fresh videos, podcasts, reflections, stories, and other materials drawn from our world-class faculty and extended global community.

We are honored to host the world premiere of a short film with Bono (U2), Eugene Peterson (The Message), and theologian W. David O. Taylor reflecting together on the Psalms, produced by Brehm Texas and Fourth Line Films.

Photo by Kahori Yagi

Every Friday night we made magic in that Mexican town.

American teenagers defied gravity, sliding up palm trees and zigzagging after-Christmas sale lights across the church courtyard. Mexican youth retreated briefly to the kitchen, performing an ancient alchemy on trays of tostadas, each one laced with a deadly kiss of salsa.

Rodolfo emerged from his laboratory with a playlist that left us all entranced. One pinch of Ice Ice Baby, a dash of Camisa Negra, a hint of I Like to Move it. Sparks flew. One more musical chair was removed. Laughter enraptured us as the limbo stick tripped up the last remaining gringo.

Perhaps most significantly, differences would dissolve between two groups of people who, less than a week before, had been strangers to one another. Our dance parties were enchanted. Live embers from heaven burned in our hearts. Like John’s vision on Patmos, we saw the first heaven and earth disappear—all of the pain of poverty, the injustice, the spools of razor wire scarring the desert—everything that separated us was gone. The holy city seemed to descend out of heaven, making its home in the church courtyard, the incandescent orbs of light like throngs of angels, the pulsating music like anthems from every nation. If only for the briefest of moments, the world was made new.

There was no “them”, there was only “us”.

As a youth worker you may have felt something like this before. You’ve seen it in the Instagram pics of the girl in your youth group with a swarm of dark-skinned children around her. These photos can provoke a mixture of reactions within us. On the one hand, they feel so helplessly cliché, like mission trips are nothing more than a rite of passage for white kids, passing off a long “savior” tradition to a new generation.

But on the other hand, there’s something about these experiences that feels so right that we struggle to write them off entirely. There’s something about those photos that feels like God’s kingdom come. It’s like our mission trip photos are icons of heaven—of God’s future breaking into the present.   

Seriously, why are we going a mission trip again?

Many of us realize that simultaneously there is something both so good about what our young people see and experience on mission trips, but also so fundamentally broken. If we’d turn the tables and 30 kids from Mexico would show up at our church doorstep wanting to share the gospel in our neighborhoods (through translators) and paint our houses, we might smirk at their earnest intentions. But we’d also marvel at the naiveté of believing it could be so simple to share the gospel cross-culturally without any relationship, or that any teenager is somehow qualified to come anywhere close to a roller and paint brush.

Many of us have accepted that maybe youth mission trips aren’t really suited to fulfill the Great Commission in 7 days or less, and as far as relieving the physical poverty of others goes, our activities are no more than Band-Aid solutions, sometimes actually stripping away what little dignity that people in poverty already feel.[1] So what are we to do with mission trips? Ignore the problems? Quit doing them altogether?

Neither of those options seems to be the answer. If there’s ever been a time that we’ve needed shared spaces where the rich and the poor, Mexicans and Americans, whites and blacks, Muslims and Christians can come together and see each others’ humanity, that time is now. Our broken world needs places where young people can have face-to-face encounters with those they’ve been taught they should fear or never trust. We need opportunities to look into the others’ eyes and to encounter the child of God in them—children who have the same dreams, hopes, and anxieties and fears that we do. And when we do this, to recognize that there are dark forces that work to keep us separated, to elevate some and oppress others, to make us think that some lives matter more than others. We need formational learning experiences like these to teach youth that reconciliation is not a distraction from the gospel, but is at the very heart of God’s kingdom.

So maybe we don’t need to abandon mission trips altogether, but we do need to thoughtfully reframe them.

The real value of a mission trip

Mission trips do something that not even our best-crafted four week studies ever could. They capture young people’s imaginations with all of their senses. We could talk about God’s heart for the poor until they all fall asleep, but the problem is that’s not how youth or any of us learn. Descartes told us, “I think, therefore I am,” and ever since we’ve had this false belief in Western understanding that if we think rightly, we’ll act rightly. This has been our primary mode of approaching discipleship with young people.

But Augustine believed that at our core, humans are not fundamentally thinkers but rather lovers. And for anyone who’s ever worked with young people, we already know this to be true. For better or for worse, they obey the desires of their hearts before those of their minds.[2] Teaching kids to love those who our world considers unimportant doesn’t come about by giving youth rules or ideas about how we should treat people with equality and fairness. It comes about by playing Red Rover with a kid in the public housing complex. It comes about when they’re making homemade tortillas with a woman whose husband reluctantly waded the Rio Grande to earn a decent wage. It comes about over a cup of tea in a Bedouin tent.

What if this was the real value of a mission trip? Six months after a trip, teenagers are going to forget what the VBS was about and they’re going to forget that insightful morning devotional you prepared. But they’re not going to forget the solidarity, the connectedness, and the communion they felt with someone so totally “other” than them. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” What if the real value of a mission trip then isn’t teaching young how to share their faith, how to work as a team, or how to lay a concrete block? Perhaps the real value is to cultivate in young people a yearning to bridge the vast and endless sea of poverty and privilege that alienate us from one another. It’s a longing to be reconciled, to find communion with brothers and sisters from whom they’ve been long estranged.

On earth as it is in the Trinity

But why does this matter? Why would we want to cultivate a yearning for solidarity with the other? What’s the point of merely building relationships across cultural divides? Why is this worthy of the thousands of dollars our church invests in mission trips?

It matters because it cuts to the very heart of who God is and what it means for us to be image bearers of God. When young people long for this kind of connection, when they hunger and thirst for justice, what they’re really longing for is to participate in the very life of God’s communion. They yearn to know the kind of life-giving relationships of giving and receiving that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience with one another. Because at the heart of the Trinity there is no hierarchy. There is no pecking order. The Father is not greater than the Son, nor is the Son greater than the Holy Spirit. They are distinct, but they are one.

In short, the Trinitarian community is everything that the disappointing social lives of young people are not. On mission trips, when young people experience solidarity with others instead of division, when they exchange fear for trust, when they feel a tug to serve others rather than to jockey for power, when they experience embrace rather than exclusion, it’s not merely a human connection that young people are making. Rather, it is a taste of the very life of God’s communion. It is God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

What we often overlook is that to be image bearers of God is to be made in the image of a Trinitarian community. The Trinity offers a pattern for personal and social life. Youth know in their bones that people are wired for love, for community, for giving, and for equality. But their experience of the world is often one of love only for those just like them, of competition, of using others for their own ends, and of accepting the inevitability of a world where some will always be winners and some always losers.

Sometimes on a mission trip, magic happens and that logic is turned on its head. Young people get a sense of how poverty, racism, and inequality steal, kill, and destroy this self-giving community for which people are made. The acts of solidarity they perform on a mission trip—playing games with kids, sharing a meal in someone’s home, laughing out on a soccer field—become protests to the world’s logic. These seemingly insignificant acts are not a distraction from mission, but the very essence of it. It’s the work of God to bring a fragmented, stratified humanity back into participation in the life of the Trinity. It’s a reordering of human relationships to more properly image God in the world. They are icons of heaven, of God’s future breaking into the present.

But does this mean that in the end mission trips are really just self-serving? Do we forget about the real needs of people in communities we visit by reframing the purpose of mission trips in this way? In the short term, these acts of solidarity aren’t going to eliminate hunger and homelessness, nor should we shy away from providing immediate relief by offering food or housing. But issues like these are too complex to be solved by acts of charity on a mission trip. Hunger, homelessness, and extreme inequalities aren’t unfortunate accidents. They are the predictable results of unjust policies and economic practices that have gone on for centuries. Poverty and privilege are bound up with one another.

In the long term, pockets of injustice are rooted out by people with a God-breathed imagination who set out to build a different kind of social order and a different kind of economy where everyone can participate. Our students can be those kinds of people. But it means that perhaps the most dramatic change that needs to take place isn’t the character or work ethic of the poor, but the imagination of a new generation of young people who will occupy positions of power and make decisions that can make life look either more or less like life in the Trinity.

It begins when their imaginations are hooked by a glimpse of heaven on earth.

What might this all mean for you in thinking about your next mission trip or whether or not to do one at all?

  • Reframe your reasons for doing a mission trip in the first place. You’re more than likely not bringing the gospel to a place where no one has heard the name of Jesus, and even though your relief work might take the edge off of poverty, it isn’t going to eliminate it. Create a mission statement for your trip with leaders, parents, and youth. If they come to easy, church-y answers, complicate them by raising questions like the ones in this article to challenge deeper reflection.
  • Make magic. Keep your schedule open enough for these unscripted moments for youth to make positive connections with people in the community you’re visiting. These connections can upend stereotypes they might hold. Communicate to your hosts that “success” includes seeing life from their shoes and communing with locals. 
  • Don’t attempt to make a big impact. At least not in the community you’re visiting. I know, everyone else has told you that the only reason you should go is to make a big impact. But this attitude reinforces the idea that you are the heroes and they are helpless ones in distress, and it undermines the faithful work of churches and community leaders who have been there long before you arrived and will be there long afterwards. Focus on learning how you can be advocates, not on accomplishing some project that they could do themselves if they had the resources. That said, make sure your work does have a big impact in shaping your students’ imaginations for a world made right. Ultimately, this can have an even bigger impact in your partner community. 

In part 2 of this series we’ll explore how short-term missions are not only icons of heaven, but sometimes can be icons of hell. On short-term trips we might witness the devastating effects of what happens when people reject their obligations to care for the most vulnerable. We see hell on earth. These traumatic experiences of poverty and inequality can awaken young people and give them the spiritual energy to build a more just world that looks more like life in the Trinity. 


[1] For more on maintaining the dignity of partner communities in short-term mission, check out Toxic Charity and Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions.

[2] See James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for a more expansive discussion on how desire plays into identity.  

Photo by dejah greene

This guest post is from Dr. Dave Zovak. A Fuller grad, Dave is a Christian leadership coach and educator in Asia, helping leaders and educators bring their best to their missions. He’s also the father of a college student and a high school student.

“Where are you going to college?” is one of the most frequent and emotionally-loaded questions faced by high school seniors during second semester. For Christian students, it may be their first big “discerning God’s will” decision. So many expectations (from parents, teachers, friends, themselves) are attached to the answer of that question that it can be completely overwhelming. Especially for those who are fortunate enough to have options among which to choose.

It’s no wonder many students just shrug and try to change the subject.

At a time in life when these young people are just beginning to discover who they are, they are presented with the challenge to make a decision that seems to carry the weight of the rest of their lives. While adults know that college choice does not determine a young person’s fate, our questions and expectations can sure add to that feeling. So as parents, youth leaders, and adult friends, we have the opportunity to encourage students to approach this challenge with grace, faith, and wisdom. Here are some suggestions that may help you point them toward God as they wrestle with this big decision.

Frame it as a stewardship decision

Stewardship isn’t just about money; it’s about seeing our whole lives as resources to be directed toward God’s purposes and priorities. Students need to ask themselves, “What has God specifically entrusted to me?” The answer will include their strengths, passions, bodies, minds, family backgrounds, weaknesses, and limitations. The better they know themselves, the better they will be able to be effective stewards of their lives. Similarly, they might ask, “What values does God want me to live by?”

Once young people begin to discern this big-picture stewardship, we can encourage them to ask God how he wants them to invest their time, energy, and resources in the next season of life. This includes where they go to college and what major they choose.

It also includes financial stewardship, which is a major consideration for most college students today. Hopefully, students and parents have already talked and developed a plan for paying for college. However, the details of financial aid and scholarships are frequently not known until the last stages of the application process, so families need to revisit this critical dimension in college selection. Student debt impacts graduates in significant ways, creating financial stress and limiting life choice options as “paying off school debt” becomes a ever-present reality.[1] For most students, financing college without incurring crippling debt will require making some difficult and uncomfortable choices. However, wrestling through these challenges offer students (and parents) real-life opportunities to seek God’s guidance, provision, and wisdom. 

The good news is that God is generous with his stewardship and we’re all invited to share in what’s been entrusted to us.

Help young people learn to exercise wisdom

Wisdom is knowledge applied rightly. In this era of abundant information, wisdom remains of great value, because too much information can be just as limiting as having too little information. So what wisdom is most critical to college-bound seniors and their families?

  1. Make “learning to learn” the goal. It’s been estimated that more than half of the jobs and knowledge required for employment in four years hasn’t even been discovered or invented yet.[2] Gone are the days of learning a single trade and staying in that role for decades. Becoming an effective learner is the best preparation for present and future success. This includes identifying one’s preferred learning styles and leveraging them well.
  2. Develop self-control. Research has shown that those who learn to delay gratification (i.e., deny a momentary pleasure for a long-term gain) are significantly more successful, happy, and healthy.[3] This is developed by exercising one’s body, mind, and spirit. Saying “yes” to health and “no” to excess is a skill nearly everyone needs strengthening.
  3. Explore new realms. For most, the college experience is about expanding horizons and discovering potential. Students grow by taking risks, stretching themselves, and learning from the struggle of integrating new information with established beliefs. Therefore, making friends with people who are different serves to both expand their worldviews as well as solidify their own convictions. Additionally, finding “safe people” with whom to process is critical for healthy identity development. God created each person to grow and mature, so when choosing a college, students should look for one that will help them explore diversity in a supportive environment.

Remember to Rest in God

Lastly, encourage students to remember that as they seek to honor God with their decision about college (and all the other decisions that follow), they have a Father in heaven who loves them and wants good for them. Their identity as a beloved child of God is secure, and God is eager to lead them forward into the odyssey of adulthood.


[1] Student Loan Debt: The Best and Worst Debt to Have, Robert Farrington, Forbes, April 21, 2014. Life Delayed: The Impact of Student Debt on the Daily Lives of Young Americans, http://www.asa.org/site/assets/files/3793/life_delayed.pdf

[2] “By one estimate, 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.” Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How Technology and the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, p. 18.

[3] Jonah Lehrer, “Don’t! The secret of self-control,” The New Yorker, Dept. of Science, May 18, 2009.

Photo by Hanna Emmilyn

Brandon Hendriks is a 13-year youth ministry veteran currently serving as the Student Ministries Pastor at Pacific Coast Church in San Clemente, California with his wife and three sons.

There was a time when I led mission trips. I don’t any more.

Here’s why.

Mission trips are often a subtle (or not-so-subtle) way of saying that we have something you need. When we roll into town, people can finally hear about Jesus, get their needs met, and see how ministry is meant to be done. As a young youth pastor with something to prove, I led missions trips like that. That bums me out now. A lot.

I’ve since learned that “ministry partnerships” are so much more fulfilling, effective, and culturally affirming than “mission trips.” Books such as Deep Justice in a Broken World and When Helping Hurts shed light on a reality that I’d felt but hadn’t been able to fully articulate. The way we were doing missions was broken and even damaging to the very people we were trying to minister to. The key there is “to” instead of “with.” When we go to minister to people, we can be shortsighted and even oppressive. When we minister with people we become long-term ministry partners.

A few weeks ago I took a few students and volunteers down to Mexico with me to meet with the pastor and youth leaders of the church we partner with during our Spring Break trip. We sat in a room together as partners and equals as we prayed together, dreamed, and planned out some of the things we could do together while we’re there. I emphasized, as I have for years now, that we are there as co-laborers with them (after all, they are the experts on ministering in that area and culture), and that they could use our team in whatever way benefits the ministry of their church the most.

They shared that they had some new things they wanted to do that week to bring people to Christ—things we’d never done before, and frankly, a schedule I would not have planned. Now we are putting those plans into action as we start training our students this weekend to prepare for the trip. The church in Mexico is also starting to train their teens to prepare for that week of ministry. The group from our church is half of the team, and the group from their church is the other half. Only once we come together will the ministry team be whole.

Sure, we still call them mission trips. That’s how the students know them. But these are very different from the trips of my early years. This is a picture of the Body of Christ as it exists beyond culture and nation. The people that I’ve been blessed to partner with in Mexico are not only my brothers and sisters in Christ, they have become beloved friends—friends that I get to do Kingdom work with, and that’s the best kind.

How have you tried to move from simply taking mission trips to forming ministry partnerships?

Photo by laurenmarek

Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve. 

 “Do no harm.”

We at the Fuller Youth Institute wish that mantra was a reality in short-term mission trips.

We are well-intentioned. We want to do good. But often without realizing it, we sabotage our short-term mission trips by not thinking through how our work affects the locals hosting us.

Consider this haunting account from a leader in a Latin American country:

The indigenous staff in my organization lead weekly Bible studies with children to low-income communities … After a short-term team conducts a Bible study in one of these communities, the children stop attending the Bible studies of my organization. Our indigenous staff tell me that the children stop coming because we do not have all the fancy materials and crafts that the short-term teams have, and we do not give away things like these teams do. The children have also come to believe that our staff are not as interesting or as creative as the Americans that come on these teams.[1]


I have been that leader passing out candy, clothes, and soccer balls. I have been with students as people in Mexico and Guatemala crowded around our vans, eager for anything we had to give away.

Rarely did I think about what our giveaways were doing to the local leaders. The leaders who will be there not 7 days a year like us, but all 365.

Is it possible that we are well intentioned, but actually hindering God’s work globally because we don’t think about the locals affected by our work?

Having studied the research and had conversations with global leaders, my unfortunate answer is: Sometimes.

That’s why I am so inspired by a Texas youth leader whose church has decided to view their work through the lens of this question: How does this affect the locals? When this church was building a handful of houses in the Dominican Republic, they realized that some of the locals who work construction would not be working that week because they as Americans were working. So they figured out the wages of the construction workers and paid them for the time they lost.

That. Gives. Me. Chills.

On your next short-term mission trip, ask these questions:

  1. What locals could we partner with (and listen to ahead of time!) to make sure the work we do sets up the local church to win year-round?
  2. Who is being positively affected by our work?
  3. Who is being negatively affected by our work? As in the example above, it could be construction laborers, or food service providers, childcare workers, or teachers (to name a few).
  4. What can we do to compensate (whether it be financially or through another means) those who are negatively affected?

What else do you do to make sure that your short-term mission work “does no harm?”


[1] Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 169.

Anyone who serves teenagers today knows that more and more young people are eager to make a difference in the world. When students participate in short-term missions, service, and justice causes, parents and youth leaders hope these experiences will lead to real transformation. But research shows that our efforts don’t always stick.

If we truly want short-term work to translate into long-term change, leaders and students must spend more time before, during, and after service projects preparing for and processing their experiences. The sessions in this Guide will help you create experiences that stick—both for the students you take and the communities you serve. This guidebook offers a host of practical and field-tested exercises for each phase of your experience, whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas.

Participants will engage in hands-on experiences to gain new insights about themselves, their relationship with God, their teammates, and the world we’re called to love and serve. Each of these steps is a catalyst in helping students apply what they have learned in the field to their own lives back at home. Also included are ideas to help get parents and the whole church engaged in service together. A companion Student Journal is also available to boost the potential for personal application throughout the journey.

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