Steve Argue Webcast Interview: Processes, Pitfalls, and Aha’s of Implementing Sticky Faith

Note: Some of you tuned in to a technologically-challenged webcast with Steve Argue on September 24, 2013. We apologize for the difficulty, and in order to help you access Steve’s great thoughts we’ve written up the interview for you here.

Kara: Steve, we really want to hear from you about the Sticky Faith journey at Mars Hill, and what it’s meant for you and your team. You’ve been around our research for the past few years. What have been some of the major discoveries in the midst of your Sticky Faith journey?

Steve: There’s something most of us connected with youth ministry know—that youth ministry has come of age and is having to own both the successes and challenges we’ve created over the last twenty-five to fifty years.

So we started asking questions about things like, “Why do we do what we do? Does this make sense? Are there things we aren’t thinking about?” And for us at Mars Hill, we pulled back a little bit and said, How do we make the choices we’re making? Why do we program the way we do? And this may be the scariest question, because we’re opening ourselves up to critique. As we began to ask those questions and think about our own conceptual framework, we ran into you guys. And we felt like FYI was asking similar questions. What are we doing? How is this working? What can we do better? How can our efforts be informed by good thinking and solid research?

So that’s where the process really began. And as we thought about how we frame the work we do, we realized our theology mattered, and our approach really mattered. That’s the important stuff. Ministry is more than activity. The approach matters. It must be just as faithful as the outcomes.

So we started looking for approaches that were more than tricks or the next cool thing coming down the line. We needed good research. [Sociologist] Christian Smith always talks about how our perception of reality is not always an accurate picture of reality. We all have our biases and blind spots. Research helps us test our assumptions, question our approaches, and rethink our perspectives with another lens. It can also sharpen our theology.

We also needed conversation partners. It’s easy to talk with those who are “just like us.” We can convince ourselves of a lot of things when most our conversations are homogenous. Our connection with FYI brought us in contact with some great leaders in churches and ministries across the country. They raised questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask, and we were challenged to articulate our ministry philosophy and approach more clearly as the audience was no longer “just like us.” Through the Cohort, we’ve made some great friendships that we still rely on.

We also needed a way to address the challenges we were seeing as systemic challenges, not just solitary ones. We realized that some of the things we were reconsidering went beyond being a “youth ministry” problem. They were church problems and societal problems. When you begin to realize this, you realize that you’re not messing around any more. You’re considering changing your youth ministry approach and your youth worker role.

Finally, we needed a process, not just a solution. We didn’t just need an answer or a product. We needed a process to get there because the process is just—if not more—important than the final outcome. That’s where the development happens. And this is where it gets very exciting. We realized that what we wanted to do as a church, and as a youth ministry in particular, was to become something different. So right there is a culture and a posture that takes a lot of guts.

I don’t think we’re unique in these needs. I think most every youth worker, deep down, entered youth ministry not because they wanted to be great at church programming, but because they wanted to change the world, to advocate for young people, to invest in something lasting.

Brad: Steve, you talked some about the courage needed to enter this process, as you did it with your own team and as you’ve worked with other church teams. What were some of the surprises, challenges, and pitfalls along the way in that process?

Steve: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that in some ways when we begin to think, “We want to go in a new direction, we want to think about our youth differently,” what you’re beginning to do is say, “Here’s a priority that’s really important and we want to do something about it.” The challenge with that is there are other priorities in the church!  Other really well-meaning pastors who have other priorities that they are passionate about. You end up facing competing priorities within decisions about where you’re investing your resources, because you can’t always do everything.

But as we begin to go in more of a systemic direction, the ministry lines in our churches get a little more fuzzy, and silos have to go away. Territories that are very important to leaders in our church get crossed, and we start getting into each others’ territories. Now we’re not messing around! Now we realize the challenges that we’re raising and the solutions that we’re offering are going to affect more than our little corner of the church; they’re going to affect everybody. As one of my colleagues has said, “When our responsibilities overlap and we enter into those gray areas, that’s where the magic happens.” Ministry lines, territories, silo thinking—all of that must change. Things can’t stay the way they are. Take seriously that every decision you make affects everybody. That’s a good place to start.

We had to work on explaining the problem as well as a solution, and then be open to critique. We learned that we needed to know what we were talking about. “The research says…” has become part of our vocabulary.

It seems as though the way we define the problem has a dramatic effect on the solutions we attempt. For example, let’s say people are not coming to your Wednesday night programming. If you believe that the problem is they just don’t care about Jesus, there’s probably a teaching series that you’re going to create to try to get to them. If you find out the issue is that none of them have rides, you’re going to have a different solution to that problem! So the way you define the problem has a dramatic effect on the solution. And for us, we realized that we had to ask this question: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? What is the thing we’re trying to help our adolescents understand, know, practice that lasts beyond high school? And, what is good news to each of our adolescents? So this began to change us. One of the most difficult things to do is to articulate very clearly what the problem is. Until you can do that, your solutions will always be open to interpretation.

I think we also have to be patient with helping adults, especially our volunteers, “catch up” with our thinking and approach. As a leader or a youth ministry team, you can get pretty far down the line in your own understanding, but you need to make sure that your adults, parents, and volunteers are brought along or they just turn into minions of your grand plan. And getting them up to speed is more than just getting them the information. There were also intellectual, emotional, affective, and personal themes that we ran into with our volunteers. As we began to identify the problem—young people are being systemically abandoned; young people need support; they need the language of faith; they need people to surround them and support them—the volunteers raised their hands and said, “That may be true for our teenagers now… but no one has supported me. I don’t know how to answer these questions of doubt. I need someone to journey with!” We began to realize at that moment that we had to shepherd our volunteers in the process, and not just think that this only has to do with our adolescents.

As a side note on volunteers, let me say this: Every volunteer out there, they’re doing more than giving a little of their extra time. Let’s recognize that they put it out there, they take risks to not only connect with teenagers, but to open themselves up to be challenged, confronted, and surprised by the Spirit in their own lives and spiritual journey. It takes guts. Hug a volunteer today. Tell them they’re awesome, because they show what it means to walk by faith and take risks.

Probably one of the last things I would note is that we all had to address some form of change. I think we think that if we solve a problem, change goes away. The thing about change is it evokes more change. Kind of like when you renovate your house. You start in the bathroom and then you realize you have to go to the bedroom and paint and then the living room. You make one big change and it sort of evokes other changes. Realize what you’re getting yourself into. The rabbit hole is very deep... We have to embrace that at some level and take it as it comes. I think that’s a thing to think about. There’s great reward to change, but also great challenge as the change you seek to make will likely end up being bigger than you imagined. This will both thrill and freak people out.

This isn’t for the faint of heart, but deep down, we know that this is what we want to be about: shepherding people, not just running programs for them.

Kara: What kinds of things did you actually change? What were some of the specific changes you made as a result of Sticky Faith?

Steve: We’ve realized that we are in many ways also building the ship as we sail it! We’d rather pull aside, build a perfect ship and then set sail, but we know that’s not true. There’s a process to all of it.

More specifically, there are a few things we did. First of all, we made some staffing changes. In light of the research, thinking about transitions, we changed the title of our high school pastor to High School and Post High School Pastor. And this was more than a title change. Priorities and resources flowed from it. We were committing structurally, philosophically, and missionally to think of high school ministry reaching out beyond adolescence into emerging adulthood. We wanted someone who could keep their eye on the post-high school ball as we considered this important transition of our graduates.

We also made some volunteer changes. We really started to rethink their role, what it meant to for them to travel with students over the long haul. Even volunteers who moved up with their students through the grades are being asked to, instead of starting over with a younger class, to meet with our graduates. Though the relationship changes, the relationship is still essential. We’ve attempted to cast this vision and resource our volunteers who are working with our post-high school people.

We really raised the expectation of the whole youth ministry. There’s so much training that’s needed to implement good thinking. For us, we have a year-long training arc that we take our volunteers through that includes philosophical introductions, practical tools, next steps in implementation, and reflecting/assessing the year. This training is more than practical for us, it is also formational for our volunteers.

As far as programming changes, we are thinking more about the transitions in our kids and students’ ministries. Not just for young people, but also for their parents. What has spun out of this are revamped curriculums for juniors and seniors, new resources for parents, and training for our fifth and sixth graders preparing them to join the Sunday congregation. In addition, we’ve realized that we also need to prepare the adult congregation for the infusion of our young people. It’s a learning process for everyone, and that feels like real church.

In our last summer series, we taught our whole congregation how to have spiritual conversations with each other and to practice these. We simply offered the same two questions after each service and encouraged young and old to ask and answer these questions on the drive home or over a meal. They were: 1) What in this story was new for you? and 2) How does this story make you want to live differently? Two simple questions that get our community talking with each other about God’s story and their stories in everyday conversations.

If you’re interested in learning more about the process Steve’s church has been walking through, here’s more information on our Sticky Faith Cohorts and the Sticky Faith Launch Kit.