“One of the most important things that God has used in shaping my faith has been older mentors. Because of that, each year I’ve been in ministry, I’ve mentored someone who I see a lot of leadership potential in and who wants to grow in their faith. I see both of these things in you, Emily, and so I wanted to ask if you’d be interested in entering into this kind of relationship with me. I’d want us to meet weekly or every other week to connect, catch up on life, pray, and also study something together—like the Bible or a Christian book.”
That’s the very awkward message I sent Emily via Facebook back in the day when Facebook was THE social media channel teenagers used. At the time, Emily was a sophomore in high school who I’d known a year.
For reasons I cannot comprehend, Emily said YES to my invitation.
For the next three years, we met almost weekly. Over countless bagels, Diet Cokes, and ice cream cones, we shared pieces of our lives and stories with one another. Slowly but surely, we cultivated deep trust with each other.
As our relationship grew, we learned from one another. In some areas, I modeled growth to Emily. In others, she modeled it to me. Together, we explored her questions of faith. While she knew I didn’t have all the answers, she trusted me enough to share her doubts, knowing that I’d sit with her in the messiness of it all and together we’d find answers.
During the three years I mentored Emily, she also regularly attended youth group. There, she learned to trust her peers with her questions. Eventually, Emily began leading fairly regular conversations about her faith during youth group.
After leading a VBS for local children during a mission trip, Emily led her peers in applying for a grant to start a similar ministry for refugee children in our community. When we received the grant, she then rallied her peers to lead each week.
Emily’s compassion for the refugee children grew, and eventually she decided she wanted to do more. Together, we started mentoring a newly-arrived refugee family from Eritrea, giving us the chance to regularly practice compassion and hope.
On the car rides home from these encounters with our refugee family, Emily and I processed together. We wondered how following Jesus might compel us to find even more ways to address the refugee crisis at a systemic level. We explored how Jesus gives us (and others!) hope, even in the midst of horrific circumstances.
The compassion we practiced together spilled over into other areas of Emily’s life, including how she gracefully responded to her own family as well as her peers. Through her Christlike character, Emily lived out her faith beyond youth group.
Although I didn’t yet have the language to articulate what I was doing, unbeknownst to me, I was implementing the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass, which our team at Fuller Youth Institute identified through our most recent research.
Like me, maybe you’re already doing some of these practices. As our team has traveled the country for the last several years researching what compels young people to live out their faith beyond their youth group, we’ve been amazed at the innovative ways that youth leaders like you are cultivating trust, modeling growth, teaching for transformation, practicing together, and ultimately, helping young people make meaning of their experiences.
What’s even more amazing is how these five practices contribute to the formation of character and the way Christlike character enables young people to live out their faith beyond youth group—something we want for all the Emilys in our ministries.
Your 5-point compass for nurturing faith that goes beyond youth group
1. Cultivate trust
One way you can cultivate trust in young people is by empathetically listening to them. Ask them questions to get to know them and listen (really listen) to their responses. Pay attention to and show up at the things they care about. That’s what I did with Emily. When we first started meeting, we spent hours asking one another questions so we could get to know each other better. I attended her field hockey games not because I love the sport, but rather because I cared about her.
2. Model growth
As you cultivate trust, model growth. Consistently show teenagers that you’re the same person inside of church as you are outside of it (and vice versa). While teenagers don’t need (or expect you) to be perfect, they long for adults to actually admit our mistakes. I still vividly remember a time on a mission trip that Emily was on when I lost my cool with my husband (who, in a dual role, was one of my adult volunteers). More than a decade later, I can’t tell you why we were fighting. But I can tell you the impact our fight—and more importantly, our reconciliation—had on the teenagers who witnessed it. The teenagers weren’t surprised that we fought. They were used to adults in their lives fighting. What they weren’t used to was seeing adults apologize and forgive one another. That left a lasting impression—and example—in the teens who saw it.
3. Teach for transformation
The truth is, we’re always teaching young people. We just might not be teaching them as well as we think. But what teenagers need to develop their character isn’t more knowledge. It’s opportunities to actively participate in learning. That’s what Emily did when she chose to lead some of our youth group discussions about faith-related topics that mattered to her.
4. Practice together
Extend your teaching by finding ways to practice together. One of the best ways to do this is to serve together. Whether it’s serving at a soup kitchen, marching in a protest, or welcoming refugees like Emily did, practicing together gives young people the chance to move faith out of their heads and into their hands and feet.
5. Make meaning
Finally, make meaning. Process what you’re seeing, learning, and practicing together with young people. Ask questions like, What happened? What does it mean? Where is God? What now? When I asked Emily those questions on the way home from our visits with our refugee friends, she learned to make sense of what she was seeing and experiencing so that she could integrate her experiences into her daily life.
While the five points of the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass are certainly connected to one another, they’re not meant to be a linear process, nor are they meant to be a checklist. In fact, we’ve intentionally chosen to depict them as a compass, which is a navigational tool, a way to orient ourselves in a particular direction—in this case towards a faith beyond youth group.
What we repeatedly saw in our research is that focusing on character development is a game changer in forming young people’s faith beyond youth group.
Take Emily. Her faith has continued long after the last time she walked out of our youth room as a high school senior.
Today, Emily’s in her late twenties.
Her Christlike character is part of her identity.
Her Christlike character makes her a good friend. Her love and humility make her someone who others are excited to work with.
Her Christlike character causes her to actively confront injustices wherever she finds them.
It enables her to cultivate trust, model growth, teach for transformation, practice together, and make meaning with my two young daughters—her goddaughters.
What’s extraordinary about Emily is how very ordinary her story is.
Emily could be any one of the teenagers in your ministry.
By cultivating trust, modeling growth, teaching for transformation, practicing together, and making meaning, you can intentionally form young people’s character so they have what they need to live out their faith beyond youth group, regardless of where life takes them.
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If you're tired of youth ministry that fails to change lives, it's time to change youth ministry
Building on two decades of the Fuller Youth Institute's work and incorporating extensive new research and interviews, Faith Beyond Youth Group identifies the reasons it feels like you’re working so hard but having so little impact, and offers five ways adult youth leaders can cultivate character for a lifetime of growing closer to Jesus rather than drifting away. With practical insight and tips, you’ll find out how to cultivate trust, model growth, teach for transformation, practice together, and make meaning so that teenagers can become adults who hold fast to Jesus and boldly live out a robust faith in the world around them.
Photo By: Vonecia Carswell
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