Cultivating teenagers’ trust one small act at a time

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Oct 31, 2023

During our Faith Beyond Youth Group research, we met Slick—a volunteer in his church’s youth group who knows that trust is built through the everyday acts of showing up and loving unconditionally.

Like the everyday act of being present. As Slick (as everyone calls him) told us, "I like to think that if Jesus walked the earth today, he'd spend a lot of time at 7th grade tennis matches.”

At age seventy-one, Slick no longer volunteers as a small group leader at his church. Realizing that he’d rather get to know “all the kids,” Slick, along with the youth pastor and other volunteers, has helped create a trust-filled culture where every kid feels known and welcomed.

Before COVID-19, the local McDonalds was the youth group hangout. When the fast-food restaurant closed its dining room during the pandemic, Slick bought a used limo so he could take groups of students through its drive-thru for milkshakes.

Nearly every person we met at this church told us Slick is core to their youth ministry, in part because he visits youth group graduates who attend colleges within driving distance. According to Slick, “When I visit, if the kids have half as much fun as me, then it’s a success. But you have to build a relationship with college students before they are in college. If I just called up these kids to visit, they would think I was a creeper or something.”

Thanks to Slick’s generous love for others, one young adult at the church labeled Slick as the “hands and feet of Jesus.” Another young person described Slick as setting “the standard for who we are as a church . . . how we care about each other, support each other, and encourage each other in all aspects of life.”

Slick sometimes gets ghosted by students. While that can feel like rejection to any adult, Slick notices the kids who ghost him and cares enough not to do the same. He believes that “[Even when] you get ghosted by the kids . . . you can never ghost them back.”

He went on to describe why. “When a kid ghosts me, there’s usually a reason behind it. That kid is hurting and needs to know I still care.” Even more broadly, Slick explained what motivates him to build relationships with diverse teenagers. “Some are easy to hang out with, and some aren’t. It’s the ones who aren’t as easy to hang out who really need a friend.”

Through his closeness and consistency, Slick is able to cultivate trust and inspire the entire church toward more Christlike character. Just like Slick embodies the empathy and authenticity we see in Jesus, you and your community can too.

Cultivating the new generation’s trust in churches

As you may have noticed, Gen Z and Gen Alpha don't trust institutions in general. And that includes the church. In a national Springtide survey of diverse thirteen- to twenty-five-year-olds, only 14 percent reported that they trusted organized religion completely, while 39 percent indicated that they’ve been harmed by religion.[i]

Why is this generation’s trust in churches so low? In the midst of their quest for identity, belonging, and purpose, half of teenagers don’t think religious institutions care about what—or who—matters most to them. As one 13-year-old recently explained to her youth leader dad, “Why would I want others to know I’m a Christian? Christians are jerks.”

If Christians are jerks, that’s because we don’t understand Christ.

For too many Jesus followers of all ages, faith is something we do 90 minutes per week—on a good week. For too many of us, faith is what we do at church; it’s not who we are all week.

What young people and all of us need is a relationship with Jesus that changes not just 90 minutes of our week, but 100 percent of our lives. Compelled by this vision, we at FYI are excited to release a new book this fall, called Faith Beyond Youth Group!

Earning teenagers’ trust one small act at a time

Most of us learn to trust Jesus by first trusting someone who trusts Jesus.

A faith that lasts beyond youth group will never flourish if young people don’t trust someone who trusts Jesus. For this generation, that “someone” is likely to be the adults close up—the ones they get to know personally. It’s teenagers in your community trusting leaders like you.

One of today’s top youth ministry superpowers is building trust. According to our faith beyond youth group research, trust is built one small act at a time. If we could read the minds of this generation as they think about adults at church, we’d likely hear thoughts like this…

“You build trust as an adult when you show up at my band concert. You break it when you say you’ll be there but don’t show…”

“You build trust when you volunteer at church; you break it when you miss your week or ghost our small group…”

“You build trust when I learn what makes you feel afraid, anxious, or insecure—because then I know you’re more like me…”

“You build trust when you trust me—enough to lead or discover something about my purpose—because then you show me I’m someone who matters.”

It’s this sort of trust that young people felt toward Slick, who summarized his role as a volunteer quite simply: “I don’t have all the answers. I just hang out with teenagers.”

Slick does more than that. He trusts Jesus. And because teenagers trust Slick, they trust Jesus too.

Tweet this: Most of us learn to trust Jesus by first trusting someone who trusts Jesus. A faith that lasts beyond youth group will never flourish if young people don’t trust someone who trusts Jesus.

Excerpted with permission from Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad M. Griffin, Faith Beyond Youth Group released by Baker Books November 2023.

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.

Available November 7, 2023!

Order Now

[i] Springtide Research Institute, State of Religion & Young People 2021, 33.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

More from this author

More From Us

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads sent straight to your inbox. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.

Join the community

Sign up for our email today and choose from one of our popular free downloads. Plus, you’ll be the first to know about our sales, offers, and new releases.