Cultivating trust that helps teenagers feel seen and heard

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | May 1, 2024

Trust is a portal to character-forming community.

We believe this statement is true based on our FYI research for Faith Beyond Youth Group. We also bet you’ve seen it play out in your own ministry.

And since relationships move at “the speed of trust,”[1] trust is the underpinning in our five-point Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass. In the long race of cultivating character, it is like your ministry pace car. As you log lap after lap of relationship with students, you can never go faster in building faith and character than the speed of students’ trust.

Often the pace of trust is slower than you desire or expect. Teenagers have often been disappointed in the past when they have courageously shared what’s meaningful to them with adults—their thoughts, feelings, stories, insecurities, dreams, and relationships. No wonder teenagers are understandably sheepish—or downright refuse—to trust adults now. Young people have to build up assurance that when they offer something personally important to a leader, that leader will act in their best interests.

As part of our research, FYI awarded subgrants to seven amazing ministries so they could apply the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass to their contexts. One of those ministries is Urban Outreach Foundation (UOF), led by COO Jonathan Banks. Based in Chicago, their mission is to promote healthy churches, excellence in leadership and preaching, and community development.

UOF leveraged their grant to launch YOUniversity, a faith-based leadership development approach with online training for tweens, teens, and young adults as well as for parents and youth leaders. They were committed to cultivating trust with young people from the very beginning.

Trust starts with listening leaders

Here’s an interview Jonathan shared with me about his work, excerpted from chapter 4 of Faith Beyond Youth Group.

Jonathan, can you please tell us a bit more about YOUniversity?

Our team describes YOUniversity as “God’s way to lead with purpose and passion.” It’s focused on Black young people and Black churches. African Americans often view themselves as resource-constrained and rightly believe good leaders will give their community access to resources. We want the YOUniversity curriculum to help young people grasp that leadership isn’t about position. It’s about character and a lifestyle of influence.

How have you earned the trust of the young people involved in YOUniversity?

Fundamentally, we listened to them. As we developed our curriculum, we hosted listening sessions with over one hundred Black teenagers from churches in four different US cities. When we started each session, we told them that their words had the potential to affect thousands of young people. In every city, we said the same thing: “If you help us by sharing your thoughts and experiences, we can help other young people like you.”

Why has listening to young people been so important in creating YOUniversity?

I believe in listening to all generations, especially young people. But listening wasn’t my goal. Listening has been important because it’s a requirement for my ultimate goal, which is to co-create character-building resources with young people. Listening is a key step toward my goal of doing ministry with young people and not for them.

What did you learn from what teenagers had to say?

Well, first off, we shortened the name. We had been calling it “Champion YOUniversity” but they liked “YOUniversity” better. They are right. It’s a better name.

Listening to actual teenagers also helped us understand what keeps them from leading. They aren’t afraid to lead; what they lack is a path they can follow. Young people in communities that are resource-deprived or on the margins of our society are ready to grow in character; they just need a map.

Jonathan, before leading UOF, you were a pastor. What advice would you give a leader who wants to listen better and cultivate trust with young people?

Just like kids smell fear, kids smell insincerity. So, if you’re not ready to really listen, or you’re not equipped to listen without preconceived views of youth, don’t pretend like you are.

Plus, sometimes you’re not the best person to be asking the questions. Wise youth leaders sometimes need another trusted adult to ask their teenagers questions like: What do your youth leaders not get about you? What do your youth leaders do that makes you feel seen and heard? How can your leaders help you grow even closer to God?

Asking teens for input and insight in ways that make them feel valued and that they have agency is crucial. Such critical listening takes courage, intentionality, and vulnerability. But without it, our work can feel like just another exercise in teens being disingenuously invited to share their hearts with zero likelihood of it making a difference that is meaningful to them. As one eighteen-year-old told us during one of our listening sessions, “Being here made me feel like I mattered . . . like we are heard as people of color. That we matter and that there are actually people here to help us in this world.”

To find out more about YOUniversity and Urban Outreach Foundation, please visit

Cultivate trust with teenagers in your youth ministry

As teenagers live out Jesus’ goodness every day by loving God and their neighbors, character is not what teenagers dream up in their own minds. Instead, it’s what they see and receive from real people and are then inspired to repeat. It’s not a passive receiving but an active receiving grounded in trust.

The good news is that, like Jonathan and his team, youth leaders can build a foundation of trust with teens in ministry for stronger relationships and faith that lasts. Together, let’s reshape youth ministry for real impact—not just in the youth room, but everywhere students go. Let’s nurture faith beyond youth group.

Adapted with permission from Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship, by Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad M. Griffin. Published by Baker Books, 2023.

Tweet this: Trust is a portal to character-forming community.

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.

Order Now

[1] Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust (New York: Free Press, 2018), 2.

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.