Defining reality at your church

Kara Powell | Jan 3, 2005

Photo by Billetto Editorial

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”

As one of the more widely quoted statements of Max De Pree, “The first job of a leader is to define reality” [[Max De Pree, Leadership is an Art, New York: Doubleday, 1989, 9]] is highly relevant to youth leadership. Instead of cruising on momentum from past successes, wise youth workers constantly take the temperature of their ministries, evaluating whether their present programs still connect with youth and families. Rather than operating on past assumptions about youth culture, savvy youth workers regularly assess and explore current trends.

Youth workers who fully embrace De Pree’s admonition to “define reality” put not only their youth ministry and youth culture, but also their entire churches under the microscope. While this may sound difficult, the Search Institute has provided churches with a research-based tool to help congregations describe their real effectiveness in ministering to children, youth, and families. Building Assets, Strengthening Faith is a new assessment tool that invites members of a congregation from age ten to senior citizens to evaluate their church’s strengths and challenges in nurturing kids and their families.

As part of the development of the survey, 15 congregations (1,592 people including 486 youth) participated in a field test of the survey in spring 2003. While this sample is not necessarily representative and reflective of American churches broadly, it offers youth workers a springboard for dialogue about how churches can better support kids and families.

Key Findings

As summarized in the “Building Assets, Strengthening Faith” report available at, the 15 congregations in the field test noted several interesting ministry priorities and gaps. Each of these findings raises questions for youth workers and leadership groups trying to define and improve their own church’s effectiveness.

1. In the category of “opportunities for children and youth,” 57% of respondents thought their congregation does very well in “teaching children and youth what we believe” while 38% said they do very well at “giving children and youth opportunities to develop leadership skills.”


  • Would we also say that we are more likely to teach kids what we believe instead of giving them the chance to develop their leadership skills? How do we feel about our answer? Is there anything we would like to do differently?

2. In the area of “opportunities for families,” the strongest trend in the congregations was “supporting families in times of crisis” (43% said their congregation does very well) while “supporting families in doing religious rituals or ceremonies at home” was the weakest trend (23% believing it was done well).


  • What tangible support does our church provide to help families in times of crisis? What else could we do?
  • What do we do currently to support families doing religious rituals or ceremonies at home? What else could we do?

3. In the category of “intergenerational opportunities,” only 29% rated their congregation as doing very well in giving children and youth leadership roles in the whole congregation, providing intergenerational learning opportunities, and providing opportunities for children, youth, and adults to get to know each other.


  • What intergenerational learning opportunities do we offer?
  • How do children, youth and adults get to know each other in our church community?

4. In the area of community engagement, 50% indicated that their church does very well at helping people from the community feel welcome. Eighteen percent report that their congregation does very well in helping adults get to know kids “in the places where they live and work.”


  • Are you surprised that 50% of respondents report that their church does very well at making community members feel welcome?
  • How important is it to help adults get to know kids where they live and work? Do the practices of your church reflect that level of importance?

5. The vast majority of survey respondents (70%) report they feel like they belong in and are satisfied with their congregation. Only 40% agreed that their congregation “has a real impact in the community, nation, and/or world.”


  • Given that 40% think their congregation has a real impact in the community, nation and/or world, does it surprise you that 70% are satisfied with their congregation? Why or why not?

For Further Reflection

While these questions are appropriate for youth leaders to ponder on their own, they are even more effective when discussed with other church leaders. Perhaps you could ask for 30 minutes at your next church staff meeting to discuss these findings and questions. Or maybe you could invite a handful of leaders of children’s ministry, adult ministry, and seniors’ ministry to coffee for a less formal discussion.

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Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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