Too much of what happens inside our youth rooms never makes it out of them.
It isn’t that we fail to have good intentions. It’s that our good intentions aren’t enough.
We structure our ministries based on the way we saw youth ministry modeled when we were younger, or what we learned from ministry mentors, or what we’ve seen online or posted on social media by celebrity pastors. Or all of the above.
But the evidence has been building that the way we’ve done youth ministry isn’t working. Whether you’ve been in youth ministry a long time or are just getting started, you have probably sensed this. You pour so much into students, leaders, programs, and your teaching, but you see far less fruit than you’d like.
We don’t think the problem is you.
We believe in you. We believe you want the best for your students, and you want to see young disciples flourishing in their lives and faith far beyond your ministry’s walls. The problem is the ministry compass you’ve been given, an outdated tool that no longer provides the orientation you need for the complex world you’re navigating today.
If you're tired of youth ministry that fails to change lives, it's time to change youth ministry.
What about the rest of the week?
In our research at the Fuller Youth Institute, we often get to talk with creative youth workers and visit dynamic ministries. We hear from young people who love their youth ministry and see it as a refuge. In one church we visited, a small group of girls would text each other encouragement like, “We just have to make it to Friday night youth group.” That sentiment is moving, but we have to wonder, What about the rest of the week?
Whether your youth group meets for forty-five minutes on Sunday mornings, two hours on Sunday nights, ninety minutes on Wednesdays, or five hours on Friday evenings, that’s only a small fraction of a young person’s week. How do teenagers fare the other days? And not just the rest of their week but the rest of their lives?
You want students to not only feel different during youth group but be different both before and after.
In short, youth leaders like you (and us) wonder: How can what we do in youth group result in faith beyond youth group?
That’s what we set out to learn in our latest research, building on nearly two decades of FYI work and incorporating extensive new research and interviews. The result is our new book, Faith Beyond Youth Group, which identifies reasons youth ministry doesn’t lead to either short-term or long-term transformation and offers five ways youth leaders can cultivate character for a lifetime of growing closer to Jesus.
Character can be a loaded term. For some of us, the word is filled with baggage because of how it has been used to get us to conform to a certain set of standards. It’s inseparably tied to morality. For others, character feels dated, like something that was valued in a bygone era by our grandparents but is not necessary now. Others of us might primarily associate character with elementary school curriculum that tries to instill qualities like honesty, forgiveness, and resilience in kids.
Still others might associate character with a set of spiritual rules to follow and behaviors to avoid. When we come from traditions that emphasize purity, holiness, piety, or other versions of strict norms that feel more like control than “freedom in Christ,” it’s understandable that mentions of character can make us bristle.
That’s not what we mean when we’re talking about character.
Based on a comprehensive review of character from Scripture, our research team defines character as living out Jesus’ goodness every day by loving God and our neighbors.
In the New Testament, when we read that God becomes incarnate and chooses to live among us, we see Jesus embodying God’s character. Jesus models character for his followers and teaches explicitly about character on multiple occasions, perhaps most famously in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus calls his followers to live according to the future kingdom in the present world.
From the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry, love was what marked his followers. In John 13:35, Jesus taught, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Of all the options Jesus could have used as the metric for his success, he chose love—a virtue. He spent three years loving his disciples and teaching them how to do the same.
By focusing on character, Jesus instilled his discipleship DNA in his friends. His identity shaped theirs. By forming a community with his twelve closest apostles, he gave his followers a place to belong that reinforced the character he was forming in them. Then he sent them out into the world with a clear mission to do what he did—to love God and others and, through that love, make disciples.
What we learned about character-forming discipleship in our research
Believing that the sort of discipleship Jesus modeled wasn’t just for his first followers, our Fuller Youth Institute team set out to explore how character formation could fuel discipleship today and help answer real questions that make a difference in forming lasting faith in young people.
Our research team surveyed 378 youth leaders, conducted 96 phone interviews, and visited seven noteworthy faith communities in person. We also interviewed senior pastors, volunteers, parents, and teenagers themselves in order to further explore their character and faith journeys.
All of that research yielded a five-point compass that will guide you in forming the character of young people in your own context.
As a navigational tool, a compass provides a way to orient ourselves in a particular direction in order to reach a particular destination. When we turn, the compass shifts and we explore different terrain.
The five points of the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass:
Cultivating trust asks how youth ministries can best leverage the relational strengths they already possess to develop character-forming identity, belonging, and purpose. As leaders, our relationships can build faith beyond youth group when they’re permeated with trust and punctuated with empathy and authenticity.
Cultivating trust requires both proximity and consistency by caring adults.
Modeling is showing others who we are every day. Teenagers wonder, Are you for real? Are you the same outside church as you are inside? They’re watching for what our everyday actions reveal. Do we model growth? When we live consistently, we let them know they can trust us with the parts of themselves they might be hesitant to bring to church—including their doubts, questions, mistakes, and hurts. Youth leaders can model consistency and integrity as we live everyday faith imperfectly, both within and beyond the church—so teenagers can follow us as we follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
We often model growth when we make a mistake and then take steps to both make it right and learn from it afterward or when we express doubts and questions in an age-appropriate manner.
Teach for Transformation
We believe teaching is imperative to faith and character formation. Yet so often it’s been focused on one-way information transmission, which seldom forms actual character. Throughout our Faith Beyond Youth Group research, we were amazed at the innovative ways youth leaders like you formed character by teaching for transformation—building upon the work of others, telling stories, asking questions, and commissioning others with authority, which are all strategies Jesus used with his followers to form their character. When character is taught in a way that transforms young people’s identities, they leave with faith beyond youth group.
Teaching for transformation demands that we go beyond giving a talk and encourages us to think creatively and experientially. How can we guide young people to discover answers to their questions? How can we facilitate experiences or discussions or activities that help young people decide for themselves what they believe and why?
Everyday life is the training ground for character formation. As we practice together, we walk with young people through a cycle of action and reflection, helping them try on service, leadership, hospitality, and holistic practices that move faith out of their heads and into their hands and feet. Through the struggles and victories of everyday life, young people develop character competence and, eventually, begin to own their faith.
Some of the most prominent ways youth leaders in the research practiced together were through service projects and mission trips, but we have to be careful not to pigeonhole this step. Practicing together can happen through testimonies, worship, student leadership, and more. It’s anything that gives young people the tools they need to put their faith into action in their everyday lives.
In the midst of once-a-year and week-to-week experiences, teenagers wonder, What happened? What does it mean? Where is God? What now? Faithful leaders guide students through these cycles of action and reflection; we make meaning, tapping into the power of naming experiences, evaluating our actions, and connecting to the larger biblical narrative before we go out and try again.
Integration is at the heart of making meaning. It’s about helping young people integrate their faith into what they’re seeing and experiencing in the world around them—whether those experiences are mission trips, camps, or a school shooting. It’s about giving young people the language to speak about their experiences and the tools to process and incorporate their experiences into their lives.
While the five points of the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass are connected to one another, they’re not meant to be a linear process or a checklist. We’re convinced that character-forming discipleship works in any denomination, in any size ministry, and with any size budget. It doesn’t require fancy programs or slick youth rooms. It harnesses the power of relationships to cultivate trust, model faith, teach for transformation, practice together, and make meaning.
You can do this.
We know you can, because in our research we encountered dozens of leaders like you who formed character in young people that enabled them to live a faith beyond youth group—both before and after graduation.
We want to help you connect teens’ faith with their character—not just for 90 minutes, but all week long.
Tweet this: By focusing on character, Jesus instilled his discipleship DNA in his friends. His identity shaped theirs.
[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.]
It's time for the church to lead the way in teaching teens about character
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.
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