The volunteer's guide to cultivating faith beyond youth group

Zach Ellis Image Zach Ellis | Nov 7, 2023

My transition from full-time youth pastor to volunteer youth leader was rough. I was used to being in charge, the center of the youth ministry hub, the person everyone knew. But when I joined the Fuller Youth Institute team, I no longer spent my days planning events, hanging out with teenagers, or thinking of clever illustrations for Bible studies. Instead, I tried to fit all that I once did in a week into my very limited number of volunteer hours. As you can imagine, I failed at planning events and flopped at helping Scripture come alive. The time I spent with these responsibilities meant I had little time to do what I love—spend time with teenagers!

I needed to focus on what’s most important so that young people in my community might develop faith beyond youth group.

This is why I’m so excited about Faith Beyond Youth Group’s 5-point compass. It provides a way for volunteers like me to maximize our roles in youth ministry. Instead of trying to do it all, we can focus our efforts on what matters most for passing on our faith to teenagers today.

Give your volunteers 5 compass points to make the most of their time with young people

1. Cultivate trust

Our Faith Beyond Youth Group research found that trust is the foundation on which transformative relationships can be built. It empowers young people to be their full selves around you, see you as a role model, and ask for advice. Trust allows you to move from occasional teacher to influential figure in their spiritual formation.

For this reason, cultivating trust should be the number one step for volunteers who are actively building relationships with young people. If we want our small group leaders, trip chaperones, game planners, and music leaders to cultivate faith beyond youth group, then they must cultivate trust with the teens in our ministries.

Teach your volunteers how to prioritize listening over accomplishing a task (like getting through a list of discussion questions) to let young people know that their story is valued and they can bring their full selves into their relationship with you. You may even read a book with your volunteers on active listening or lead listening exercises at team meetings.

Teach this: In a future conversation with a young person, instead of offering quick answers or opinions teach your volunteers to respond with “tell me more.”

2. Model growth

Young people don’t expect adults to be perfect. (They know we’re not!). But if we want to nurture faith beyond youth group, we need to admit our shortcomings and show them how God is transforming us.

Volunteers often have careers, friends, family, and interests that exist outside the church walls, providing countless opportunities to model a life of embodied faith. As we get to know our team, let’s invite them to share stories on friendship, extending grace, handling anger, or wrestling with identity. In these moments, volunteers learn how to appropriately model growth and witness their impact as role models for young people.

Teach this: Regularly ask your volunteers how they’ve seen God at work in their daily lives, and invite them to appropriately share those stories with your group.

3. Teach for transformation

When I was 12, for some reason while on a youth group trip with our lead pastor a friend and I thought it was funny to relentlessly make fun of the pastor’s preaching. I know, right? Not cool. Halfway through the trip, an adult named Mike invited me to sit down next to him and write down a few Bible verses. I don’t remember much explanation other than that. But I will always remember being brought to tears as I wrote down passages about being compassionate and encouraging to others. Along with the knot in my stomach as I asked our pastor for forgiveness and humbly received it.

Often we teach students about forgiveness or compassion. Research shows that transformative teaching goes beyond offering information to include stories, questions, shared reflections, and experiences. What Mike did was remind me of the greater story—the story of Jesus—that I inhabited. He could have simply told me to be kind, but instead he allowed me to discover for myself how discordant my actions were with my professed faith.

Sometimes our volunteers can feel ill-equipped when they don’t have all the answers. Let’s train them to create a safe space for questioning, processing, and storytelling. Volunteers don’t need a Bible degree or extensive historical knowledge to discuss the ins and outs of Leviticus! Instead, they need to learn how to listen well, create safety, and grow comfortable with the tension that may result from teenagers’ difficult questions.

Teach this: Encourage volunteers to memorize this phrase for the next time they’re asked a difficult question: “Great question. I don’t know, but…” This affirms the young person, expresses comfort with uncertainty, and offers a next step.

4. Practice together

For years, my dad (a small church pastor) supplemented his income as a handyman. Eventually he became a public school teacher but retained the invaluable skills he learned fixing houses. I spent a lot of time as a child watching my dad and holding tools. As I got older, I started accompanying him on jobs and attending missions trips with him. As an adult, the practice I received during my teenage years has been vital to helping me update my fixer-upper house. Thankfully, my dad didn’t just fix everything for us. He invited me to practice alongside him so that I would gain the competency to do it myself when he wasn’t around.

Cultivating faith beyond youth group works the same way. For teens, watching older adults worship, pray, and live out the gospel is essential. But what’s truly transformational is inviting them to worship, pray, and live out the gospel alongside others.

Train volunteers to actively invite young people to serve alongside them. Having a volunteer plan a game? Encourage them to partner with a student. Looking for somebody to pray at youth group? Invite a student and a volunteer adult to pray. Looking for community service opportunities? Identify places where your volunteers are already serving and see if students can join. Anytime there is an opportunity for young people to practice their faith alongside of your volunteers, you have an opportunity to cultivate faith beyond youth group.

Teach this: Next time you ask a volunteer to help with something, ask them to identify one young person who can be a co-leader on that task.

5. Make meaning

“Meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless” (Ecc 1:2). These are the first words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, but they could have been uttered by the middle schoolers I was with during our first Zoom youth group in 2020. No friends, chaotic schedules, fearful news reports, and no toilet paper! We gathered virtually to provide a space to process all that had been happening and help middle schoolers explore the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all.

The teenage journey to answering questions around identity, belonging, and purpose is made imminently more difficult when the world around them is chaotic. Adults can help young people reflect upon their experiences, identify where God is at work, and affirm the ways students are making a difference in their community. This helps them see themselves as active participants in God’s mission in the world even in the midst of instability.

Teach your volunteers how to reflect upon the actions and experiences of students by asking probing questions about the experiences of students and others in the world around them—why do you think that kid did that? What values might she be holding? What would you have done in a similar situation? How might you have lived as a Christ-follower in that moment?

Teach this: Ask a volunteer to share a story from their childhood as a part of your next youth group study. Then, invite the teenagers to talk about how they would have handled the situation today.

Faith Beyond Youth Group Leader Training

Complete the form below to access a FREE downloadable guide to train your team using the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass:

A tool for focusing on what matters most

It can be difficult for volunteers to shift from their daily responsibilities of work, family, and community life. As a volunteer myself, it’s too easy for me to come to youth group stressed from work, making dinner, helping with homework, and mowing the lawn, and then realizing I have to remember the names and stories of 15 middle school students!

The 5-point compass has helped me and the other volunteers in my youth group focus on what matters most. I don’t need to have all the answers or make sure everything runs perfectly. Instead, I can listen well, be appropriately vulnerable, and enjoy the opportunity to journey with the students as we together seek to live out our faith beyond youth group.

Tweet this: If we want to nurture faith beyond youth group, we need to admit our shortcomings and show them how God is transforming us.

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.

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Zach Ellis Image
Zach Ellis

Church Training manager

Zach Ellis is the Church Training manager at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). Zach holds an MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary and a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is ordained in the Church of the Nazarene and is an active volunteer in his church’s youth group. Before joining FYI, he was a youth pastor in Eastern Oregon. In his free time, you’ll likely find him hiking with his wife and two kids or watching Sporting Kansas City score goals.

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