Life-giving change: Using Appreciative Inquiry for youth ministry

Jake Mulder | Dec 20, 2012

The youth group at Mark’s church was going through a transition.

About half of the youth were new to the church, and even those who had been at the church during elementary school were in families that did not have roots in the congregation. Debra, the youth leader, talked with the teenagers and some parents about rethinking their priorities and structure.

Based on some prior feedback, they had already been experimenting with more intergenerational activities like dedicating some Saturday mornings to helping senior adults with house or yard work. They had also tried a youth/senior adult fishing trip. These experiments opened their imagination about the future.

The young people decided they wanted parents involved in the conversation. So a small group formulated some questions that kids could ask their parents plus questions the parents could ask their kids. Debra and Mark provided some instructions, everyone got food, then they paired off, each youth with an adult (somebody else’s parent). They asked each other questions and recorded the answers.

For example, the adults asked the teenagers, “Think about anything and everything that has made a difference in your Christian life—how you relate to God, how you learn about your faith, how your faith makes a difference in how you live, what has been hard. What activities or people have been most helpful?” And the young people then asked the parents, “In your home now, what is most encouraging to you about what you do as a family to encourage your family’s Christian faithfulness? Name some ways you all help each other pay attention to God.”

For over an hour, the room was full of energy, memories, and conversations.

The experience described above was related by Dr. Mark Lau Branson, the Homer L. Goddard Associate Professor of Ministry of the Laity at Fuller Theological Seminary, to a group of church leaders. What follows is a summary of that presentation on using Appreciative Inquiry to bring about change, based on his book Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change.[[Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004.]]

What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) differs from traditional “problem solving” approaches in some significant ways. Consider a youth ministry in which the attendance is steadily declining. Many problem-solving approaches might expect the youth pastor to fix the problem by planning games that are more fun or having louder and more creative worship music. Often the focus is on problems and on changing what doesn't work.

AI, on the other hand, would focus on the life-giving forces within the church and among the young people, and help identify those forces through inquiry and collaboration. 

Simply put, the goal of Appreciative Inquiry is to change the conversations that are taking place in your congregation. As a leader, you have power to shape those conversations based on the questions you ask and what people talk about.

By asking the right people the right questions, it is possible for you to help recreate your youth ministry or even your entire church.

Is there a biblical framework for AI?

A biblical framework for this approach can be found in Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Like Paul, AI hopes to get people focused on the positive, rather than on the negative.

How can asking questions and focusing on the positive bring about change?

Mark explains, “AI provides an organization-wide mode for initiating and discerning narratives and practices that are generative (creative and life giving). Then AI guides and nourishes the organization along the line of its best stories.”[[Branson, 19]] Instead of identifying and treating problems, you are inviting those in your congregation to live into that which is life-giving. There are several assumptions that underlie AI, including:[[Branson, 24]]

  1. In every organization, some things work well (even if those things are not immediately apparent).

  2. What we focus on becomes our reality.

  3. People have more confidence in the journey to the future when they carry forward parts of the past. Since the unknown creates fear, building on the “best” of the past helps to create confidence and trust for the future.

  4. The language we use creates our reality.

  5. Organizations are heliotropic (like plants lean toward the sun, organizations lean toward their source of energy).

  6. Outcomes should be useful. The purpose of AI is not only conversation, but implementation and movement toward a future reality.

Where do I start? [[What follows is a very simplified version of AI for congregations. For more information, be sure to consult Mark’s book.]]

While there are several models that can be used to implement AI, Mark teaches the “4-I Model” of Initiate, Inquire, Imagine, and Innovate.

Initiate:[[Branson, 68-72]] In this phase, you will lay foundations, prepare leaders, determine your research focus, form generic questions, and create initial strategies.

  1. Introduction to AI: Here you will introduce the AI process to the team you’ll be working with (this might be your adult volunteer team, or another special team you assemble). [[For a ten minute video overview of AI visit: For another book about AI, Mark recommends: Jane Magruder Watkins, Bernard Mohr, & Ralph Kelly, Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination 2nd ed. (Pfeiffer, 2011).]] Review the foundations and assumptions provided above. Use some introductory questions to get people focused on the positive in your church, such as: What do you value most about our church (or youth ministry)? When was a time that you were most alive or excited about our church?

  2. Decide the focus of your project: For your purposes, this could be something like: “Developing lifelong faith in teenagers”

  3. Craft interview questions: These questions will help you to discern what is life-giving and “best” within your church and youth ministry. In the study at Mark’s church, they had teenagers ask adults, “During your teen years, what do you believe made the most difference in your intellectual, emotional, moral, social, and spiritual maturation?” The adults asked the teenagers, “In all the ways you have been connected to church – what have been your favorite? What has been most important to you (and why)?”

Inquire: [[Branson 72-76]] This phase includes finalizing interview questions, selecting who will be interviewed, preparing the interviewers, conducting the interviews, and gathering the data.

You want to select a wide variety of people to interview. For example, you might have a team of six volunteer leaders (and possibly one or two mature student leaders) on your team, and decide that each person should interview one teenager, one parent, and one of the senior adults. That would result in close to twenty sets of stories and ideas that focus on “the best” of your church’s narratives and practices. Or you could create a mealtime, and have pairs of students interview pairs of adults (other than their own parents), like the example at the beginning of this article.

Imagine: [[Branson, 77-103]] Here you will focus on “what might be” by interpreting the interviews and identifying the life-giving themes. Set some regular meetings for your team to review the interviews together. Look at them with your hoped-for Sticky Faith changes in mind.

From the themes that you identify, you’re going to develop provocative proposals. A provocative proposal is “an imaginative statement about the future, crafted as if it were already experiential and generative.” [[Branson, 86]] The essential aspects of provocative proposals are that they:[[Branson, 87]]

  1. Are stated in the affirmative, as if already happening

  2. Point to real desired possibilities

  3. Are based on the data

  4. Create new relationships, including intergenerational partnerships

  5. Bridge the best of “what is” toward “what might be”

  6. Require sanctified imaginations, stretching the status quo by pushing boundaries

  7. Necessitate new learning

  8. Challenge organizational assumptions and routines

Depending on your context, spending a lot of time getting the language just right for a provocative proposal may not be as important. The goal is to imagine a future reality and then (in the next step) create experiments that help you move toward that future reality. If it is important to those on your team, your supervisor, or a church board that you have this well documented or clearly written out, then do so. Otherwise, you can write some basic sentences about what you envision, perhaps with some bullet points, then move to the next phase of innovation.

Innovate: [[Branson 103-112]] This phase addresses how your provocative proposals can actually become part of your church and youth ministry. While new programs or job descriptions may be part of this, the goal is an inclusive approach to congregation formation that respects the life-giving power of narratives and welcomes the Holy Spirit.

This phase cannot be boiled down to a formula, but will vary based on your context. It may include changes to some structures and programs, informal initiatives of individuals, experiments with pairs or small groups, church committees reconsidering how and why they do what they do, or more formal initiatives of official boards.

When Mark and Debra led this process at their church, they followed the usual practice of including questions about the wishes everyone has for the future: “Think about the future. If you had 3 wishes about our church—any activities, or worship, or our leaders, or youth group—what would those wishes be?”

When they accumulated all of the answers, they created a spreadsheet, then spent time in several settings (youth group, youth with adult leaders, and adults with staff) discerning some next steps. The young people articulated wishes that did not just concern the youth group; they envisioned aspects of church life, worship, and mission in which they and adults would be more faithful and energized. Even their wishes for the youth group often included more connections with adults, including those who were not their parents.

Because the adults had listened to the teenagers, there was a new level of appreciation and partnership. And the stories that the youth heard from adults helped them gain new understanding. As planning proceeded, they increased the frequency of intergenerational activities. They also began experimenting with new ways to be in the homes of older adults of the church. When the youth were involved in events (like summer urban mission work and a 30-Hour Famine) they received lots of encouragement and support from adults in the church.

Because they also recommitted to their own peer-based times of learning, prayer, and conversations, their friendships and discipleship deepened. And because the activities of storytelling and imagining futures occurred in mixed youth-adult contexts, there was a broader confidence that listening and experimenting were steps they could take together.

Action Steps:

  • With your leadership team, list a few of the current challenges your ministry is facing, or areas where your ministry could grow.

  • Why and how could Appreciative Inquiry be a useful approach to these changes?

  • Using the “4-I Model” model described above, work through the phases of Initiate, Inquire, Imagine, and Innovate.

  • After you have imagined a new future and begin the innovation phase, you may find several helpful resources in the Making Changes Stick Toolkit. It addresses why people are afraid of change, whether it is best to make changes quickly or slowly, how to work with your senior pastor, and much more.

Jake Mulder

Jake Mulder is the Senior Director of Strategy at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Fuller's Executive Director of Leadership Formation Division. As Senior Director of Strategy at FYI, he oversees business administration, coordinates new research, develops resources and trainings, and helps the team think strategically. Jake holds a BA in Business Administration in Finance from Western Michigan University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Fuller. Passionate about helping individuals and organizations achieve their full potential, he is the coauthor of Growing Young. Prior to joining the FYI team, Jake worked in a variety of ministry and professional roles, including as a Financial Analyst, Youth Pastor in the Reformed Church of America, Ministry Director with Youth for Christ, and missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Europe and Asia. Jake and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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