Planning summer youth activities that nurture spiritual growth

Jen Bradbury Image Jen Bradbury Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | May 18, 2023

At one church I (Jen) served, I inherited a do-it-yourself mission trip. Over the summer, teenagers loaded into coach buses to travel to a mission site where they did construction projects for a week. They had a blast, worshiped, camped, and participated in epic hikes.

It was a great trip with one big problem: after we came home, our group shrank. Only a fraction of the students came to worship or youth group. After a couple of weeks, I seldom heard stories of the trip’s impact on teenagers’ lives, character, or faith.

Despite good intentions, this trip failed to have a long-term impact on young people.

We’re guessing you can relate.

Perhaps you’ve got a similar story of a failed mission trip or summer camp experience.

Or maybe you can recall a discussion that went off the rails, a sermon illustration that didn’t land the way you thought it would, or a time when you thought teenagers were tracking with you only to then see them do something that completely contradicted what you’d just been talking about.

As youth leaders, we all want what we do in youth group to matter outside of it as well.

That’s why we’re excited to share with you FYI’s latest research on the impact of character formation on discipleship. What we’ve found is that character formation is key to extending young people’s faith beyond youth group. Out of this research, five vital practices emerged, which we now call the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass:


While all five points of the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass are important in forming character, as the school year concludes and your summer schedule begins, we want to focus on practicing together. We can and should practice together all year long, the summer affords some unique opportunities for you to do so with young people.

As you go out into the community to serve and play, attend camp, or go on mission trips, you have opportunities to practice together—to live out all the principles and concepts you’ve been discussing throughout the year. When we walk with teenagers 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, we practice together.

Here are three approaches to spiritual growth you can practice together this summer (and throughout the year) with teenagers.

3 approaches to spiritual growth you can practice together with your teenagers this summer

1. Invite imagination as you read the Bible

Once in a leadership course, I (Rachel) found myself in a very odd debate with a fellow ministry leader on whether the disciple Peter was a lion (intentional, authoritative leader) or an otter (relational, adaptive leader). My colleague was thinking about Peter as the “rock”, a wise leader of the early Church. I was taking a longer view, recalling the parts of the story where Peter teeters between confidently declaring Jesus as the Messiah one minute to scolding Jesus the next. Or wavering between professing his loyalty to Jesus and denying he ever knew the man.

To be honest, I think the first learning to be taken from that experience is that we need to throw this particular personality test out. We are all lions and otters at different times of life and faith.

Yet one lifelong takeaway that exercise has given me is a curiosity about how we teach and understand the Bible’s stories. I confess that, like many, when giving youth talks it’s so easy to fall into a dependable pattern of simply reading the story out loud (better yet—having a teen read it), and diving into my three main points and practical applications. But when we do this, we offer a one-dimensional view of the Bible, presenting characters’ words and actions without really taking time to consider their humanity—the doubts, wonderings, and growth that led them to act, interact, and respond to God at work in their lives.

Sometimes Peter was scared. I probably would be too, in the situations he was facing. Sometimes he slipped up, blurted out words before thinking them through, and (dare I say) even made some pretty big mistakes. Still, Jesus communicates confidence in Peter to lead the church.

That’s a character who makes me feel like I can do this journey we call faith.

Using imagination to “enter into” a story is a time-honored contemplative practice that creates space for God to connect with each of us in a personal way during the reading of Scripture. While you can do this any time of year, summer gives you a unique opportunity to experiment with this practice.

Approaching Bible reading with teenagers this way invites everyone to pause, give the passage the attention it’s due, and ask:

  • What might the characters be feeling at this moment?
  • What would I be feeling if I had been in this story?
  • Do I empathize or identify with a particular character? Why?
  • What question do I have for God as I imagine this story?
  • What does this passage tell us, as we are right now, about the journey of knowing and following God?

The next time you read Scripture with young people, try this:

Depending on your students, their level of comfort with the practice, and the amount of time you have, invite everyone (students and leaders) to close their eyes and imagine the scene as they hear a Bible passage or story read aloud.

Then, whether quietly with eyes closed or together in small groups (you know what works best with your students!) practice engaging with the story and experiencing spiritual growth together using the questions above.

2. Grow beyond “popcorn prayer”

Youth leaders, let’s be honest with ourselves: how often have you uttered the words, “Let’s pray. I’ll start, and then we’ll go around the circle,” in this month alone?

The circle or “popcorn prayer” is practical and efficient. It gives everyone a chance to participate and gets the job done. And for most adults, it’s probably familiar and comfortable.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach to prayer. But can we take a moment to ask ourselves:

  • Is this prayer model truly equipping our young people to grow spiritually?
  • Do our students feel that the circle is offering a safe space for them to name their joys and concerns before God and our youth group community?
  • Are our students experiencing authentic conversation with God—or do they tend to mutter a few quick sentences and move on?
  • Does this approach actually raise students’ anxiety, which is the last thing we want to do in prayer?

If these questions have you thinking, there is room for both you and your students to learn how to practice deeper prayer together.

There are many, many different ways to pray. Give students time and quiet to pray on their own, or set up prayer stations. Take a walk together, or create a prayer labyrinth. Try a call-and-response liturgy, or look up a prayer from the past written by someone facing a similar situation. Try the Examen together, or lament and practice intercessory prayer by drawing how you’d like to see the Holy Spirit work in a tough situation. Each of these approaches is authentic and unique—and each gives you, your leaders, and your students a chance to encounter God in a new way.

Don’t model just one way to pray with students—together, create your own compilation.

The next time you’re leading students in prayer, try this:

Challenge yourself to practice growth together with your students by exploring one of the different prayer models above—or perhaps another model that honors your church, denomination, or community’s traditions. No matter which way you pray, here are some tips that can help you have a meaningful experience:

  • Create a comfortable and welcoming environment. Ask students to silence phones and put them in their pockets, and reduce external noise in the room. You may even invite students to find a comfortable place to sit, encourage them to spread their chairs out, or take the group outside.
  • Reassure students that there’s no pressure to be a prayer “expert”—they might not even find it easy at first. If students feel their minds wandering a little as they pray, let them know that’s okay. They might want to try the prayer activity at home a few times, and stay with it a little longer with each try.
  • Remind students to be respectful of others’ desire to grow and have conversation with God during this time. If, after giving it a try, they’re feeling that the prayer practice isn’t for them, they can sit quietly and wait for others to finish.
  • Model growth by talking about what you’ve found to be a challenge, and what you’ve found helpful as you’ve tried the prayer practice.

3. Be community together to build belonging

Summers offer us unique opportunities to serve and play together, both of which can give us the chance to practice being community together. When we practice being community together, we help young people belong, which is imperative since “Where do I fit?” is one of the three big questions every teenager asks.

But here’s the thing. With rare exceptions, forming community doesn’t just happen. It takes intentionality to foster it, which is why we have to practice it.

Practicing community together means considering who naturally hangs out with who when your youth group gets together, who’s left on the margins of your community, and how you can integrate those people into the group. It means spending time together making memories that form your group’s collective identity and showing up to celebrate and mourn together.

One of my (Jen’s) most powerful experiences of being community together happened through mourning. When the mom of one of my youth group kids died, we rallied together to surround their family with love. We coordinated a time for our youth group to attend the wake together.

Recognizing that this was the first time some of our teenagers had ever attended a visitation, we met a few minutes early to help prepare them for what they were going to experience. We talked about how they’d have the chance to greet the family and view the body. We wrestled together with what to say (and not say) to the family and how to offer condolences to people you don’t know. We explained that we’d stay for a while after going through the receiving line and how this would be a good opportunity to ask their friend about the stories behind the pictures we knew would be set up. We let our young people know that it was OK to feel however they were feeling.

That night, the teenagers in our group were an attentive community. But what’s even more striking is how many of those same teenagers—nearly a decade later—still talk about how that experience shaped their understanding of what it means to be community.

Thankfully, you don’t need to walk through grief to practice being community together. You can do so throughout your summer schedule (and even beyond that!)

The next time your group is gathering, try this:

  • Tap into the more casual pace of summer to create impromptu connections with young people whenever they are available. Try setting up weekly meet-ups at lunch places, ice cream shops, or other local hangouts.
  • Disrupt cliques by assigning small groups, teams, or vans. While this may irritate the kids in your group who are well-connected, it will help those who are on the margins connect with others.
  • Take pictures and post them somewhere young people can see them frequently to remind them of their shared experiences together.
  • Celebrate summer birthdays, especially because those are often overlooked in school settings.
  • Show up together for events that are important to your community, like games and festivals.
  • Prepare teenagers for what they’re about to experience (including what you want them to do) and process it afterwards to help them make meaning from it.

Leaders, let’s change the way we nurture spiritual growth with teenagers—over the summer and all year long.

By planning youth activities so they cultivate trust, model growth, teach for transformation, practice together, and make meaning, we can cultivate character in our students that will set them up for a lifetime of growing closer to Jesus—rather than drifting away.

Tweet this: Community means spending time together making memories that form your group’s collective identity and showing up to celebrate and mourn together.


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 youth ministry often flops both short-term and long-term, and offers five ways adult youth leaders can cultivate character for a lifetime of growing closer to Jesus rather than drifting away.

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Jen Bradbury Image
Jen Bradbury

Jen Bradbury serves as the Sr. Director of Family Ministry at First Pres. Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. With more than twenty years of experience in youth ministry, she’s the author of several books, including The Jesus Gap, The Real Jesus, Called: A Novel About Youth Ministry Transition, and What Do I Believe About What I Believe? Jen and her husband, Doug, live in the Chicagoland area where they can regularly be found adventuring with their two young daughters.

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Rachel Dodd Image
Rachel Dodd

Rachel Dodd is a spiritual director, writer, and Managing Editor at the Fuller Youth Institute. She has a BA in Church Music and Youth Ministry from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently finishing a DMin in Spiritual Formation and Direction. Having served students and families in the UK and US for over 20 years, Rachel loves writing to share stories and equip those following their own calling in ministry. She and her husband, Carl, now live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and have two daughters. Connect with Rachel at

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