We need to talk about compassion

Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | Aug 2, 2023

Youth leaders, when was the last time compassion was a topic on your teaching plan?

There's no doubt your teens see compassion all over your youth ministry. They’ve probably read and heard about compassion during your youth group Bible studies. They witness it in action as your leaders and volunteers patiently and lovingly care for your group every week. They experience your compassion when their struggles and questions are met with your undivided attention. They might have felt it whisper their name as they’ve joined in on mission trips and signed up for ministry opportunities in your community. And maybe even, once in a while, they watch you demonstrate compassion for yourself when you ask for help, delegate, or take a much-needed break.

But… how often have you and your students actually talked about what compassion is? Do they have a roadmap that tells them how to grow in compassion so that their lives will be enriched by compassion the way Jesus’ was?

I want to let you in on a truth we’ve been discovering at FYI: more often than not, youth leaders like you and me tend to lean on activities (like mission trips and service projects) to nurture compassion in teenagers—and forget to teach them about it.

In a national survey conducted for FYI’s Faith Beyond Youth Group research, we asked youth leaders to tell us about their ministry goals. It wasn’t surprising to find “discipleship” and “relationship with God” mentioned frequently among responses—but when we dug a little deeper, we discovered that leaders often found it hard to communicate or explain how their ministries meet these goals. In fact, many rated these same discipleship goals as their ministry’s least clear and most difficult to pursue. It makes sense, doesn’t it? How do we wrap a measuring tape around discipleship?

One of the ways I’ve always been tempted to do that in ministry is to measure the visible outcomes that discipleship should produce. To put it another way, it’s easy for me to present my church with a report on how many students participated in mission trips and joined ministry teams; it’s a lot harder to determine how many grew in compassion.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with naming “students serving others” as a ministry goal. We definitely want to give young people opportunities to do just that! But the catch is, learning to serve people or do kind things is not the same thing as learning to have compassion.

In youth ministry, when we simply replace something hard to measure (like compassion) with something we can measure (like serving) we leave a learning gap that our teenagers have to fill for themselves. The good news is, when it comes to compassion, there are many ways we can plan and teach with intention—both in the youth room and as we give teens the opportunity to serve in the world around them.

Teaching compassion from the inside out

In Teaching the Next Generations Andrew Root challenges us to consider that “youth ministry seeks not knowledge but transformational encounter with God. We want young people not simply to know about God but to encounter God’s very presence.” That might seem like a tall order—how do we "plan" ministry for transformational encounter?

We can confidently leave the transformation up to God. But in our youth group gatherings we can set the stage for young people to encounter God’s presence—and we can fill the learning gap by teaching teenagers how to notice the ways they’re seeing and experiencing Christlike compassion around them, and by nurturing conversation about how those experiences inspire or encourage compassion in them, too. Or, as we like to say at FYI, let’s help teenagers connect their heads and hearts with their hands and feet.

4 ways to talk with teenagers that will help them grow in compassion

Tell them stories about how compassion has impacted us.

When adults are willing to share their own struggles and the ways they’ve learned from their mistakes, young people gain authentic role models they can trust. You and other adults in your church can be those models by bringing your stories to youth group and sharing what giving and receiving compassion looks like in your daily life. And don’t just tell young people about your “wins”! Open up (at a level appropriate for teens, of course) about the times when you thought you were being compassionate but your intentions didn’t quite hit the mark, or the moments when you needed kindness from someone but assumptions, lack of confidence, or just plain busyness got in the way. Share honest glimpses of real-life compassion, and invite your teenagers to ask questions so that, together, you create a community of practice and growth.

Invite young people into the Bible’s stories to explore compassion from every angle.

Character formation calls us to go beyond simply standing at the front of the room and teaching with authority. Rather than offer young people a checklist of “life application” steps, we can present Scripture in a way that develops a character compass for young people’s day-to-day decisions. As you read the Bible together, pause and invite your group to look at what’s happening on the page through different lenses. What expressions do they imagine on the characters’ faces? Who can they empathize with in the story? What examples of compassion do they see? Whose actions or words do they wonder about? And what might they have said or asked if they had been present in that moment?

This time-honored contemplative practice offers reflective space for God to connect with each teenager in a personal way as we read, helping them identify the connection between Biblical narratives and the practical transformation giving and receiving compassion can have in their everyday lives.

Practice listening to God and processing together.

In FYI’s research, we found that both psychology and contemplative practice agree: compassion development and prayer go hand in hand. The process of growing in Christlike compassion is nurtured through reflection and listening—both to God speaking in us and to the experiences of those around us.

Spending time in reflective prayer with your group of teenagers—sounds easy…right?

Probably not! If you feel anxiety rising at the thought of creating more space for quiet and reflection in your youth ministry program, our team of researchers, youth leaders, and parents is right there with you. We know how real that struggle is!

God created the human heart and mind to strengthen and develop just like muscles do, through steady, intentional exercise. So if you’ve been wanting to teach your teenagers to grow in Christlike compassion, plan ministry moments that offer them little steps they can take to follow Jesus’ example of taking time out to check in with God and with themselves. If you need a practical resource that can help, we’ve created Compassion from the Inside Out—a brand-new youth ministry curriculum that’s loaded with tips and interactive prayer activities!

Make meaning together by processing compassion experiences out loud.

Forming compassion takes time and practice. It’s a journey. As your young people learn through practice—by participating in mission trips and ministry opportunities as well as in everyday situations at home, with friends, and at school—prioritize time in your ministry’s schedule for them to process their experiences and learn from one another in community.

Experience is powerful, but experience processed in community is transformative. Supportive small group discussion helps teens consider what compassion means, how it feels to receive, what it looks like in practice, and the next steps God might be calling them to as they learn and grow. As they do this, they’re integrating learning and setting themselves on a path for lifelong compassion.

Tweet this: Learning to serve people or do kind things is not the same thing as learning to have compassion.

Equip teens for compassion with their heads, hearts, hands, and feet


The teenagers in your ministry care about their world. They want to show up for friends who are struggling, speak up for those who are hurting in their community, and make a difference. But often their assumptions, experiences, or fears can hold them back.

Introducing an all-new 4-week high school ministry curriculum packed with resources that help you put FYI’s Faith Beyond Youth Group character formation compass into action. With powerful testimony-based discussion starters, Bible-based weekly scripts and slides, weekly interactive prayer and reflection activities, small group discussion guides, videos, and social media tools, Compassion from the Inside Out will empower your teens with tools for lifelong compassion.

Available now in the FYI store!

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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 racheldoddwriter.com.

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