Character: It’s not just about teaching teens to be “good”

Jen Bradbury Image Jen Bradbury | Oct 18, 2023

Frustrated by what I’d just heard, my mouth fell open as the pastor finished preaching.

I wasn’t frustrated because the pastor had gotten political, or because he’d talked for too long, or even because his message was unrelatable. Instead, I was frustrated because this preacher took a Gospel story about Jesus and made it about us. He used Matthew 16:13-16—the story of Peter responding to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” by confessing “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”—to say that like Jesus, we need to figure out who we are.

He’s not wrong. We do need to figure out who we are. According to FYI’s research, “Who am I?” is one of three big questions young people ask. Helping young people form Jesus-centered identities is a critical part of faith formation.

But you cannot form Jesus-centered identities until you know who Jesus is.

That’s the vital step this pastor missed. When we skip right to life applications that focus on us rather than on God, Jesus starts to imitate us rather than the other way around. New Testament professor Scot McKnight observed this phenomenon after giving college students a psychological test in which he first asked them questions about themselves before asking them to imagine Jesus’ personality. He concluded that “Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves.”[1]

Character gaps

When we fashion Jesus in our image, God’s character starts to resemble ours. This is a big deal because, as Father Gregory Boyle writes, “What matters, in the end, is what kind of God we believe in.”[2]

What kind of God we believe in matters so much that researchers from Baylor University actually concluded that how people view God is one of the “strongest predictors of a range of social and moral attitudes.”[3] In other words, our character doesn’t only reflect our creator God; it reflects who we create God to be.

No wonder, then, that the failure to understand God’s character is one of three factors the FYI team believes prominently contributes to character gaps—the space between saying one thing and doing another. (The other two factors that contribute to character gaps are the failure of the church to form character and a shifting understanding of character.)

When we fail to understand God’s character, too often our attempt to develop character in young people results only in forming good kids, not Christlike kids.

I’m guessing you’ve heard the phrase—good kids—before. Maybe some well-intentioned person from your church has even commended you on the good kids found in your congregation.

People in my church have definitely said as much to me, most notably after times when young people were highly visible—like on Youth Sundays or times when students shared about summer mission trips. At the end of these events, parishioners routinely told me, “We’ve got such good kids.”

They were right. We had good kids.

You do too.

From “good” to Christlike

The problem is the goal of Christian formation isn’t just to make good kids. It’s to form disciples with the character of Christ. While good kids and disciples with Christlike character are related, they aren’t the same.

Good kids are generally nice people, particularly when they’re on display.[4] Teenagers with Christlike character do the right thing even when no one is watching.

Good kids don’t question what grown-ups in their lives expect. Teenagers with Christlike character sometimes question (or even defy) others’ expectations in order to live out Jesus’ command to love God and others.

Good kids don’t bully others. Teenagers with Christlike character confront bullies. Like Jesus, they use their voices to advocate for those on the margins.

Good kids get involved in causes because they long to make the world a better place (while also beefing up their college résumés). Teenagers with Christlike character get involved in causes because that’s what following Jesus compels them to do (whether or not it looks good on their college résumés).

Good kids stay out of trouble. Teenagers with Christlike character sometimes get into “good trouble,” the kind of holy trouble Jesus made when he confronted powerful people and systems of oppression.[5]

Good kids are, well, good.

We rejoice that there are good kids in so many churches. And we also believe we can do better. When it comes to discipleship, we have to do better.

Forming Christlike character in teenagers

So let’s aim for forming Christlike kids rather than settling for forming good ones. Here are three practical steps you can take to start forming kids with Christlike character today.

  1. Fill the character gaps. As you decide what to teach with your young people, intentionally teach about God (and Jesus’) character. Don’t make the same mistake the pastor in my opening story did. Before jumping to what the story means for us, talk about what the story reveals about who God is. Make it a consistent practice to openly discuss God’s character as you explore various Bible stories.
  2. Use the Faith Beyond Youth Group Compass to guide your discipleship efforts. Leverage character as the game-changing tool it is in order to extend your teenagers’ faith beyond youth group by cultivating trust, modeling growth, teaching for transformation, practicing together, and making meaning.
  3. Change the narrative. When people commend you for the good kids in your youth group, affirm what they’re saying and then challenge them to think even more deeply. Rather than just brushing people off or accepting their compliment, start a conversation. Explain that your goal isn’t just forming good kids, it’s forming Christlike kids. Then ask what attributes contribute to their understanding that you've got good kids. When you ask about characteristics, people will often name fruits of the spirit or describe Christlike character in young people. When they do, affirm what they’re seeing. Encourage people in your congregation to call out those specific attributes in young people because doing so will encourage teenagers to live out Christlike character in their everyday lives.

Ultimately, character is what extends faith beyond youth group. It’s what we want our good youth group kids to take with them when they leave church so that wherever they go and whatever they do, they reflect and imitate Jesus.

Tweet this: While being "good kids" and disciples with Christlike character are related, they aren’t the same.

Connect teens’ faith with their character—not just for 90 minutes, but all week long

Faith Beyond Youth Group Book and Link

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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[1] Scot McKnight, “The Jesus We'll Never Know: Why scholarly attempts to discover the 'real' Jesus have failed. And why that's a good thing.,” Christianity Today, April 9, 2010, https://www.christianitytoday.....

[2] Gregory Boyle, The Whole Language: The Power of Extravagant Tenderness (New York: Avid Reader Press, 2021), 1.

[3] David Briggs, “How Americans View God,” Faith and Leadership, February 28, 2011,

[4] In so many ways, our desire to form “good kids” reflects the dominance of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a term coined by Christian Smith and his team during the groundbreaking National Study of Religion (NSYR). While the NSYR studied Millennials, the very notion of good kids reflects the lasting impact of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism on the church and Generation Z. This “de facto dominant religion” can be seen in the prevalence of five beliefs that form the “MTD creed”: (1) God created, orders, and watches over the world, (2) God’s desire is for people to be “good, nice, and fair” to each other, (3) God wants us to be “happy and to feel good about oneself,” (4) God is primarily needed to solve our problems, and (5) Good people go to heaven when they die. These beliefs are often embedded in what leaders and parents mean when they talk about good kids. See Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63.

[5] Popularly attributed to Civil Rights leader John Lewis. Joe McCarthy, “10 John Lewis Quotes That Will Inspire You to Get Into ‘Good Trouble,’” Global Citizen, July 20, 2020,

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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