Teaching teens compassion from the inside out

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image Tyler Greenway, PhD Rachel Dodd Image Rachel Dodd | Aug 17, 2023

Have you ever felt your ministry was making an impact on your students…until you caught a glimpse of the out-of-church activities they’re posting on social media?

Or found that they’re signing up for mission trips…and yet struggling to be compassionate with people they meet daily?

Or do you resonate with other youth leaders when they wonder how to get teens applying the message of Jesus that they’re learning in youth group on Sunday…to every other day of the week?

As youth leaders, we hope our ministries will create lifelong impact for our students. We want them to have a lasting faith in Jesus Christ. We want them to know and love God—and we want their actions to demonstrate God’s love to others.

The challenge we all feel from time to time is, How do we help teens connect their knowledge of Jesus with their daily actions?

In other words, How can we disciple them for faith that forms their character?

Nurturing Christlike compassion in teenagers

When the teenagers we teach form compassion in their everyday lives—or embrace hope, grow as they persevere through a struggle, forgive, or show humility—they’re taking developmental steps towards forming Christlike character. Ultimately that character will equip them to live out their faith beyond youth group.

In recent years, our research team has been conducting innovative research on these questions many youth leaders are asking. We set out to explore how successful ministries are forming character and virtue in young people, and gain insights from positive psychology about the way the human mind and spirit develop. The great news is this: you don’t have to leave character formation up to chance! FYI’s research identified practical steps and tools every youth ministry leader can offer teenagers to help them nurture Christlike character in their lives.

To celebrate the launch of Compassion from the Inside Out, a brand-new youth ministry curriculum we’ve created that brings together insights, teaching tools, and practical activities for teens based on these findings, we want give you an exclusive look behind the scenes!

Insights from the research behind Compassion from the Inside Out

We invited Dr. Tyler Greenway, who helped lead our Character and Virtue Development in Youth Ministry research team, to tell us more about what our research found when it comes to nurturing faith—and character—that will last beyond youth group.

What were you most curious about when you started researching character development in youth ministry?

I love learning how faith is formed—how we grow spiritually, how religious beliefs and behaviors develop—and character traits and virtues are part of our faith.

When we started this project, we were interested to learn how ministries are already cultivating character in their students. How do youth ministries talk about forgiveness and humility? What opportunities do they offer for growing in compassion? And how are young people engaging with those practices?

We were also excited to learn how we could introduce character and virtue development research into ministry. There are researchers who develop wonderful, effective practices that encourage character development. For example, there’s all kinds of research demonstrating that healthy forgiveness helps us thrive, and a psychologist has developed a series of practices that can actually help us become more forgiving. But often the work of these researchers doesn’t make its way into churches or youth ministries, which is unfortunate.

This project was an opportunity to bring together research and youth ministry. We were hopeful that by doing so we could equip young people with tools for Christlike character that would help them flourish throughout their lives.

Ultimately, the team ended up focusing in on 7 specific character traits: love, compassion, hope, faith, perseverance, humility, and forgiveness. Why these ones in particular?

Because this project bridges the worlds of research and youth ministry, we prioritized listening to both worlds. We reviewed an extensive body of literature to identify which character traits had been well-researched, could be reliably developed, and were appropriate for young people. We also surveyed youth ministry leaders to ask what character traits their young people would be interested in developing and needed the most for their spiritual health, and which ones parents would be most interested in their children developing.

You listened to ministry leaders from a broad range of denominational, social, and cultural communities. What insights did you gain about similarities and differences in the way we all approach teaching teens to grow in character?

We learned so much from ministry leaders!

Some of the similarities we saw across communities and traditions were an emphasis on trusting relationships, modeling character, teaching, opportunities for practicing those character traits, and time for reflection. Each of those elements are important for character development, and youth ministry typically emphasizes and offers opportunities for those things.

In our interviews with ministry leaders, many highlighted the ways culture and social location result in different perspectives on character formation.

For example, one leader told us: “It’s just really interesting, the unique takes that each culture brings to each one of these things. ‘Hope’ is the easiest one that comes to mind. The experience that I’ve had with my Asian American students has been… ‘I would love to be an artist or a photographer, but my parents want me to go and do this instead. I don’t want to disappoint my parents, so there is no point in me hoping for this thing over here.’ And then, I have a conversation from somebody with a Hispanic background and they’re like, ‘I hope all the time. That is all I do is hope. My parents do not have expectations of me in the same way.’

Talking through these things helps us understand that they’re going to nuanced for all the different people in the room. There’s universality in the way God communicates and talks about these things and the way that the Bible outlines them—and we’re always going to understand that. But the way we talk about them with people is going to be very different depending on the culture that this person comes from because that is huge.

Let’s talk about what you saw and heard from ministry leaders on compassion in particular. Was there anything that surprised or inspired you from those conversations with churches and young people about nurturing compassion in young people?

One of my favorite parts of research with ministry leaders is the stories they tell.

Compassion within youth ministries focused on serving others, either within the church or within the surrounding community. Some leaders led service trips across the country, others organized acts of compassion in their neighborhood, and still others focused on caring for people in their congregation. Compassion encouraged people to “suffer with” others—to listen, empathize with them, and act in response.

One church illustrated compassion particularly well by responsively and consistently serving church members and their surrounding community. By rallying around a student who was fighting cancer and getting to know his needs, they made it clear to this student how much his church cared for him. They organized prayer gatherings when he had scans coming up, and even raised funds to buy him a camper so he could pursue his pursue his dream to travel! And during the Covid-19 pandemic, they created care packages for health care workers in local hospitals.

Youth leaders shared many stories of young people serving others with their time, energy, and resources. Those stories inspire me to be more compassionate!

Based on your findings, what’s the best advice you’d give to a youth ministry leader who wants to help their students grow in compassion?

Compassion requires us to recognize a need and respond appropriately. Youth leaders can encourage compassion by helping young people empathize with others to understand their needs. Then they can create opportunities to respond to those needs, and invite young people to identify additional responses that may be needed as well.

FYI’s research also points to the importance of churches that “neighbor well”. Young people see the importance of compassion and value churches that act compassionately. I’m hopeful that youth ministries will continue to be a place that young people can learn about, initiate, and lead compassionate interaction in their communities!

Tweet this: Compassion requires us to recognize a need and respond appropriately.

Teach your teens compassion from the inside out


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.

We’ve packed our new 4-week high school ministry curriculum 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, and social media tools, Compassion from the Inside Out will empower your teens with tools for lifelong compassion.

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Tyler Greenway, PhD Image
Tyler Greenway, PhD

Dr. Tyler Greenway is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Calvin University. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Psychological Science from Fuller Theological Seminary, an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary, and a B.A. in Psychology from Calvin University. Dr. Greenway’s work focuses on the psychology of religion, character and virtue development, the integration of psychology and theology, and the application of psychology in religious contexts. Before joining Calvin, Dr. Greenway also served as an Associate Research Scientist in the Science of Virtues Lab at Baylor University.

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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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