Unearthing the whole truth about holistic ministry

Kara Powell | Dec 13, 2006

Photo by Pierre D.

True or false: All kids need Jesus.

OK, that was an easy one.

Let’s try something tougher.

True or false: All that kids need is Jesus.

Many of our worship lyrics make us think that the answer is True. We proclaim through song, “All that I need is You,” and “Your love is all that I need.”

While it’s True that “All kids need Jesus,” it’s not True that He’s all that they need. In the big picture, Jesus is the most important part of a kid’s life. But in the little picture, things like health, friendship, and family support are pretty important too. While we know that Jesus in many ways ultimately provides all these for kids, it still seems irresponsible for us to focus only on kids’ so-called “spiritual” needs and ignore the rest.

Given this, we’re encountering more and more youth workers—especially in urban settings—who are committed to holistic ministry. By holistic ministry, we mean ministry that acknowledges and tries to develop the whole potential of kids. Those who practice holistic ministry seek to develop kids not just spiritually, but also emotionally, academically, physically, and socially.

In an effort to understand effective holistic ministry in urban settings, we at Fuller Youth Institute partnered with the Louisville Institute to conduct the Urban Youth Workers in America (UYWA) study. In this article, we share one portion of our UYWA study that hopefully helps you wrestle with the diverse needs of your own kids until you pin down some holistic answers.

Theoretical Background for the UYWA Study

Based on surveys with over two million youth in the United States and Canada, the Search Institute, a well-respected research center in Minnesota, has developed a framework relevant to holistic ministry called the “40 Developmental Assets.” The assets are 40 different building blocks of development that help people of all ages (including teenagers!) thrive. The more teenagers are able to access these assets through their surrounding communities and relationships, the more likely they are to succeed in school, avoid high-risk behaviors, and exhibit leadership. For a list and brief descriptions of all 40 assets, please click HERE.

For more information, see www.search-institute.org.

Recognizing that it would be helpful to narrow these 40 assets into fewer categories, Theokas, et al. conducted further analysis on a 1999 Search Institute dataset of 212,000 youth to arrive at 14 asset factors. [[Theokas, C., Almerigi, J., Lerner, R., Dowling, E., Benson, P., Scales, P., & Von Eye, A. (2005). “Conceptualizing and Modeling Individual and Ecological Asset Components of Thriving in Early Adolescence,” Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1).]] Asset factors are clusters of personal and social support systems that interact with each other to accomplish two goals: protect kids from risk and promote healthy development. These 14 asset factors can be divided into two categories: individual assets and ecological (or environmental) assets.

Seven Individual Asset Factors:

  1. Social Conscience
  2. Personal Values
  3. Interpersonal Values
  4. Rules and Boundaries
  5. Risk Avoidance
  6. School Engagement
  7. Activity Participation

Seven Ecological Asset Factors:

  1. Connection to Family
  2. Community Connection
  3. School Connection
  4. Contextual Safety
  5. Adult Mentors
  6. Positive Identity
  7. Parental Involvement

No one kid is likely to have all 14 asset factors. No one community will offer the 14 asset factors in equal measures. Your ministry might interact with kids and families who have strong school connections but lack a sense of social conscience and social justice. Or maybe the kids and families in your community have a strong commitment to avoiding high-risk behaviors, but adult mentors are in short supply. Given the unique dynamics in each community and city, our job then becomes not just to try to fill in what’s missing, but also to build upon what’s already there.

The methodology of the UYWA study

In order to launch the UYWA study, both Fuller Youth Institute and the Urban Youth Workers Institute recommended leaders from noteworthy ministries serving urban youth, including the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative, the Christian Community Development Association, Young Life, World Vision/Vision Youth, and the National Network of Youth Ministries. These ministries were contacted and invited to nominate urban youth workers who are exemplary in their holistic approach to ministering to kids. From that list of nominees as well as others who were nominated in a snowball sampling methodology in which each nominee could also suggest additional individuals, ninety-four urban youth-workers completed an online survey. [[Data was gathered through both open-ended questions and 17 Likert-scale items. The three part survey was designed to assess how the program intentionally or unintentionally employed assets and to measure the importance of various assets in the participants’ program. The open-ended questions probed assets youth workers currently offered through their ministries. The Likert-scale items provided an opportunity for youth workers to rate the significance of specific assets within their organization.]]

Results of the UYWA study

Demographics of the Youth Workers Studied

In order to understand how these 14 asset categories relate to real life urban youth ministry, 94 urban youth workers who were considered “exemplary” in their holistic ministry to kids completed an online survey. These 94 youth workers represented various organizations from 19 states in the nation. The majority (44%) were from the Western United States with 24%, 23%, and 7% representing the South, Midwest, and East respectively.

The youth workers’ ministry programs serve a variety of ethnicities. Twenty percent serve predominantly African-American populations, 8% Latino/a populations, 3% Asian populations, 2% Caucasian youth, and 54% reach diverse populations.

The Extent of Holistic Ministry

Without being prompted in the survey, 34% of the participants explicitly described their approach to ministry as holistic, meaning they said they served youth spiritually as well as in at least one other dimension of life—whether emotionally, physically, or cognitively. As one youth worker wrote, “We are also working on hockey scholarships, music lessons, theater groups…there is too much to write.” In addition, 6% of the participants actually used the word “assets” to explain their approach to ministry.

Nine Additional Assets

In studying the responses of these and other youth workers, not only were we able to see evidence of the 14 asset categories, but it soon became clear that the exemplary urban youth workers were integrating additional assets into their ministry framework. From their collective responses, FYI’s research team identified nine additional assets commonly described by urban youth workers:

  • Spiritual and Religious Development
  • Leadership Development
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Empowerment
  • Future Orientation
  • Life Skills
  • Professional Referrals
  • Parent Education
  • Basic Needs

Most Frequent Assets

The asset most frequently mentioned by urban youth workers in their descriptions of their ministry was the promotion of spiritual or religious development, which was mentioned by 91% of those surveyed. The next most frequently mentioned asset categories were adult mentors (mentioned by 77%), activity participation (also 77%), empowerment (65%), school engagement (55%), and risk avoidance (53%).

For example, one participant described the significance of authentic mentorship and cited 1 Thessalonians 2:8. He wrote, “Incarnational witness and relational ministry is what we do best by meeting kids where they are at. The fact that young people have no significant attachment to caring adults and little or no involvement in positive activities are part of the reason we exist.”

Least Frequent Asset Categories

The least represented asset, reported by only 7% of the sample, was connection to school. The next five least represented were parent education (11%), parent involvement (12%), contextual safety (12%), cultural diversity (17%), and connection to family (18%). The table below describes the frequency of the asset categories

Ranking the Importance of Individual Assets

The asset category that was most frequently ranked as being “somewhat” or “very” important was personal values. In fact, 99% of those who completed the UYWA survey responded that personal values were important to their organization. Spiritual and religious development was a close second with 93% endorsing that it was “somewhat” or “very” important to their program. Empowerment came third with 90% of the programs endorsing its importance. Urban youth workers ranked school connection (58%), rules and boundaries (60%), and parent involvement (63%) as the least important assets.


Valuing Holistic Ministry

Our findings suggest that urban youth ministry, at least as depicted by these exemplary youth workers, tends to be fairly holistic in its approach to serving kids. The participant who wrote, “We want people to be whole spiritually, physically, socially, and mentally,” voiced a goal that seemed to be shared by many. Both individual and ecological assets are being nurtured in the ministries represented by these well-respected leaders.

Youth Workers Need Holistic Training

Given the importance of holistic ministry in these exemplary youth workers’ practices, we’re hopeful that more and more ministries will begin to explore ways to meet kids’ social, physical, mental, and emotional needs. That means that youth workers as a whole will need more holistic training in many areas ranging from adolescent development to navigating the school system to parent education. While beyond the scope of this research, the reality is that the need to take a systems-approach to working with students extends far beyond what we call “urban” settings and into suburban, rural, and small-town contexts.

Rhetoric Versus Reality

Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of the UYWA study is the discrepancy between the value youth workers claim that an asset has for their organization and the reality of how many actually offer it in their programs. Here are some examples:

  • 88% of the youth workers claimed that nurturing a positive identity was “somewhat” or “very” important to their organization, but only 23% mentioned that they actually intentionally promote identity among their youth.
  • 82% said promoting safety was “somewhat” to “very” important, but only 12% claimed to promote it.
  • 63% reported that parent involvement was important for their youth and programs, whereas only 11% said they promote it.
  • Especially noteworthy, although 99% of participants claimed that nurturing personal values was “somewhat” to “very” important, only 41% actually mentioned that their program involved nurturing values.
  • In the area of mentoring, there was less contrast. Eighty percent said it was “somewhat” to “very” important to their organization, and 73% said that they do it.

It’s possible that issues like nurturing positive identity and promoting safety were not mentioned in respondents’ descriptions of their actual programs because they are viewed as “givens.” Yet even if that’s true, that still means that exemplary youth workers may omit key elements of their ministry as they describe it to others. If this is the case, then there exists a reverse gap between rhetoric and reality in which ministries’ realities are actually more advanced than their rhetoric, leading to potential miscommunication and misunderstandings with others.

Missing Connections

Although building relationships and community within the youth program was often a high priority for these groups, nurturing connections with other entities—like school and family – were lower priorities. It’s possible that these youth workers see themselves as compensating for weak or compromised families and schools, or perhaps they simply do not think of them as resources that are important to their students.

If the African proverb that “It takes a village to raise a child” is true, then we need to do a better job networking with others who share our commitment to love and serve kids. Embracing a more holistic approach to youth ministry means we should all look for ways to engage in greater networking with community-based service providers, the school system, and especially kids’ own families. Clearly, both the asset framework and the findings of this study suggest that our ministries are important elements, but not the only elements, in kids’ villages.


  1. If someone were to ask you, what else do kids need besides Jesus, what would your answer be?
  2. Of the 23 asset categories, which 2 or 3 are most important in your ministry? Which are least important?
  3. Above we asked you to think about what else kids need besides Jesus. How is your answer fleshed out in your ministry?
  4. What types of gaps between rhetoric and reality emerge between what you say and what your ministry actually does?
  5. What training would help you offer more holistic ministry to the kids and families in your community?
  6. How do you continue to keep Jesus at the center of every part of your ministry, even the stuff that’s not directly considered “spiritual”?

Much of this article appeared in an article entitled “Holistic Ministry in the Inner City” in the November/December issue of the Journal of Student Ministries.

This article also co-authored by Kelly Schwartz.

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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