Helping seniors develop a faith that is ready for college

Helping seniors develop a faith that is ready for college

Our Seniors Aren't Ready! It doesn't matter where you find yourself on the theological spectrum, there is huge concern regarding the complete abandonment of the Christian faith by our youth group students when they leave for college. There are movies like Divided, which see youth ministry as the main culprit for this loss of faith. And there are books like Sticky Faith, which want to reshape and redirect youth ministries to work more closely within the churches that fund them and alongside the parents of their community.

For as long as I can remember, there have always been an enormous exodus of students from the church the second they leave the comfort and confines of home and experience a world where there are no more boundaries, no more rules, and no more accountability to their former way of life. I find the statistics overwhelming and the actual students who choose to walk away heartbreaking. While I can not solve all the cultural or ecclesiological problems that contribute, I can be more proactive and intentional in the way I do student ministry so that my students have a fighting chance when they head off into the big, bad world.

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5 reasons there will always be paid youth ministry professionals

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 4.52.36 PM There has been some discussion lately among some of my youth ministry friends about the future of our profession. There seems to be another round of shots fired across the bow at youth ministry and the professionals that lead these ministries. Sticky Faith, Family Based Ministries, and people with axes to grind continue to lay the decaying faith of adolescents and young adults squarely at the feet of us professionals and the failed models we are propping up.

Fellow professional youth workers have no fear, our jobs are here to stay!! We have an amazing calling and part of an amazing legacy, and I am convinced that for the foreseeable future, churches will continue to do everything in their power to make sure their staffs include a paid youth worker. Here's why:

1) If a church is going to attract young families, they need to prove that they will care for the entire spiritual development of their kids.

For better or worse, a church that has a paid youth worker, signifies to the entire church family that they care about families. While children's ministry is incredibly important, many parents will tolerate poor children's ministry if they know that as their children grow into teens, there will be a place for them to continue to work it out at the church. Think of all the families that restart the church hopping process when their kids reach 4th and 5th grade. All of the sudden, that great church plant, or dynamic young preacher doesn't seem to cut it when their own kids' faith is on the line. A paid youth worker communicates care for this significant felt need.

2) It is a model that has positively impacted those who are now at the age to make decisions regarding staffing and budgets in churches.

It is an unavoidable truth that people invest and do the things that are meaningful to them. Think of how you choose what to do for your youth ministry program. Chances are most of what you do is based on the things that God used in significant ways in your own life when you were in student ministry. Youth ministry has now been around long enough that the power players at most churches remember the Hay Day of youth ministry and the significant role that ministry played in their faith development. They want their church to provide solid ministry for their own kids and their view of a thriving church includes a thriving student ministry. Most thriving student ministries are headed up by a paid point person.

3) Students continue to need a place for fellowship and learning that is separate from their parents and makes space for their unique developmental needs.

For all the talk about family ministry and integration, the fundamental task of adolescence is still individuation and separation from their family's faith. Students need a place separate from their parents where they can ask the hard questions, push back, run away, and still be seen and loved by the church at large. Student ministry provides a unique haven in this adolescent development where students can work out their faith separate from their mom while still being connected to the church. It is really brilliant if you think about it.

4) The traditional model of youth minister, run by a professional, continues to be the most effective model at helping students develop personal faith and providing significant water marks in their lives.

I know it is so cool to be pissed at the church and youth ministry for all the kids who walk away from faith. But stop and think about all the kids who have ever come through your ministry and reflect on the ways that God has grabbed ahold of. We need to actually stop and celebrate the great things that God is doing in them and through them now. This isn't something to gloss over. A vast majority of those in leadership now in the Church with a capital C are people who were leaders in their student ministries. Praise God for the gutter to glory stories of those people who find Jesus all by themselves later in life. But when you start to ask around, those people are the exception. Youth ministry is the tool that God has and is continuing to use to clarify people's call into His family, and into ministry.

5) Name one church who has all the resources they need who would intentionally staff their church without a professional to run the student ministry.

For reals, name one. I know finances are hectic and churches have to be creative. But not hiring because of financial hard times is not the same as not doing youth ministry because of conviction. And the churches who are relying on faithful volunteers, whom I am honored to count as my colleagues, would pay those volunteers or someone else if they happened to win the Mega Millions Jackpot this last week.

A caveat:

While I do firmly believe that churches will continue to pay for people to work with students, they will no longer pay people who do shoddy work. Financial hardship is a reality in many of our contexts and every dollar matters. If our church leaders are going to be good stewards of their resources then they will only be paying people who will work hard and do a good job.

Gone are the days where youth workers are simply paid to goof off with students, play video games, eat pizza, and have a few informal bible studies at their house. If someone is being paid to run a youth ministry, then they will be expected to run a youth ministry. This includes program, administration, duties assigned by pastor, and then video game extravaganzas, all within a tight budget.

The good news is that our profession is here to stay! The bad news is that we will continue to be expected to work harder and be more effective than our predecessors. Friends, it is gut check time!

Are you still called to do ministry in this environment and with these expectations? Do you still love students, but may be losing steam on the professional aspect of it? Is it time to maybe need to call it quits? Or do you simply think I am full of crap and protecting my own paycheck? :)

Another Top 10 List of Books Every Youth Worker Should Read!

A while ago Josh Evans listed out the 10 must have books for student ministry.  They are great books and sparked some great discussion.  As youth workers we should be learners and a consumer of many books.  The books that Josh recommends should be consumed, reflected on, and implemented. I am blessed to be in a context with youth workers who are some really great thinkers and avid readers.  We used Josh Evans' blog as a jumping off point and came up with round two of books that we think should be read by every youth worker!

As we considered our context, which is about as post-Christian as it gets, we chose books that sharpened us, inspired us, equipped us, challenged us, and helped us understand the world in which we are doing ministry better.  These are not in any particular order and we hope you buy them all today!

not much just chillinNot Much, Just Chillin: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers 





hurt-2-0-inside-world-todays-teenagers-chap-clark-paperback-cover-artHurt 2.0: Inside The World of Today's Teenagers





Evangelical TheologyEvangelical Theology: An Introduction by Karl Barth






understanding-your-young-teen-cover-and-spineUnderstanding Your Young Teenager







Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids





Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church





sticky-faithSticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids






Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation






Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gay vs. Straight Debate





The-Selfless-Way-of-Christ-Nouwen-Henri-J-M-9781570757020 The Selfless Way of Christ





As youth workers we are not simply programers, or Bible study leaders.  We are cross cultural missionaries.  We must become experts in adolescent development, psychology, anthropology, sociology, theology, and spiritual development.  May we not settle in our stereo typical role of pizza slinging party boys, but rather as women and men who respect the craft and calling of student ministry and continually strive to deepen our understanding of Scripture, our context, and the movement of the Holy Spirit!

Happy Reading!

PS:  I am blessed to be in an incredible local network with some deep thinkers and gifted youth workers.  If you want to have some great reading from youth workers who are doing solid ministry in a post-Christian context sent directly to your RSS reader, check out Phil Steiner's Blog and Ryan Reed's Blog.  (And don't forget to subscribe to my RSS feed as well. If I get 4,897 more subscribers I can have my book published.  Hahahaha)

PPS:  What books would you add to the list?  

Why do kids really leave the church? SEX!


After I read David Kinnaman’s newest book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.  I have been wrestling with some of the implications from his findings.  His chapter on sex is the one that has got my wheels spinning the most. In that chapter, Kinnaman highlights how the church’s views of purity and abstinence are directly in conflict with the lengthening of time people, including Christians, are taking to settle down and married.  Individualism is becoming the core value, and when marriage, sex, and sexuality are seen through that lens there is bound to be conflict and tension with the traditional church.  These aren't really revolutionary thoughts.  That is, until you place the changing sexual ethic and overlay it with the renewed passion in which professional church people are trying to understand why so many church kids are leaving the church and not coming back.


In every survey, in every conversation, in every seminar, and in every book we are given a host of reasons for why kids are leaving.  The fault almost always lays at the feet of the church and the poor expression of faith they portray, or the faulty model of a one eared mickey mouse student ministry, or the fact that there are not enough adults in the lives of students.

But as I thought about Kinnaman's book and my years of anecdotal evidence, it seems that those reasons are simply smoke screens to the deeper issue:  Kids and young adults want to have sex.  They want to have a lot of it, and they don't want to wait until they are 30 and get married to start.  But this reason seems so carnal, so self-indulgent, so simple.  So these students develop amazing smoke screens to throw us all the scent.

What about the dinosaurs?  Can't explain it?  Than this faith is a joke so let's have sex!  My youth pastor is uncomfortable with me because I have slept with three girls in the youth group.  This church is so judgmental!    My parents don't want me to live with my girlfriend.  I know they did before they got married!  What hypocrites!

These are not straw men:

Think about all the students that have gone through your youth group.  Think of all the students that have made strong professions of faith and then bailed.  When you unpack their protests and smoke screens, isn't the root cause some sexual encounter or lifestyle that makes them and us uncomfortable to the point where they back away?

When I ask my colleagues and as we pry back the layers, sex is always the root.  Drinking: For whatever reason, the students who drink still manage to participate in Christian community (until they have sex).   Doubt: The apologetics to address doubts of most 12-20 year olds have been written about for decades.  Sex: But once sex happens, the lines of communication get strained and ultimately cut off.

There was a time only a generation ago, where sex only was the cause for students to drop out of community.  But because many of them would get married in their early 20's, it wasn't a hard leap to jump back in to Christian community now that their sex was legitimized.  This was the case with many of my first generation youth group kids and my own peers.

Have you noticed how tentative people who are living together feel at church.  They come but they don't get too close because they know they will be judged for living together.  Many times this is too uncomfortable so they quit coming all together.  For those couples who love Jesus and long for Christian community this jump is easy to do once they have tied the knot.

"I couldn't abstain until I was married, but these young people should."

What is even more wild is how everyone seems to forget this history with their own kids or others at church.  The vast majority of couples at church have slept others and each other before they were married and many also lived together.  Once they are married, they all seem to have forgotten their past infractions and plan to put this burden of purity and abstinence on their children.  This burden was one that they couldn't carry and one that they seem to have little or no grace for people who are in the middle of this struggle.

This struggle is really for those Christians who marry in their early 20's.  But now that people are getting married much later, often into their 30's their distance from the church and Christian community has now been put on the back burner for over half their life and returning to it is like returning to a foreign land.  With so much water under the bridge, many never make it into the church or Christian community again.

We want to blame ourselves, but the sexual ethics of students and young adults is the core reason for the departure.  Is this statement too bold?  Does your experience differ from mine?  If you didn't settle for the smoke screen, would you too find sex to be the root cause?

If my hypothesis is correct, here are some questions I have moving forward:

  • Can we not let smoke screens work?
  • Can we allow students and young adults to carry the consequences of their choices and not blame ourselves?
  • Do we need to encourage students to get married earlier?
  • Why do people who failed in this area put such a high burden on our students regarding sex and sexuality?
  • Is it unrealistic to expect purity and abstinence from our students?
  • Does the church's teaching on sex and sexuality actually cause more harm then good in the discipleship of our students?
  • What do we loose if we treat sex and sexuality like we do with gluttony and materialism?  Give it a head non but don't hammer at it too much as to make people uncomfortable.
  • Is it the right call to lose so many young people as long as we teach TRUTH?
  • Can we, or should we make space in our ministries for students and young adults who are sexual active?  (and not make them hide)

What questions does this hypothesis raise for you?  What answers do you have?  May God be gracious with us all as we wrestle through this increasingly challenging issue.

kara powell: sticky faith

This afternoon I had the privilege of sitting in on Kara Powell's seminar: Sticky Faith. As someone who is sold out to developing students to have a vibrant faith after high school, Sticky Faith is hands down some of the best consolidation of research and practical help that I have come across. Kara Powell is a great communicator and has found the perfect balance between the integration of theoretical ideas and boots on the ground information. Kara Powell has her PhD and is currently serving as the executive director of Fuller Youth Institute, faculty at Fuller Seminary and has authored several books. This post is basically a cleaned up version of my notes. I hope you find them challenging and helpful. The Research: The Sticky Faith team has consolidated all the most recent information and research and have found the following: 6 out of 7 seniors don't feel equipped with faith that prepared them for college 40-50% of seniors will drift from their faith 80% of those students intend to stick to their faith.

The Sticky Gospel: Tim Clydesdale says that students have a vault or an identity lock box where they put the things that are important to them. When students go off to college they take off their faith, like they would a jacket, and put it away in this box. Because some part of them value their faith, they do keep it, but put it away, out of site. While 50% of these students ultimately will find their way back to church, we can not be satisfied with that. Statistically these are numbers, the truth is that real people are making real choices that are just destroying them. And if we want students to have faith's that stick and not get decimated in the process we need develop a sticky gospel.

Too often we simply give our students a Red Bull version of the gospel. It isn't a gospel of transformation and power, but something to just barely get them through their teen years. In the same way we might grab one to get us through youth group, this version of the gospel just helps them survive. And like a Red Bull, the result is a crash, and the same happens to our students. But instead of needing a nap, they crash spiritually and make awful choices that wreck them.

The gospel of sin management has become so much part of the DNA of the church. And the result is a gospel that lacks power and transformation. When the controls are taken off and students go away to college it is too easy to go with the flow and get into some really messed up things. They have no deeper understanding of why they make the choices they make. Instead of this surface level understanding of the Gospel, they need to have a 4G gospel.

The 4G gospel is rather simple and not rocket science. But it is a gospel that is understandable and opens the door for reflection and transformation. We are created in God's image and therefore we are Good. Guilt comes because of sin and separates us from God. Grace is what we experience when we come into relationship with Jesus. Then, as a response to this grace, we live and serve out of gratitude.

This 4G gospel is what is seen over and over again in the Epistles. As youth workers we love getting to the practical applications found at the end of all of Paul's letters. But when we have rules and to do's without relationship we are doing sin management. When we paint the picture that the rules at the end are at the end because we need to understand that we are good, we have guilt, we now have grace, and then we live and serve out of gratitude.

70% of kids doubt their faith in high school, but few of them actually fell like they have space to talk about their doubts. Through their research, the Sticky Faith peeps have found that most of the questions students wrestle with can be summed up in these four questions: Does God exist? Does God love me? Am I living the life God wants Is Christianity true?

Our kids are wrestling with worldview issues and personal issues. They have real doubts and need to know that the God we are talking about can handle these doubts. And the research has shown that the freedom to express and explore their doubts actually results in a more mature and deeper faith. Jay Giedd's research has shown that if we do not use our brain, we actually lose some brain capacity. Our students can fully digest Shakespeare, so let's stop feeding them baby food. We need to go after it!

The Sticky Church: Students were asked to rank the relationships in their lives an put them in the level of importance. What was interesting is that most people thought that parents would be at the bottom and friends would be at the top. But the research has shown that parents are still at the top of influencers in the lives of kids. At the bottom of the list are other adults in the church community. This is the biggest and best area of growth to develop sticky faith in the hearts of our students.

It is deep in our psyche that we go to church. However, we have to retrain our brains to the biblical truth that we go to a building, and the people gathered there are the church. And how we have been doing church has, unfortunately, been part of the problem of students abandoning their faith when they leave for college. We have segregated our kids from the life, love, and wisdom of the larger body. We have taken the kids table at Thanksgiving and put that on the church.

It is always nicer and easier and cleaner to put the kids at their own tables, away from the adults. But the research has shown over and over again, that the students who are connected to the entire church are the ones who have the easiest time connecting to a church after graduation. Having kids around is messy and difficult, but it is by far the better choice.

While it is hard to move toward intergenerational ministry, ministry as an entire church, it is not impossible. There is not a program for this. The truth is that most of you are already doing things at your church that with a little bit of thought and intention can be made into an intergenerational ministry setting to maximize the chances to make faith stick. Some churches have canceled the youth service on sunday am, have kids participate alongside adults in church, do ministry of compassion and justice together, and one church even had a group of dads who go paint balling, simply invite students to join them.

It is not rocket science. The Sticky Faith people are asking that churches rethink how we do our ratios. As a youth worker we think of 5:1, 5 students for every 1 adult. This is great for safety and driving. But what would happen if we inverses those numbers and had 5 adults for every 1 student. While this seems impossible, it is really just being intentional with how we tell our stories.

One mom took a picture frame with several slots for pictures. She would add photos of men who had played a significant roll in the life of her son. Some are still blank with the intention and expectation that there will be more adults who will fill in those slots. This ratio cannot be done by youth workers alone. A great, untapped resource could be the seniors in your church. Whatever model works for you in your context is fine. We can't get paralyzed by what one church does and what we do or don't do. We just need to do it.

The Sticky Family: Sticky faith is not something that rests upon the youth worker to pull off, or the gazillion adults we recruit to get to 5:1. Sticky faith's best chance for survival happens in the family. It is about being intentional with the conversations that happen in the minivan.

So often parents simply interview their kids and think that this is helping their child develop spiritually. And while this is very important, it is just as important that parents share their faith story with their children as well. Our kids need to know how we became Christians, how Jesus has and is transforming us, and how our faith is informing our choices and decisions today.

There are two simple things that people can do to make their families more sticky:

Family Devotionals: Kids are kids and family devotionals are chaotic. So these need to be done in age appropriate ways with true expectations. But making intentional space for the family to gather, pray, and learn together in invaluable.

Dinner Questions: Using meal time for intentional conversation is so important. While questions like High? or Low? are great. We should also include some spiritual questions as well. By adding questions like, "Where did you see God at work today?" and, "What was a mistake you made today?" your family has a structure that models sin, forgiveness, God's action and alive. And this faith is expressed by everyone in the family, not just in the kids.

Like I mentioned before, this is not my work, this is simply my interpretation of my notes from an outstanding seminar taught by Kara Powell. Make sure you check out Fuller Youth Institute and get on their blog and twitter to keep up with all this great research. Thank you again Kara for bringing really challenging information with helpful ways to incorporate it. Blessings!

There are so many ways to put this sticky faith into practice. I would love to know what are some things you do with your students, with your church, or in your family.