Helping Youth Form a Lasting Faith: An In-Depth Interview with Brad Griffin


How can your youth ministry cultivate a faith that stays with a young person as they mature through adulthood? Ann Michel of the Lewis Center staff speaks with Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute about five compass points that can guide an impactful youth ministry.  

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Ann Michel: Could you briefly describe the work of the Fuller Youth Institute and specifically the work that led to Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship, a new book you’ve written with coauthors Kara Powell and Jen Bradbury.   

Brad Griffin: The heart of Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) is turning research into resources. We want to equip leaders, parents, and adults who care about teenagers and young adults, and who care about their faith. We believe that young people can change the world and we really want to understand them, be there for them, and support them along the way. So, our research tries to go to the heart of that.  

We’ve been at this just about 20 years now, and so some of the early questions we wrestled with were around what we can do in our churches, our homes, and our ministries to help young people carry their faith with them. We did a big project called “Sticky Faith” that tracked young people in that transition out of high school and into college and beyond. In some ways, this new project on “faith beyond youth group” is kind of a full circle moment for us where we asked a similar but different question of youth ministry. Youth ministry is great. We want to support what happens in those spaces and places. But what about all that time that teenagers spend outside our ministries? How can we help them cultivate faith that is for not just what happens in youth ministry but beyond it, the rest of their week and the rest of their lives. It was funded by a grant that helped us explore how character is part of that equation.  

Ann Michel: Could you define the term character as you use it in this book and then explain the central role that you see character playing in faith formation and discipleship growth? 

Brad Griffin: There’s a lot of existing research about character and this project tapped into that research and then looked at how we could apply it in the context of faith formation. As part of that application process, we distilled a definition of character that is “living out Jesus’s goodness every day by loving God and our neighbors.” It’s centered in the character of Jesus, living out Jesus’s goodness every day, because character is an everyday thing, and then by loving God and our neighbors we’re centering in that Great Commandment of Jesus. It’s kind of that distillation of what it means to follow God and live in the world.  

Sometimes folks in our church will say, “Oh, we have such good kids!” And yes, we have good kids. But the goal of Christian formation and discipleship isn’t just to make good kids. It’s to form us into the character of Christ. Those may be related, but they’re not quite the same. What we are envisioning is “character-forming discipleship.” It’s a discipleship that doesn’t separate our spirituality from the rest of our lives. And it doesn’t just focus on moral conformity or behavior. It’s not that list of “do’s and don’ts.” It really is an integrative discipleship that looks at Christlikeness as an outcome of that discipleship. I think Christlikeness and character are often terms that folks use kind of interchangeably. 

Ann Michel: I think a lot of us instinctively think of character as an outgrowth of faith. But if I’m reading your book correctly, I think you’re saying that it’s the other way around. Developing good character habits is what carries faith forward.  

Brad Griffin: The way I would say it is there seems to be a dynamic. It goes in both directions. In character formation research, there’s a lot of conversation about learning and then trying. In our book, we call this “practicing together.” We’re experimenting with something we’re trying to put on and live out in our life, whether it’s as simple as practicing active kindness or as really hard or complicated as forgiving someone who’s wronged us. And then we process it. We make sense of it. We internalize it into who we are. And so, it’s that dynamic of belief and action that becomes reinforcingly connected. It’s not that one necessarily leads to the other. 

Ann Michel: Your research identifies five “compass points” that are important in forming character in young people. You use the metaphor of compass points deliberately because these points are not a checklist or a linear process but five ways to orient your efforts in working with youth. One of those practices is “teaching for transformation.” What does it mean to teach for transformation? 

Brad Griffin: I think most of us in ministry feel like teaching is the thing we do. We sort of know what it’s about. And we often invest the most time in preparing to teach, and in some cases to preach. We really think about the content and how we communicate belief, how we handle Scripture. That’s all important. But when we’re talking about “teaching for a transformation” we’re really talking about creating space in our teaching to go beyond giving a talk or an explanation or conferring information, and instead engaging young people in active, holistic, and inquisitive ways. We’re creating an environment where we are asking questions and where they can ask questions.  

This follows Jesus’s own example in his teaching. Sure, Jesus said a lot of things. But so often he was asking a question. He was asking a question in response to a question. By some counts, he was 40 times more likely to ask a question than give an answer. And so, we really want to encourage leaders to think creatively and experientially, to think about discovery as opposed to just information transfer. A discussion-based approach or a question-based approach provides a much deeper opportunity for engagement than when we’re just focused on teaching information. 

Ann Michel: “Making meaning” is another compass point. Could you define what you mean by that and share what it looks like to help people make meaning of the events in their lives and their faith experiences. 

Brad Griffin: You know, meaning makers impact our lives so deeply. One of my daughters is a huge Taylor Swift fan. I’m convinced that one of the reasons Taylor Swift has such influence, not only with young people but across generations, is that she does so much meaning making in her music. She is trying to take hard experiences and make sense of them in her life. And young women in particular can find themselves in some story that’s in her songs. This is such a great example because making meaning is really how we make sense of our lives.  

In the context of discipleship, meaning making involves making spiritual sense of our lives. We are taking what happens and we’re exploring it together and trying to integrate it into our own understanding of the world and our understanding of our lives. And that might be our very personal experiences. For a teenager, it’s the thing that matters to them right in the moment, that feels so intense, whether that’s getting cut from a team or getting a huge part in a play or breaking up with that boyfriend. Those things matter hugely.  

The things that happen in our world, that feel confusing or unsettling or scary, whether they’re global events or local events, young people need help making meaning of those realities too. How do we make sense of this in light of our faith? What might scripture have to say about this? What’s God doing here? What could this mean? 

Ann Michel: I think your practices of teaching for transformation and making meaning really hit home with me because they’re not critical just to youth ministry, but for all ministry today.  

Brad Griffin: I think that’s right. With regard to making meaning, I think there’s a real crisis of meaning in the church today. What are we here for? What are these communities? What are we doing here? In this moment, what does it looks like to trust God together? How do we trust God together in the midst of all of our realities?  

All the data continue to show that churches are struggling post-pandemic. They were struggling before the pandemic and the pandemic only served to accelerate some of the patterns we were already seeing. We hear so much about burnout and struggle in ministry. Conflict in the church and relational strain are some of the big factors that pastors name, and just being exhausted. Whether we’re talking about youth ministry or other kinds of pastoral ministry, we’re struggling. And I think meaning making is a piece of that. Those of us in ministry need to know how to make meaning ourselves. It begins with the leaders. How do we sit as the core meaning maker in a community where we’re helping people assess their lives and figure out next steps. I think that’s a huge discipleship task. And I think it’s a huge spiritual formation task for us. 

Ann Michel: It seems like all five of your practices for youth ministry really rely on leadership that’s quite insightful and capable, highly motivated and faithful, and very relational. So, how do we help our youth leaders develop these capabilities? How do they develop the maturity needed to lead in these subtle ways?  

Brad Griffin: I think today’s youth leaders need mentoring and accompaniment themselves. They need pastors and leaders who are committed to walking with them, particularly younger youth ministry leaders who often are given significant responsibility with very little training or experience themselves and without a lot of life experience. And I think those of us who are more mature pastoral leaders have an incredible opportunity to offer that sort of mentoring, support, and accompaniment. Not only pastors. It actually takes a community that’s committed to some practices together. It’s really, really important for youth leaders to be in the midst of that kind of community. 

Ann Michel: It seems the youth ministry model you’re describing is also really a mentorship approach, even though you don’t really use that language. So, the idea that it would come within a broader context of mentorship for the youth leaders makes sense. Could you paint a picture or share an example of what youth ministry built around your compass points might looks like? How might it differ from our traditional mental models of youth ministry?   

Brad Griffin: I think we could build on the point you just made about really cultivating a community of mentorship. I love the idea of a communally held youth ministry, this sense that our young people are the responsibility of the whole church, that together we surround our young people with support, and together we’re a discipleship community. I think it begins in that ethos.  

Then, the next layer is actively training those who surround young people directly, whether they are staff or volunteers. In most churches it’s mostly volunteers. Those leaders need to know that two of the most important ways they disciple young people is through cultivating trust and modeling growth. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and we have a huge trust crisis today, particularly across generations. And so, as a youth leader, I have to establish, hold, and cultivate that trust with young people in really practical ways. Showing up to the things that they do outside of church — that game or that performance — that is a way of cultivating trust. Being there when I say I’m going to be there.  

Modeling growth in my own life as an adult is the context for discipleship for that young person. And so, before I teach anything, I have to be the kind of person who is living out an inauthentic and imperfect faith around other people. That all sets the stage for the teaching we do in youth ministry. So, when we want to have a discussion-based or interactive question-based teaching, trust and modeling have already set the stage. Our teaching really flows naturally out of those discussions. And then the practicing together piece and making meaning piece kind of go together. Anything we can do to get kids hands-on — whether that’s in the church or beyond the church or ideally both — they’re trying, they’re practicing. They have opportunities to get active and to serve and to give and then to make sense of that. So, making meaning is always a part of what happens after we serve. Then, it’s also an element that makes its way into our teaching because we’re processing what they’re experiencing in their lives. 

Related Resources


About Author

Brad M. Griffin, MDiv, is the associate director of the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor with Kara Powell and Jake Mulder of Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Baker Books, 2016).

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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