“New Approaches to Help Youth Form Lasting Faith” featuring Brad Griffin

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
"New Approaches to Help Youth Form Lasting Faith" featuring Brad Griffin

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Podcast Episode 140

How can your youth ministry cultivate a faith that stays with a young person as they mature through adulthood? We speak with Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute about five compass points that can guide an impactful youth ministry. The approach emphasizes building trust and relationships while teaching in transformative and experiential ways that help young people make meaning of their faith and life experiences.

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Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

How can your church help youth claim a vital faith? No question is more critical to the future of the church. Learn effective tips your congregation can use to improve ministry with teens and their families in the free Lewis Center resource 50 Ways to Strengthen Ministry with Youth. Read now, download free, and share at churchleadership.com/50ways.

How can your youth ministry cultivate a faith that stays with a young person as they mature through adulthood? In this episode we speak with Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute about five compass points that can guide an impactful youth ministry. The approach emphasizes building trust and relationships while teaching in transformative and experiential ways that help young people make meaning of their faith and life experiences.

Ann Michel: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks. My name is Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary. I’m one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. And I’m so pleased to be the host of this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. My guest today is Brad Griffin, who’s the Senior Director of Content and Research for the Fuller Youth Institute. And he is coauthor with Kara Powell and Jen Bradbury of a new book, Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship. So, welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, Brad.

Brad Griffin: Thanks, and it’s great to be here. Happy to be talking about this.

Ann Michel: To set the stage for the conversation. I wondered if you could just very briefly describe the work of the Fuller Youth Institute and then specifically the work that led to this new book.

Brad Griffin: Really the heart of Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) is turning research into resources. We want to equip leaders, parents, adults who care about young people, in particular teenagers and young adults, and who care about their faith. We believe that young people can change the world and we really want to support them along the way, be there for them, and really try to understand them. So, our research tries to go to the heart of that. And in terms of this particular project, often we find that one question leads to another. We’ve been at this just about 20 years now, and so some of the early questions that we wrestled with were around what we can do in our churches, in our homes, and in our ministries to help young people when they’re with us to carry their faith with them. We did a big project called “Sticky Faith” that really tracked young people in that transition out of high school and into college and beyond.

And in some ways, this 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 love youth ministry. 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 ministry but beyond it, the rest of their week and the rest of their lives. It was funded by a grant, too, that helped us really explore how character is part of that equation.

Ann Michel: That actually was going to be my very next question. Character is such a central construct in the book, which is about faith formation in youth and then how youth can develop faith that extends beyond their time as youth in church. So, could you define “character” as you use it in this book and then explain the central role that you see it playing in faith formation and discipleship growth?

Brad Griffin: There’s a lot of research out there about character and one of the gifts of this project was tapping into all the research that exists and then looking at how we 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’ goodness every day by loving God and our neighbors.” It’s centered in the character of Jesus, living out Jesus’ goodness every day, because character is an everyday thing. 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.

We make a distinction between just trying to make teenagers “good kids.” Sometimes we hear, even 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 — whatever language we use around that — isn’t really just to make good kids. It’s to form us into the character of Christ. And so those may be related, but they’re not quite the same.

Ann Michel: I appreciated the distinction you made in the book between character and certain behaviors. This isn’t about purity or certain other ways that kids might manifest good behaviors. Living out Jesus’s goodness every day by loving God and our neighbors — that’s how I would define discipleship. Maybe that’s my particular denominational slant, but how do you distinguish this definition of character from how you understand discipleship broadly?

Brad Griffin: We are intentionally connecting them. What we are envisioning is “character-forming discipleship.” It’s a discipleship that doesn’t just separate our spirituality from the rest of our lives. And it doesn’t just focus on moral conformity or behavior, as you said. It’s not that list of “do’s and don’ts”, as we might say. It really is an integrative discipleship.

Now people define character in all sorts of ways. Even when we talk to teenagers, they say some really insightful things. “It’s who you are really” is one way they talked about it or “who you are most of the time.” And I think we hope for an integrative kind of 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: So, 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 actually saying that it’s the other way around. Developing good character habits is what carries faith forward. Is that right?

Brad Griffin: That’s a really interesting observation. I think maybe the way that I would say it is there seems to be a dynamic. It goes in both directions in a way. In character formation research, there’s a lot of conversation about learning and then trying. And so, we end up calling this “practicing together.” We’re trying something. 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. That’s a way of practicing and trying out that sort of lived discipleship. 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: Let’s get into the heart of the book. Your research identifies these five “compass points” that are important in forming character in young people, and your use of the metaphor of compass points is very deliberate because you’re not saying this is a checklist or a linear process. These points are five ways to orient your efforts in working with youth. And I’ll just name them quickly — cultivating trust, modeling growth, teaching for transformation, practicing together, and making meaning. We don’t have time to talk about all of them today, but I wanted to hone in on two that I found particularly interesting. I wondered if you could speak a bit about what it means to teach for transformation.

Brad Griffin: Teaching is interesting. I think most of us in ministry feel like teaching is the thing we do. Like, we have this down! We sort of know what it’s about. And it’s often where we invest the most preparation, preparing to teach, and in some cases to preach. We really think about the content and how we communicate belief, how we handle Scripture. All of that. 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 engaging young people in active, holistic ways and inquisitive ways. We’re creating an environment where we are asking questions and where they can ask questions.

One of the things that we really encourage is that we follow Jesus’s own example in 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.

We talked with a lot of ministries as part of this project. We interviewed youth pastors and leaders, and we did some site visits. And we heard from a lot of folks who really focus on this kind of approach — a discussion-based approach or question-based approach. There’s so much deeper opportunity for engagement than when we’re just focused on teaching information.

Ann Michel: Sometimes I talk about the difference between teaching for information and teaching for formation. So, in the book, you talk about fostering critical thinking and teaching within the context of community modeled on the way that Jesus taught. Not only asking questions as you just mentioned but also telling stories. And so, it seems it’s a much more interactive and engaging way of teaching than I think we’re used to in the church.

Brad Griffin: I want to encourage too that we don’t shy away from tough topics and tough issues. I mean here we are in election year again. And one church in our research talked explicitly about how in 2020 their church was split over political parties. Partisanship is a huge divider in many of our churches. It feels like we can’t talk about this, right? It was so interesting interviewing at this church and also talking with their young people. Different age groups brought up that in that season. They had two elders host a discussion on why they were voting for different candidates, and they did that respectfully. That was the key. It was huge that this church was willing to go there, and they modeled respectfully how they were trying to process faith and discipleship in light of something as charged as our political positions these days.

How can your church help youth claim a vital faith? No question is more critical to the future of the church. Learn effective tips your congregation can use to improve ministry with teens and their families in the free Lewis Center resource 50 Ways to Strengthen Ministry with Youth. Read now, download free, and share at churchleadership.com/50ways.

Ann Michel: I want to move on to another of the five compass points, and that’s the idea of “making meaning.” I wondered if you could define what you mean by that and maybe talk about what that looks like in practice, this idea that we need to be fostering ways to help people make meaning of the events in their lives and their faith experiences.

Brad Griffin: You know, meaning makers, they impact our lives so deeply. I have three kids and they’re teenagers and young adults. One of my daughters is a huge Taylor Swift fan, and we talk about her music and her impact. I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Taylor Swift has such influence, not only with young people but across generations, in our day 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 one of the things that people write about related to her music is that young women in particular can find themselves in some story that’s in a song.

I think that’s a great example for us because making meaning is really how we make sense of our lives. And we might say in the context of discipleship, we’re making spiritual sense. 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. You know 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, or whatever that is. 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: So, in the book you mentioned some questions. What happened? Why does it matter? What now? Questions that help people identify why things are important. Attaching values to things. I think this is so critical in faith formation. As I was reading that section of the book, I thought a lot about the many mission teams I’ve led in my time in church leadership and the work you do with a mission team to debrief and to understand the significance of what you’re doing, to think about it what it means about God and your faith journey. A mission trip provides a very tidy container for doing that kind of work. But we’re not always as deliberate at in other times and places. But it’s such an important faith building practice. I’m really glad you highlighted it.

Moving to another question, I think we all understand why faith formation is so critical in youth ministry today. But I think maybe youth ministry is kind of the canary in the coal mine because I think faith formation is a critical issue for the church as a whole. I think many of the paradigms of faith formation the church has relied on for generations — worship attendance and classroom-based learning and faith modeled at home — all of those things are eroding so quickly. And we’re all aware of the limitations of the way that we have traditionally tried to form faith among people of all ages, but we’re not really sure what the new playbook is. I think one of the reasons your practices of teaching for transformation and making meaning really hit home with me is because they’re critical not just for youth ministry. They’re critical for ministry in general. I know your gig is youth ministry, but it seems you’re pointing to practices that are critical for all leaders in the church today.

Brad Griffin: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think there’s a real crisis of meaning. Just to stick with that one for a minute, in the church today, what are we here for? What are these communities? What are we doing here? I have the opportunity to preach periodically in my own congregation. I preached this past Sunday, and I was wrestling with this myself. What does my community need to hear right now as we’re making meaning? In this moment we’re in, in the season we’re in, 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. I just saw some new research from the pandemic impact study that in 2023. Just this past year, half of pastors considered leaving ministry and, you know, that’s not in the heart of the pandemic. That is 2023 data. We hear so much about burnout and struggle in ministry. Conflict in the church and relational strain were some of the big factors that pastors named and being just exhausted.

I think that is so true, 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 we are making meaning of our own, right? 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: I appreciate you bringing up that issue of burnout. One thing I took from your book is that exhaustion and hard work are certainly factors in burnout, but a bigger factor is feeling that you’re not succeeding, that you’re not making an impact. I think you know, one of the big burnout factors for people in ministry is feeling like it’s just not making a difference. And that’s real. I want to go back and follow up on what you were saying just a few minutes ago.

It seems like all these five approaches for youth ministry really rely on leadership that’s quite insightful and capable, highly motivated and faithful, very relational. I mean, it takes a certain kind of leader to be able to lead in the way that you are imagining. And so, I guess one of my questions is, 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. I think 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: Yes. It does seem that the youth ministry model you’re describing is really a mentorship approach, even though you don’t really use that language in the book. So, the idea that it would come within a broader context of mentorship for the youth leaders themselves makes sense to me. To begin to draw this to a close, we’ve been talking pretty abstractly about some of the concepts in this book. I wonder if you could paint a picture or share an example of what youth ministry built around these compass points really looks like. We all have in our mind’s eye a mental image of youth ministry. What might be different in a youth ministry guided by your compass points?

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

Then, the next layer is actively training and reinforcing with 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 those young people is through cultivating trust and modeling growth. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and we have a huge trust crisis today, in particular across generations. And so, as a leader, and I’m a youth leader myself, I have to establish and hold and cultivate that trust with young people in really practical ways, for example, showing up outside of church to the things that they do. Showing up at 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 kind of teaching we do in youth ministry. So, when we want to have a discussion-based or interactive kind of question-based teaching, trust and modeling have already set the stage for that. Our teaching really flows naturally out of those discussions, and then the practicing together piece and making meaning piece kind of go together.

You brought up mission trips. Service experiences, 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.

Ann Michel: Thank you for pointing out that all these things are holistically connected. Perhaps my lifting up just two of the five points didn’t really fully allow you to share how all of these things are holistically connected. Trust is so important to any ministry. Your book is a powerful reminder of how relational ministry is generally but also specifically with Generation Z who you describe as anxious and skeptical. Thank you, Brad. Thank you for this conversation. Thank you for not only this book, but for your whole body of work and everything that you all are doing at the Fuller Youth Institute.

Again, the book is Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship. It really was a help to me, and I think the book will be a great help not just to people in youth ministry, but to people who are looking for a new way to think about faith formation generally. So, thank you so much.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.

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Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship (Baker Books, 2023) by Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad Griffin is available at Baker Publishing Group, Amazon, and Cokesbury.

Related ResourcesFaith Beyond Youth Group book cover

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash


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.