I need to change how I help kids grow in Christ

Scrap programs?Today is Tuesday. Since Sunday night my mind has been going in crazy directions and I feel like I need to change a couple things in our youth ministry about how we help kids grow in Christ. Here’s an overview of recent events:

Sunday night: A student talked to me about how she and a two other friends skipped Sunday school that morning because they feel like the teaching style isn’t meeting their needs. Plus, the group has grown significantly larger, which makes significant interaction difficult sometimes. So, they went to a coffee shop together instead, read a chapter from book they bought at the local Christian bookstore earlier that week, answered some discussion questions together and read the corresponding passages with it. Some might find this extremely disrespectful to the youth ministry, but I’m actually ecstatic that they would take their spiritual growth seriously enough to do something about it rather than just putting up with stagnation or avoiding the issue altogether. Even better, rather than just complaining, they took the initiative to do something about it and assumed responsibility for their own spiritual growth, something I wish every student would do. Ultimately, we’re each responsible for our own spiritual growth anyway. That’s not something a Sunday school teacher or any pastor can do for us.

Monday afternoon: I continue the conversation with one of these students on Facebook and learn a few more details. It becomes apparent to me that our youth ministry does a lot of teaching in a way that unintentionally assumes that every student in the class is at the same place spiritually. We also do not do encourage students enough to actually investigate scripture for themselves and take personal responsibility for it. Instead, we spoon feed them. As teachers, we chew and digest God’s Word ourselves and then feed students the final product. As a result, many students are hooked on spiritual milk. I wonder if this lack of personal responsibility for spiritual growth is why many students go to college and drop out of church and maybe even abandon Christianity altogether.

Monday evening: I think back to my conversation with Greg Stier at the NYWC two weekends ago. He introduced me to a new model of youth ministry called Deep and Wide. I watch his intro video giving an overview of the ministry model taken from Jesus and then print out the 30-page thesis thinking that maybe he has some answers to the apparent shallowness and spiritual apathy I see in many kids.

Tuesday early morning: I’m at my weekly meeting with several youth pastors from various churches and denominations in the area. As we’re sharing ministry issues to pray for, I tell a little bit about how I think I need to reshape my youth ministry to:

  1. Be more sensitive to the various spiritual maturity levels.
  2. Do more to teach kids how to study the Bible for themselves.
  3. Give them opportunities to take ownership of their spiritual growth.

This is met with mixed perspectives and responses (as I’m sure will be the case in the comments here).

Tuesday late morning: In staff meeting at church my Sr. Pastor brings up Willow Creek and how their research shows that their model of ministry it not producing the spiritual growth they thought it was. Since our church follows some of Willow Creek’s ministry philosophy, this is something we need to look at seriously, as well. We talk about it for a while and it really vibes with me because of what’s happening in our youth ministry right now, but even generally speaking overall. It sounds like there might be some answers in this research to my frustrations of spiritual development in teens.

Tuesday afternoon: A quick Google search leads me to Greg Hawkins’ video, executive pastor at Willow Creek, about the issues they’re uncovering in their ministry. I intently watch the whole presentation and then watch Bill Hybel’s message where he basically explains the same thing. Their model of using classes and programs were good for helping perspective Christians and new believers begin their faith journey, but the more mature believers were not growing as a result of these classes and programs. Most were actually frustrated or stagnant in their spiritual development, which coincides exactly with my suspicions.

So now what? Here I am, sitting my office at church, processing all this and thinking, “We need to change some things about how we help teenagers grow deeper in Christ.” I know that because thankfully a student was brave enough to tell me so last Sunday.

Before you comment, take 13 minutes to watch Greg Hawkins’ video. Please and thank you.

Posted on November 13, 2007

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  • Tim I agree wholeheartedly with you. I feel the same thing about our student ministry. I think student ministry as a whole is “broken” in this aspect but the thing is I am left with an answer of, “I have no idea what to do about it.” Thanks for bringing this up. I’m sure it will be a great debate/ discussion topic.

    NOW I will watch Hawkin’s video.

    I’m a rebel at heart.

  • I feel the same sort of thing. I’m relatively new to youth ministry, so I’m basically figuring these things out as I go (with the help of many wise mentors!) but already I’m finding that many of my assumptions about how youth ministry should work don’t really work. On one hand we’ve got students who act like they couldn’t be less interested in what we’re trying to instill in them on a Sunday morning. On the other hand we’ve got students who just sit there and nod. They’ve been feed children’s and youth programs for over 10 years now and nothing really affects them.

    I totally agree about giving students responsibility for their spiritual growth. It’s not something that we can teach or manage… it’s something we need to inspire.

  • Greg’s video mentioned that churches for the most part focus primarily on “experimenting” and “growing”. I wonder if this is because of the high focus on the cognitive domain, and leaving affective and behavioral behind? This might not be an accurate assessment, but maybe? I’ve begun, but still have a TON of research to do on stages of spiritual development (Fowler, Hagberg & Guelich, etc…) and formation. So, just some thoughts.

  • BRAVO!!! I loved this video! And to me, everything that was said was totally right on. I see the implications this carries as it relates to our ministry to students too. And although I believe that our large gatherings and teaching times still have value (if not only for the community aspect), I think we are missing something.

    One of the things I’ve been convicted by recently was how we inspire students to grow. I was recently reading about discipleship and the overall thought of this person’s writing was that our students depend so much on programs and classes and even relationships to grow their relationship with God, but what happens when that program or that class or that relationship may not be there. A student must OWN their faith and must grow to understand that they are ultimately responsible for their walk with Christ. And so I’m exploring some resources for helping our students to grow in this area.

    Great discussion — let’s keep it going!

  • More thoughts: Greg’s conclusion on the need for feedback and support being foundation rings true to Laura Joplin’s work (and I’m sure many others). Mark Matlock at the NYWC spoke of her work, and I can’t find the image he used in his handout, but an updated version can be seen in this article at Fuller’s CYFM:

    Joplin’s diagram shows feedback and support to be the key component (related to learning in an experiential way). So, maybe a more experiential method of youth ministry would be effective. Where the leaders become more shepherds than teachers, leaving behind the demands off teaching, teaching, teaching. And we challenge the students to take more responsibility for growing their faith, while support remains, and based on felt needs and feedback, we teaching. (Don’t read me wrong please! I’m not saying we leave behind teaching at all, rather we just get the students more involved.) I use the word responsibility instead of ownership, because most of the readings and teachings I’ve heard on ownership start after high school. I don’t know if I agree with this or not, just adding that in there for FUN!

  • I’ve watched the video, also read the book about a month ago. It’s true, there are some things that always need to be reevaluated in our approach to ministry. We began this process about 5 years ago. We connected with Wayne Cordiero out at New Hope in Hawaii (yeah, we’d all love that ministry position). Wayne got us hooked on journaling. It’s a simple process that follows what is now known as SOAP.

    Scripture – you read from the daily schedule.
    Observation – what is this scripture speaking directly to you (Maybe not the whole chapter, but one simple verse – one nugget of truth, over the course of a year you’ve got 365 gems from God’s Word)
    Application – How can I apply what I have just read from God’s Word to my life today?
    Prayer – Lord, help me to apply ________ to my life.

    This is a daily self-feeding program. This, when communicated to your students and adults alike, takes the bottle that you have been holding up for them away and gives them the ability to feed themselves. It creates the opportunity for each person in your church to become a disciple of Jesus rather than a follower of OUR teaching.

    Now, this may not be for every person and every church. I can only speak from my own experiences. This has revolutionized our student ministry. We have groups of students getting together and journaling. There are kids who meet before school, during lunch, in coffee shops. It is amazing to see the growth in the lives of the students as each of them takes the time to OWN their own faith and take the responsibility for their own growth.

    While I would love to say that all of our students are doing this on their own, it’s not that much of a perfect world… We still struggle to get students to do this, but, the students that have taken the initiative to journal through God’s Word are growing – all at their own pace.

  • @ Kevin,

    I love the idea of journaling, but is this just a habit that you encourage separate from any “curriculum” (I use that word in a broad sense)? Or is the journaling related to what you are working through together as a great? As an extension of lessons in other words?

    I’ve been thinking a lot about using spiritual disciplines (IE Foster and Willard) within youth ministry (not a new thought), but I want them to be well connected and integrated. It seems that if students are doing them all on there own (which is awesome!), it would be easy for them to either not stay focused, or to maybe take a moralistic or therapeutic approach to the scriptures that is very centered on them rather than God.

    I do like the simple SOAP analogy, thanks for sharing that, and please share more about what journaling looks like specifically in your ministry.

  • @Tim. Very thoughtful post and great discussion. Very helpful comment from Kevin on journaling which could be a great discipline for instill in our young people, as part of inspiring responsibility for their own spiritual growth.

    Tim said. ‘We also do not do encourage students enough to actually investigate scripture for themselves and take personal responsibility for it. Instead, we spoon feed them. As teachers, we chew and digest God’s Word ourselves and then feed students the final product. As a result, many students are hooked on spiritual milk. I wonder if this lack of personal responsibility for spiritual growth is why many students go to college and drop out of church and maybe even abandon Christianity altogether.’

    I think this is a really important point. I’ve repeated it, so it doesn’t get lost. I think there’s an urgent need to move away from presentation style bible study or mini-sermon (I know that’s a generalisation) in youth ministry. We need to find ways to engage young people thoughtfully in discussion, ask questions and help them make personal biblical application from scripture. And how can we begin to teach the skills we have learned to help young people explore the bible for themselves? Tim’s absolutly right, if we just spoon feed, what happens when the spoon is taken away? Starvation! So, I’m left with the question, ‘What can I do to help young people feed themselves on the Word?’ I’ve some thoughts but this post is already too long. Later.

    PS I don’t think this is an issue just for youth ministry :-)

  • @ Luke #2: Experiences will always win against cognitive teaching, hands down. We can tell kids something 100 times, but if their experience say otherwise, it’s almost pointless. We absolutely need to make learning an experience, not a sterile class. The “problem” is that standing in front of a classroom and talking requires a lot less planning and preparation. Plus, it makes the teacher feel like they’re in much more control. But none of these are excuses, of course.

    @ Kevin: The SOAP thing is cool, but let’s not forget the Interpretation process. I want to be careful that we don’t just give kids a passage and then ask, “So, what does this mean to you?” makes the Truth very subjective. This becomes a breeding ground for heresy and place to pool ignorance. We need to teach kids how to correctly handle the Word of God. The interpretation process is vital in making sure we stay in line with the rest of scripture.

    @ Grahame: I think the answer lies deeper than just facilitating thoughtful discussion and asking better questions. Many small group teachers already do that fairly well. I think the answer lies partly in teaching kids how to look in scripture for themselves, teaching them how to ask the questions themselves (observation), where to find answers (interpretation) and make the implications for daily life (application).

  • @ Luke#2: It isn’t based on what we are going through as a group. The reading schedule is actually the same year after year with a chapter from the OT and NT as well as Psalms & Proverbs thrown in there. Each kid may hear something different as they read through the selected scriptures. (Cool thing about that is we get what we need at whatever point we are at in our life) As individuals we all have God speaking directly to us through His Word each day – as a group when we do this together we are able to share with each other what God is speaking and the whole group is blessed.

    As a student ministry we all grow in God’s Word and have the ability to gain the “wisdom of the ages” as we each sit down and hear from Jeremiah, Moses, Paul, etc. Through it all God speaks. Great thing about this is that there is no end point. Each year you read through the same scriptures but you may be at a different point in life and therefore gain new understanding of God’s Word.

    @ Tim: while there can be concern for “subjective truth” we also have to trust God to speak to each student. As we each spend time reading and writing what God is speaking to us there tends to be a common thread that develops over the days, weeks, months and years. God’s Word will never contradict and because of that we can trust that over time as people earnestly seek His Word for answers and life application they will be led in the right direction.

    While we use journaling as a method for each persons own growth we are also connected in relationship and have discussions with each other about what God is speaking through journaling. If there tends to be a wacky interpretation we can handle that (although we have only had that happen once over the past 5 years)

    I think it is interesting that you mention this concern to me and then comment to Grahame:
    “I think the answer lies partly in teaching kids how to look in scripture for themselves, teaching them how to ask the questions themselves (observation), where to find answers (interpretation) and make the implications for daily life (application).”

    We don’t just throw a Bible and journal at them and pray that they make it. There is a process involved -SOAP- that does all that you mention in your comment. The key with where to find the interpretation is based out of God’s Word rather than a reliance on what other people may have said about God’s Word.

    @ Grahame: “PS I don’t think this is an issue just for youth ministry”
    You are absolutely right man!

  • @ Kevin re: @ Tim @ Kevin on SOAP?

    It seems that OIA and SOAP are somewhat similar, but that SOAP is very individualistic. “you, you, I, my, my”. While the SOAP method could be very similar to OIA, from you brief explanation of it, it seemed rather “me” focused. While I think you are right about the importance of having them do it, and it sounds like you are having good results, it seems that teaching the students how to do good exegetics and hermeneutics should be foundational. We have to what what the text says, before we can know what it means. I realize this is a BIG task, and I think one good way of approaching it would be to have small groups planned around this scripture reading/journaling. Students could bring questions and insights that they have had. I think it is important for students to see and hear other student digging and wrestling in the word. Maybe even a time before or after a weekly service. Students could also be encouraged to share what they are learning in the regular meetings to encourage other students to take it seriously. Just some thoughts.

    A question: Kevin, do you have a printed journal for them to work through? Or a book that they work through and they journal in whatever? I’ve thought about having the students use a one year bible, or something similar that would walk them through scripture, and then they would have a journaling template to help them OIA the text. There are a lot of different Bibles out there that would work well. I recently came across the Serendipity Bible, which is LOADED with questions. I’ve yet to evaluate how good it actually is. But I thought it would serve as a good tool to help small group leaders ask questions about the passages that the students had read for the week (a good reason to have everyone on the same passages).

    Just some thoughts.

  • @ Luke#2: yes, we have journals that we had printed for us. If you are interested send me an email at revkev at and I will mail you one to check out.

    You are right the SOAP method is very individualistic. The bottom line is that we are all on different points in our journey with God (I hesitate to use the word “journey” because some may read that as emergent, pomo, etc. and that is not me – sorry) As we all strive to grow in “personal” relationships with God we need to allow each student to grow individually while understanding that there is a whole group of students reading through the same scriptures and growing alongside them.

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  • @Tim. Thanks Tim for your earlier comment on my post. I agree with you. We do need to equip young people to explore the scriptures for themselves, including the inductive style you give as an example. My own post wasn’t too clear, sorry about that! I was simply trying to say that in addition to teaching biblical truth to young people, we also want to give them the tools to explore the Bible for themselves. Yes, we need to teach young people how to correctly handle the Word of God, but then we need to let them do it. This then means we have to relinquish some of our ‘control.’

    I understand your comment about the danger of ‘subjective truth’ but I think we have to balance that alongside trusting God to speak through his Word. It is a balance. There is risk. But I’d like to think a wise youth pastor would put in safeguards and create opportunities for reflection and review with the young people. I think that’s implied in Kevin’s comments about his group. Sometimes we need to ‘let go and let God’. If we’re praying and trusting God for our young people we won’t be disappointed.

    Tim, I appreciate your heart in stimulating this kind of discussion. I want to say, this is valuable.

  • Timely…as always. I love the thought of asking my kids what helps them grow personally in their faith, as asked in the clip.

    We have a ton of kids that attend our youth group night -which is outreach friendly…but there we’re not teaching them how to “be” Christian, we’re introducing them to Christ. It’s getting them to the other 2 weekly studies…now, I’m not so sure.

  • That is certainly very interesting and thought provoking : That we can get kids ‘hooked on milk’… instead of the meat they need to discover for themselves ! But so few really discover for themselves, is why I think they hire youth workers.. to come along side when they are so immature yet. Maybe the old fashioned ‘testimonials’ would help supply their need of discovering, then sharing..
    I know you guys have a terrific job to do… and as soon as you get one thing answered.. another will pop up.. cause every kid is different !! and keeps changing, himself. !! God does and can work the miracles we all need !! Thankful for that..

  • I want only to say, that we have in Germany the same “problems”, and i thought a lot of times about that Question. So Thank you for all your answers, it’s really great to read all that stuff…

  • the link to the Greg Hawkins video is broken, does anyone know where it can be found?


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