I (Lisa) sit on my couch for a few moments. I need a mental break from the daily whirlwind of life as a pastor. Turning to Instagram for diversion, I barely start scrolling before I see something that makes my heart stop.
It’s the “story” of one of the young people in our ministry. The image is a blurry picture overlaid with stark words:
“Why even bother anymore?”
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-familiar scene for many of us in ministry with young people. Statements of desperation like “I don’t think anyone would miss me if I’m gone” or “I want to give up” lead to flurries of messages from concerned students and leaders as they see the hopelessness and suicidal ideation posted in these cries for help.
Or we know the student who has just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. They have been told there is no hope of a cure, only management. Or they just learned that their loved one has cancer, or was in a serious accident.
We have students who do not know how to process the difficult news of another mass shooting, perhaps where kids their age were wounded and killed. They wonder if they are powerless, and where God is in the midst of this kind of suffering and cruelty.
We also know the recent graduate who feels ill-equipped, afraid, and overwhelmed as they look at what’s next—perhaps especially the weight of financial strain on their family.
Many of us sit across from young people in a wide range of difficult circumstances and know they need hope, guidance, and strength. We long for our young people to be formed into the likeness of Christ. Scripture gives us all kinds of language for this. In Romans, Colossians, Galatians, and other letters, Paul even lists characteristics a follower of Jesus should live out. He describes Christians as full of hope, perseverance, love, joy, compassion, kindness, humility, selflessness, and so much more. These qualities are the fruit we long to see nurtured and growing in our young people.
Ministries Cultivating Hopefulness
We preach and teach about the hope we have as Christians, and it is likely true that many of our young people believe in this hope. But are we actually forming these qualities in our young people? Are we cultivating hopefulness?
In her book The Fabric of Character, researcher Anne Snyder examines organizations that foster character and virtue development. She considers a wide variety of organizations, but surprisingly, youth ministries (or churches generally, for that matter) aren’t among them.
Today we face an unfortunate—and perhaps ironic—problem in youth ministry. We value and believe in the importance of qualities such as hope (our theology outright promotes them), yet youth ministries are not typically considered exemplars of virtue development.
This isn’t to say we don’t care about forming young people. In a 2018 survey conducted by our research team at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) funded by the John Templeton Foundation, we learned a lot about the goals of youth ministry leaders. Some of the most frequently mentioned goals included encouraging a relationship with God, discipleship, and growing in faith. Each of these goals was considered well-supported by youth ministry leaders, but also rated as difficult to pursue and unclear.
Exploring the Formation Gap
To unpack these findings, FYI gathered a diverse group of Christian ministry leaders, psychologists, and practical theologians in January 2019. Our conversations revealed that discipleship and other types of spiritual formation take a variety of forms—encouraging relationships with God, seeking justice, developing a healthy self-concept, pursuing obedience to God—depending on the congregation and tradition.
As we bring together our research and conversations with leaders from various backgrounds, our team came to the conclusion that we may be facing a unique opportunity. On one hand, churches and youth ministries care deeply about young people’s formation, but often struggle to define and enact this formation.
On the other hand, character and virtue development experts have identified best practices for cultivating some of the qualities Christian theology emphasizes—hope, gratitude, forgiveness, and others—but their work often goes unseen and unused by youth ministries.
We believe the time may be right for deeper research and practical resources that bring clarity concerning the formation of teenagers (particularly their character and virtue) while also better understanding the unique contextual realities represented by the variety of churches ministering with young people today.
As a team, we’re now seeking out answers to questions such as:
How do we bring current formational realities, theology, ministry research, and character and virtue development science together into a coherent and useable framework?
In short, we’re aiming to understand character-forming discipleship.
Formation for Hope-Filled Futures
Imagine sitting across from one of those students struggling with a myriad of issues and being equipped with a more robust toolkit to walk with them through their hard times. As we seek to minister with compassion and guidance, what if we could combine a theology of hope with research-based practices in order to develop deeper Christlike virtues?
The good news is that researchers have already identified practices that foster hope in young people, several of which fit easily into existing ministry forms. For example, one study sought to increase college students’ hopeful goal-directed thinking. Though we might assume this season of life is inherently optimistic and hopeful, college students report increasing and unprecedented levels of distress. Some link this distress to a lack of hope.
In one 90-minute session, students chose a personal goal they hoped to accomplish in the next six months. Researchers then taught students about the essential components of hope, after which students completed a hope-based goal mapping exercise where they connected their goals with a pathway to meet those goals. Participants concluded with a hope visualization exercise to imagine taking the steps they had outlined.
These exercises sound surprisingly similar to what many of us do in youth ministry. We teach about a particular aspect of theology or a passage from the Bible. We facilitate some kind of interaction with the material in small groups or individually, through discussion, or by writing or drawing in journals. We may conclude with time to let these lessons soak in through reflection, prayer, meditation, or other imaginative exercises.
Researchers found that even one 90-minute session significantly increased students’ progress toward and hope concerning their goal, and—even more significantly—their hope for life, sense of purpose, and vocation more broadly. These positive changes occurred after a single session. Our ministries typically engage in ongoing discipleship. Imagine how this practice and others like it could ground our students more fully in the Christian story of hope, practically equipping them to live hopefully as they face fear, despair, and challenging circumstances.
We have a distinct opportunity in youth ministry to cultivate deep hope in today’s young people. By building on existing research and exploring how to integrate virtue-building practices into discipleship, our team at FYI is working to equip leaders who will help students experience and embody a hope that is rooted in the character of Christ.