Do you ever wonder how you can help a young person grow in their faith? Are you curious about spiritual development in youth? Dr. Kara Powell introduces us to her research in this compelling interview with Compassion Canada.
Compassion Canada: Welcome, Kara! And thank you for giving us a little time today to talk about faith, kids and spiritual development. Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us what you’ve been working on lately?
Kara Powell: I’m Kara Powell, and my main job at Fuller University is Chief of Leadership Formation. So, I oversee all of Fuller’s non-degreed training. I’m also a faculty member at Fuller and the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute. I certainly have a passion for young people, which is why I resonate so much with the mission of Compassion.
Our mission is to equip diverse leaders and parents so young people can change our world. And we do that by turning research into resources that answer leaders’ and parents’ toughest questions about faith. So, we spend a lot of time listening to young people and leaders and family members, doing theological research and empirical research. Then we turn that into practical tools for families and churches and ministries.
Some of the work that we’re best known for is Sticky Faith as well as Growing Young. Recently, Three Big Questions that Shape Every Teenager, which looks at the questions teenagers are wrestling with, and how we as adults can accompany them in that journey.
I’m also a mom. My husband Dave and I have three kids who are 22, 20 and 17. So, we are living in the important stage of parenting young adults. We’re right in there with other parents asking these questions.
Understanding the gospel of grace
CC: Thank you for the introduction—you’ve got a lot going on in life right now! One of the topics you teach about is the idea of ‘Sticky Faith’ or helping kids to build a faith they won’t outgrow. We know you’ve written a book about the topic, but can you share the back-of-the-book version of what that research was all about?
KP: Yeah, the problem that we were trying to respond to is that about 40-50% of young people in the US from great churches and families—kids from families like ours—drift from God and their faith community after they graduate from high school. So, we wanted to figure out what it is that families and churches and ministries could do to beat those odds. Is there actually a way to help develop a faith that lasts?
And I’ll just say one of the most fundamental insights of Sticky Faith has to do with the gospel itself. Even though I had a PhD in Practical Theology, our research really taught me new insights about the gospel. Because what I saw in youth group graduates is what I sometimes see in myself, which is that we attempt to view the gospel as what Dallas Willard called the “gospel of sin management”—that it’s this list of what we do and don’t do, instead of realizing the heart of the gospel is what Jesus has done and continues to do in and through us. It is about grace.
And so, for young people who make mistakes, say when they go to college, who are exposed to new opportunities and temptations, when—not if, but when—they struggle, they often view their faith like a jacket, something external to them. And when they work, they feel like they’ve thrown that jacket into the corner. They run from Jesus and the faith community when they need both the most.
But if the gospel is really a gospel of grace, if we’re teaching grace, then there is a way back for them. That’s what separates Christianity from every other religion: grace. As adults, we can demonstrate that to kids by resting in that, talking about what that grace means for our lives and how it has transformed things for us. Having the gospel really clear makes a difference for kids holding on to faith.
Intergenerational relationships and lasting faith
CC: Some people might feel like they don’t have a role to play in children’s spiritual development because they don’t have children and don’t feel called to children’s ministry. Can you give some examples of how adults can play a role in the faith of a child or youth?
KP: This was another one of the significant findings of Sticky Faith that when we looked at 13 different youth group participation variables, 13 things that kids tend to do in youth group, we’ll all be glad to know that studying Scripture is correlated with mature faith in high school and college, and being involved in service and justice was correlated with mature faith in high school and college.
“In our well-intentioned efforts to minister to the developmental life stage of adolescence, we’ve ended up segregating them from the rest of the church.”
But of everything we looked at, the variable most correlated with mature faith in high school and college was intergenerational worship and relationships. Now, normally when I say that to a group of youth leaders, at least one of them aloud says, “wow,” because so much of youth ministry in the U.S. and Canada is focused on just young people themselves.
In our well-intentioned efforts to minister to the developmental life stage of adolescence, we’ve ended up segregating them (and that is not a verb I use lightly) from the rest of the church. So, out of our Sticky Faith research, we’re inviting adult parents, guardians and non-parents to be part of what we call the 5 to 1 ratio: How do we have five adults investing in each young person? I’m talking about five adults who know that young person, who are praying for that young person, who are that safe space for that young person.
I’ll say this on the long list of why I love Compassion—one of the ways that we see adults and young people connect is when they serve together. There’s something about being involved and looking outside of ourselves and helping someone in need, maybe across cultures, that is especially bonding for our young people and adults. As a family, we sponsor a girl in Brazil named Ticiane and those times of praying for her and writing to her have been extraordinary.
Tools for helping young people explore doubts
CC: At Compassion, we care deeply about child development. This includes not just their physical and educational well-being but their spiritual growth, too. What would you say children need to develop in a spiritually healthy way?
KP: One would be that they understand the gospel. The second would be dedicated adults accompanying them on their faith journey. A third would be peers. In addition to having those adult mentors, are there a handful of peers who are pouring into you, being a positive influence and sharpening you? The fourth one that comes to mind is a little counterintuitive, maybe, but out of our Sticky Faith research, we saw how important it is for young people to express and explore their doubts.
“Doubt isn’t toxic. Silence is.”
When we looked at youth group graduates, about 70 per cent admitted having tough questions about God during high school. We think, if anything, it’s higher than that because those are the ones who accepted it. But what’s fascinating is that when those young people had the opportunity to express and explore those doubts, that was correlated with greater faith maturity. We phrase, “Doubt isn’t toxic to faith. Silence is.”
So, all adults—parents, churches, and Compassion sponsors, can ask themselves, “How can I be a safe place for young people to ask questions?” At our house, this happens a lot around the dinner table. My husband Dave and I want to be a safe space for our kids and their friends to ask questions about God that don’t always make sense.
I try to equip parents and teachers with this tool when a 12-year-old or 17-year-old or 32-year-old asks a tricky question about God—it’s these four words: “I don’t know, but…” Then you set a time to look together at the Bible next week, or meet with a friend from church who loves these questions, or you share what you’ve found to be true about God in your own life. I’ve used all those responses with kids. You don’t have to have a seminary degree; just be willing to pray, think about it, talk to other people and make the space to explore together.
Three burning questions youth in the Church are asking
CC: Children enrolled in the Compassion program have dedicated tutors and church staff who walk through life with them. They help them answer some of the big questions in life, such as what they want to study, how they want to contribute to their community and what their dreams are. What are the three questions kids in North America are looking for answers to from your research?
KP: We surveyed over 2,000 young people [in the U.S.] and then did extensive interviews. Our goal was to figure out the most pressing questions driving young people’s actions and attitudes. We wanted to get to the questions beneath the questions.
“Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference can I make?”
Part of what motivated us to look into these questions is what we heard from one 15-year-old when he said, “I’m tired of the church answering questions I’m not asking,” which was this arrow to our hearts! And so, after spending time with all these diverse young people and looking through developmental research, we’ve landed on three questions.
- The first is identity. Who am I?
- The second is belonging. Where do I fit?
- And the third is purpose. What difference can I make?
As a parent, when I look at whenever one of my kids is doing something that seems a little askew, I stop and ask myself, Is my child trying to get a sense of identity or belonging or purpose? It all of a sudden makes more sense. I can empathize more with what they’re doing and why, which helps me better respond.
I am every day praying that they would know that Jesus makes them enough when it comes to their identity, that they belong with God’s people when it comes to their sense of belonging, and that they’re part of God’s unfolding story when it comes to their sense of purpose. So that’s become a prayer skeleton for my kids.
Finding purpose in living generously
CC: For those of us with children or youth in our lives, how can giving to or volunteering with an organization like Compassion help to build that sense of purpose?
KP: It does so much for a young person’s sense of purpose. And this is where I think this generation of young people is especially hungry to influence the world around them. I believe this is one of the beautiful strengths of Gen Z and Gen Alpha—one of the ways that God’s working and an opportunity for the church and Compassion.
When a person or ministry sponsors one or more Compassion kids, it sparks a relationship. That’s what is so beautiful about it. It’s not just a one-month commitment and then you’re done. You get to build relationships with a young person or more than one young person.
Letters and photos go back and forth. You get to allocate money toward that young person. In our family, my husband Dave and I have always covered the monthly sponsorship cost for our Compassion child in Brazil, but our kids give her Christmas and birthday gifts.
And so, they’re experiencing more of what it means to give generously. They begin to see themselves as generous people and part of something important.
Today’s young people are busy. Part of what’s challenging for families who want to serve together is that it’s hard to find that weekly or even monthly time when everybody’s free. But a Compassion sponsorship is something that you can do if you’re free at dinner together or if you’re in the minivan together. Any 10 or 15-minute window, you can go on the app, you can write a letter, you can write a letter by hand, you can give some money. And it’s just very feasible for busy families and busy young people.
CC: As you know from your experience, we connect one sponsor with one child and invite relationship-building as part of a child’s spiritual development through letters of encouragement. How can sponsors share their faith with the kids they sponsor?
KP: One of the things we see in our research, in general, is how powerful it is for adults to share their journey and simply how they are growing. This can look like talking to the young people in your life or sharing through letters to a Compassion child.
“We don’t have to act more spiritual than we are. We can just share the spirituality we’re already experiencing.”
I encourage people to share what God is teaching them, what scriptures are significant, what they’re praying about these days and what they’re learning. So, I love to tell adults that we don’t have to act more spiritual than we are. We can just share the spirituality we’re already experiencing.
The other thing I love about Compassion letters is that you can ask your Compassion child, How can I be praying for you? What are you learning about God? Because they all have access to wonderful spiritual education in their Compassion programs. So, it’s both sharing yourself as well as asking questions.
Resources for encouraging young people in their faith
CC: Kara, thank you for that encouragement. As we wrap up our time together, what resources would you recommend to parents or people involved in the lives of children and youth here in Canada?
KP: My two top recommendations from the Fuller Youth Institute for parents, caregivers, grandparents and relatives are the Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and Three Big Questions That Change Every Teenager.
Suppose you’re not a family member of a young person but want to know how to better connect with young people—in that case, I’d recommend the second book, Three Big Questions that Change Every Teenager because it has over 300 questions that you can ask to build relationship again, have that dialogue, listen and share yourself with the young people who are closest to you.
CC: Thank you, Kara, for sharing your expertise with us and your passion for young people!
If you’re interested in hearing more from Kara, you can find her on Twitter and Instagram @KPowellFYI. You can find her books on the Fuller Youth Institute website, or wherever books are sold.
Did you know that Compassion has free devotional resources to help you and your family grow in your love for Jesus and your neighbour? Check them out today!
P.S. Look out for our newest devotional for students coming soon!