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Of my Christian youth group experience, I remember costume parties, pancake breakfasts accompanied by the strum of acoustic guitar, and short sermons delivered to teens who sprawled puppy-like on a carpeted youth room floor. I also remember mentoring younger students, joining other teens in community service projects, and being pushed into leadership roles beyond my comfort zone. 

These experiences will feel familiar to many who participated in religious youth groups. Another thing that’s common? Leaving the faith of childhood behind. The goal of religious youth groups is to lead teens into lives of spiritual maturity, shaped by love, service, and integrity. But despite leaders’ and pastors’ best efforts, many adolescents graduate from their youth group experience unchanged. As they enter adulthood they shed their faith like old clothes—and they leave their pastors and parents wondering how to teach spiritual formation that lasts.

Dr. Kara Powell wondered the same thing. The chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary, Powell has studied Christian youth ministry for years. She recently co-authored Faith Beyond Youth Group: Five Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship. The book summarizes the latest research on how adults can encourage youth toward spiritual maturity, becoming people who shape their communities for good.

Though the book speaks primarily to Christian pastors, Powell’s findings apply beyond religious contexts. They offer a roadmap for anyone hoping to impact the next generation: teachers, parents, mentors, and coaches. This research serves as a compass for equipping youth to shape meaningful lives that can weather the complications of adulthood.

Thinking beyond morality

The word “character” is due for a makeover. It doesn’t register with today’s youth, who see it as an antiquated, irrelevant term—something only their grandmothers care about. Worse, there’s a prevailing assumption that “character” refers to superficial behaviors, like politeness. Maybe the word’s lack of resonance isn’t surprising when we consider that, as a society, we no longer speak, read, or write about character as much as we once did. To further muddy the waters, it seems like everywhere we turn we hear another story of a high-profile leader’s moral failing. 

To form people of character, Powell says, youth workers need to reimagine the word. The first step is to realize that character formation transcends teaching good behavior. “When I’m being really direct with leaders and parents, I say that one of the misunderstandings we have about character is that we’re trying to produce ‘nice, successful virgins,’” Powell says. “And the reality, of course, is that character is so much more than that.”

At Fuller Youth Institute, Powell and her colleagues define character as the way someone lives out their faith. “We describe it as living out Jesus’ goodness every day by loving God and our neighbors. For us, the tangible manifestation of how we love is a great summary of character.” But everyone brings different assumptions to the word. While writing Faith Beyond Youth Group, the authors surveyed youth to gather their definitions of character.

“My favorite definition from a young person was, ‘Who you are, mostly,’” Powell says, laughing. “‘Mostly,’ was the best part.”

There’s a more insidious side of character, too. Efforts to develop character have historically harmed marginalized communities, particularly when used to encourage compliance with white normative culture among minority groups. Character formation can also be harmful when it shifts the focus onto behaviors and away from systemic inequalities. One Latino youth worker who appears in Faith Beyond Youth Group pointed out that promoting perseverance under difficult circumstances is the wrong approach, when in fact it’s the circumstances themselves that should be changed.

The point of helping youth build character is not so that they will adopt particular behaviors; the point is to help them make sense of life’s biggest questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference can I make? “All of us are wrestling with [these] three big questions of identity, belonging and purpose, especially in times of transition,” Powell says. “And adolescence is like permanent transition, so the questions are particularly salient.”

“There's an expert in making meaning who we can learn from,” she adds. I wait, expecting her to point to Jesus. But instead Powell says that our present-day expert in meaning making is none other than Taylor Swift.

“She’s a wonderful lyricist. As a mom of a 17-year-old, [her lyrics] connect not only with my 17-year-old, but with all my friends who are middle-aged. Taylor Swift has a way of making meaning of love—which again, is our simplest definition of character—as well as identity, belonging, and purpose.” When it comes to helping young people process what they’re experiencing and learning from those experiences, Powell believes, Taylor Swift has the upper hand on most churches.

Forging character alongside Gen Z

The Fuller Youth Institute identified three adjectives to describe today’s youth: anxious, adaptive, and diverse. Young people, says Powell, are “experiencing a mental health crisis that we have not seen before.” But she’s quick to add that Gen Z is incredibly creative, resilient, and innovative. They’re also diverse, most notably in race and ethnicity. The 2020 census revealed that, for the first time in the U.S., over half of the nation’s youth are people of color. “This is an age of exciting ethnic, cultural and racial diversity, as well as diversity when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Beyond their three defining characteristics, studies show that Gen Z is even less likely than previous generations to trust institutions—particularly organized religion. “Churches are often neck and neck with politicians for being some of the least-trusted institutions,” Powell says. According to Springtide Research Institute, today’s youth are almost three times as likely to say they’ve been hurt by organized religion than that they trust organized religion. “This generation cares a lot about how they treat others. Today’s young people, sadly, would not say that Christian churches are exemplars of what it means to love others.”

Based on the data collected on Gen Z and the adults who work with them, Fuller Youth Institute identified best practices for guiding this generation into lives of love and integrity. To forge character alongside Gen Z, Powell recommends shifting the teaching model from talking at young people to engaging them in embodied practices. Whenever they can, she tells leaders to convert their teaching from words into actions. The first step to taking action together? Paying attention to what the teens they serve actually care about, whether that’s climate activism, poverty relief, or education equity.

But the most foundational part of impacting youth is cultivating trust. “The good news is that research on trust shows it’s not built by a grand heroic gesture,” says Powell. “It’s generally built through small everyday acts of love and empathy.” Perhaps surprisingly, trust is also cultivated when adults are honest about their shortcomings—when they model not just their victories but also their vulnerabilities. As one young person aptly noted, character is who we are, mostly. When adults model doubt, struggle, and imperfection, they model a truer version of integrity. This kind of honesty makes the pursuit of character feel more accessible to the teens who are watching them.

For any adult wondering if they have what it takes to impact the next generation, Powell has one more piece of good news. Just like Gen Z is diverse, so too should be the adults who lead them.  “We have a stereotype of the type of adults who would be most influential in a young person’s life. [But] just like young people are diverse, the adults who influence this generation can also be very diverse in every category.” The important thing is not who the adults are, but rather how they model character alongside the young people they love.