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Positive Youth Development and the Beloved Community

What Is the Purpose of Youth Ministry?

The past decade has seen significant new developments in both church youth programming and developmental psychology as mega-churches have applied and advanced organizational development theories and developmental systems theorists have focused on the mutual interplay between individual and context. As a result many religious organizations, including the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), are rethinking how they do youth ministry and where it fits within their organizations. To ensure organizational support, youth ministry should be theologically grounded and strategically aligned with broader congregational goals. To sustain program continuity, youth ministry should be woven into the fabric of congregational life rather than dependent on the ephemeral enthusiasms of transient youth and staff. To maximize participation, youth ministry should have both immediate and long-term benefits for youth, church, and volunteers and offer a variety of ways to participate. To expand reach, youth ministry should interrelate with other youth programs, increasing the choices and range of experiences available to youth. To deepen commitments, youth ministry should be connected to social service agencies in order to provide additional support when needed. To evaluate success, youth ministry should offer choice, be accountable, and have measurable results.

Finding Purpose
Senter, Black, Clark, and Nel (2001) discussed youth ministry across three dimensions in Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church. One axis denoted a continuum between fellowship (inward-facing) and mission (outward-facing); another axis concerned developmental issues and whether the church views youth ministry as the church of the present (now) or the church of the future (later); and a third axis looked at spiritual readiness or the degree of lived commitment. The inclusive congregational model embraces youth into every aspect of the congregation’s ministry while recognizing developmental differences. It avoids the trap of a “separate but equal” policy and puts youth ministry at the heart of what the church does. The preparatory model blends discipleship and evangelism, spiritual growth and outreach. Allied with the congregation in purpose and spirit, it is a specialized ministry that seeks to engage youth and cultivate them to become church leaders. The missional approach focuses on outreach and evangelism and welcomes all youth into its programs, but each program is meant to lead one deeper into relationship. The strategic approach develops youth as church leaders who will plant their own church when they are ready. In each case, the approach that youth ministry takes is tightly bound to the avowed purposes of its congregation. Of these, the inclusional approach is the one that meshes best with my own family-based congregation and its theology.

Although differing in emphasis, all these approaches are grounded in the purpose-driven theological framework popularized by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church derived from two passages in the New Testament: the Great Commandment (New International Version, Matthew 22:37-40) and the Great Commission (New International Version, Matthew 28:19-20). These passages define five purposes for the church: worship (love the Lord), ministry (love thy neighbor as thyself), evangelism (make disciples of all nations), fellowship (baptizing them), and discipleship (teaching them to obey). Fields (1998) described the application of these purposes to youth ministry in Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry. Programming is targeted at particular audience sectors (community, crowd, congregation, committed, and core) in order to engage them and provide a pathway to deeper commitment (87). Although each approach emphasizes one aspect over another and each has specific objectives, they share theological grounding and align youth ministry with the broader organizational purposes. This shared alignment of purpose allows participants to see their engagement as part of a larger effort. An advantage for religious organizations is that the shared purpose often imbues mundane activity with cosmic significance but in many Unitarian Universalist contexts there is a resistance to exclusively Christian language and a longing for a more spiritually diverse framework.

The theological purpose for youth ministry in a Unitarian Universalist context can be drawn from any of six religious and humanist sources (including Judeo-Christian traditions) but the scope of its ministries are defined by its seven principles:

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person
• Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth
• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
• The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process
• The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Within an organization, mission statements enable a shared vision and are a shorthand version of the organization’s goals and purpose. This purpose provides shared meaning and context for other activities and drives the narrative arc of our stories about ourselves. When our actions are allied with our perceived purpose we are acting authentically, which takes us a step further down the path of spiritual growth. If churches are organized, aligned, and acting on their missions they can be authentic and prophetic communities.

At Central Unitarian Church (CUC), my midsized UU congregation, we covenant together with the following mission statement (2009, CUC order of service):

Central Unitarian Church welcomes all into a home of spiritual diversity that challenges us to be our best selves; to minister to one another in love; to serve the greater community.

In such a simple statement there are profound theological implications that should be carried through every program within the church, but especially the religious education program. By covenanting, we affirm that we take responsibility for the process, both individually and collectively. In welcoming all it places an obligation on us as hosts to see that our guests are comfortable and cared for.

Realizing this covenant requires honoring the differences between individuals, the creation of a safe space where all can be heard., and the faith that the human heart can bridge the gaps between generations, cultures, and faiths. This requires hard work, skill, and a longing for understanding.

The mission statement affirms a progressive movement outward from the individual through levels of self-transcendence: from being one’s best self (building competence and confidence), to ministering to others (expressing care and compassion, acting on empathy), and serving the greater community (through social action, outreach, and service). It is a covenant for collective spiritual growth.

Description of Existing CUC Religious Education Program
The religious education (RE) program curriculum supports the mission by creating an environment in which children, youth, and adult volunteers can learn and grow together as they pursue the goals of the mission statement. The program is based on the four pillars of UU Religious Education: Judeo-Christian heritage, World Religions, UU heritage, and moral and ethical living (2009, CUC RE Prospectus).

Intergenerational worship occurs weekly in the Sanctuary for the first fifteen minutes, plus three or four full intergenerational services a year: the opening service and picnic; holiday program; RE Sunday; and, in most years, Affirmation Sunday.

The objectives of CUC’s religious education program are to:

• Foster a sense of community and let children know they are honored and respected.
• Explore the nature of religion, its traditions and relevance, and to value UU identity
• Encourage and develop critical thinking and learn to make responsible choices
• Develop a sense of social responsibility and commitment to social action
• Build knowledge of the world’s varied religions

The current religious education curricula for ages 10 and up are:
• Fifth and Sixth Grade: Bibleodeon.
An active curriculum introduces Hebrew and Christian scriptures through popular Bible stories.
• Seventh Grade: Neighboring Faiths/How Others Worship.
Explores other religious traditions and worships with them, then compares the experience with their own.
• Eighth Grade: Compass Points.
Helps youth consider and talk about some of life’s big questions: the nature of humanity, faith, beliefs about God, life and death.
• Ninth Grade: Our Whole Lives (OWL).
A values-oriented comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that is guided by UU principles like the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
• Tenth Grade: Affirmation.
Held most years, the “Affirmation” class is modeled on the Boy Scouts’ “God and Country” award. It continues dialogue about life issues and theological ideas, and includes service project and mentorship components. It culminates in a trip to Boston where students walk the Freedom Trail and visit UU historical sites and in a “This I Believe” service that the youth give to the congregation.
• High School Youth Group. Open to youth in grades 9-12, the youth group meets once a month for discussion, socializing and having fun, and planning service projects and youth conferences (Cons). Cons are district-wide youth-planned weekend events that may include 100 youth and their advisers. They are intense bonding experiences and give youth an opportunity to exercise leadership and to experience Unitarian Universalism outside of their own home congregation.
• Bridging Program. High school seniors can participate in a series of workshops readying them for their transition from high school to young adulthood.
The following are additional assets that are available to the congregation but not targeted to youth. There is also committee and other volunteer work available to youth but no attempt is made to integrate them into these activities.
• Adult Religious Education. A variety of classes are conducted for adults ranging from a lecture series to small group discussions.
• Covenant Circles. Though not part of the RE program, small group ministry is an important part of the spiritual development of many members. Groups of 6 to 12 meet once a month for a year to connect and share deeply about various topics. Functionally and emotionally, it can be a lot like youth group.
• Sunday Worship. The weekly sermon is the most significant religious education experience for most members. They want a nugget of spiritual truth to sustain them through the week.
Youth often remain involved for the remainder of high school through the youth group or teaching RE classes. However, they rarely attend services on a regular basis and generally do not participate in congregational life. Once graduated from high school, they are rarely seen except for occasional visits. This decline in religious participation is typical for youth across the religious spectrum, even though 27% of 16-21-year-olds surveyed reported they have become more religious (Denton, M. L., L. D. Pearce, and C. Smith. 2008). The UUA has been studying the problem for the past five years and is in the midst of devising a new approach to youth ministry. It has dropped funding for the national youth conference (YRUU), though District Youth Conferences (Cons) will still continue. These conferences, where about 100 youth from around the Metro District gather for a weekend of self-planned activities around a self-chosen topic are tremendous growth opportunities when they succeed, great learning experiences when they don’t, and look to the untrained adult eye like chaos, madness, and confusion. Yet I have seen deeply spiritual worship and emotional healing happen in these settings, as every youth is confronted with the love and appreciation of the group. The new UUA direction for youth ministry is congregationally based, spirit and faith-centered, counter-oppressive, inclusive and multicultural, and grounded in multigenerational communities. It would continue to place high value on youth voice and empowerment and community-building (Recommendations for Youth Ministry, 2009).

Losing youth as they bridge to adulthood is not unique to UU congregations. Young people often move out of their parents’ sphere as they establish their own identities and spheres of influence. Beginning in the 1970s, youth ministries in many faiths have developed along a segregationist model dedicated to a unique religious, cultural experience for youth. These have often been highly popular, especially when led by charismatic leaders. However, there are questions about the theological underpinnings and long-term effectiveness of such programs. The UU district youth conferences provide a profoundly intense experience and a wealth of skills to the youth who participate but there is no effective mechanism for bringing these back to the congregation and no movement of the congregation towards meaningful youth involvement.

A good youth program should have a mechanism to integrate youth experiences into the mainstream of the congregation, facilitating a continuous engagement between youth and the adults in the congregation. The congregation as a whole should take responsibility for the youth (and not abandon them to the youth group), acting as “aunts” and “uncles,” supporting youth by acting as drivers and chaperones on trips, helping out with youth events, and establishing an easy confidential rapport. When such relationships already exist the mentorship program flows naturally out of it. When they don’t it is stilted and awkward for all concerned. The congregation should be a place where everyone feels safe and connected and able to be themselves and not be judged. It should be a spiritual home, welcoming and accommodating to all. Youth and adults should be collaborating to create a spiritual space that all find safe, but that challenges all to be their best selves.

Defining Spiritual Development
Because of its spiritual diversity, Unitarian Universalism requires a definition of spiritual development that does not require the existence of God but allows for it. It is a faith that is more about relational processes than about ideological frameworks. A generation ago the psychological literature was dominated by maturational or constructivist models of development. These stage theories viewed life as a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress journey, with the next stage always peeking over the horizon. These theories are increasingly embattled as new research disputes their findings, pokes holes in their methodology, and finds much more plasticity in the paths young people take through life; but they still help us identify many of the integrative challenges youth face.

Spiritual Development: An Interdisciplinary Study (Helminiak, 1987) explores spiritual development from a philosophic pychological viewpoint and adopts Bernard Lonergan’s description of it as an intrinsic principle of authentic self-transcendence and an openness to its action that leads to personal integrity or wholeness (30). Though there is no theistic necessity in this definition, Helminiak holds that theistic beliefs (101) and the human divinization of Christ (163) add significant contributions and provide a broader context of meaning.

Helminiak considers spiritual development to be a purely adult phenomena as it relies on integrity and taking personal responsibility (38). The baseline for spiritual development is the conformist stage of ego development as defined by Loevinger (85), characterized by a worldview received from authority and supported by peers. However Loevinger cites occasional 13 and 14 year olds in the conscientious stage usually characteristic of young adulthood (67). Movement out of the conformist stage often does begin in adolescence as youth begin to question their place in the world. As they successively deconstruct and reconstruct a world of meaning, they move along a continuum of spiritual development in ever-widening circles of connectedness and integration (90). At any age, spiritual development does require a reflective self-critical, self-responsible, self-awareness that requires consistent cultivation.

A generation ago, human development models primarily took a maturational or psychosocial approach or a constructivist developmental approach. The maturational approach assumes that changes come at particular ages as part of normal maturation and development. The psychosocial approach sees successive maturational tasks that must be accomplished as we move from one stage to the next and assumes that development is tied to age-related changes. Constructivist approaches, also called structural theories of development, derived from an organismic, ontogenetic view and saw the development of new cognitive or psychological “structures,” each a balanced equilibrium of self-organization until a new situation requires the development of a new structure to accommodate it. Constructivist theories place more responsibility for development on the self-creating individual but the stages are hierarchical integrations and fixed in order but not in age. Still each stage has its tasks to accomplish.

Loevinger’s ego development model describes the following structures one might find in youth and young adults:

• Impulsive Stage: Concern to control impulses
• Self-protective Stage: Vulnerable, guarded, self-centered
• Conformist Stage: Approval seeking, judges on externals. The baseline for spiritual development.
• Self-Aware Level (Conscientious Conformism): Sensitive to inner life and own failings.
• Conscientious Stage: Self-determinative, driving moralism, rich inner life, real mutuality.
• Individualistic Level: Tolerance, emotional dependence, relationships vs. other responsibilities and goals, psychological and development outlook

In my own classroom experience with jr. high and high school youth, I have seen all of these behaviors and attitudes, sometimes expressed by the same individual. With youth, context seems to have an outsized impact on the self that’s presented. Both Loevinger’s ego development and Helminiak’s spiritual development models posit the ongoing progression of four factors: self-consistency, realism, self-responsibility, and sociality (69).
With such a broad spectrum of behaviors the context for appropriate religious education is complex. Most youth have ambivalent attitudes about dependence and responsibility. Adult worship usually does not connect with them. Youth experience a different cultural context and wrestle with different existential questions than the adult members of the congregation. Some of the age-appropriate challenges they face are: Identity formation (Who am I?); Gender roles (Am I normal?); Character development (Am I good?); Emotional development (Am I loved and can I love?).

The urgency with which youth deal with these questions helps drive their own process of spiritual growth. Stage theories of human development are like a roadmap for the interconnectedness of human growth and development. The map is not the territory but it does signal relative progress towards a goal. The developmental tasks we face require growth and competence in many areas, and so tend to move in concert across a spectrum of development that embraces cognitive, emotional, moral, and spiritual components. Spiritual development embraces the whole panoply of human development and is a lifelong process. It is characterized by integrity or wholeness, openness, self-responsibility, and authentic self-transcendence. It thrives best in an atmosphere of love and trust, but can develop anywhere.

The goal of religious education should be to facilitate it, but as Loevinger points out: “We may desire to create or encourage maturity of conscience in our charges, but in the nature of things there is no direct way to lead them beyond the morality of obedience (79).”

Religious instruction does not necessarily lead to spiritual growth. Grappling with religious questions does because it forces us towards authenticity. Spiritual development is human development towards authenticity and ultimacy.

Paradox and its successful resolution drives the dynamic of the spiritual growth process — either internally or externally—but it must be handled carefully. As conscience points out discrepancies between our idealized view of ourselves and our actual behavior, it can lead to self-mastery or self-loathing. If a teacher challenges our accepted beliefs, it can lead to questioning and self-discovery or trigger a defensive reaction that shuts down learning. Openness is the doorway to authenticity and a dynamic towards wholeness.

Positive Youth Development
Research indicates that behavior and the brain are much more plastic than previously thought and we don’t necessarily move in lockstep through a pre-determined process. One of the most promising new approaches, positive development, is based on developmental systems theory and focuses on building personal assets through positive transactions with the environment.

As described in The Good Teen, positive development is a multidimensional move towards wholeness; with many paths through it; it is both individual and communal, involving a personal narrative and a contextual situation (Lerner, 2007). It is positive and life affirming and individuals are responsible for their choices. It sounds a lot like a research-based version of the spiritual development defined by Helminiak, but goes much further in developing a methodology for moving through the process, and providing empirical research to back up its developmental claims.

Although promoting good behavior and risk-avoidance are not necessarily signs of spiritual growth, they are important components in any education curriculum aimed at youth. Research on resilience and prevention science shows that neither remediation nor prevention programs are effective at preparing youth for life’s challenges. Positive youth development focuses on building personal assets that allow youth to thrive and make them better able to survive the pitfalls of life (Mahoney and Lafferty, 2003). For example, anti-drug or abstinence-only programs not only have high failure rates but youth are ill-prepared for the consequences of risky behaviors.

Developmental neuroscience research sheds light on why risk-avoidance programs fail and positive youth development works with adolescents. Adolescents (aged 14 to 16) exhibit the intelligence and risk analysis of adults but as their socioemotional network develops with puberty it floods the brain with dopamine when aroused, overwhelming the cognitive-control system which is still relatively undeveloped (Steinberg, 2007). Antisocial behavior declines slowly after 14, and resistance to peers increases (Mahoney, 2009). Although there is not yet experimental corroboration I believe positive development works on two tracks. First, it enhances positive affiliations and relationships. Second, it helps youth build their cognitive control systems through daily practice.

Research suggests that the best outcomes for youth are when they have sustained, positive interactions with adults; participate in structured (especially intergenerational) activities that help them develop valued life skills; and become leaders of valued community activities. These are the foundational components for a youth ministry.

Many of these components are already in place in the RE program at CUC, but in the same way that the program flows from the mission statement, our every interaction with youth should be structured to support and strengthen positive behaviors and to enhance the developmental assets available to youth. Although the content of the existing RE program would probably not change much, if at all, the integration of youth into the life of the congregation would change significantly. At every opportunity, youth, on an individual and self-selected basis, would become engaged in the broader activities of the church.
A jr. high youth group would help provide the safe, structured, social environment that youth crave during this most vulnerable time, particularly for those in early puberty. It would also help strengthen youth affiliation with the congregation. High school youth have very full calendars, if the congregation isn’t near the top of their list already it will have a hard time staying on it at all. has voluminous materials on ways to promote positive development and build assets for youth, including the following table (Table 1-2) describing the differences between typical child and youth programs and an asset building or positive youth development program.

Table 1-2: Asset Foundations for Christian Congregations
Typical Child and Youth Programs • Asset Building
Focus on implementing a new curriculum or step-by-step process
Invites people and groups to discover how they can—and do—make a difference in the lives of young people
Often rely on professionals or a single volunteer to make it work
Challenges many people to be asset builders in both formal and informal ways

Focuses on fixing a problem
Focuses on celebrating and building strengths in young people, families, congregations, and communities
Emphasizes short-term implementation
Offers short-term ways to get started, but emphasizes the importance of long-term, sustained behavior change
Table from

Positive Development’s methodology is built on growing the five Cs: Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Caring which lead to Contribution (Lerner, 2007). In other words, the ability to act effectively builds an internal sense of self-worth which fosters positive bonds with people and institutions, generates an inner moral compass which is expressed in caring, empathy, and a commitment to social justice, and is made manifest in contribution as individuals care for themselves and give to society. These factors are self-reinforcing and foster continual development throughout one’s lifespan. These developmental goals, like personal and social assets, are open-ended and can continue to grow throughout the lifespan.
The major work of development takes place in an intimate setting, primarily in the family. Although simplistic in expression, putting these principles into action requires an acute sensitivity to individual narrative and social context and a careful calibration of responses, offering support that bolsters confidence and self-responsibility. Although parents are the most crucial contributors to the developing competence and confidence of a child they often feel inadequate to the task. Children’s religious education was an extremely important reason for most members beginning to attend CUC (CUC congregational survey, 2008). Other reasons cited by a majority of members were fellowship/community and celebrating common values.

Positive development does not only involve youth, building assets is a lifelong process and there are also periods of stress when we draw on these assets. Parents need support, encouragement, and love in order to develop their own assets. Since they are the primary teachers of youth, the first objective of youth ministry should be the development of parents: teaching them about positive youth development and asset-building, creating a safe space where parents can develop the skills they need to raise a self-reliant child and facilitating the formation of a support system for young families. Youth are particularly vulnerable during the transitions from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. Preceding these transitions, asset-building workshops could provide guidance and a supportive environment for both youth and parents. Along with the establishment of small peer groups for parents meeting with a trained facilitator, this could provide a solid foundation at the family level. Broad support from the congregation for young families is likely to increase adult participation in youth ministry: another critical factor for positive youth development.

Integrating developmental assets into a congregation’s youth ministry, has benefits that ripple back to the congregation (Toolkit for Integrating Developmental Assets Into Your Congregation, 2005).

• Young people who experience more Developmental Assets in their church are more likely to stay involved and connected. This helps to address the challenge of declining attendance among teenagers that many congregations face.
• Asset building gives a tool for planning, evaluating, and strengthening ministries without having to introduce new programs or curricula. It helps congregations think about why they do what they do.
• Asset building broadens the base of individuals who are committed to and involved in the lives of children and youth. It reminds the church that everyone has a responsibility to minister to young people.

Community Youth Development
Once one understands what positive youth development or the asset-based development models entail it becomes clear that implementing them in a congregation involves a broad spectrum of people in the process of spiritual development. Many people who would otherwise not be engaged in the religious education program are being asked to live out their values authentically and share their experience with youth. This could either seem like a burdensome chore, a volunteer development leader’s nightmare, or it could be the realization of the beloved community and an opportunity for spiritual deepening.

There are several reasons why broad community commitment is needed. Youth are active agents and should have choices in the activities in which they are involved. Youth development calls for choice in settings, activities, and practitioners. It also calls for universality of opportunity. Ideally it constitutes an integrated system that has become institutionalized within the congregation and coordinated with other organizations in the larger community (schools, social service programs, etc.). There should be a clear path to leadership that youth can identify and continual integration into the broader society as an active participant (not a program that ends leaving youth at the edge of a cliff, unprepared for the real world).

The goal is to set up a system that promotes the self-regulation of high-quality, continuous, dynamic interactions between the individual and his or her context. Thriving is the result of this pattern over time as it manifests itself in increasing well-being and finally in an idealized personhood as an adult: becoming the person you want to be.

Creating a system where assets are developed and supports are offered benefits both spiritual and psychosocial development. A survey of community-based and faith-based youth-workers found they shared many common concerns and approaches when working with youth but were divided in several key areas. Community-based workers tended to think spiritual development was relatively unimportant. Only 14% felt it essential, whereas 77% of faith-based workers did. Conversely, faith-based workers were at least 10% less likely to say understanding adolescent development, honoring cultural and human diversity, supporting asset building, and working as a team were essential. Many of these conflicts could be bridged by a shared understanding of moral and spiritual development (Is There Common Ground?, 2007). A proper understanding of the work of Helminiak and Lerner could help lead to common ground.

Self-perception of competence, or one’s personal narrative, is based on different criteria at different ages (Lerner, 2008). Typically, in early adolescence (10-13) it includes the following components: how capable am I at school; how capable am I at sports; how do I look; am I liked; do I like myself; am I a good person? These criteria continue throughout adolescence but some become more nuanced (concepts of morality and goodness) and others are added (friendships, romance, jobs, creativity) as social skills and intellectual competence increase (77-79)
Self-esteem is tied to success in areas that are valued by the individual. Failure to excel in an area that’s not valued has little impact. Though areas like academic achievement with high socially mandated values may be rejected when youth lack confidence in their own abilities. Confidence can be built with consistent application of the following guidelines: Make sure your child feels valued and loved, show it tangibly, and share your own experience with self-doubts to build your relationship; build on the strengths they have and generalize it to other areas, don’t compare them to others, and communicate in ways that build up rather than undermine confidence; give them a chance to lead, ask for help with your own challenges, shift the child’s focus away from self to understand other perspectives, and encourage small successes and additional responsibilities (81, 84, 93).

As youth move beyond parallel play to seeking relationships with others, small groups become a primary learning environment. An effective classroom is rich in confidence building potential. The primary goal in the RE classroom should be less about teaching content and more about supporting youth in their spiritual growth by identifying individual strengths and building on them, engaging the youth so they are intrinsically driven to participate, showing consistent support and caring, and providing them with leadership opportunities.

The facilitator or teacher’s challenge is to recognize all participants as individuals and focus on bringing out each one’s strengths without making them the focus of the group. Recognizing the factors that may be driving behaviors can help in devising strategies for developing compensatory strengths. The key is to build on successes and give leadership and responsibility to the group in step with their growing competence. When all are recognized on their own terms and brought into fellowship with their differences intact, a vibrant community is formed.

This is the formula that radically welcoming multi-ethnic, multi-cultural congregations apply when reaching across ethnic and racial lines and it shouldn’t be surprising that intergenerational community connections should follow the same pattern. Youth do belong to a different culture with different attitudes and expectations. As the dominant culture, adults often overlook the expectations and demands we implicitly make on those who want to fellowship with us. By being conscious of the expectations of others and taking deliberate steps to make them comfortable, safe, valued, and welcome in our midst (in other words, confident and competent), we open ourselves spiritually to their gifts and benefit from the resulting communion (connection occurs and caring follows).

Mark Deymaz, pastor of Mosaic, an evangelical multi-ethnic mega-church, has identified seven core commitments needed to grow a multi-ethnic church: embrace dependence (acting on faith, accepting grace); take intentional steps (practice radical hospitality); empower diverse leadership; develop cross-cultural relationships; pursue cross-cultural competence; promote a spirit of inclusion; and mobilize for impact (Deymaz, 2007).
For example, youth often find our traditional worship dull and stultifying and a barrier to participation. An inclusive approach to worship might involve seeking advice, listening with discernment to learn what is important to them, finding ways to incorporating these elements into the service, and celebrating their contributions. Development presumes change and shared development means that all participants change.

Looking at how a church like Mosaic built a large multiethnic community provides insights into how to incorporate youth into the life of the congregation…and has implications for an even broader expansion of the ministry of the church. A better understanding of their process sheds light on how to grow connections across cultures, build character, and express caring in a way that contributes to society. In many ways it reveals how spiritual development occurs on the community level as well as the individual level. The success of Mosaic and other mega-churches is an indication that spiritual development is enhanced by positive interaction in the congregation. In Christian terms, the congregation is the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, where Jesus’ individual path of human divinization is resurrected in the community of faith. As the community practices and acquires cross-cultural experience it moves across a continuum from cultural destructiveness to cultural blindness to cultural awareness to cultural sensitivity to cultural competence. Many liberal churches are courageously walking this path in relationship to their gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, intersex, or queer (GLBTIQ) neighbors but have not yet addressed a larger disenfranchised minority within their own doors: their children (who may also be GLBTIQ).
Adults engage in cultural destructiveness toward youth on a frequent basis: jesting about locking them up in their teenage years, talking about music no one can understand, and so on. Being dismissive of the follies of youth has become a normative part of being an adult in our society. Cultural blindness is seen in the attitude that they should feel comfortable in our worship, with no understanding of the white-hot core of personal affirmation and connection that youth worship is frequently about. Cultural awareness cannot dawn until the congregation knows its youth by name, follows up with them on a regular basis, shares stories and interests, and generally engages in a dialogue that validates both parties as individuals. Over time, as relationships develop, cultural sensitivity takes root and develops and eventually a competence is acquired. This process will take place at different rates throughout the community, but unless the community actively chooses to integrate them into the life of the congregation youth will continue to be confined to a ghetto and only brought out to perform on Affirmation Sunday. This is not to denigrate the many wonderful opportunities for youth within the congregation nor the rich cultural and religious life that those who participate in the District Cons share, but to recognize the separation that exists between us and to call across that great divide for consciously created connections that can bridge the gap.

By bridging this divide the community can experience expanding circles of meaning, build skills for cross-cultural connections, and embrace a broader community. The gap becomes an opportunity for spiritual growth and all the stakeholders benefit from the process. The congregation practices welcoming others into community and integrates them into leadership positions. Youth are empowered and visible within the community, not relegated to a role in religious education. As stakeholders in the congregation, youth should experience consistent love and support from adults and a growth in competence and responsibility as they are entrusted with leadership in key areas.

We do not start out with the ability to form mature connections with others. This is a process that develops with time and practice. Parents (and other significant adults) can help facilitate the growth of this ability by providing a calm, non-anxious, supportive and validating presence for youth, revealing our own struggles, and sharing our own strategies for overcoming our fears. Just spending time together hanging out can benefit a child’s sense of self-worthiness. This early bonding becomes foundational in modeling for future relationships. If they have been respected and valued, youth tend to expect that in their friendships. If they have not developed confidence and competence, they may seek to attract attention and connections in less healthy ways. In later adolescence as the social orbit widens the importance of friendship grows and it often plays a central role in the lives of youth. It is with friends and peers that they try to make sense of the world. During this period of reaching out and exploration significant adults outside the family can be important in the lives of youth by offering guidance and friendship across the generational divide.
Feeling connected to a group is an important part of adolescent development. The drive to belong starts to break down the profound isolation of the newly emerging self. Participation in the group begins the process of connecting to others in a safe space. Empathy grows from connections as trusted communication flows and the world is seen from another point of view. Forging caring connections between individuals who are distinctly different from one another builds character in ways that similar friendships do not. Such relationships reveal a discrepancy between assumptions and perceived realities, which leads to the integration of paradox and an evolving worldview based on shared experiences. Character is the internalized moral view of the world and one’s relationship to it. Most importantly it is about acting with integrity in a way that transcends self-interest, and taking responsibility for one’s actions in the world.

Recommendations For Positive Congregational Development at CUC

An asset inventory of CUC shows great strengths. Its members have covenanted to support one another in their spiritual growth. Small groups are meeting and forging new connections. Already a Welcoming Congregation (ie. the congregation has gone through a yearlong series of workshops on sexuality, gender issues, and homophobia and has voted to publicly proclaim their wholehearted acceptance of GLBTIQ members) and a founding sponsor of Teens Talk about Racism (a high school discussion forum about racism), CUC has taken a prominent public stance on important social issues. Its annual Outreach Auction contributes significantly to local charities and provides a way for the community to come together.

A new radical hospitality approach aims to make sure newcomers feel welcomed into the community and efforts are being made to better integrate new members into the life of the church. Covenant circles or small group ministries deepen connections between people as they share their lives and their deepest thoughts on an array of topics.

The congregation recently engaged in a two-day workshop out of which came its current mission statement and a target list of priorities for development. Its religious education department is solid, meets or exceeds best practices recommended by the UUA, is well-supported by volunteers, and much appreciated by parents.

In short, CUC is a very privileged congregation that provides many assets to its members. However, it has remained roughly the same size (about 200) for 30 years, it is in its second-year of ministerial search, its long-time youth leader resigned, its youth group is moribund, it does not attract young adults or minorities, and it continues to see a high turnover in new members. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

In any system, individuals and context interact. In this case, youth ministry and the congregation at large are codependent and coevolving. My recommendations impact the entire congregation and the way it engages with youth:

• Purpose-driven: Reinforce our shared purpose in all congregational activities and recognize that children and youth are a key component of our congregation. Treat them as sovereign individuals, not rugrats. Take a moment to reflect on how each activity we do could help us and our children become our best selves.
• Strengthen Families: As parents are the first educators of children, build parental assets. Through parent education, communication workshops, and peer-facilitated small group ministries for parental cohorts create a dynamic environment that supports parental growth.
• Develop Youth Allies: Make a commitment to long-term mentoring and friendship with youth. Invite youth to attend committee meetings or volunteer activities as your guest, and give them a meaningful role to play. Do fun things with them. Invite youth to bring their parents or adult friends to intergenerational events.
• Expand choices: Don’t just have one activity and expect all youth to engage in it. Any one activity will not be developmentally appropriate or rewarding for all youth. By having more, smaller activities you can expand the scope of choice and increase the variety of experiences (Principles for Youth Development, 9).
• Create a jr. high youth group: Puberty floods the body with many changes. For some it comes earlier than others, but the general trend is for earlier onset. Providing a safe space with a heightened social-emotional charge can help meet youths need for contact, providing fun group activities like overnights and occasional trips to plays and hikes can help meet their need for risk and novelty.
• Connect the high school youth group into the wider community: Jr. high and early high school are primarily affiliation periods. Later on in high school, the primary task is one of becoming a sovereign actor and developing influence.
• Use electronic media to connect and coordinate: Expanding options could be a logistical nightmare, but coordination can take place through an online group and shared calendar where volunteers post possible activities and youth sign up for them. Keeping group size down to one carload can allow much greater spontaneity for short trips.
• Keep safe: Its important to create and maintain a safe environment at all times, even when the activities call for bonding because of shared risk (ie. Adventure courses)
• Build Leaders: Create opportunities for youth leadership (and support them in their roles). Develop connections in the broader community to develop service opportunities enabling youth to play a meaningful role in ever-expanding circles of community and to become informed about realities outside their own small bubble.

Defining Success
Theoretically, the measure of success in positive development models is contribution. In a community development model all members would contribute in their own unique ways. All members would also have access to support structures. Many times people come into the church broken in some way and through fellowship and increasing participation in the community are transformed. The realization and expression of their gifts in community are outward expressions of an inner transformation. In defining success for youth ministry, we need to look at the contributions of youth and those working with youth in light of our theology of connectedness, our ministry of love, and our growth towards our best selves. Quantitative measures of success must be treated with great care as there is often a tendency to forget the essentials in an effort to increase scores. However, some quantitative measures of success would be increased adult involvement with youth, increased retention of youth after RE, increased levels of stewardship from participating members, increased membership drawn by comprehensive youth programming.
To provide some sort of rigor, an attitudinal and behavioral benchmark survey should be conducted on entry into the program, and every three years thereafter. This would allow the tracking of change over time and the effect of continuity. Ultimately, the goal is personal and social transformation. As Paul says in Romans 12:2, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

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Carty, Terry B. and members of the YouthWorker Movement; Best Practices in Ministry with Youth: What Do Youthworkers Say? 2008

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Table 1:3: Personal and Social Assets That Facilitate Positive Youth Development
Physical Development
• Good health habits
• Good health risk management skills
Intellectual Development
• Knowledge of essential life skills
• Knowledge of essential vocational skills
• School success
• Rational habits of mind-critical thinking and reasoning skills
• In-depth knowledge of more than one culture
• Good decision-making skills
• Knowledge of skills needed to navigate through multiple cultural contexts
Psychological and Emotional Development
• Good mental health, including positive self-regard
• Good emotional self-regulation skills
• Good coping skills
• Good conflict resolution skills
• Mastery motivation and positive achievement motivation
• Confidence in one’s personal efficacy
• “Planfulness” – planning for the future and future life events
• Sense of personal autonomy/responsibility for self
• Optimism coupled with realism
• Coherent and positive personal and social identity
• Pro-social and culturally sensitive values
• Spirituality or a sense of a “larger” purpose in life
• Strong moral character
• A commitment to good use of time
Social Development
• Connectedness-perceived good relationships and trust with parents, peers an some other adults
• Sense of social place/integration-being connected and valued by larger social networks
• Attachment to pro-social/conventional institutions, such as school, church, non-school youth programs
• Ability to navigate in multiple cultural contexts
• Commitment to civic engagement
SOURCE: National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2002, Box 3-1, pp. 74-75). Reprinted with permission from Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. ©2002 by the National Academy of Sciences, courtesy of the National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

Table 1-4: Features of Positive Development Settings and Their Opposite Poles

Physical and Psychological Safety
Safe and health-promoting facilities; and practices that increase safe peer group interaction and decrease unsafe or confrontational peer interactions.
Opposite Pole: Physical and health, dangers; fear; feeling of insecurity; sexual and physical harassment; and verbal abuse
Appropriate Structure
Limit setting; clear and consistent rules and expectations; firm-enough control; continuity and predictability; clear boundaries; and age-appropriate monitoring.
Opposite Pole: Chaotic; disorganized; laissez-faire; rigid; over controlled; and autocratic.
Supportive Relationships
Warmth; closeness; connectedness; good communication; caring; support; guidance; secure attachment; and responsiveness.
Opposite Pole: Cold; distant; over controlling; ambiguous support; untrustworthy; focused on winning; inattentive; unresponsive; and rejecting.
Opportunities to Belong
Opportunities for meaningful inclusion, regardless of one’s gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disabilities; social inclusion, social engagement, and integration; opportunities for sociocultural identity formation; and support for cultural and bicultural competence.
Opposite Pole: Exclusion; marginalization; and intergroup conflict.
Positive Social Norms
Rules of behavior; expectations; injunctions; ways of doing things; values and morals; and obligations for service.
Opposite Pole: Normlessness; anomie; laissez-faire practices; antisocial and amoral norms; norms that encourage violence; reckless behavior; consumerism; poor health practices; and conformity.
Support for Efficacy and Mattering
Youth based; empowerment practices that support autonomy; making a real difference in one’s community; and being taken seriously. Practice that includes enabling, responsibility granting, and meaningful challenge. Practices that focus on improvement rather than on relative current performance levels.
Opposite Pole: Unchallenging; over controlling; disempowering; and disabling. Practices that undermine motivation and desire to learn, such as excessive focus on current relative performance level rather than improvement.
Opportunities for Skill Building
Opportunities to learn physical, intellectual, psychological, emotional, and social skills; exposure to intentional learning experiences; opportunities to learn cultural illiteracies, media literacy, communication skills, and good habits of mind; preparation for adult employment; and opportunities to develop social and cultural capital.
Opposite Pole: Practices that promote bad physical habits and habits of mind; and practices that undermine school and learning.
Integration of Family, School, and Community Efforts
Concordance; coordination; and synergy among family, school, and community.
Opposite Pole: Discordance; lack of communications; and conflict.
Source: Adapted from National Research council and Institute of Medicine (2002), Table 4-1, pp. 90-91. Reprinted from Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. ©2002 by the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC.

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