First Third Conversations

What Matters? 5 Big Ideas from a Fascinating Decade of Research

This post was originally published on 9/17/2012

By Tim Coltvet, Coordinator of Contextual Learning and Coaching for Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary

It’s a great picture that I nabbed off of google images for one of my powerpoint presentations on faith formation.  I love the picture because it captures the whimsical nature of child simply doing their thing…playing with dandelions.   The longer you look at it, however, the more it draws you to the heart of the matter, meaning.  Life’s meaning.  How we most faithfully and most thoughtfully come alongside families with meaningful presence (and resourcing) is going to make a big difference in their child’s life of faith.  Now, I’m not so naïve as to suggest that we somehow do the “sustaining faith” work that belongs to the domain of the Holy Spirit.  But, by the same token, I have come to realize that some of the best research available can help us eliminate some of the distractions and false pursuits for helping root our children and youth in the fertile soils of faith.  I believe the Lilly Foundation has done just that!

Soon after the turn of the millennium, the Lilly Foundation launched several promising research studies that have brought about myriad learnings for anyone interested in going deeper in the field of children, youth and family ministry.  The National Study on Youth and Religion, The Exemplary Youth Ministry Study, Sticky Faith are just a few “gold standard” studies that stand out as remarkable bell weathers for navigating the current and ensuing years of ministry with intentionality.  In a related work, Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean brought even greater focus to the findings of the NSYR.

So what are the 5 Big Ideas that Matter that we’ve been thinking about with intentionality at the Center for First Third?   Well, to be honest, there are at least five themes that appear to converge across the aforementioned studies.  Although they may be described in their own language in each of the respective works, the message seems to be consistent.  Here they are:

1)      Congregational/Inter-generational life matters!  We once heard from the late Peter Benson that the church is one of the only institutions in society that gathers five generations under one roof.  The Exemplary Youth Ministry Study and Sticky Faith not only affirmed this reality, they were overwhelmed with data that awakened renewed focus this formidable aspect of faith formation.

2)      Mentors Matter!  Five adults to each child appears to be the magic number.  Study after study is seeing real benefits and real life change in children and youth who have the “scaffolding” around them to build strong, healthy, and self-differentiated lives.  Can your children and youth count their mentors on one hand?

3)      Parents Matter!  “…the most important social influence in shaping young people’s religious lives is the religious life modeled and taught to them by their parents.”  This statement by Christian Smith continues to echo throughout the hallways of Sunday Schools and Youth Ministries throughout church buildings in North America.  A question remains.  Will we resort to technical fixes on this front?  Or, will we begin making adaptive change that invites parents and household leaders into more thoughtful engagement with the faith lives of their own children?

4)      Mission and Outreach Matters!  This was a distinctive of the standout congregations in the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study, and yet Sticky Faith reports that five out of six youth who participated in short-term missions did not see these trips as influential in their long-term faith lives….unless these mission adventures connected meaningfully to service back home in their everyday lives.  This raises some helpful questions.  What does it look like to build bridges to service and mission in everyday life?  Who are the catalysts that are going to build this bridge with each child?

5)      Faith Matters!  Of course faith matters!  But, this has a deeper meaning than that.  The kind of faith that The Exemplary Youth Ministry Study and Sticky Faith are talking about are defined as a mature and/or maturing faith.  The Exemplary Youth Ministry Study produced a description of what this kind of faith might look like in a given congregation and/or youth.  In our estimation,  this last of the “big ideas” is worthy of the most attention.  For too long we’ve sought after the golden calves of numbers, bigger budgets, and bigger programs.  But, these studies help remind us that the real target in Children, Youth and Family ministry is a mature and maturing faith in children and youth!  

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Tim Coltvet is a pastor who loves his call to walk alongside seminary students as they are learning in context. He has served at two vibrant ELCA parishes in the Twin Cities and enjoys helping congregations shape Children, Youth, and Family Ministries.

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