The purpose of youth ministry is to foster the personal development of faith, theology and relationships for young people ages 6th-12th grades. This usually happens through a variety of lessons, games, resources and relationships. But how do you know if your youth group is hitting the mark?
The Center for Congregations has worked with more than 60 congregations to create vibrant youth ministries. Here’s what we discovered about the most successful congregations.
Effective Youth Ministries
• Devote financial and human resources as a priority to nurture young people.
• Equip youth to use their faith as a lens for making life plans and decision-making.
• Incorporate young people into congregational leadership and the planning process.
These larger goals will likely take time and decisions from your leadership. Below are small ways to strengthen your youth ministry.
Small Changes, Big Impact
You can make subtle changes to integrate youth into the fabric of your congregation. Recruit adult volunteers to connect with the youth and build intergenerational relationships. Allow the youth to step into meaningful and appropriate roles of responsibility. That could be mowing the lawn, assisting in worship or serving in the nursery. Small changes over time will help youth ministry become a natural part of your culture.
Many elements make you the person you are. You are shaped by your race, your geographic location, and your genetic structure. Your personality is formed by your family, your friends, and the choices you make along the way. You are influenced by education, social affiliations and friendships.
All of us are formed by the company we keep. The company we keep includes the congregation you attend. Whether you are aware of it or not, the activities of your congregation create certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make you who you are. In this way, your congregation has formative power.
I was reminded of the importance of being part of a religious community when a clergy person described a project happening in his congregation. He told me about a booklet being produced by the staff called Rule of Life. The Rule of Life is a guidebook outlining what it means to be part of the congregation.
The pastor says, “We want to encourage people to live a certain way of life.” Part of the guidebook is written as a catechism with answers to be learned and recited. Other parts of the guide describe specific practices in which one participates as a member of the congregation: at noon every day we are going to pray this Psalm.
If you read Psalm 23 every day, that Psalm is going to become part of who you are. The virtue of trust represented in the lines of the Psalm will more likely become part of your heart, mind and soul.
What elements are most formative in a congregation?
Of course, it depends on the particular congregation. I have observed and experienced the following activities having a positive impact on adherents:
- Testimony, telling the story of their lives
- Religious practices, particularly worship, prayer, singing, study of scripture, and rites of passages or sacraments
- Reflection on practice: not just doing things but thinking about their impact with others
- Relationships including across generations
- Liminal experiences: pilgrimages, mission trips, cross-cultural experiences, spiritual retreats
Here is an exercise to consider doing with a congregational board, team or class.
Remember a time when a congregational experience formed or reinforced a positive attribute in you. Write down the experience. Take turns sharing the stories out loud. Listeners are invited to ask open, curious questions to enhance group reflection. What themes are evident? What further growth might the congregation support?
In recent years, many congregations have asked about the use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).
Appreciative Inquiry is the process of identifying, considering and leveraging strengths. It is inclusive, engaging the entire congregation, in asking important questions such as, “what gives life to our congregation when it functions at its best?”
Many pastors and congregational leaders have asked us about the practical implementation of this process. How is it used, where do you start and what is my role?
Here are some important things to consider:
The Center for Congregations, through the CRG, recommends many resources on Appreciative Inquiry and positive change to help you get started. As always, we stand ready to answer your questions.
What does marriage have in common with congregational life? There is one thing in particular: both flourish when the ratio of positive validation to negative criticism is five to one in favor of the positive.
The magic ratio
Dr. John Gottman is a therapist who works with married couples. He has researched what he calls the magic ratio. He observes couples interact over time and predicts the staying power of the marriage. One of the key indicators is the ratio of affirmation to negations. If a couple share five validations for every one negative statement, there is an excellent chance that the marriage is flourishing. Not all complaint is wrong, but criticism needs to be balanced with positive messages to result in growth.
The same is true for congregations
Congregations flourish when they focus on their strengths. When too much attention is given to the negatives, then congregations fail to receive important nutrients. The community becomes more a desert than a thriving field of grain.
No wonder so many congregations have found planning processes based on Appreciative Inquiry helpful. Appreciative Inquiry was created by David Cooperrider of Case Western University. He and colleagues like Diana Whitney note the importance of human communities to value the best in people. Valuing the best in people leads to more health; the nourishment of validation results in progress.
The best in a congregation, what is strong and right and beautiful, can be revealed through inquiry. You can uncover hidden strengths through a process of exploration in which problem questions are reframed as possibility questions.
Reframing the question
Members of a worship team from a midwest congregation talked about worship. Someone said, “Our worship has become stale. Where’s the joy?” The leader of the worship team had been trained in Appreciative Inquiry. She changed the question. She responded, “Let’s take a moment and recall our most joyful worship experiences.” For the next hour, the members of the worship team shared their stories of powerful encounters in worship. One person remembered his baptism. Another recalled an Easter service. Still another person told the story of worshiping with three generations of her family.
Reframing a negative question to a positive question is just a part of the Appreciative Inquiry process. The entire process leads a congregation through four steps, or the four D’s: Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny.
Here is a short description of each phase:
All through the process the emphasis is on affirmation and validation. Yes, the five to one ratio is an enchanted construct, not just for couples but for communities too. Perhaps the magic ratio is a construct woven into creation by our Creator. Positive energy is like a rain shower for parched land.
Your congregation has many good things happening. Discover these good things. You will likely be drawn to a destiny abundant with faith, hope and love.
Here are some of my favorite appreciative inquiry resources: the article “Doing Change Differently: An Appreciative Inquiry Approach” and the book The Power of Appreciative Inquiry.
Yes, your congregation is a special place. Celebrate! Validate! And learn.
About the Contributor
Congregations which are interested in new ways to engage might begin by looking at steps they can take to help ensure that they are able to keep up with changing times. When religious groups try and adjust their daily operations to meet the expectations of their members, visitors and attendees, they may start experiencing a lot more success in growing their congregation. One of the tools that religious leaders may find helpful is something called appreciative inquiry. Although an appreciative inquiry exercise is not something that exists in specific relation to religious organizations, it can still be helpful. Therefore, it can be good to become familiar with appreciative inquiry, what it means, and how it can be used in the religious setting.
Appreciative inquiry is a strengths-based, positive approach when it comes to organizational change and leadership development. And while the administration of a church, for instance, might be different from that of most other organizations, there are still leadership positions and defined roles which exist in both contexts. Therefore, it may be helpful for congregations to make sure to regularly audit their leadership positions, and ensure that everyone is being placed into the best position possible to succeed. That is where appreciative inquiry can be helpful. When this tool is applied correctly, it can significantly help to improve the way that a congregation is able to function on a daily basis.
Appreciative inquiry is very common outside of religious settings, as well. It can be used by organizations, teams, and individuals. Furthermore, there are even a lot of small towns that have tried to apply appreciative inquiry to their entire jurisdiction. When it comes to appreciative inquiry in the religious setting, the goal can often be seen as being to move everyone toward having a shared vision for the future. With strategic innovation, it may be possible for religious organizations to get the most out of the appreciative inquiry. This tool has already been used by multiple religious organizations in a successful manner, and those who are looking to use appreciative inquiry in their own religious congregations may do well to keep some key points in mind.
Appreciative Inquiry Tools
When a religious organization is trying to use appreciative inquiry for the first time, one good thing to try and establish from the outset is a strong foundation. This means identifying appreciative inquiry tools that can be helpful. For example, it can be helpful for religious leaders to refer to an appreciative inquiry facilitation guide. Oftentimes, one of the biggest challenges of using appreciative inquiry can be the process of keeping everyone on the same page. Particularly in a religious organization, everyone is usually going to want to be heard. At the same time, at the end of an appreciative inquiry exercise, a worthy goal might be to have everyone involved have a shared vision, so that the organization can then begin to move in an appropriate, unified direction.
This is where having an appreciative inquiry worksheet can be helpful. This can potentially be one of the most important tools, when it comes to appreciative inquiry. Rather than have everyone trying to talk over each other, it is possible for the group to use an appreciative inquiry worksheet and answer a few basic questions about the congregation. Then, they may be able to share a few ideas which they may believe could be helpful, when it comes to the future of the religious organization. Finally, the person who is running the exercise can also take a look at what everyone has put down on the page. It might be helpful to look for common themes, or even ask for clarification, if needed. As a result, an appreciative inquiry worksheet can be helpful for getting everyone's gears turning, in regards to this exercise.
Another potentially helpful tool when it comes to appreciative inquiry involves multimedia options. For instance, the leader of the exercise may want to share a few images or videos that highlight some of the issues that the congregation may currently be trying to address. That way, everyone will be able to share their ideas in a popcorn format, one by one - and common themes can then be identified, which can act as a foundation for launching the congregation forward into the future. These are just a few of the key ways in which appreciative inquiry tools can be applied.
Appreciative Inquiry Examples
When someone is trying to use appreciative inquiry for the first time, it can sometimes be helpful to take a look at some appreciative inquiry examples. By referring to examples of appreciative inquiry, it can help them establish a foundation upon which to build their own appreciative inquiry exercise.
One common example of appreciative inquiry is one that takes place in the healthcare setting. If there is a sentinel event that takes place in a healthcare organization, such as a patient death or a cyberattack, then the entire healthcare organization will often come together to take a look at what went wrong. Then, specific questions will usually be directed toward everyone participating in the exercise. And finally, everyone will then share some of their ideas, regarding how this issue can be addressed. By developing positive relationships, the entire organization may then be able to move forward in a positive manner, and help prevent future negative events from happening.
Appreciative inquiry can also be used in the finance setting. Finance can often be seen as notorious for being incredibly fast-paced. Sometimes, there is simply not a lot of time to sit back and reflect on what is happening. And in some situations, it may take a major event to finally convince everyone to pause. Then, however, by convening and asking the right questions, the group might be able to move forward in a positive manner. It can also be good for everyone to take some time to share what they feel the exercise means to them specifically. That way, the organization will be more able to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
These are just a few examples of appreciative inquiry. It may be helpful to take a specific look at religious organizations in this context, as well. Remember that the goal of appreciative inquiry is usually to develop positive relationships so that everyone can move forward with a shared vision. With this objective in mind, there may be specific questions that are relevant to religious organizations when conducting an appreciative inquiry exercise. It can be helpful to take a closer look at some of these questions.
Appreciative Inquiry Model
Before putting the appreciative inquiry model to use, it might be a good idea to first take a closer look at the specific appreciative inquiry technique. The entire goal of the appreciative inquiry technique is usually to focus on strengths, rather than weaknesses. This can be significantly different from that of many other approaches, which tend to put more of a focus on negative aspects and outcomes.
One of the biggest potential benefits of the appreciative inquiry model is that everyone is often going to be more likely to participate. If they are focusing on good parts rather than bad parts, then everyone can be more likely to enjoy the experience. At the same time, though, it might still be possible to focus on some of the negative outcomes, if they are framed in a positive way. For instance, religious organizations may want to frame negative experiences as an opportunity for improvement, rather than as a negative outcome.
However, one of the biggest potential drawbacks to this approach is that there may be a risk that negative issues might go ignored. If negative issues are not appropriately addressed using appreciative inquiry, then effective change may not actually end up taking place.
Appreciative Inquiry Principles
When an appreciative inquiry is taking place, it can be good to help ensure that everyone is encouraged to participate. By following the basic appreciative inquiry steps, it might be possible for religious organizations to get more out of the overall exercise.
Remember that the main goal appreciative inquiry is usually to focus on the strength of the organization. Therefore, one of the likely key steps is going to be planning appropriately, with religious organizations making sure they set the agenda, when it comes to an appreciative inquiry meeting.
It might also be good to consider asking others to participate, and seeing if they are going to share some questions with the group. That way, the conversation can keep going.
Finally, a good goal for an appreciative inquiry exercise to have could be to make sure that everyone is on the same page. By being able to come together with a shared vision for the future, congregations may be able to put themselves into the best possible position to move forward in a successful manner.
Appreciative Inquiry Questions
When it comes to an appreciative inquiry, it can be a good idea to take a closer look at specific appreciative inquiry questions. Whether this involves an appreciative inquiry interview or appreciative inquiry coaching questions, it may very well prove to be a good idea to help ensure that everyone is on the same page. For example, it might be helpful to consider asking everyone to start by sharing an experience that is important to them. Then, it may be helpful to consider asking everyone, “what did that specific experience mean to you?” That way, the group might feel encouraged to reflect a little bit deeper upon the experience that they shared. It might also be a good idea to ask people to share some of the factors that they feel led to that specific experience.
It might also be a good idea to ask people about some of the relationships they have in a congregation. Then, consider asking them, “why do you feel that relationship is important to you?” Again, this may be able to help people define some of the specific relationships that matter to them, and how they have impacted the congregation as a whole.
And finally, it can also be a great idea to ask questions about the future, when it comes to an appreciative inquiry exercise. For instance, it might be helpful to ask some of the people in attendance, “what do you feel is the future of the congregation?” Doing this can help get everyone’s minds thinking about how they can collectively move to charge forward in a successful manner. When everyone is clear regarding the future of the group, then the appreciative inquiry exercise may have a much higher chance of being successful. It might very well prove to be a good idea for religious organizations to consider using appreciative inquiry on a regular basis.