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Identify, belonging, purpose shape youth ministry

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It’s hard to think of “a more dedicated more flexible, a more compassionate, more risk-taking, loving group than youth leaders,” Steven Argue told more than 180 participants at a ROCK(ish) webinar Feb. 3. “A lot of people put a lot of expectations on you, but you hold that with grace, with patience, and you give it your all.”

 Argue, an author, professor, and the Applied Research Strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute in California, believes that young people, who today can range from age 11 to 29, are seeking to answer three essential questions in their lives that address:

  • Identity or Who am I?
  • Belonging or Where do I fit in? and
  • Purpose or What difference can I make and what’s my fingerprint on the world?

 “These questions are pulsating in people’s lives, all our lives, but especially with adolescents and emerging adults,” Argue said. For many of them, “this is the first time they have enough perspective to actually ask these questions and have the answers shape their futures. We need to keep this in mind when we think about ministry.”

 These three questions are lived out in the narratives people tell themselves and one another about the world, said Argue. There are hundreds of potential narratives, all of them stories of how and why the world works the way it does.

 Too often in the past, youth leaders assumed young people were out there making decisions: good decisions, bad decisions, loving decisions, rebellious decisions, and/or the flavor of the month, Argue said. And it was the role of youth leaders to make sure the kids “grabbed for the good decisions.”

 But this model is not helpful, Argue said. “Young people are living absolutely perfectly into the narratives they believe about the world."

 “They see the world in particular ways and they’re acting in it to survive, live, and succeed according to how they think the world works,” said Argue. For example, if young people feel the world is intrinsically threatening, they will hide and protect themselves, so they won’t be harmed, or called out, or damaged. Or, if they believe the world privileges particular people, they may feel incomplete or that their voices don’t matter.

 As youth leaders, “we can spend our time trying to trick, challenge, or inspire young people to just make good choices, or we can begin to try to understand the narrative they’re holding in their heads,” Argue sad.

 At the same time, said Argue, youth leaders need to offer a Gospel-centered narrative to remind young people that there is a world of abundance, filled with love and grace, and that God sees, loves, and calls them to be partners in creating the Kingdom of God.  

 Argue is quick to acknowledge that there all kinds of mixed narratives in people’s lives. There are sometimes even “whirlwinds of narratives.” But living in the tension between multiple narratives is where ministry happens, where formation happens, and where the church is given the opportunity to journey with young people and wrestle with issues as youth strive to make meaning and sense of the world than their place in it.

 So, this becomes the question, Argue said: “What’s the Good News for young people? We can use a lot of theological language and we can talk about the cross and resurrection, as we should, but at the end of the day, young people want to know, what is the Good News for them in the narrative they’re living.”

 To assist leaders in helping young people better see and proclaim Jesus-centered narratives, Argue recommended three essential strategies that center around:

  • Compassion – Listen, be empathetic and keep asking “Tell me more.” That simple question can be a game-changer as you model curiosity.
  • Creativity – Be interested and interesting. Be a good storyteller, share your narrative, and make the Gospel story feel relevant and personal.
  • Courage – Be bold enough to go first in sharing your narrative and the way God is alive in your life.

 Stepping into a church’s youth room “is crazy, scary, heart-breaking, beautiful, and inspiring all wrapped up in one,” Argue said. “It a transformative space where we get laid bare and become better people. …  It’s where ministry happens.”

 And yet, at the same time, he said, an important question is “how do we not let the walls of the church become a barrier instead of a bridge to the community? Our communities need caring people who want to make the world a better place. The world needs you.”

 For some practical hands-on ideas from Argue’s presentation, visit

 Learn more in Argue’s book “Sticky Faith Innovation” or on his podcast at