The Character of Discipleship in Youth Ministry

Aaron Yenney
October 30th, 2019

In youth ministry today, you could say we have an ironic challenge in front of us.

I recently read Anne Snyder’s, The Fabric of Character. It’s a book full of case studies on organizations which successfully cultivate virtues like compassion, hope, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, love, and gratitude in people.

These organizations serve as unique cultural beacons because, as other researchers have noted, the development of character and virtue often feels like a lost art form to the extent that we’ve even begun to lose the language for them. In other words, the terms “character” and “virtue” themselves are gathering the dust of neglect. 

So, let’s be clear about terms by drawing from those who study virtue and character. Here are some working definitions we could use:

  • Virtues: The qualities needed to follow Jesus well.
  • Character: The internal process of forming our virtues. 

Said another way, we could think about virtue as a destination, and character as what you learn along the journey. For example, I don’t remember who won the first Dodger game I attended in Los Angeles, but I do know that I got lost, paid too much for parking and food, and had terrible seats. But after a decade in the city and attending well over fifty Dodger games, I no longer turn on my maps app to get to the stadium. I also know where free parking is, which nights Dodger dogs are $1, how to score the best seats for cheap, and that Dodger fans love to stand up and high five with complete strangers after every homerun. If virtue in this analogy is Dodger fandom, character is all the navigational skill I’ve developed over years to possess this virtue.

Snyder’s work is concerned with virtues of a bit more consequence than my baseball fandom, and covers institutions including schools, halfway homes, community development centers, and even the Scouts. But sadly, none of these organizations are youth ministries, or even churches.

That seems ironic.

Of all the organizations you would assume to be exemplars of character and virtue development, youth ministries would certainly be near the top of your list. Right?

Identifying a discipleship gap

In a recent national survey of youth leaders conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute team for our Character and Virtue Development in Youth Ministry Project, 77% had positive reactions toward the word “virtue.” What’s more, nearly 90% reacted positively toward the word “character.”

But the same survey asked youth leaders questions about discipleship and found something unsurprising—and another something which was very surprising.

First, young people’s discipleship and relationship with God were frequently mentioned as important goals among the youth leaders we surveyed. Unsurprising.

More surprising, however, was that youth leaders provided little to no explanation for how these goals were pursued and rated these goals as some of the least clear and most difficult to pursue. Furthermore, Jesus was only mentioned eleven times alongside the 120 references to discipleship within our survey responses, and very few goals contained any language about developing a young person’s character or virtue.

In other words, we want to see young people emerging out of our youth ministries with strong virtues, but we may not be providing them with tools to help them partner with the Holy Spirit in the cultivation of their character.

That’s more irony, and the problematic kind.

Linking character and virtue with discipleship 

Perhaps the work of theologians and psychologists on character and virtue development is just the thing to help us to clarify our discipleship goals and explain how to achieve them.

Christian psychologist, Mark McMinn, argues that the goal of discipleship is to “become more fully human, more abundant and Jesus-like.” McMinn is not the first Christian to suggest this. The Apostle John writes that “The one who claims to remain in [Jesus] ought to live in the same way as he lived” (1 John 2:6).

Among others, Jesus certainly demonstrated the seven virtues stated earlier. He was compassionate (Mt 9:36), hopeful (Mt 26:29; Lk 22:18), forgiving (Lk 23:24; Mk 2:1-12), persevering (Lk 9:51), humble (John 13:1-11), loving (John 13:1), and grateful (Lk 22:19). That’s why when the Apostle Paul defines discipleship, he can do so in terms of his own character and virtue development. “Follow my example, just as I follow Christ’s,” he writes to the believers in Corinth (1 Cor 11:1).

During the last two decades, researchers in moral psychology have determined methods, called “interventions,” for cultivating these virtues in young people. Beyond simply clarifying “what is,” the wisdom of psychology helps us imagine how to practice what might be.

My youth pastors instilled the practices of prayer, Bible reading, and journaling in me over a decade ago and I am so thankful they did, because these disciplines remain a critical part of my spirituality to this day. We called this “discipleship,” but here’s the rub. The practices that make up my daily quiet time may convict me about something like the lack of gratitude in my life, but they may not provide me with the tools to actually practice being grateful.

However, a gratitude intervention might.

I’ve read some fascinating books about Dodger baseball, but none are a match for actually going to a game (let alone fifty). To actually develop the virtue, you have to go slap some high fives after a few hundred homers. Interventions for compassion, hope, forgiveness, perseverance, humility, love, or gratitude generally work the same way. They take lots of practice over time.  

For example, research has shown that keeping a gratitude journal between one to three times per week increases overall gratefulness. Maybe a student already journals occasionally. What if we taught that student to write down a few things they are grateful for in the form of a prayer a couple of times a week? 

Tools such as this simultaneously develop character and virtue in young people, benefit their mental health, and shape their interactions with God—not only intellectually, but also in practice. 

What practices are you using in your ministry that help form the character of the young disciples in your midst? 

Visit Fuller Youth Institute to read more from our researchers about the Character and Virtue Development in Youth Ministry Project.

Aaron Yenney

Aaron Yenney coordinates the Character and Virtue Development in Youth Ministry (CVDYM) Planning Project at Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). He has a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Life Pacific College (LPC), and an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to joining the FYI team, Aaron served for almost a decade at his alma mater where he taught courses in biblical studies and spiritual formation, directed the Academic Resource Center, advised the Multicultural Student Union, and lead urban immersion trips to downtown Los Angeles. Aaron is a big believer in the local church and serves regularly on the preaching team where he attends. In his free time, Aaron is almost always listening to music, enjoys running, reading and writing, spending time with friends and neighbors, and going to as many baseball games as possible.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.