Leadership Book Interview: Kara Powell

An important three-year research study examining what happens to students’ faith is the basis for the launch of the Sticky Faith book series for parents and church leadership. I connected with co-author Dr. Kara Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Seminary, to discuss the practical, daily steps we can each take to build faith that lasts in the teenagers we care about.

Many of us are concerned about the drop out rate after high school. There are some hyped states that are not true– maybe you have heard that 94% or 86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after they graduate from High School and never return. In Lost and Found, we’ve addressed (and debunked) those so I won’t address that here.

As Dr. Powell mentioned in her interview, we have done some polling research. You may have seen it in USAToday, at my blog, or when Thom and Sam Rainer wrote a book on the data called, Essential Church.

Here is our interview:

Your new book series, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids, was inspired by your six year research study called “The College Transition Project”. Tell us why you did the research and how you compiled it.

A handful of great studies, including research conducted by LifeWay, suggests that approximately 50% of teenagers who graduate from youth group drift from God and from the church after high school. As a mom, a leader, and a follower of Christ, I’m deeply disturbed by that trend. So we at the Fuller Youth Institute received a grant from the Lilly Endowment that allowed us to study over 500 youth group graduates during their first three years in college. Our goals were to figure out what that transition from high school to college was like, and to identify steps that parents and leaders could take to give kids a faith that lasts, or what we call Sticky Faith.

So overall, what have you found in your Sticky Faith research? Why are young people drifting from the church and from their faith?

This won’t surprise you, Ed, but there are a host of reasons that teenagers and young adults drift from their faith. For some, it’s because they lose touch with the youth leaders, family, and friends who were so meaningful to them in high school. Without these relational ties, their faith seems more like part of their “high school days” than a present reality.

For others, it’s because they are overwhelmed with the changes and choices they face as they enter college. So many teenagers graduate from high school with a faith that hasn’t really affected their identity, or their view of themselves. For them, faith is more like a “Jesus Jacket”–a jacket they can take on and off whenever they feel like it. They don’t understand the real gospel, largely because the adults in their lives are modeling and teaching not the gospel of Scripture, but a false gospel.

Let’s explore that idea of a “false gospel” a bit more. You’ve said in Sticky Faith that many teenagers unknowingly adopt the “gospel of sin management”. What does that mean and how does that affect youth group graduates when they go out on their own?

The students in our Sticky Faith research tended to equate the gospel to a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” – to a list of behaviors. That list of behaviors resembles what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management,” which is really no gospel at all.

We asked the college juniors in our survey (all of whom were youth group graduates) what it meant to be a Christian. We were surprised, and disturbed, when one-third of those who answered that question didn’t mention Jesus in their answers. They mentioned behaviors.

As my co-author, Dr. Chap Clark, describes in the book, the gospel that Jesus and Paul taught certainly involves behaviors, but it doesn’t start with behaviors. It starts with a sense of God’s grace, and the transformative power of that grace. I like to explain to teenagers that we obey God not in order to make God like us more or to feel better about ourselves, but because we’re so grateful for God’s grace that we want our lives to be great big “thank you notes” back to God.

How does this behavioralist gospel contaminate students’ experiences in college?

Ed, the tragedy is that when students fail to live up to those behaviors (note that I said when not if), students whose faith relies on behaviors end up feeling so guilty that they run from God and from the church just when they need them the most. Based on our Sticky Faith research, I’m trying to tell every young person I know (including my own kids) that Jesus is bigger than any mistake. If Jesus can’t handle a little doubt or a little partying, we need a new Jesus.

In your book you also stress the importance of creating an intergenerational group that surrounds your child. Why is that so important?

Of all of the youth group participation variables we examined, intergenerational worship and relationships was one of the strongest correlates with Sticky Faith, both in high school and college. The tragedy is that as youth ministry has become more professionalized, we have segregated (and that’s not a verb I use lightly) kids from the rest of the church, and that can sabotage their faith.

We’re tracking with a host of churches around the country who are moving more toward intergenerational youth ministry. Sure, there’s a time and place for 16 year-olds to be together, but we have swung too far in the direction of siloization. Creative churches and ministries are connecting teenagers and adults in worship, mentoring, service work, and other programs. Interestingly, not only do the teenagers benefit from intergenerational relationships, but so does the entire church!

What advice would you give parents who want to take some baby steps toward Sticky Faith with their kids, whether that be in the minivan or over a meal?

The typical family conversation about faith involves the parent interviewing their child, asking them questions like: How was church? What did you learn? What did you study? Depending on your child’s mood, personality, and your relationship with them, you might get real answers but you might also get very short answers or even just grunts.

Our Sticky Faith research suggests that we should keep asking these questions as parents, but what is as important is that we also share about our own faith journey with our students, and that is much less practiced by parents today. Instead of interviewing teenagers or lecturing them, wise leaders and parents will share their own spiritual journeys, both past and present. What has God been teaching them? What doubts are they struggling with? How did they come to devote their live to Christ? These are all questions that parents can and should be answering with their teenage children.

How has your research changed you as a parent?

Every day I am a different and better parent because of our Sticky Faith research. Tonight the way that my husband and I talk with our three kids at dinner will be different because of what we have learned. We’ve been sharing “highs” and “lows” (the best and worst parts of the day) together since our children were young, but because of our Sticky Faith research, we now have added two questions. The first is What mistake did you make today? Given youth group graduates’ tendency to run from God and from the church when they make mistakes, we want our family to be a safe place to discuss struggles and problems.

The second question we have added because of our research is How did you see God at work today? Some days my kids don’t know how to answer that question, and that’s OK. At least every day we are talking together about God, and they are hearing my husband and me talk about how our faith impacts our lives.

Kara will be around to answer any questions you might have about Sticky Faith or issues in parenting. Feel free to jump in below in the comments section.

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.