K&J: Explain where the Sticky Faith concept originated.
Kara: Actually, it originated in the mind and heart of a youth leader who was a Fuller student. As a youth pastor, she noticed how many youth group students from her church drifted from their faith after high school graduation. The Fuller Youth Institute worked with her to do an initial pilot study of just the students from her church, which raised provocative questions about the long-term trajectory of youth group graduates. From there, thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment, we were able to broaden our research team of Fuller students and faculty to study 500 students over a period of six years to try to figure out what leaders, parents, and churches could do to build faith that lasts.
K&J: What are some concrete examples of some first steps a church can take to get sticky?
Kara: As we've tracked with churches throughout the country, there seem to be three primary first steps that parallel our major research findings. First, leaders are trying to make sure that they are teaching what we call the "Sticky Gospel" of grace instead of the "gospel of sin management" (to quote Dallas Willard) of behaviors. So Sticky Faith begins with making sure that students know that their faith doesn't revolve around behaviors, but rather an ongoing experience of God's unconditional love for them. One of the messages our team is trying to spread to young people (including my own children) is that Jesus is bigger than any mistake.
While the first step focuses on the core of our faith, the second and third steps are more about relationships. We've seen that young people who are involved in inter-generational relationships and worship tend to have more mature faith in both high school and college. It's been exciting to see churches take steps toward inter-generational relationships--ranging from periodically cancelling their youth group on Sundays so that young people are involved in one big worship service to specialized mentoring for high school seniors.
The final and third step relates to partnering with parents. So many parents are what we call "Dry Cleaner Parents" who think they can drop their kids off at church all dirty at 9 am on Sunday and pick them up 90 minutes later, with the youth or children's ministry team doing the cleaning. That's a far cry from the type of partnership between parents and churches that is best for Sticky Faith. So a big part of our research involves how to support and equip parents with ideas ranging from more training to involving parents more in youth ministry events and programs.