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“If the church is ever to flourish again, one must begin by instructing the young.” – Martin Luther

“Welcome to the Sticky Faith Cohort Summit! We are so excited that all of you are here!” Kara Powell said as she greeted us in late February 2012. That first night when we arrived in Pasadena, California, my team and I were full of excitement and energy, even after a long day of travel. After introductions of the nearly 40 churches that were a part of this sticky-faith cohort, Powell, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, continued with a lecture on the methodology behind her sociological, psychological and theological research into the notion of “sticky faith.”

As she spoke, she noticed that many of us had a glossed-over look in our eyes. So she paused and asked, “Does anyone have any questions about our methodology?” After a few moments of awkward silence, she continued with something like, “Well, there is more I was planning to share about our methodological approach, but it seems like you’re all way more interested in what we discovered than how we discovered it. Is that the general consensus of the group?” Everyone nodded. So we quickly shifted gears.

While sticky faith is an excellent pragmatic tool for the church, how does it adequately address the deeper problems the church faces today?

Sitting in that room, it did not seem necessary to consider Powell’s research method. It almost felt like we were wasting our time hearing about it; we wanted to move on to practical application. One of the driving forces behind Powell’s research is that 40 to 50 percent of high school graduates who are active in churches will leave the church when they enter college. I personally can name several young adults who were active in our youth group while in high school but stopped going to church when they moved on to college. I had traveled with my team nearly 2,000 miles to learn how to curb this trend in our congregation.

However, I wonder if in that awkward moment of silence – while staring at each other with blank faces – we should have asked some questions. Standing in front of us was the key researcher and author of the books that we had all read, a scholar who had devoted more than six years to this project. Too often as a youth worker, I have felt the pressure of time to act without taking a few moments to think theologically about my actions. And before I can take the time to reflect on my experience, I am immediately thrown into a new phase of ministry. All of us in that room felt the urgency of the moment and did not want to “waste time” hearing about methodology. Perhaps we should have asked some questions in order to better understand the motivations from which this project stemmed. These motivations reverberate throughout the applications of the findings. Books produced by Powell’s group are full of pragmatic ideas for parents, youth workers and church leaders.

Now, almost four years down the road, I’m mulling these questions: 1) While sticky faith is an excellent pragmatic tool for the church, how does it adequately address the deeper problems the church faces today? 2) How did the underlying motivation of figuring out how to keep youths in the church affect Powell’s research and its applications?

While I am indebted to Powell’s research, I wonder if some of the presuppositions made about the struggle that the North American church is having retaining adolescents might have shifted the overall outcome of the project. Perhaps instead of asking, “How do we get them to stay?” we should ask, “What are the deeper ontological questions our young people face in regards to religion and secularism?” and “What should be our motivations for the practices we use to help young people seek answers to these questions?”


“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” – The Usual Suspects

According to Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids, by Powell and Chap Clark (Zondervan, 2011), 40 to 50 percent of teenagers leave the church when they graduate from high school. While this figure causes churches a great deal of anxiety, is this the issue we should be addressing? This statistic seems to me to be a symptom of a greater problem facing the church, which is how to live in a secular age. As James K.A. Smith says, our “society is secular insofar as religious belief, or belief in God, is understood to be one option among others, and thus contestable” (How [Not] to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor [Eerdmans, 2014]). The dropout rate we witness in our churches is a symptom of this deeper cultural shift.

A primary way to open the buffered self is through the experience of worship, in which young people are brought into an encounter with the living God.

This is a significant change in Western culture. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, in the past 500 years we have gone from a culture where it was virtually unthinkable to be agnostic or atheist to one in which these are viable options among many. At the time of the Reformation, the word “secular” was defined as the temporal, or earthly, realm. In modernity, the meaning of “secular” shifted from the temporal sense to a spatial sense: “The public square is ‘secular’ insofar as it is (allegedly) nonreligious; schools are ‘secular’ when they are no longer ‘parochial’ – hence ‘public’ schools are thought to be ‘secular’ schools,” Smith writes. Taylor calls this phenomenon “secular2.” Smith points out that by naming the problem as 40 to 50 percent of teenagers leaving the church as they enter college, sticky-faith theory is defining the problem in this spatial sense. As a result, he says, the church is left unable to respond to the deeper theological questions and ontological issues that young people face in our secular age.

According to Taylor, in the contemporary secular age, secularity is not merely a temporal or spatial experience; rather, it comes from within ourselves. There was a shift, Taylor says, in “‘the conditions of belief … in this sense [indicating] a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and i ndeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be an option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace’” (quoted in Smith, How [Not] to Be Secular). This created the opportunity for a new option to be pursued, what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism.” This is the definition of secular in the secular age, experienced ontologically in what Taylor calls “secular3.”

Taylor argues that we have become disenchanted with the spiritual world. In premodern times people believed in the powers of demons and spirits. But as a result of the Enlightenment, we no longer believe in such powers and thus are disenchanted. The shift created what Taylor calls the “buffered self.” The buffered self is “insulated and isolated in its interiority, ‘giving its own autonomous order to its life.’ … The buffering of the self from alien forces also carves out a space for a nascent privacy, and such privacy provides both protection and permission to disbelieve” (quoted in Smith). Yet the buffered self still feels certain pressures, or what Taylor calls “cross-pressures” – “transcendence and immanence” and “enchantment and disenchantment.”

Ultimately, the buffered self insulates and isolates us from the experience of transcendence and immanence. It rationalizes and dismisses enchantment, replacing religion with exclusive humanism. I believe the dropout rate in the church is ultimately a symptom of this deeper theological and ontological issue of disenchantment and the buffered self.

What is sticky faith?

The notion of sticky faith comes out of two research projects spearheaded by Powell and Clark, also of Fuller. Powell’s project was a comprehensive study that involved interviewing 500 graduating high school seniors as they transitioned to college. She and her research team followed them for three years in what they called the College Transition Project. Clark’s research was narrower, based on his yearlong experience as a substitute teacher at a high school in Los Angeles (Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers [Baker Academic, 2011]). Together, Powell and Clark wrote Sticky Faith for parents. The book seeks to answer the question, What can parents do today to instill a “sticky faith” in their kids – a faith that will keep them in the church as they enter into college?

Powell and Clark say sticky faith has three main characteristics. It is 1) both internal and external, 2) both personal and communal and, 3) finally, both mature and maturing. The book defines faith via the Greek word pisteuo, which has three basic meanings in English: faith, belief and trust. They thus define sticky faith as “a faith that trusts in God and that understands that obedience is a response to that trust, in everything.” In this definition we see all three components being played out: trusting God requires an internal, personal and mature commitment to be made. At the same time, out of this trust comes a “response” to “obedience” in trusting God in everything. Such acts of obedience become an external demonstration of faith that happens in either personal or communal contexts, and it continues to evolve and grow as people are maturing in their faith in God.

What Could Sticky Faith-Ministry Look Like?

“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blindly invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?” – Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

I want to make two suggestions for adapting the sticky-faith approach to the issues raised by the secular3 age. The first relates to worship and the second to the cultivation of intergenerational relationships. Powell and Clark write, “The closest our research has come to that definitive silver bullet is this sticky finding: for high school and college students, there is a relationship between attendance at church-wide worship services and Sticky Faith.” By worshipping regularly with your family, they say, your son or daughter comes into contact with other adults, creating opportunities for relationships to be built. One of the hallmarks of sticky-faith theory is inverting the usual ratio of children to adults in youth ministry. Typically in youth ministry, it is best to have one adult for every five children. However, Powell and her team discovered it is important for children and youths to be able to identify five adults who routinely were invested in their lives.

It is crucial for anyone seeking to mature in his or her faith to be surrounded by those who are further along in life or in their faith journeys. However, what’s missing is a deeper discussion of what happens during worship: the profound experience of connecting with the triune God. The primary reason we should encourage our youths to worship in faith communities isn’t so that they will get used to liturgy or get more comfortable greeting people from different generations. It is, rather, that something happens when we come into contact with the triune God. The primary issue facing the church isn’t that young people leave the church as they graduate from high school; of greater concern are the practices of faith to which young people are being introduced. A primary way to open the buffered self is through the experience of worship, in which young people are brought into an encounter with the living God.

A second way to address the buffered self is to cultivate intergenerational relationships. Instead of trying to keep young people in the church, we should focus instead on ministering to one another. Through such acts of ministry, we experience the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit, opening us up to love God and love our neighbors. Reflecting on these acts of ministry, either individually or with others, can provide opportunities for the buffered self to be opened up to experiences of transcendence. What could this look like?

“On the first day of Sunday School in 2001,” Linda began, “I shared with my fourth-grade class that my husband had died. They asked me, ‘What was the hardest part about losing your husband?’ And I said, ‘There is a moment, every night when I turn the lights off, before my eyes can adjust, that I feel this overwhelming darkness come over me. I’m afraid, because I’m all alone in this big house.’” Linda shared this story at our first intergenerational Advent Sunday school in 2012. After wiping a few tears from her eyes, Linda continued, “That next Sunday, one of my Sunday-school kids walked into the classroom with a little present that he had wrapped. I opened it up, and inside was this.” Holding up a night light, she continued, “And the boy said to me, ‘I’m afraid of the dark too … and I thought this light would help remind you that Jesus is there with you.’”

In the background of this story was the overarching theme of hope on that first Sunday in Advent. That morning we had read I John 1:5-7: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

With this passage, we centered our reflection that morning on darkness and suffering. In talking about hope, we assumed that one has suffered or is currently suffering. That is to say, if you are hoping for something better, then in your current state you are experiencing suffering. One of the more profound human experiences is suffering. Suffering can look like a lot of different things. It can be a break-up or a friend moving away. It can be the loss of a job or of a loved one. John’s message in this brief passage speaks to the hope we find in God: “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5b). Linda’s story illustrated literally and spiritually the power light can have in bringing us hope in times of suffering.

Yet I believe we missed out on a great opportunity that morning. The story highlighted the relationship between Linda and the boy and how as a community of faith we can show hope to one another. The message of her story was that intergenerational relationships are important because we can help one another get through difficult times. While that is true, we missed a unique opportunity to illustrate how in performing these acts of ministry, we participate – through the power of the Holy Spirit – in Christ’s work of reconciling us to God as Christ reveals God to us in a deeper way. When Linda received that night light, she witnessed God breaking in to her life through an act of ministry by a child, thereby opening up the buffered self. Likewise, the boy experienced the inbreaking of God as he empathized with Linda and followed the nudge of the Holy Spirit to act, which opened his buffered self to the transcendence of God. By slightly shifting the motivation behind entering into intergenerational relationships, we can better equip our churches to help our youths experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Transcendence and Immanence

The sticky-faith movement has a lot to offer the church and parents, especially in its suggestions of practical ways that we can partner to engage our youths in trusting God, leading them toward a lifetime of faith in Christ. However, without a critical examination of the questions they seek to answer, the church will be unable to respond to the deeper theological questions that our youths experience in the secular3 age. Sticky-faith theory does an excellent job addressing the issues raised by secular2. Yet it fails to recognize the deeper ontological questions all church members face today. Still, by helping them encounter the living God through worship and community, the church will be better prepared to help our young people become open to transcendence. Including young people in worship needs to be intentional, not so that they will learn the liturgy or become more comfortable sitting with people who are older than they are, but rather so that they will have an experience of the triune God. In addition, by entering into relationships with other adults in acts of ministry, we create space for the influence of the Holy Spirit, breaking open the buffered self as we encounter God and our neighbors in love.

Joel Vander Wal is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America who is studying pastoral theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Photo: Becket Chimney Corners YMCA under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.