Modification, Formation, and Reformation in Youth Ministry

The following article appears here with permission from Steve Argue and Dave Livermore, who advocate focusing youth ministry on spiritual formation rather than on mere behavior modification. This emphasis is crucial if our youth ministries are to be ones that multiply young disciplemaking followers of Jesus.

By Steve Argue and Dave Livermore

Take Psychology 101 and you learn from the basic textbook about Pavlov’s dogs. His experiment was pretty simple. Ring the bell when food is delivered to the dogs and they will salivate. Do it enough, and you can ring the bell, skip the food and the dogs still salivate. It’s an environment of stimulus and response. It’s behavior modification.

Now take another environment—the youth group gathering. While we won’t, for a second, say that teens are dogs or youth groups are laboratories, could we be downright honest and ask if we’re acting too much like Pavlov?

When that worship song is played, why do the hands go up? Is it worship? When the group comes back from winter retreat fired up, was God moving? When a student comes forward at a youth rally, what really happened? When a kid comes back from a weeklong mission trip changed, is it truly formation?

While we never want to be skeptical of the work of the Spirit (as it is filled with wonderful mystery), have you ever wondered like us, whether true formation in a teen’s life is happening? It actually haunts us, maybe because it’s so important.

Let’s be honest. We’ve all seen our share of emotional highs (every camp), spiritual expressions (response to music, a speaker, rock star), changed lives (for a week).  Hopefully, it bothers us. May something of the Spirit make us dissatisfied and unsettled with the environments and stimuli that simply telegraph our desired response for students.

a boy reading the BIble
Formation desires people to love the Bible and enjoy prayer.

It’s tempting to count numbers, tears, hands in the air and heroic mission trips. Sadly, it’s what we youth workers brag about all the time. (When’s the last time you heard a youth worker say that their youth group was doing anything less then rocking the free world?)

The risk for us as youth workers is to walk away from the safe patterns of a ministry of behavior modification and enter the realm that elevates formation. Formation is what God desires for each one of us. God’s work in us (which he has started and promises to complete, see Philippians 1:6) is leading to total transformation into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is what we are declared to be by God and what we are becoming.

It is a wonderfully growing, messy, challenging time that overhauls one’s inside spilling over into our lives. It’s hardly predictable. We can’t generate fruit in people. Fruit is borne as an expression of what one is created to be.

Waiting for transformation and fruit is not the stuff that will show up in prayer letters or that can be paraded in front of the church. It’s a simple, quiet growing that occurs in people, and remains relatively obscure in young people.

Modification makes sure that people read the Bible and pray (you’re praised if you do, and scolded if you don’t). Formation desires people to love the Bible and enjoy prayer. Modification tells followers to evangelize. Formation longs for followers’ hearts to break for the world and serve it, demonstrating the true gospel. Modification says separate yourself from the world. Formation says, get dirty.

When formation truly begins to edge out modification, then reformation happens. Reformation starts with one’s heart and becomes the DNA and the heartbeat of the follower. Life becomes an act of worship. School and jobs express one’s calling. Relationships are about love, serving and community. One sees the church’s purpose is to love the world, not hide from it.

We are changed from the inside out. What is unseen will be seen as consistent, authentic, normal living that will change the temperature of a nation and of the world. This is more than wishful thinking. This is the penetrating, redemptive work of God. This is reformation.

So how do we move from modification to formation? We probably need to get away from worshiping numbers as indicators for success. Formation doesn’t happen simply by getting someone through the door. Our challenge is to help them leave with something when they head out. This could be a topic of discussion for your parents’ meeting. Involve them in helping you think through what it looks like to jointly foster formation in a student’s life.

Or what if we were to gather a select group of parents, students and youth leaders and ask the question, “What, biblically, do we want a teenage follower of Jesus to look like?” We could then work backward from what is concluded in order to create pathways to help foster that kind of formation in our students.

Moving from modification to formation will also change our teaching approaches and environments. For example, if we want students to love prayer, we must do more than just motivate them to have a quiet time. We need to provide creative opportunities and outlets for prayer, offer skills for expressing love for God through prayer and exposing them to role models for whom prayer is a dynamic and fresh part of their relationship with God.

Some of the other implications for moving from modification to formation include asking things like, “If we want students to feel connected to the church, what will be our indicators of connection and how will we foster connecting points?”

How are we training our volunteer staff to do more than just “hang with kids”? Do they know their role to encourage, pray and demonstrate authentic following? How well do we really know our students and how comfortable are we talking with them about matters of the heart? Our evaluation must look beyond schedules, brochures and attendance and focus on the inner person. It’s harder to measure but it  is essential if we are to evaluate behaviors.

May we, as youth workers, be careful to not be like Pavlov. May we be dissatisfied with behavior modification and may we long for true formation that ultimately leads to total reformation.

Father, may your kingdom come, may your will be done … and may it start in our own hearts, lives and ministries.

Steve Argue and Dave Livermore
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