Middle School

Kurt Johnston leads the student ministries team at Saddleback Church in Southern California. His ministry of choice, however, is junior high, where he spends approximately 83.4% of his time.

Like most youth workers I have been wrestling with the reality that too many of the students who are highly involved in the church as teenagers fade away after high school or college graduation. I’ve been completely turned off by the hyperbole and rhetoric surrounding the issue. I often wonder if some of the voices in this conversation are more interested in being edgy and controversial than they are about realistically trying to help churches navigate the issue. I say “realistically”, because that is what is missing in so much of the pontificating; realistic approaches.

“Quit doing things the old way…it’s okay to get fired from your church” Say people not employed by a church.
“Tell your 65 year old Pastor that his way of measuring success is outdated!” Say the people who don’t work for a 65 year old pastor.

And the un-realistic advice goes on and on and on and on and on……mostly proposed by folks who don’t have a ton to lose when some 24-year old youth worker actually tries one of their ideas in a real-life church scenario.

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That’s a long introduction to a blog post! And a long introduction to why I’m so thankful to Kara Powell and the folks at the Fuller Youth Institute for their Sticky Faith research and resources! Kara, as somebody not employed by a church and somebody with a platform to build and resources to sell, could very easily have gone the “The Youth Ministry Sky Is Falling….Run For Your Lives!” route, but she didn’t. Instead, F.Y.I. took a healthy, research-driven approach to a problem that all of us are vitally concerned about.

This weekend Saddleback took a massive step in the right direction…an attempt to begin to break down the silo between our youth ministry and the rest of the church…an attempt to get some sort of multi-generational shoulder rubbing happening. It wasn’t revolutionary, and it will certainly get a few yawns and eye-rolls from those who think we are in some sort of Youth Ministry Armageddon, but it was a big deal to us; and one I’m actually quite proud of and excited about.

Saddleback has always been a “one hour” church in which everybody goes to church for one service or program….the adults go to big church, the kids go to kids church and the teenagers go to youth church. Then everybody meets in the car and goes to lunch together. Obviously, especially in light of knowing what we have all come to know in the past couple of years, this completely segregated approach to church isn’t the healthiest of models.

But what do you do when that paradigm is a primary reason the church grew to 20,000 people?
What do you do when it is one of the reasons the youth ministry has grown to over 2,000 teenagers?
What do you do when your church just built a $20 million youth facility…a bigger, better “silo”?
What do you do when your worship center is so packed there isn’t room for teenagers?

Seriously. I’m wondering what the voices calling for “radical change” would really do if they were in this scenario?

Here’s what I did:

– About a year ago, I started really digging into the Sticky Faith research and asking myself some tough questions.
– About 10 months ago, I started using my allotted “report back” time in our executive meetings to share some of my learnings, to let the senior leadership of my church know that I saw some changes on the horizon.
– About 6 months ago, I suggested the radical idea (radical in our setting) of taking tangible steps to get our teenagers more involved in the overall life of the church. These ideas included combined missions trips, ministry teams, discipleship classes, etc.
– At the same time, I suggested the idea of creating a monthly “Worship Together Weekend”. I pitched the idea that on the first full weekend of every month we cancel our JH and HS church services, completely shut down our youth building and encourage families to go to “big church” together. In essence I proposed that we spend 25% of our time NOT doing the type of ministry that our church has been built upon.

Our executive team…and more importantly, Pastor Rick Warren…bit on the idea. And as a result, this past weekend was our first “Worship Together Weekend”. This weekend everybody CRAMMED into the worship center together…and it was awesome! We had teenagers sprinkled into the adult worship team, our youth staff was roaming around meeting parents who had never stepped foot into our youth building, Pastor Rick wrote a message that somehow managed to be perfect for everybody in the room, and asked me and our college Pastor to help deliver it.

I think this is my longest post ever. But that’s because it’s the result of over a year’s worth of reading, praying, dreaming, debating and wondering.

Contrary to what the folks typing away on blogs, writing in magazines or creating fake documentaries say, those of you neck-deep in the trenches of local church youth ministry don’t have to do anything radical or risk your job to influence healthy change in your church. Keep doing what your doing, and prayerfully ask God if there might be some things that need to be adjusted in order to be more effective in bearing long-term fruit (which is what this is all about). Be aware of your church culture, and boldly move forward in the direction you feel God is nudging you!

And if that results in your firing….so be it. Just don’t get fired doing something some dude(s) you’ve never met, who has no idea of your church context and culture, and has nothing to lose when you lose your position or paycheck wants you to do!

How service-minded are your teenagers? Take this short quiz to find out!


  • Erik w/a "k" says:


    Great post. I Josh tweet about it a while back that it was coming. Love that you dove into your own culture, shared it and that it was caught! How cool.

  • Joe Thompson says:

    Great stuff man. My church is starting the discussion of this very same thing but from a different angle. We don’t have a morning worship service for our teens but we recognize that they aren’t engaging like they should be. So, instead of starting a separate service we want to start doing something to engage our teens. I’d love to hear more specifics of what you all did and would love to see a video of your service if it’s available.
    Thanks for leading the way in this important ministry frontier!

  • God is bigger than any man-made system we choose to disciple the next generation. One of the dangers of the western mind set is embrace pragmatisim as a core value in accomplishing the purpose of God. Just because All the “nay sayers” about youth minstry need to embrace a “God driven” prespective of ministry and allow God to do His work through “age segreated ministry” or “famiy-based ministry”. God is bigger than our “styles” of ministry. God has always used all kinds of ministry to accomplish his purpose. Read scripture.

  • marko says:

    i mean this in the LEAST patronizing way conceivable, kurt: i am so proud of you.

    or, how about this: i continue to be so impressed by you.

  • Kurt says:

    I totally agree. And, it is very tough for us westerners not to default to pragmatism. Complex issues like this rarely have one easy fix which is why it is so important to encourage one another to seek out contextualized solutions, and to cheer each other on as we attempt to do so.

  • Kurt says:

    Iron sharpens iron, my friend, and you have always been a “sharpening” presence.
    Thanks for the kind words.

  • Matt Lawson says:

    Somebody say the benediction. It’s time to go home!

    “Just don’t get fired doing something some dude(s) you’ve never met, who has no idea of your church context and culture, and has nothing to lose when you lose your position or paycheck wants you to do!”

    That might be the best advice on the subject I’ve heard yet. Well said Kurt!

  • Tim Kuhl says:

    Love it. Integration has been an elusive goal for the reasons Kurt has realistically posted here. But integration is also simple. Teaching our Own kids has been done “along the way” and youth ministry is movingorr and more towards “along the way” growing. Kids who know their parents an know they’re loved love their parents. Now swap CHURCH for PARENTS and the rule still applies.

  • Abram K-J says:

    Fantastic post. Wise words… thank you for a great post!

  • Phil Bell says:


    This is great stuff! Thanks for sharing. This summer we closed our youth ministry center down to do some extensive renovations and have had students in worship with every week from mid-June to mid-August. In many ways, I am so glad that we were forced to do this and we are seeing some great things happen. As a result, we are now looking to recreate this on a regular basis.

    Thanks for showing that a big church like Saddleback can and will make the needed changes to ensure that youth ministry is becoming sticky and families get to grow together!

  • Chris Bass says:

    Thank you for writing this article. I needed to read this. I don’t want to lose my job, nor does anyone else. I’m encouraged by you saying to folow what God says do and let the rest follow in place.

  • Phil says:

    We started something similar back in January and it has been great seeing the congregation get behind our youth and support them like never before. We have our students lead worship, help usher & take the offering the 1st Sunday of every month….I am so happy Senior Pastors are allowing the church body to see what God is doing in the lives of the students!

  • […] PostsSticky Faith = Worship Together Weekend My boss Kurt put together a great post called Things Are Getting Sticky at Saddleback talking about the origin of something new we started this summer called Worship Together Weekends. […]

  • Andy says:

    This is awesome! We’re heading down this path (meaning incorporating many ideas from Sticky Faith).

    To get things going, we had our leaders/volunteers read the book and we’re having a group discussion this coming Thursday.

    We’re pretty excited!

  • I’d really like to see some more updates on how this is going … questions/fears that I have before I would suggest something similar here run along the lines of …

    How does student attendance hold up on the worship together weekends? Are they continuing to come?

    How does student attendance do on the weeks where it is business as usual? I find when I break the routine attendance can dip the week after before they get back into the routine.

    What kind of feedback are you getting now that it’s been a few months?

  • Genia says:

    I would love to know more details about the actual services during your worship together weekends. Our church is planning several Family Worship services where we will have the entire family (ages 5 and up) worshipping together. Any suggestions?

  • […] Sticky Faith at Saddleback: Kurt Johnston leads the Student Ministries Team at Saddleback Church. In this blog he talks about why and how Saddleback is making intentional steps to break down the silos between their youth ministries and adult ministries. It’s a really intriguing post, especially considering that Kurt ministers in such a unique church. What he’s proposing would seem much easier for a smaller church to do, not a big one. What’s extra cool about the post is that he mentions how much he appreciates Sticky Faith and the work of Kara Powell and the others at F.Y.I. […]

  • I am still stoked about this move for SB, I would love to hear updates on how parents and leaders and students are taking this move as months go on.

  • […] Six months ago, we broke new ground at Saddleback in our attempt to help our students develop a Sticky Faith. We introduced the idea of what we call Worship Together Weekends, where we cancel our youth group program once a month and encourage families to attend the adult worship service together. I wrote all about it here. […]

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