Noteworthy Research Behind Belong, Believe, Become

Article by John Bloedel January 7, 2020

As child disciple-makers, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “Is our current strategy and philosophy going to nurture and influence resilient disciples who will lead the church in the year 2050?” If the answer to that question is “yes,” then you have likely already worked through a process of evaluating effective philosophy and key markers that influence long-term fruit. But if the answer is “no,” then consider Resilient Child Discipleship based on three focused components.

Resilient Child Discipleship: The process of a Christ-follower committing meaningful, intentional, and consistent time and space to a child or a group of children so that they may know who Jesus is and are known by a body of believers (Belong), to place their faith in Jesus and apply the Word of God (Believe), and to reproduce their own discipleship (Become) so that a third spiritual generation can lead and love like Jesus Christ.

Resilient Child Discipleship doesn’t start with programs. It doesn’t start with our existing 21st century systems.

It starts with a universal curiosity around, what makes child discipleship effective, long-term and fruitful? As church leaders and kid-influencers, we have the unique opportunity to let this curiosity inform our programs and our systems, ultimately resulting in more effective local church, gospel-based ministry.

Three Components of Resilient Child Discipleship: Belong, Believe and Become

Belong, Believe and Become is the foundation for spiritual resilience. From child to child the environments and the variables change, but when these components are present, the probability for long-term discipleship fruit goes up—even in the face of adverse conditions.

As an organization, we got really curious about, “What makes child discipleship effective, long-term and fruitful?” in 2014. At that point, we began studying the Scriptures with specific interest in the life and ministry of Jesus. We also studied existing and accessible data as well as conducted our own research. Our leadership team has facilitated over 1,000 in-person conversations with church leaders gaining their insight and feedback. We even studied our 70-year history as a global children and youth ministry—looking at both the ups and downs of our own successes and failures. We simply wanted to know, what is it that produces long-term discipleship fruit in the lives of kids into their adulthood?

All of our learning continued to point to three effective components that make up the Resilient Child Discipleship philosophy: Belong, Believe and Become. Let’s define the terms:

Belong

Highly relational ministry led by loving and caring adults

Believe

Deeply Scriptural ministry rooted in the truth of God’s Word and the power of the gospel

Become

Truly experiential ministry, designed to move kids from simulation to real-world application of faith-based living

Time and time again, these components show up as the central factors to Resilient Child Discipleship that lead to transformation in the lives of children. Our ministry partnerships engage 4.7 million kids in 122 countries. Not a week goes by that we don’t receive reports or personal stories of belong, believe and become from our ministry partners like Compassion International, World Vision, missionaries, church planters or pastors from one of our 61,000 global church partners.

Can you see the components of Resilient Child Discipleship in your story? Can you see where these three components have shaped the children and students in your church community? How about your kids or your grandkids?

But why is it that Belong, Believe and Become—out of all of the possible factors—have so much influence in lifelong discipleship?

Let’s dig more deeply into why Belong, Believe and Become are the key contributing factors to Resilient Child Discipleship by looking through the lenses of: 1. A Biblical Basis, and 2. Noteworthy Research.

This is the second of a two-part series. During this part we will focus on the Noteworthy Research for “Belong, Believe, and Become.”

Noteworthy Research: Belong, Believe, Become

Like you, we are lifetime learners. We love to learn in a variety of ways and one of those ways is research. For pastors and church leaders, research continues to be a key way to learn, gain wisdom and inform the way we navigate in an ever-changing culture. We also look to research because it helps us to discern the times. Yet, as important as research is, nothing is more important than our faith, dependency upon Christ, prayer to God and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. So as we approach this next section together, we do so with this clear understanding: we value research because we can learn to gain and apply wisdom to the glory of God.

In his book Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions in 2003, George Barna penned these words, “Most families do not have a genuine spiritual life together … first, they are merely following the precedent that was set for them … second, most churchgoing parents are neither spiritually mature nor spiritually inclined and, therefore, they do not have a sense of urgency or necessity about raising their kids to be spiritual champions …” The research behind this project and numerous projects that would follow helped ignite what we now call the modern “family ministry” or “NextGen ministry” movement. Within this overall movement the common message was “Parents are the primary spiritual leaders in the lives of their children. It’s the church’s job to partner with and equip parents.” This is a true message straight from the pages of Deuteronomy 6!

Yet, In Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark’s research behind their book StickyFaith we are reminded that, “Most parents don’t talk faith with their kids. 12% of youth have a regular dialogue with their mom or dad on faith issues.” Not only are parents struggling at home, they are attending church inconsistently. In a study Awana commissioned in 2019, we discovered that “inconsistent attendance of Kids/Families” is the second most adversely impacted area of local church children’s ministry.

So are we making progress? Has the family ministry movement moved the needle?

As church leaders, we all feel a deep frustration by asking spiritually anemic adults who are barely surviving to lead their kids spiritually. Although it’s happening in some of our church families, the “at home” discipleship experience is a small percentage.

So what are we to do? Abandon family ministry? Absolutely not! Abandon church ministry? Never! Resilient discipleship is about changing the way we look at children’s, youth and family ministry. The reality is that many parents will never go along on the discipleship journey. These parents are spiritually anemic, distracted, broken, wounded or perhaps not even a Christ-follower. So what are we supposed to do as church leaders and child-influencers? We must have a “belong, believe, become” strategy for every child … the child with healthy, thriving Christ-following parents, and the child with little to no parental, spiritual engagement.

Christian Smith and Patricia Snell zero in on this idea when they say, “… no single factor can produce high levels of emerging adult religiousness. Instead, multiple combinations of factors working together are necessary to more likely than not produce that outcome. When teenagers’ lives reflect only one strong factor, their chances of becoming highly religious emerging adults are lower than average.” They continue, “… every most-likely path to highly religious emerging adulthood must include combinations of distinctly different kinds of causal factors, almost always including groupings of relational, personal subjective, and devotional practice factors.

In almost all cases, necessary among these variables are:

Strong, personal relationships with adults who bond teenagers to faith communities (either parents or supportive non-parents),

Strong expressions of subjective teen personal faith commitment

and experience (high importance of faith, few doubts, many religious experiences), and

High frequencies of religious practice: prayer and scripture reading.”

Smith and Snell are hitting on the resilient discipleship core thesis. Resilient Child Discipleship is not about a single factor. Resilient Child Discipleship is about a combination of factors working together. As they reference above, “relationships” (belonging), “experience” (becoming) and “Scripture reading” (believing). For the churched kids, for the non-churched kids, for the kids with highly engaged parents and for the kids who live in parental neglected homes, as KidMin and youth leaders, we need a combination of distinctly different factors that work together to forge effective discipleship.

We are hopeful about children’s, youth and family ministry, because research supports that resilient child disciple making is possible. The church can do this! The combination of factors are doable and achievable. Let’s take a brief look at the supporting research.

Note: This is only a fraction of the research we collected for the sake of brevity Please visit ResilientDisciples.com for additional free resources and information.

Belong Research

In her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown speaks of the importance of belonging. “I define belonging as the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted.

Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” She goes on to say, “When I asked a large group of eighth-graders to break into small teams and come up with the differences between fitting in and belonging, their answers floored me: Belonging is being somewhere you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other. Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in.”

One of the deepest longings of the human heart is to know, “Where do I belong? Who are my people?” As God’s people, we know that the central story of the Bible is of His love for us. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who came to redeem us and bring us into His kingdom to find true belonging. This is the mission of the church. This is you!

As local church leaders and child and student influencers, check out some of these findings on the power of belonging:

The Belonging Church:

Being the Church Makes a Difference

“By far, the number one way that churches made the teens in our survey feel welcomed and valued was when adults in the congregation showed an interest in them.”

Church Attendance Matters

“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.”

Loving, Caring Adults Exude Belonging: Even Just One Caring Adult Can Make an Impact

“Developmental research shows that having one or more caring adults in

a child’s life increases the likelihood that they will flourish, and become productive adults themselves. Children and adolescents who have a formal or informal “mentor-like” relationship with someone outside their home are less likely to have externalizing behavior problems (bullying) and internalizing problems (depression).”

Non-Parental Adults Can Make an Impact

“Research has demonstrated that significant non-parental adults play a very important role in the lives of children and adolescents. This has been shown both through studies that utilize youth self-report (Blyth, Hill, & Thiel, 1982; Galbo & Demetrulias, 2001; Hendry, Roberts, Glendinning, & Coleman, 1992; Munsch & Blyth, 1993) and by more rigorous outcome studies (Werner, 1992, 1995; Zimmerman & Bingenheimer, 2002).”

Trusting Relationships Can Help High-risk Kids

“Further evidence of the protective impact of relationships with non-parental adults is found in the results from a 32 year longitudinal resiliency study of children born in Kauai in the year 1955, conducted by Werner and colleagues. This study identified the existence of supportive, non-parental adults who developed trusting relationships with youth as one of five clusters of protective factors that were present in the lives of high-risk children who successfully adapted to adult life. These non-parental adults included grandparents, elder mentors, teachers, youth leaders and members of church groups (Werner, 1992, 1995).” 

Believe Research

So we’ve shown the importance of belonging through research and now we are going to take a look at believing.

Imagine going into a major surgery at your local hospital only to find out that your surgeon had not read or studied any of her textbooks in medical school. “Stop! Do not wheel me into the back room!” you’d exclaim. As her patient you would assume that she was mentored by more experienced surgeons (highly relational), that she participated in her practicum (truly experiential), and that she had a working knowledge of her field of practice (truly Scriptural or in this case, truly medical). Just as you would want your surgeon to have a working knowledge of human anatomy, how much more we want the kids in our ministry to have the knowledge, message and wisdom of the Bible that leads them to salvation in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the power of believe.

The need for “biblical literacy” among children may not be the most highly attended workshop at a conference, yet it is one of our most foundational and significant needs for the church in North America. Since 2014, our leadership team has conducted over 1,000 conversations with those who work with children and students in the local church. One of the emerging themes has been a disappointment—we would even say a lamenting—that their children and youth ministry has adopted a “Bible-lite” strategy that is characterized by morality-based teaching or virtues-based teaching. This strategy is a major contributor to what Christian Smith has termed “moralistic therapeutic deism” and has been quite harmful to the long-term vitality of the church and in the lives of disciples in much the same way as the metaphorical surgeon above who does not know her “source” information through her textbooks.

The Bible is our “source” information and research shows that kids who have a higher engagement in the Bible are far more likely to love and follow Jesus into adulthood. Even as some churches have gravitated to a Bible-lite strategy, many are not going that direction. Churches that elevate a highly scriptural model of discipleship tend to teach the gospel story as the thread of redemption from Genesis to Revelation, teach the Bible as a central part of their ministry, present the gospel to kids and students, value Scripture memory as a methodology and create a system to encourage Bible engagement as a consistent spiritual discipline.

Here’s some research pertaining to believing:

Higher Spiritual Health

LifeWay Research wanted to know the “best predictors of spiritual health among young adults” and the number one finding was that the “child regularly read the Bible while growing up”

Childhood Bible Reading

“Twenty-nine percent of the young adults regularly read the Bible while growing up, according to their parents. On average, that group has 12.5% higher spiritual health than otherwise comparable individuals who didn’t, LifeWay Research found.”

Children Are Open to the Gospel

The Barna group has found that, “nearly half of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their Savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (43%), and that two out of three born again Christians (64%) made that commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday.”

Bible Engagement Benefit

In David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock’s Faith for Exiles, they found that 87% of those defined as “resilient disciples” feel closer to God when they read the Bible (compared to 44% habitual churchgoers, 21% unchurched, and 10% prodigals). 

The Bible’s Power to Transform

“Overall, almost six in 10 U.S. adults (58%) believe that the message of

the Bible has transformed their life, including three in 10 (28%) who agree strongly with this statement … Married adults and those with children under 18 are both more likely to indicate that the Bible has been life-changing”

We were curious about what children’s ministry leaders thought, so we have conducted four research projects (from 2013 – 2019) to discover what those in children’s ministry find to be most important. When respondents were asked to rate the importance of 16 components, they rated Bible teaching as the most highly rated component as a 4.9 on a 5 point scale. This indicates nearly every respondent rated Bible teaching as a 5 (very important)!

In our 2014 research project, we wanted to understand what success looked like for children’s ministry activities. So respondents were asked to rate 10 distinct potential ministry purposes–they were asked, “How important do you think each of these ministry purposes is?” Once again, they value the Bible above and beyond every other purpose for children’s ministry. The statement “Helping children develop a love for studying and knowing the Bible” was the most highly-rated purpose (4.8 average on a 5 point scale), 98.3% rated this purpose as important or very important.

In Matthew 28, Jesus commands His followers to go and make disciples. This is our calling and our commission: to teach kids the commandments and the ways of Jesus and to help them know how to call on the name of the Lord and be saved. Churches that are highly Scriptural are far better stewards of helping children and students believe.

Become Research

Now let’s take a look at the research on the third component of resilient child discipleship on becoming.

A few years ago I (Matt) was sensing the need for adventure so I decided to lead a 5th grade boys small group. What could be more adventurous than that?! I could sense there was a restlessness with these emerging young men. Something was just not quite right. I began to sense that these guys were ready to explore new conversations. After some think–time and prayer, I asked our kids pastor for special permission to set aside the curriculum for a while and chart some new territory. My express intent was to help these guys navigate the world they were emerging into as 11-year-old boys. The months that followed delivered on pure adventure! We focused on their questions, key topics to navigate life and culture, the Bible and lots and lots of conversation. The nagging feeling God placed in my spirit was right. They certainly needed relationship. They absolutely needed Bible teaching. But they also needed more—they needed navigational help—they needed someone to walk beside them and help them become.

Parents, church leaders and child disciple makers, we must practice navigating real life conversations with kids and students. Whether it’s science, the Bible, the sexual revolution, gender identity, the cultural divide, whatever—navigation simply means we will walk alongside, guide them, be co-learners with them and faithfully point them to Christ and His Word. Children and students do not expect us to be experts who have all of the answers, but they do expect us to engage. Engaging means asking questions. Engaging means we sometimes respond by saying, “I don’t know, but maybe we should explore that together.” Engaging means having compassion and empathy. And engaging also means we share the knowledge and wisdom we do have or even searching the Scriptures and praying together. The important part is this continual collision of belong (relationship), believe (the Bible, faith in Jesus) and become (help them navigate and experience life with them). Although conversation is foundational, it’s just one way we express becoming (truly experiential).

Here’s some research pertaining to becoming:

Conversation Is Critical

In Kara Powell and Chap Clark’s Sticky Faith research, they asked graduating high school seniors what they wished they had more of in youth group. Of the thirteen options we provided, their number one answer was “time for deep conversation.” 20

We Need to Be Prepared for the Hard Conversations

Unfortunately, many adults are fearful of this type of experience with children and youth. In the Barna Group’s research on Gen Z, they say, “It’s important for pastors, leaders and parents to be prepared to discuss the real issues of the Christian faith, historical evidence, origins of the Bible, science, and inter-faith dialogue. This is the “acid-test” for real belief in the next generation.

We Need to Engage, Not Avoid

A Barna group study in 2018 showed that only 68% of protestant youth pastors were comfortable talking about the origins of the Bible and historical evidence. Only 48% felt comfortable talking about science and the Bible and only 44% felt they could talk about inter-faith dialogues. The majority of teens (over 59% in all categories) felt uncomfortable talking about these things.”

Students Who Mentor Children Remain in the Faith

Students who serve and build relationships with younger children also tend to have stickier faith.

Serving Cultivates Caring and Faith

Faith becomes more long-term when we take the time to find out what causes our kids are concerned about and we help them invest in those causes. We can cultivate caring, compassion and living on-mission when we serve together as a small group or as families.

Chris Marchand has been known to say, “We have to get kids outside of the simulation of the local church.” Meaning, faith is forged in the real experiences of life. Faith can be cemented when we are doing real, practical hands-on engagement. When we give children and youth “truly experiential” ministry, we are more likely to help them become like Jesus.

Resilient disciples do not simply engage in a simulation (learning about faith), but they bump up against the culture and they engage the world around them on mission for Christ. This very idea of getting kids active and engaged can be influenced and cultivated from a young age.

Belong, Believe, and Become

Time and time again, the factors that are known to produce long-term fruit in the lives of children and youth are the three critical components of Resilient Child Discipleship.

One of the most challenging conversations we hear from local church leaders is the fast pace and the sheer volume of tasks and projects you lead and steward in local church ministry. We hurt for you. You have a big job, and there is no more important mission than the church. As you captivate our mind space, we wonder about your sleepless nights … what must keep you up as you bravely face unprecedented cultural upheaval? We can only imagine the challenges you must weigh as you think about how to design and implement a child discipleship system (team, program, methods, communication, volunteers, etc.) that’s an integration of highly relational ministry (Belong), deeply scriptural ministry (Believe) and truly experiential ministry (Become). These are the few, key-contributing factors that lead to long-term discipleship.

Belong, Believe and Become are the foundation for spiritual resilience. And the Church of the year 2050 will require just that.

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