Beyond Platitudes: Re-Igniting the Church’s Vision for Children and Youth

[1] Rare is the pastor or other church leader who will not agree that young people are the future of the church or that the church is called to care for children in their midst and in society. Some will even agree with the assertion that young people are not just the future of the church, but also the present-contributing actively as full members.

[2] Yet, too often, that verbal assent appears to be little more than a platitude, not backed up with the commitments and priorities needed to embrace, engage, and enrich young people’s lives within the church, in our society, and around the world. Strengthening the church’s engagement with young people and its commitment to their growth in body, mind, and spirit represents a neglected, but powerful opportunity not only to strengthen the church now and in the future, but also to live out the church’s responsibility to service in society and the world.

A History of Innovation and Commitment
[3] Since 1990, Search Institute has promoted a positive vision for young people, calling people and institutions from all walks of life to a new kind of commitment to young people’s healthy development. Leaders and advocates within Lutheran church bodies (including the ELCA, LCMS, and WELS) have joined in this dialogue and have learned from these efforts. This initiative focused on building “developmental assets,” or positive building blocks of development that Search Institute has identified through extensive research with young people across the United States. (See below for more on developmental assets.)

[4] In addition, numerous other innovative efforts are underway within the ELCA to improve the ways the church connects with young people. Indeed, some of the most innovative and effective ministries with children, youth, and families are occurring in Lutheran congregations and allied institutions. Since at least the 1950s, Lutherans have been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen ministries with children and youth.

[5] Yet, these efforts are hampered to a large degree, I would suggest, by a lack of a shared, comprehensive, and compelling vision for the role of the church and its members in nurturing children and youth-a vision held not only by those amazingly committed and creative individuals who work with young people on a daily and weekly basis, but that is shared throughout the church as a core commitment and priority. Furthermore, while this article specifically focuses on the ELCA, the same basic case could be made for most other major denominations in the United States. As church historian Marcia Bunge writes, “Although many churches have developed effective and creative programs to address the needs of children, the church as a whole has not taken a strong leadership role in child advocacy.”1

[6] The church has both a theological and ethical obligation to care for children and adolescents, as well as a tremendous untapped capacity to contribute to their growth and development. By engaging in intentional dialogue, followed by deep, sustained, and pervasive commitments, the church has a tremendous opportunity to fulfill its commitments while also being a prophetic champion for children and youth in our society and around the world.

[7] How might we begin to shape and renew such a commitment to children and youth? This article suggests examining three central questions:

What do young people need from the church?

What in the church’s beliefs and commitments compels it to act?

What gifts does the church have to offer young people in its midst and in broader society?

What Young People Need
[8] In research on youth across the past decade, Search Institute has examined the kinds of experiences and relationships young people need in their congregations (as well as families, schools, and other parts of their lives) to grow up caring, responsible, and faithful. At the core of this research is the framework of 40 developmental assets, which are positive relationships, opportunities, experiences, and personal strengths in young people’s lives. They address the kinds of resources, opportunities, and relationships young people need in their families, congregations, schools, and communities (external assets) and the personal beliefs, values, commitments, and skills that shape young people’s character (internal assets). (For a complete list of the assets for each age group from birth through age 18 as well as extensive research on the assets, visit

[9] This research complements the extensive available research on the critical need to address the economic and political issues that interfere with young people’s optimal development (particularly among the most vulnerable children). While much of the research that currently guides policy and advocacy focuses on the economic and political infrastructure needed for young people’s development,2 Search Institute focuses on the “human development infrastructure”-the patterns of relationship, care, and opportunity that are also vital for all young people.

[10] Search Institute surveys of approximately 2 million young people across the United States during the past decade show that young people’s experiences of these developmental assets is a powerful predictor of young people’s health and well-being, regardless of young people’s race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender. We know, for example, that young people from many racial-ethnic backgrounds with more assets are less likely to engage in ten different patterns of high-risk behaviors, including alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use, violence, depression, and antisocial behavior. They are also much more likely to engage in thriving behaviors such as valuing diversity, exhibiting leadership, resisting danger, and serving others.3

[11] The developmental assets serve as a reminder that, for growth in body, mind, and spirit, children and adolescents need to have more than their basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and safety met-though those are certainly foundational and essential. They also need a strong foundation of relationships, opportunities, and resources that nurture their development. Unfortunately, the average young person in the United States experiences only about half of these 40 developmental assets. This basic challenge is true in all types of communities, from major cities to small towns and rural areas. Indeed, the body of research suggests that, as a society, we are failing to provide our children and youth with the basic building blocks of healthy development that they need to thrive.

Called to Care for Children
[12] All of the information on what young people need is broad. A case can be made (and is being made) that all sectors in our society need to pay attention to these issues. The question remains, however, about whether, beyond good citizenship, people of faith-specifically Lutherans-have any particular responsibility or obligation to address these needs for healthy development.

[13] In 2001, Search Institute convened leaders and advocates from the ELCA, LCMS, and WELS to develop a shared understanding of why Lutherans should build developmental assets. Out of this dialogue, we developed a document titled Grounding Asset Building in Lutheran Faith. Citing Martin Luther’s question, “Indeed, for what purpose do we older folk exist, other than to care for, instruct, and bring up the young?”4 this document highlighted three key theological commitments that call Lutherans to place priority on young people’s healthy development.5

[14] Baptism-In Baptism, we acknowledge human sinfulness and we receive by faith the gifts of grace and salvation. We are a new creation, and we claim the gifts of grace, including those reflected in the assets. Some of these gifts include service (asset #9: service to others), peace (asset #36: Peaceful conflict resolution), hope (asset #40: Positive view of personal future), and the sense of community with each other that undergirds the whole asset framework.

[15] In addition, Baptism places each young person in a community of faith, and the parents and community promise to nurture that child. By reminding us of the importance of that nurturing by community, the assets offer ways in which all members can make a difference with and for children.

[16] Sanctification-God’s grace frees us to live righteously-not to earn God’s favor, but in response to God’s love. Sanctification speaks to discipleship-the process of growing and maturing in living the faith in our daily lives and relationships. From a Lutheran perspective, asset building can be considered consistent with the “third use of the Law” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VI) that serves to encourage good works in believers.

[17] Vocation-Christ summons all Christians to live in the world as salt and light-not necessarily in sensational ways, but as part of everyday life. By calling us into our various stations or roles in life (parent, teacher, community leader, friend, employee, neighbor), God works God’s will through us in the world. By emphasizing building assets in all areas of life, the asset-building philosophy provides a unified means for living out our faith by befriending, guiding, and advocating for children and youth.

The Church’s Gifts
[18] If the church is called to meet the needs of children and if developmental assets offer a helpful framework for understanding young people’s needs for growth in body, mind, and spirit, what gifts, resources, or capacities does the church offer?

[19] At Search Institute, we believe that the faith community offers a unique, but often overlooked, resource for young people’s healthy development. From an asset-building perspective, the faith community can offer young people . . .

A sense of being welcomed, cared for, and valued;

Multiple meaningful relationships with many caring adults and role models;

Opportunities to contribute, serve, and lead;

A challenging, enriching environment for learning and growth;

Clear boundaries about what is expected;

Strong connections to families;

A sense of belonging in the intergenerational community of faith;

The opportunity to educate and motivate people of all ages to see themselves as having a shared responsibility for children beyond their own family; and

A prophetic voice that calls society to shared responsibility for the healthy development and well-being of all children and adolescents.6

[20] Some of these gifts are certainly expressed through the church’s programmatic efforts in ministries with children, youth, and families. But much of the energy and resource lies beyond the programs and the staff and volunteers who run those programs. This capacity lies with the leaders who make young people a priority so that they feel valued, listened to, and recognized throughout the faith community. It lies in the millions of adults who could be unleashed as caring mentors, guides, friends, and role models for children and youth. It lies in people throughout the church making known that every policy made at the local, state, or national level must take seriously the impact of that policy on the well-being and healthy development of children and adolescents both now and in the future.

[21] Thus, the church’s opportunity is not only to develop and implement more effective and innovative programs for children, youth, and families, though they are certainly part of the equation that needs support and encouragement. But the church’s opportunity moves beyond programs to developing a shared commitment among leaders and members throughout the church to investing in young people and working to make a commitment to children become pervasive throughout the church and into the families, neighborhoods, institutions, communities, and social forces that touch young people’s lives.

Shaping a New Vision
[22] How do we shape efforts to capitalize on the opportunity we have to nurture young people using the church’s current gifts and capacities? There are certainly multiple approaches to consider. However, our experience at Search Institute is that a grassroots, movement-oriented approach likely has the greatest potential. So while there may be value in forming a high-level commission or task force, the most important work likely lies in identifying, linking, and unleashing people (adults and youth) with a passionate commitment. We seek to give people opportunities to find their voice and shape a vision, thus building on the efforts already underway and tapping the creativity, experience, and passion that these advocates bring.

[23] Though grounded in research in the United States, the basic themes and messages of asset building often resonate with people across many cultures and settings, reminding them of the deep commitment and responsibility of all people to the youngest generations among us. Often the ideas spread in unexpected, serendipitous ways. Not long ago, we at Search Institute began correspondence with a medical doctor in an impoverished suburb of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Dr. T. N. Maletnlema of the Child Growth Promotion Union.

[24] Dr. Maletnlema learned about Search Institute’s work after picking up a used copy of All Kids Are Our Kids7 at a used bookstore in Dar es Salaam. He found that the themes of the book resonated with what he experienced in his own work. In a report on a study of children who sought help in his clinics, he noted then Swahili proverb, “Watoto ni Taifa la Kesho” (children are tomorrow’s nation), then asks, “Are they tomorrow’s or today’s?”

[25] It is time for the church to ask the next question: If young people are both the present and the future of the church (and the world), what are we doing to ensure that they develop to be strong, responsible, contributing, faithful people? The answers to that question can become a starting point for a powerful new movement that has great potential to enrich the church and society both now and for generations to come.

End Notes

1 Marcia J. Bunge, ed., The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001): 27.

2 Two important resources for information on the economic and political challenges facing children: Children’s Defense Fund:; The Future of Children:

3 Arturo Sesma Jr. and Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, “Unique Strengths, Shared Strengths: Developmental Assets among Youth of Color,” Search Institute Insights & Evidence 1 (November 2003): 1-13.

4 Martin Luther, To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany (1524). Cited in Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: ‘For What Purpose Do We Older Folks Exist, Other than to Care for . . . the Young?” In Marcia J. Bunge, ed., The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001): 134-159.

5 Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, ed., Grounding Asset Building in Lutheran Faith (Minneapolis: Search Institute, 2001). Download from

6 For a more detailed exploration of the role of congregations in young people’s healthy development, see Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, “Building Strengths, Deepening Faith: Understanding and Enhancing Youth Development in Protestant Congregations.” In Richard M. Lerner, Francine Jacobs, and Donald Wertlieb, eds. Handbook of Applied Developmental Science, vol. 3: Promoting Positive Youth and Family Development (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2003): 515-534.

7 Peter L. Benson, All Kids Are Our Kids: What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997).