When it comes to youth ministry and adolescent faith, “We’re doing a better job of getting them to show up than helping them to grow up,” says Duffy Robbins.[1] Determining how to best help youth develop in faith is the heart of the fourth approach to communicating the gospel that we’ll consider in this series—the developmental approach.
You’ll remember that a primary concern of the instructional approach is to help youth understand and apply the gospel. We also looked at the community of faith approach and its concern that youth be formed by God’s grace in the midst of gospel people and practices. The goal of the interpretive approach is for the gospel to transform the meaning teenagers make of their lives, and thus the way they live. The particular emphasis of a developmental approach is to assist young people in growing to maturity in the faith.
This approach assumes that people develop in fixed and patterned ways, and that if we want the gospel to impact the lives of students, then we need to be aware of their stages of faith development so that we can provide what they need to mature and not merely grow.
There’s a difference between growth and development, though we often use these words interchangeably. Credit card debt and coffee stains grow; seeds, caterpillars, and people develop. So what distinguishes development from mere growth? First, development unfolds according to a ground plan. When a butterfly emerges from a cocoon we’re wonderstruck but never surprised because we know there’s a ground plan for a caterpillar’s growth. Likewise, humans don’t just grow, but we each follow the same path of development from infancy through maturity. Second, there’s an invariant sequence of steps and stages in the developmental path. Just as you can’t add the roof to a barn before pouring the foundation, so humans develop in fairly fixed and predictable stages. Third, while growth brings a bigger coffee stain, development usually brings a more complex organism. Finally, there’s a fullness to the developmental process we call maturity; it’s not the end of all growth and change, but it is the end goal of development beyond which one continues to grow by degrees of completion in a mature state.
Of course, development is never guaranteed; just because a seed is planted, or a teenager hears the gospel, doesn’t mean the development of either is guaranteed. In light of this, the developmental approach emphasizes our need to help youth develop in faith. “So much of our youth ministry effort is focused on helping young people to ‘become Christians’ that we’ve lost sight of our central God-given mandate to build them into disciples,” writes Robbins.[1] So, how do we go about assisting their development?
First, those who emphasize a developmental approach say we need a theory of the stages/steps in youth discipleship development as they move from hearing the gospel to being shaped by it. We need to know how faith starts, but also what maturity of those formed by the gospel entails. Thus, a common feature of youth ministries that take a developmental approach is some sort of “discipleship pathway” whether expressed in a funnel, baseball diamond, or other metaphor that tries to chart out common steps and stages of religious development in youth.
Second, we seek development by articulating what might move youth from one stage to the next. To “intentionally motivate the forward progress and spiritual development of students” is one of the goals of a developmental approach.[1] While every approach leaves room for taking into account the developmental differences between 7th graders and 12th graders and teaching accordingly, the developmental approach is specifically interested in asking questions about progress: What kind of challenges and support do youth need to move to the next stage? What will target their capabilities while stretching them a bit? And conversely, what will stretch too much and actually hurt their development?
Finally, we assist development by teaching and communicating with a specific target audience in mind. “Programming for spiritual growth is not one-size-fits-all. Intentional programming will design an event, activity, weekend retreat, or lesson for a target group,” says Robbins.[1] Teachers must understand where youth are at in their development, what they need, and teach and communicate the gospel accordingly.
By calling us to be attentive to each young person’s unique stage but similar faith journey, the developmental approach highlights the need to communicate the gospel in consonance with individual needs. At its best, the developmental approach urges us to not merely give youth what they can handle, but to stretch them toward Christian maturity.
Download this sample lesson to use the developmental approach with your youth group:
Lesson 4: Developmental Approach

[1] All quotes in this article are from Duffy Robbins, Building a Youth Ministry That Builds Disciples.
Click the links below to read the series in its entirety:
Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell
Course Overview

  1. Instructional Approach
  2. Community of Faith Approach
  3. Interpretive Approach
  4. Developmental Approach
  5. Liberation Approach
  6. Contemplative Approach