Chad Merrihew is the youth pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Costa Mesa. He and his staff use Wheatstone Trainings three times per year. This is their story.
When I first started as a youth pastor, youth ministry was just playing chubby bunny, acting goofy, playing with the kids, talking about Jesus.
That's how I thought of it, and it’s how people described it. But I wasn’t satisfied with the old model. I wanted to do more: make real disciples who can go out and build the church.
So for four years, I'd been asking, “How do we do this? How do we make disciples who sustain their faith, even after youth group? How do we improve our retention rate?”
That’s when God brought Wheatstone in, with their really clear vision, direction, and a foundation for ministry. Wheatstone gave me hope for actually creating disciples and for building a ministry plan that will help students own their faith forever.
Wheatstone told us that small group discussions could be the place where our students were transformed and owned their faith. They challenged us to focus on discussing the Bible with our kids, while giving them the safety and freedom they need to ask their questions about Christianity.
At first, it was scary to think about letting students ask questions freely, because I didn’t want them to find the wrong answer. We have a culture that offers so many thousands of different answers. I felt like if we opened up kids' questions, we’d lose them.
But we say that we want students to own their faith. And I realized that I don’t know any lasting Christians, including myself, who haven’t asked those questions too. We say that Jesus is the Truth, and we have to believe that he is the real, discoverable answer to our questions. Wheatstone showed us that we needed to give students the freedom to ask their really hard questions in a safe place and a Christian community. They’re going to ask their questions somewhere, no matter what. Are we going to join them in their questions or not?
Those ideas have changed everything we do. Now, our youth ministry is built around the free discussion of Scripture, and the difference is night and day.
I remember the first time we told the students that they could ask their real questions. The first student asked his question about whether God existed in a whisper, because he was so afraid of asking it in church. He felt like he couldn’t ask.
As we started using Wheatstone’s methods, the kids started to trust us more and more. Now they ask their questions confidently, and they start working together to figure out good answers.
I also remember how we started bringing in a bunch of unchurched kids to youth group because of our summer camp. They stayed, because they discovered that church was a place where they could ask their questions safely. It’s awesome: kids who didn’t believe in Jesus yet thought that the church was the best place for them to go if they wanted to figure out what they thought about huge questions. Those kids are still attending today, years later.
Looking back, it took a couple years for us to fully grasp it and buy into Wheatstone’s vision, but it’s been completely worth it. We saw great results in the first couple years, but in the last couple years, the fruit has just been even more incredible. It keeps getting better.
Two results stand out.
First, because of Wheatstone, our students feel safe, united, and bonded in a way they never did before.
I remember Peter promising that discussion would increase bonding, trust, and community at our first training, four years ago. And he was right. I look out at our students after small groups, and they’re lingering in the hallway, leaning on each other, laughing, debating. Our students are so connected and unified and energized in a way I had never seen before.
When I was in youth group, small group time would make me cringe. It was so artificial and boring and useless. But now, our students will sometimes skip games and music and everything else just to come to small groups. It’s that important to them. When we get back from summer break, you can see the way they get back together with such electric energy. They can’t wait to restart small groups.
And let’s be clear: These small groups aren’t fluffy, entertaining things. They’re a solid hour of hard intellectual engagement with Scripture. That’s what students are so excited about. That’s what brings them back. That’s what builds these incredible bonds. Their community and energy isn’t based on personalities or games, it’s based on these small groups.
It’s increased their bonding with one another, and it’s also completely transformed their relationships with their group leaders. Since we started using Wheatstone-style discussions, I’ve seen our leaders become truly pastoral figures in terms of caring for our students' brokenness. It’s because our students trust them. When they’re in trouble, their small group leaders are the first people they call, not me. Discussions are creating this immense loyalty between small group leaders and students that leads to huge ministry opportunities.
At the end of each year, I do surveys that ask students why they stay. Since we started with Wheatstone, they overwhelmingly say they stay because it’s a safe place. Wheatstone’s methods have built that environment and this community.
Second, because of Wheatstone, we sustain our leaders.
Average small group leader longevity in youth groups is about 6-9 months. How do you make disciples in 6-9 months? That’s what I faced.
But Wheatstone came in and gave a clear vision and structure to our leaders, with a model that allows them to go deeper with less preparatory work. It sounds crazy, but they make deeper ministry easier. If leaders stay focused on Wheatstone’s principles, they don’t have to do hours of advance work with curriculum textbooks, going over bad activities and empty questions, and they still see better results.
Our groups are consistently going deeper than they were before, and leaders aren’t feeling unsustainable pressure to prepare and perform. We just make sure to hire spiritually mature leaders, then Wheatstone gives them vision and structure that takes the pressure off and allows them to really focus on what matters: making disciples.
As a result, right now, we have zero staff turnover. That’s unheard of. It’s insane. With 25 small group leaders, we have zero turnover. More than half of the staff have been with us for over three years now. In the last four years, most of our leaders have stuck with their students all the way until graduation. I had a leader graduate a senior group last year, and immediately start again with a new group in 6th grade, because the call and vision for ministry was so clear.
We’ve had leaders come to us single, then get married, then have kids, then graduate college, and still stay on staff. Our three sophomore small group leaders have all been with their groups since 6th grade. We’re fostering seven-year discipleship relationships because of the focus and vision and methods that Wheatstone provides. It’s hard to imagine what discipleship could look like without that continuity and sustainability, and I know we couldn’t have done it without Wheatstone’s training.
For us, this is the new youth ministry.
We still play chubby bunny and goof off and everything, because that stuff is important, but those things are on the periphery of our focus now. The new center of our ministry is discussing the Bible: giving students the platform to ask questions about their faith. And everyday, I see how it’s worked.
Our group has tripled in size, it has more unchurched kids than ever, we retain our staff for years, and our ministry has become so much deeper. Of course there are lots of factors that led to those things, but Wheatstone played a huge role in making it happen.
More importantly, Wheatstone really has transformed our high school and junior high students themselves. I need the most dramatic way to say this I can find, because we would be, in many ways, lost without what Wheatstone provided. What Wheatstone gave us in terms of the depth of our ministry has been invaluable. I’m so grateful, and so full of hope.