How Churches Grow Young
The core commitments of churches young people want to attend
Multiple studies highlight that 40 to 50 percent of youth group seniors—like the young people in your church—drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school.
Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin cite this statistic at the outset of their new book, Growing Young. The statistic alarmed me both because I am a minister concerned about trends that affect the church and also because I am a father concerned about the faith journeys of my own children. If you share my concerns, I encourage you to read this book, which outlines “6 essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church,” as the book’s subtitle puts it.
Those strategies emerged out of an intensive four-year research project led by Powell, Mulder, and Griffin under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute in Pasadena, California. The authors all work for FYI. If you’re interested in research methodology, make sure to read the Appendix.
What the research did not reveal was as interesting to me as what it did reveal. In the first chapter, the authors briefly outline “10 Qualities Your Church Doesn’t Need in Order to Grow Young.” That list includes:
- A precise size
- A trendy location or region
- An exact age
- A popular denomination…or lack of denomination
- An off-the-charts cool quotient
- A big, modern building
- A big budget
- A “contemporary” worship service
- A watered-down teaching style
- A hyper-entertaining ministry program
Some churches effectively engaging young people had these ten qualities, others didn’t. In other words, they weren’t necessary or sufficient for engaging young people.
So, what did the research reveal? It showed that churches that are “growing young” make six “core commitments”:
- Unlock keychain leadership. Instead of centralizing authority, empower others—especially young people.
- Empathize with today’s young people. Instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.
- Take Jesus’ message seriously. Instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
- Fuel a warm community. Instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships.
- Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere. Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation.
- Be the best neighbors. Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.
Empathize with today’s young people. Instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.
As a middle-aged man with three young children at home, I felt especially challenged by the second and third commitments.
Empathize with today’s young people. All people—me included—struggle with questions of identity (“Who am I?”), belonging (“Where do I fit?”), and purpose (“What difference do I make?”). But for a variety of reasons, today’s young people wrestle with these questions earlier, longer, and more intensely than previous generations. Churches who effectively engage today’s young people don’t make fun of or get exasperated with their struggles. Neither do they alleviate the wrestling with fluff or entertainment. Instead, they empathetically listen and respond with “grace, love, and mission.”
Take Jesus’ message seriously. The authors note that sociologists of religion have “identified the de facto religious belief system of teenagers today as moralistic therapeutic deism.” Basically, many of today’s young people think that God exists (deism) and wants people to be nice (moralistic) and happy (therapeutic). Beyond that, God isn’t much involved with or concerned about people. Unfortunately, many churches reinforce moralistic therapeutic deism by reducing Christianity to a behavioral code.
By contrast, churches that are growing young are making three key shifts:
- Less talk about abstract beliefs and more talk about Jesus.
- Less tied to formulas and more focused on a redemptive narrative.
- Less about heaven later and more about life here and now.
This doesn’t mean that growing-young churches have ditched abstractions, formulas, or heaven, by the way. However, their emphasis is on who Christ is, what He has done for us and how He wants us to act now in light of that. This is a biblically rooted, orthodox and active faith.
As I read these chapters in particular, I kept asking myself: Do I empathize with young people in my church? With my own kids? Am I taking Jesus’ message seriously myself? Is this reflected in how I interact with young people in my church? With my own kids? When you read Growing Young, you may be challenged by a different set of the core commitments. I have highlighted the two that challenged me in order to give you a taste of how the details the authors provide for each commitment.
So, who should read Growing Young? Frankly, whoever cares about young people—clergy or laity, paid staff or volunteer, young or old. I’d especially encourage senior pastors to read it, however. They’re a church’s primary vision caster, mission bearer and values leader. Engaging young people today can’t be delegated (or relegated) to the junior high, high school, college, and young adults ministries. Growing young must become part of the church’s culture.
Visit churchesgrowingyoung.com for more information about the book as well as for a library of resources your church can use in conjunction with the book.
Book Reviewed: Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).