Kara Powell's research on youth provides insight into the next generation's needs
Influence: You’ve spent the past decade researching what helps young people develop a faith that “sticks.” What are a couple of the most important findings from that research that leaders need to know?
Kara Powell: A handful of studies done in the last decade indicate that 40 to 50 percent of youth group graduates, including those from Assemblies of God congregations, drift from God and the church after high school. As a mom and a leader, I’m not satisfied with that, and I bet you aren’t either. So Fuller Youth Institute studied over 500 youth group graduates to try to figure out how churches and families could build long-term faith, or what we call “Sticky Faith.”
One of our core Sticky Faith findings relates to the very nature of faith itself. Far too many young people view faith like a jacket — a jacket of external behaviors. Similar to what Dallas Willard called the “gospel of sin management,” youth group graduates end up believing that faith is a checklist of “do’s” and “don’ts” that doesn’t really change them internally. The good news is that Scripture offers a more robust gospel — one that is centered in God’s grace. As we experience God’s grace, we obey not to make God love us more or like us more, but because we are so full of gratitude.
A second core finding is the power of intergenerational relationships. Of 13 different youth group variables we examined, the one most correlated with Sticky Faith was intergenerational relationships and worship. So we are inviting churches of all sizes to figure out how to help young people be embraced by, and feel part of, not just the youth ministry but also the entire congregation.
The response to Sticky Faith led your team to launch a whole new study of young people, this time focusing on the churches that engage them well. Tell us what prompted that study and what you actually researched.
While Sticky Faith focused on individual young people, we realized that real change requires whole church systems to shift. So we spent the past 4 years studying churches that young people love — not just high school students, but also emerging adults up to age 29. This study involved over 250 congregations of all sizes and ethnicities from across the country, including AG churches.
Key to the success of these churches that are growing young is their commitment to prioritize young people. More than just rhetoric that young people are “our future,” these churches recognize that young people play a vital, load-bearing role in the present also. And as these congregations focus on young people, the entire church is filled with new energy and vitality. All generations benefit.
As these congregations focus on young people, the entire church is filled with new energy and vitality. All generations benefit.
We keep hearing that young people are leaving the church and Christianity in droves. Is it true? If so, what can be done about it?
Yes and no. The reality is that no major church tradition in the U.S. is growing domestically — except for the Assemblies of God — and all traditions are aging. But the great news is that there are “bright spots,” churches that are reversing this trend. By studying these churches growing young, we identified six commitments of churches that really seem to make a difference with young people. Any church can become more effective with young people by implementing these commitments.
That sounds like great news. Can you share one of those commitments with us?
All too often we believe the myth that a church that reaches young people has a certain “hip factor.” The good news is that’s not what our research indicates. Instead, we found that “warm is the new cool.” The relational tone of churches is so important that we labeled one of our six core commitments as “warm community.” Churches of all sizes that foster warmth end up being magnets for young people.
What’s one practical step a leader can take this week to help grow their church young?
Talk to a young person! Set up a meeting over coffee to listen to their hopes, dreams and concerns about their life in general, as well as your church specifically. The more we spend time with young people, not only will we get a front row seat to the way Jesus is transforming them, but we are also transformed in the process.
Kara Powell is executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and author of the upcoming title, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. You can find more information on ChurchesGrowingYoung.org.