Fuller Youth Institute Research Shows How Leading U.S. Churches Are Growing Younger Instead of Grayer
While many U.S. churches are losing members and vitality, others are bucking that trend by attracting and engaging young people. Instead of aging, these churches are “growing young.”
Young people are not flocking to such churches for the music, coffee, or “cool quotient.” In fact, according to a new book by the experts at the Fuller Youth Institute, “Pastors everywhere can leave their skinny jeans at home.”
Based on groundbreaking research that involved over 250 congregations, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church profiles innovative churches that are engaging 15- to 29-year-olds. These churches—reflecting the denominational spectrum, varying in size, and located all over the country—are growing spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and numerically.
Authors Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin show that reaching young people doesn’t boil down to hyper-entertaining programs, trendy locations, or other attractions. What matter most are relationships, empathy, community, and Jesus. “Thanks to these remarkable congregations, tens of thousands of young people can’t stop talking about how ‘known’ they feel in their church and how, no matter what happens, their church feels like ‘home,’” the authors say.
As one young churchgoer puts it: “Our whole church treats us like we are the church of today, not just the church of the future.”
ESSENTIAL STRATEGIES FOR GROWING YOUNG
The authors outline six strategies essential to engaging young people:
UNLOCK KEYCHAIN LEADERSHIP
Keychain leaders entrust others with access and authority, and empower all generations including teens and emerging adults with their own metaphorical “set of keys” to help influence and shape the direction of the church.
EMPATHIZE WITH TODAY’S YOUNG PEOPLE
This means “feeling with young people” as they grapple with existential questions of identity, belonging, and purpose; as they experience “systemic abandonment” due to divorce and the self-absorbed adults around them; and as they act out a desire for connection through social media.
TAKE JESUS’ MESSAGE SERIOUSLY
The authors were struck by how, in the churches studied, “Jesus reigns over poor theology and his words ring true for young sojourners hungry for life-giving direction.” One young interviewee said, “The goal for our church is not really effectiveness with young people, but serving and following Jesus. And young people like me are attracted to churches that want to do that.”
FUEL A WARM COMMUNITY
“Warm is the new cool” in these congregations, where authenticity triumphs over worship style or a multitude of programs. Young people who participated in the research praised their churches for “warm” attributes, such as welcoming, belonging, accepting, hospitable, and caring.
PRIORITIZE YOUNG PEOPLE (AND FAMILIES) EVERYWHERE
Churches in the study revealed a disproportionate prioritization of young people—an impulse that, rather than excluding older generations, breathed life into the entire congregation. As one pastor put it, “Everyone rises when you focus on young people.” Involving young people in every ministry has allowed these churches to thrive with authenticity and intergenerational relationships.
BE THE BEST NEIGHBORS
The authors found that in churches growing young, the community accepts the difficult task of offering young people a thoughtful path to neighboring well. They provide opportunities for teens and emerging adults to serve others, pursue social justice, find their calling, interact with popular culture, and respond to heated cultural issues.
Although none of those factors listed were of surprise to me, it was how the authors pulled each of those core commitments into a revolving wheel where each core commitment fed into the next that did. Churches that were growing young had incorporated into their church DNA those core commitments. Their research also showed that before any one of those core commitments, opportunity for the local church to opt out, and head back towards growing old, could and does happen.
After a chapter devoted to each of those six core commitments, the authors devote a chapter to how to implement all six into the local context of my church. I found their process of change important and of great value to me. I have asked my main leadership team to read the book, and then we will meet to discuss how we can establish these six core commitments into our church missional ministry. –Bill Bossert, DMin
In Growing Young, the authors spell out the core commitments of churches that are being revitalized by an infusion of young people. The book is packed with wisdom and ideas for action.
The authors debunk myths about the changes churches need to make to grow young, offer guidance on creating a plan for change, and include helpful sidebars, case studies and other tools.