As a high school student, I loved to go to leadership camp where we had opportunity to do all kinds of team building activities and group dynamic exercises. A fun one involved a large steel drum riddled with holes, where teams would attempt to fill the drum with as much water as possible. It was quite the sight as students poured bucket upon bucket into the drum while a group of us got drenched trying to plug as many holes as possible. There was lots of laughter, mud, and soaked teenagers, but only minimal water in the barrel.
Although I think fondly of that exercise, sadly it reminds me of the news I’ve had to share for most of my youth and young adult ministry career. For over three decades, I cited the bad news of young people leaving church life behind. While I certainly celebrate the evangelism reports and commitment counts—in the background, it always makes my heart ache to think of how many young people leave our congregations.
“While we give every effort to evangelize strangers off the street, we are losing 60% of our own youth and young adults from our churches,” aptly noted Carlos Craig, Texas Conference President. “We need to do more, much more, to care for our own children.”
His comment has struck me hard, and continues to spur me to do more than just report the research. I believe there is more to the story of Adventism and young people than attrition statistics, and I believe our time to act is now.
“Let’s stop just wringing our hands, kicking this down to some future spot in the road,” challenged John Freedman, North Pacific Union President. “We have the ability to stop simply quoting statistics and start being active about making young people a priority now.”
In their book, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, authors Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, profile hundreds of innovative churches that are engaging 15- to 29-year-olds; These churches are growing spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and numerically. Stemming from the research conducted by Fuller Youth Institute, the authors outline six commitments 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.
The authors show that reaching young people doesn’t boil down to hyper-entertaining programs, trendy locations, or other attractions. What matters most are relationships, empathy, community, and Jesus. From their research, the authors laud, “Thanks to 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.’”
So here in the Texas Conference and across the North American Division, we’re engaging a learning journey we call, Growing Young Adventists.
“Our top priority is to intentionally move forward together in growing young,” endorses Elder Freedman, “It’s possible to make decisions today that will proactively engage our young people with Christ and the church. Together we can identify and implement processes that will help our churches to become generationally revived.”
Growing Young Adventists [#GYA] is an inter-generational movement nurturing relationship building and cultural transformation that embraces young people and benefits all generations in the Adventist church. It’s a learning journey for local churches and leaders, helping to build faith communities that will not only survive, but thrive in the years ahead.
“If we take ‘growing young’ seriously,” asserts Ed Wright, Georgia-Cumberland Conference President,” begin to form rich, healthy and robust intergenerational relationships and prioritize young people, our church would be in a very different place in 10 years.”
Through Growing Young Adventists, we want to cheer, support, and resource congregations who desire the vitality of our young people and the great relationships they bring. In our conference, all of our pastors have been trained in the Growing Young commitments. Dozens of churches have sent intergenerational teams to our Growing Together Summits held this Fall. Many of our local church leaders, parents, and volunteers are contextualizing the growing young commitments, making it part of their local church culture. It is wonderful to see that there is more to our story here in the Texas Conference.
I’m so thrilled to be swapping out “sad news” for “glad stories.” I’ve already heard many stories of local churches overflowing with empathy, grace, and leadership opportunity for next generations. When churches “grow young,” all generations benefit. Our hope is for the Adventist Church to be the best place for young people to grow. Our dream is for Adventist congregations to be filled to the brim with vibrant members of all ages, all generations, growing stronger…together.