Growing Old or Growing Young?


There’s been a profound shift in the research into young people and the church.  For the last 10 years, there has been a strong focus on those who are leaving – and it has contributed to a wake-up call that has shouted loudly “the kids are not alright” (You can read a summary of some of this research on the NEXT Blog here.)

Open Night 2016 header-thumbWhile we still have a long way to go toward understanding the experience of young people and considering the various ways we might respond, new research has begun to consider this challenge from a different angle – from the perspective of those who remain engaged in church and actively identifying with faith.

An earlier contribution came in the form of Carlton Johnstone’s work Embedded Faith which examined this question from a sociological perspective in New Zealand (Just quietly, I find that our friends in NZ are way ahead of the game on so many fronts.  Alan Jameison was researching post-church faith 15 years ago.)

Fuller Youth Institutegrowing-young-book-3d-transparent (FYI) have also been shaping this conversation for some time through “Sticky Faith” and “Can I Ask That?”  The resources from FYI are so important because they stand on substantiated and solid research.  While so much research never gets out to the churches, FYI seem intent on making sure their research is accessible without ‘dumbing it down.’  And to my mind, they are doing just that.

The latest contribution is “Growing Young“.  Growing Young reports on the findings of FYI’s “Churches Engaging Young People” project – a massive undertaking that researched 259 churches across the US.  10,000 hours. 1300 individual interviews. 40 states. 80,000 miles traveled.

While (statistically speaking) it is not about big budgets, big lights and big buildings, FYI’s Growing Young research doesn’t allow you to use that as an excuse to just keep doing what you’ve always done.

While the book has only just been released in the US, for the last month I’ve been participating in a community of pastors, researchers and thoughtful practitioners reviewing the work prior to release.  It’s been a fabulous conversation that I look forward to continuing now that the book is released.

10 Myths of Church-Based Ministry to Younger People

What I appreciate about this research, is that it doesn’t buy into the easy cop-out responses that are bandied around these days.  Very quickly they highlight 10 Myths that are consciously or unconsciously in the air when we talk about young people and the church.  Here’s what they have to say:

1. A precise size. Don’t buy into the Goldilocks fantasy that some churches are too big, others are too small, and some are “just right.” We saw no statistical relationship between church size and effectiveness. Size doesn’t matter.

2. A trendy location or region. Did our data unearth churches flourishing near bustling urban centers and dynamic college campuses? Sure. But we also uncovered equally robust ministry in rural one-stoplight towns and middle-class suburbia. Your location does not have to be a limitation.13 3.

3. An exact age.We applaud how God is working through new church plants. We love what we learned from churches that are less than five years old. But we learned just as much, and recorded just as much life change, in churches over a century old. When it comes to churches that grow young, there is no age discrimination.

4. A popular denomination . . . or lack of denomination. When we started our study, we wondered if the churches that rose to the top would skew toward particular denominational, or nondenominational, leanings. While it’s true that some denominations are shrinking or aging faster than the average, our fear was unfounded. No need to apologize for your tradition or the fact that you are part of a denomination at all. God is working powerfully through churches of all stripes (and plaids too).

5. An off-the-charts cool quotient. Granted, several of the congregations and leaders bubbling to the top of our research have a certain hip factor. But those were in the minority. For young people today, relational warmth is the new cool.

6. A big, modern building. Some of the congregations that are most effective with young people have new, state-of-the- art facilities. But not all. The majority of the effective churches we studied gather in decent, but not spectacular, spaces. Some don’t own their facilities and are creatively meeting in local schools, community centers, and living rooms. For teenagers and young adults, feeling at home transcends any building.

7. A big budget. Churches that grow young intentionally invest in young people, and most often that translates intoa financial investment. But not always. Less resourced congregations creatively support young people in other ways, proving that a small budget does not have to mean small impact.

8. A “contemporary” worship service. Our data indicated that while many young people are drawn to “casual and contemporary” worship, others are drawn to “smells and bells” high-church liturgy and everything in between. While the churches we visited were likely to prefer modern worship in some or all of their worship contexts, they didn’t depend on that alone as a magnet to draw young people.

9. A watered-down teaching style. It’s often assumed that we have to whitewash the teachings of Scripture and somehow make them seem less radical in order to appeal to teenagers and young adults. That’s not what we found. For today’s young people, growing young doesn’t mean we talk about Jesus or the cost of following him any less.

10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program. The entertainment options available to young people in our culture are endless. We don’t have to compete. If we try, we will almost certainly lose. Our research highlighted that faith communities offer something different. Slick is no guarantee of success.

(Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young. Baker Books, 2016, p25-27).

But Hang on A Second…

At this point, I need to underscore something about these 10 Myths.  The conversation amongst the pre-launch group was interesting because a number argued that these aspects are not irrelevant.  Many of them had personal stories that highlighted the ways in which some of these elements actually played an important role during critical ‘turn-around’ moments in their faith lives.

It’s so important to be careful here.  While (statistically speaking) it is not about big budgets, big lights and big buildings, FYI’s Growing Young research doesn’t allow you to use that as an excuse to just keep doing what you’ve always done.  If we are really going to respond adequately to the demands of ministry to young people; if we are going to be of any assistance as companions to their spiritual lives; I’m afraid we must listen more intently to figure out what is going on.

So here are three big truths that I reckon you can take to the bank when it comes to ministry to young people

  1. The world in which young people inhabit really has changed.
  2. Personal faith is the way that young people embody the timeless truths of the gospel – each in their own way.  If the world has changed, then faith must change as well.
  3. Ministry is the personal and institutional support of this embodiment process.  Therefore, ministry must continually morph and change to serve these ends rather than simply upholding past forms that were previously effective.

So, if it is not about size, money or cool, what is it about?

Good question.

What would you say it is about?

What do you think are the crucial dynamics that are at play?

The intent of FYI’s Growing Young research is to get underneath the surface of what appears to be effective ministry to young people in order to uncover the critical dynamics at play.  My suspicion is that it will have something to do with authority, empathy and exclusivity.  But that is for another post.


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1 Comment

  1. Tim Luke’s “The weekly Best” – Growing Old Or Growing Young? – Outlines 10 Myths of Church-based Ministry to younger people. […]

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