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Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church
By Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2016 Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin
All rights reserved.
What Congregations Are Doing Right
A lot of my friends don't really want to go to their church. But we want to be here, and the older people in our church can see that ... so they want us to be here. Our whole church treats us like we're the church of today, not just the church of the future.
— Ashlee, age 17
Growing old is our default. It happens naturally. And inevitably.
We see the results of growing old when we look in the mirror.
We see the effects of growing old when we look around our congregations.
With age comes great wisdom and beauty. Decades of burrowing in the love and grace of Jesus give the mature members of our faith communities a network of deep roots. Year after year, season after season, their ongoing commitment to love God and others yields a rich harvest.
Old isn't bad. We love old. We just don't think it's the whole story.
If your church is like many, you have bare spots. Holes created by the teenagers and young adults missing from your congregation. You see them on Friday night at the local movie theater and Saturday morning at the neighborhood coffeehouse, but they are absent from your Sunday morning worship services. These bare spots make your church feel incomplete.
Maybe your congregation's bare spots represent more than just missing young people. Perhaps across generations your church isn't growing as you wish. You may be a senior leader trying to hide your disappointment as you stand to preach and think to yourself, "Where is everyone?" Or you're a church member noticing it's now easier to find a preferred parking space before your worship services. Regardless of your role, your church's energy and attendance aren't what they used to be or what you would hope.
Those of you who are part of a growing church likely wish it was growing faster. And yet with that growth, you still want your congregation to feel close and intimate. You are thrilled with the new faces, but you don't want to lose the relational glue that drew you all together in the first place.
Or perhaps you are blessed to be in a congregation bursting with young people. You love how the Spirit is drawing them. But you want to make sure that they don't merely consume what you offer. You want them to be unleashed to join — and help lead — God's redemptive work in the world.
The truth is, every church needs young people. Their passion enriches the soil around them. The curiosity they bring to Scripture and the authenticity they bring to relationships keep your church's teaching fresh and fellowship fruitful.
Young people also need a thriving church. A thriving church both grounds them in community and sends them out to serve.
Your church needs young people, and they need your church. One without the other is incomplete.
The Alarming Reality of Congregations in America
If you're wondering why your congregation is aging, shrinking, or plateauing, you're not alone. Almost weekly, someone at Fuller Theological Seminary quotes this powerful axiom from beloved senior trustee Max De Pree: "The first job of a leader is to define reality." The unfortunate reality is that most churches are not growing, and they aren't getting any younger.
Church Attendance Is Declining
According to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center, the share of adults in the US who identify as Christians fell from 78 percent to 71 percent between 2007 and 2014. The corresponding increase in those who identify as "religiously unaffiliated" (meaning atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular") jumped by almost seven points, from just over 16 percent to 23 percent.
This well-publicized "Rise of the Nones" varies by denomination. Mainline Protestantism, including the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Episcopal Church, has experienced the greatest dip in numbers. From 2007 to 2014, mainline Protestant adults slid from 41 million to 36 million, a decline of approximately 5 million.
Roman Catholic adults fell from 54 million to 51 million, a drop of nearly 3 million.
Adults in evangelical denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and the Presbyterian Church in America), as well as adults in nondenominational churches with evangelical leanings, grew from 60 million to 62 million. While that might seem like something to celebrate, we should hold our kudos. Although the total number of evangelicals has increased, the percentage of Americans who identify as evangelicals has actually decreased almost 1 percent from just over 26 percent to just over 25 percent.
Even though these shifts represent major downturns in three of our nation's largest Christian traditions, not all denominations are experiencing a slump. Historically black Protestant denominations, such as the National Baptist Convention, the Church of God in Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Progressive Baptist Congregation, remain relatively stable at almost 16 million adults.
To summarize, no major Christian tradition is growing in the US today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that's as good as it gets.
Congregations Are Aging
Those who study demographics believe the decline in overall church attendance is linked with young people's religious practices, or lack thereof. According to 2001 US Census Bureau data, adults ages 18 to 29 comprised 22 percent of the adult population. Yet that same age group represents less than 10 percent of church attendees nationwide. Evangelical Protestant congregations have the highest concentration of young adults at 14 percent, followed by Catholic parishes at 10 percent, and mainline Protestant congregations at 6 percent.
The last handful of years has brought major changes to the faith of young Latinos, one of the fastest-growing ethnicities in the US. From 2010 to 2013, the number of 18- to 29-year-old Latinos who identified as Roman Catholics dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent, while those who identified as "religiously unaffiliated" skyrocketed from 14 percent to 31 percent.
Another fast-growing group in the US, Asian Americans, is experiencing its own faith struggles. While the "Rise of the Nones" cuts across ethnicities, Asian Americans are 7 percent more likely to be "religiously unaffiliated" than the general population.
Across cultures, a major turning point for young people's faith seems to be high school graduation. 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.
"Right now, in this season, we have a youth group that is very centered on going outside of our doors. These students are taking our congregation back to the type of service in our community that helped our church get started. They are breathing fresh air into our church and lighting our passion again. They are modeling for older generations what it means to be a light and glorify God." — Colette, age 27
Let's make that statistic a bit more personal. Visualize a photograph of the young people in your congregation. Now imagine holding a red pen and drawing an X through almost 50 percent of their faces. That many will fall away from the faith as young adults.
Some — perhaps more than half — of those who drift from the church end up rejoining the faith community, generally when they get married and have children. But that leaves close to 50 percent still adrift. Even those who return have made significant life decisions about worldview, relationships, and vocation — all during an era when their faith was shoved aside. The consequences of those lasting decisions are often tough to erase.
As followers of Jesus, parents, and leaders who have been in student and pastoral ministry much of our adult lives, we aren't satisfied with the shrinking and aging of congregations. We bet you aren't either.
From Bare Spots to "Bright Spots"
Thankfully, the news for the church is not all gloom and doom. Despite the cloudy sky, light is breaking through here and there. Our team calls these "bright spots."
All around the country, these hundreds of "bright spot" congregations are effectively loving and serving young people. Some of them quietly and without flash. Others with great magnetism and fanfare. We call these churches that grow young because
1. they are engaging young people ages 15 to 29; and
2. they are growing — spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and sometimes also numerically.
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."
Like the 1,000-member Presbyterian church on the East Coast that developed a long-term high school ministry team that pours into volunteer adult leaders, who in turn build a web of support around students.
Or the 100-member midwestern rural Reformed church that has become so hospitable to teenagers and young adults that being at church is now the highlight of their week.
Or the 1,500-member urban multiethnic congregation in the South that was so passionate about investing in young people's growth that it launched not one but two leadership training programs for young adults in its city.
Or the 5,000-member nondenominational church that responds to young people's core questions and struggles with an authentic journey of faith rooted in the grand narrative of the gospel rather than pat answers.
Or the 200-member urban Baptist Latino congregation that chose to integrate English into its worship services because it places such a high priority on young people. This church is literally learning a new language in order to grow young.
Four years ago, we launched an investigation into what these sorts of innovative churches are doing right. We conducted this research because we wanted to give you access to what's actually working. This book describes what we found. It spells out the core commitments of churches that are not aging or shrinking but growing young.
The data detailing the decline and "graying" of congregations is convincing, but it's not the full story.
And it doesn't have to be your story.
It Might Feel like the Sky Is Falling, but There Is Hope
One of the teenagers in our study, Isabella, was changed because 50 years ago, her church decided to live a new story. In the 1960s, this southern church was on the brink of shutting its doors. But instead of going dormant, the congregation resolved to grow young. The church recruited Roger, a new senior pastor who valued young people and their families. Roger emphasized safe and appealing facilities for children and also hired staff specifically devoted to children, teenagers, and their parents. Under Roger's leadership, the church involved children, senior adults, and everyone in between in local and global intergenerational mission trips. The congregation worked together to help young people feel included and represented across all departments of the church. It was hard work, but eventually that effort led to growth, as well as a long-term commitment to prioritize young people.
Fast-forward to 2014. Isabella, a high school sophomore, found she had no place to go. Kicked out of her house by her drug-addicted mom, Isabella ended up wandering the streets of her town, looking for someplace safe to spend the night.
Desperate, Isabella remembered Dale and Kathy, a couple who had already welcomed a homeless classmate of Isabella, named Emily, into their home. Isabella didn't know that Dale and Kathy followed Christ. Or that the couple was part of this church with a 50-year legacy of living out Scripture's mandate to care for all young people, including orphans.
All Isabella knew was that Dale and Kathy had already said yes to Emily. If she was lucky, they would accept Isabella also.
Dale and Kathy were overwhelmed with Emily. Self-employed and strapped financially, they felt stretched thin in every way But they knew Isabella needed a family and had a strong hunch they could be family for her.
It wasn't all sweetness and light. Far from it. Isabella could be moody, angry, and downright mean. Dale and Kathy knew this was normal teenage rebellion on steroids thanks to Isabella's turbulent childhood. They were committed to loving her unconditionally, but the slammed doors and sulking didn't make it easy.
Isabella certainly wasn't excited about attending the church's worship services with her new family. Hank, the youth pastor, recalled that on Isabella's first Sunday morning in youth group, she was a "pretty dark thundercloud." Seeing Isabella standing in the back, one of the youth leaders, Tori, approached and started a conversation. Or rather, tried to start a conversation. Isabella responded to her questions with the shortest answers possible. (If you've ever tried to talk to a surly teenager, you know what we mean.)
At the end of that morning, Tori told Isabella, "I hope you come back next week."
Arms crossed, Isabella mumbled, "I probably will. Because my new parents will make me."
Isabella's grumpiness would have been too much for many leaders, but not Tori. Every week that Isabella was forced to come to church with Dale and Kathy, Tori tried to start a conversation. Eventually, Isabella's responses went from a few words to a few sentences. And then a few stories.
Isabella loved to play guitar, so Tori invited her to join the youth ministry's worship team. Since Dale, Isabella's adoptive dad, was also a musician, he and Isabella would practice together in the evenings at home. Despite their financial challenges, Dale would take time off work to watch Isabella rehearse and play at church.
A few months later during a youth group retreat, Isabella pulled Tori aside and confessed, "I feel dirty. And like something is missing in my life." Isabella shared more with Tori about her sexual promiscuity, as well as how she had been cutting herself to try to relieve some of her pain.
Wide-eyed, Tori responded, "Well, would you like to trust Christ and experience his love?"
Isabella broke down in tears. "That's all I want." After months of being loved by a new family and church that didn't abandon her, Isabella decided she was ready to follow Jesus.
According to Hank, "Isabella went from being a dark, scowling thundercloud to telling everyone she couldn't stop smiling."
Isabella remembers that her friends at school noticed (and were a bit "weirded out") by the "new me." She stopped cutting and developed healthier relationships with guys. When our team visited this church and met Isabella, she told us with tears in her eyes, "One of the families here took me in and adopted me. You have to understand how loving this church is. This church has changed my life."
Seventeen-year-old Isabella was changed by Roger, the senior pastor she never met but who God used to change the trajectory of the church 50 years ago, which eventually inspired ...
Dale and Kathy, two "regular" church members who realized they couldn't turn away a young person who needed love and a safe place, a decision that connected Isabella to ...
Hank and Tori, two church leaders who didn't give up on Isabella and helped her experience the embrace of a loving God who doesn't give up on anyone.
If You Care about Young People, This Book Is for You
Isabella was changed because of a team of adults — adults who played different roles in her life and her church. Just as young people need a team of adults, in no "bright spot" church did we find one person who was the sole spark that helped the congregation grow young.
Excerpted from Growing Young by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin. Copyright © 2016 Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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