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A synopsis and review of Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People
Discover and Love Your Church
by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin

By Jeff Williams
Special to Virtueonline
July 27, 2020

A church's young people (defined as age 15 to 29) should be actively engaged in all facets of congregational life. Also, evangelizing and reaching young people who are not currently churched is crucial to both the Great Commission and the future of the church. Statistics show that the average church in America is well under 100 members, and the great majority of the remaining churches are between 100 and 200 in attendance. Not many churches have an average attendance of over 200. Worse, something like 80% of all existing churches are either plateaued or declining in attendance, and only about 20% are growing and showing good overall health. At least 50% of young people who were members of their church's youth group as seniors drift away from church soon after high school graduation. Between 2007 and 2014, those in America who identify themselves as Christians declined from 78% to 71%, and the religiously unaffiliated category rose from 16% to 23% during the same time period.

All competent church leaders are concerned with their ministry to young people. Among their greatest concerns are such questions as, "How do we attract more young people? Why do so many young people today stay away from church? How can we make our church more inviting and appealing to young people?" Many programs, lectures, and books have been produced on youth ministry ad nauseam, many of which are of limited or minimal help in the long run for a variety of reasons.

It has come to the attention of the present writer that a truly remarkable, scholarly study about what really works in youth ministry has been written: Growing Young: Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, written by three nationally-known youth work experts, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin. What makes this truly outstanding book unique is its wonderful balance between pragmatic, well-reasoned research and excellent spiritual balance; it is neither dry, impractical statistics nor starry-eyed aspiration-al advice. The writers have an obvious love for the Lord, relying on prayer, God's will, and the Scriptures for guidance entirely, while effectively channeling excellent specific recommendations based on solid empirical data. Anybody interested in church work in general and young people in particular would do very well to pay heed to the unusually workable and scholarly guidance available in this book.

It is the intention of this writing to present church leaders and youth workers with an excellent set of specific, practical recommendations for working with young people which could be implemented, and have proven extremely useful in many churches with vibrant youth ministries in many different denominations. May God grant that these proposals are carefully read and seriously and prayerfully considered for implementation by all who read this paper.

The Research The Book is Based On: Why You Should Pay Attention to This Study

Growing Young presents the findings and recommendations of a four-year interdenominational research project, funded by four different youth foundations. "Young people" were considered to be those aged 15 to 29 for purposes of the study. This is because of phenomenon sometimes identified as "extended adolescence," referred to by some scholars as "emerging adulthood:"

The lengthening of adolescents is shown in the delayed timing of five traditional demographic markers of adulthood (leaving home, finishing school, getting married, having a child, and becoming financially independent). In 1960, 66% of American men and 77% of American women had completed all five of these milestones by age 30. In 2010, only 28% of men and 39% of women had done so at age 30.

With this in mind, the authors sought for vibrant, well-run churches to study, which they refer to (as per their book title) as "churches that grow young," because (1) they are engaging young people ages 15 to 29; and (2) they are growing -- spiritually, emotionally, nationally, and sometimes also numerically." A list of churches with proven excellent youth ministry results was compiled for study, with congregations being added to the list by 35 nominators from three groups: national denominational leaders from fifteen different denominations (including Anglican), respected scholars from seven different educational institutions, and other experts in ministry to young people.

Churches eligible for the list had to "have ministries with young people that are numerically growing, are engaging a large number of young people relative to the size of their congregation," or in some other respect have a remarkable youth ministry. A total of 363 such vibrant congregations were identified for consideration; so the concepts and recommendations in the resulting book are based on real-world studies of actual successful congregations, and should be considered prayerfully.

The authors conducted their research via (inter alia) on-site visits, the compilation of over 10,000 pages of interview transcripts, detailed surveys of the demographic and ministry qualities of the selected churches, etc. These 363 churches covered all congregation sizes from small to huge, all congregational ages from newly-planted churches to churches over 100 years old, all ethnicities and combinations of ethnicities, all types of buildings from ancient and rickety to modern and elegant, all demographic variables from extremely remote and rural to densely-packed urban areas, in all parts of the country. Hence, the research is of particular value, inasmuch as it sought for common threads in all of these different groups and situations.

Common Misconceptions

Before presenting its findings, the book begins by debunking common misconceptions. The authors present a list of ten factors which they found to be irrelevant to excellent work with young people:
(1) A precise size -- the authors found no statistical correlation between the church's size and its effectiveness.
(2) A trendy location or region -- the authors found robust youth work in churches from the inner city to suburbia to one-stoplight towns.
(3) An exact age -- the authors found quality youth ministries in churches from under five years old to churches over a century old.
(4) A popular denomination... or lack of denomination -- Although some denominations are "shrinking or aging" more than others, yet the authors found that the research did not skew toward any particular denominational leanings.
(5) An off-the-charts cool quotient -- the authors found that, although a few of the top congregations had "a certain hip factor," such were decidedly in the minority; the "new cool" among young people today seems to be relational warmth instead.
(6) A big, modern building -- the authors found good youth work in every kind of building from state-of-the-art modern facilities to meeting rooms in schools and community centers; they found that the average effective church in the study had "decent, but not spectacular, spaces" for their young people.
(7) A big budget -- sometimes the churches in the studies had a generous budget for youth work, and sometimes they didn't.
(8) A "contemporary" worship service -- although the authors found that the majority of young people tend to feel more comfortable with "casual and contemporary" worship, quality ministries to young people were found in everything from contemporary-style churches to "smells and bells high-church liturgy and everything in between."
(9) A watered-down teaching style -- the authors found lively, challenging teaching, not whitewashing or soft peddling the challenges and hard concepts of the Gospel.
(10) A hyper-entertaining ministry program -- the authors research showed that youth ministries need not compete with the endless many entertainment options available in our culture; rather, "our research highlighted that faith communities offer something different. Slick is no guarantee of success."

Thus inoculated against common misconceptions and erroneous thinking, we will now proceed to cover specific ideas and recommendations.

How the Book (and This Paper) is Organized

The authors of Growing Young summarized their research in Six Core Commitments Your Church Needs to Grow Young, devoting one chapter to each of the six areas. This paper shall briefly synopsize the research findings of each of these six chapters, paralleling the titles of each. Where applicable, significant specific workable recommendations will be highlighted in boldface.


Sharing power with the right people at the right time -- instead of centralizing authority, empower others -- especially young people.

The authors describe what they mean by "keychain leadership":

Whoever holds the keys has the power to let people in or to keep people out. Keys provide access to physical rooms, as well as to strategic meetings, significant decisions, and central roles or places of authority. The more power you have, the more keys you tend to possess. When we refer to keys, we mean the capabilities, power, and access of leaders that carry the potential to empower young people. By "keychain leaders," we mean pastoral and congregational leaders who are acutely aware of the keys on their keychain, and intentional about entrusting and empowering all generations, including teenager and emerging adults, with their own set of keys.

They further explain that leaders who are willing to entrust keys to their young charges will find that they reciprocate by trusting you "with their hearts, their energy, their creativity, and even their friends... If you give them your access, you have the opportunity to touch a whole generation."

Identifying four types of key leadership, they state that there are key-less leaders, often inexperienced, without much authority or access. This could be a high school or college student passionate to help if he/she were only asked. Next, they mention key-hoarding leaders, who refuse to give access to others so they can run the show themselves. This might be "an outgoing, extroverted ministry leader who draws a crowd through sheer personality and ends up driving away others who offer to help." The third category mentioned is key-loaning leaders, who often let others borrow their keys temporarily, as long as they return them quickly. "One example might be a pastor of a fast-growing church who knows the contribution of others is important -- but also believes others won't do as good of a job as he . . . will." Their fourth category is true keychain leaders, who are "constantly opening doors for some while training and entrusting others who are ready for their own set of keys. This could be a long-standing senior leader, associate pastor, or trusted volunteer... Everyone seems to get better when this leader is involved, and a long list of people can point to this leader as the reason they serve in the church today."

Keychain leaders are typically mature, regardless of age, and are more concerned with being real than being hip or trendy. When the researchers inquired of surveyed young people as to why they attend their church, "only 13% focused on how their leaders are relevant, while 87% talked about authenticity or other qualities unrelated to relevance... a pastor's transparency in decision-making is positively related to both vibrant faith in young people and measures of church health... This younger generation has a sixth sense for authenticity and intuitively knows whether or not leaders are genuine." One college student surveyed stated that her church was "the only church I've ever been part of where the pastor shares how he feels and even shares his mistakes. This helps you feel like you can come in your brokenness... without any judgment."

The authors show that keychain leaders are warm rather than distant; 43% of surveyed young people, when asked why the church was effective, mentioned the relational, caring, accepting nature of their leaders, whom they described as enjoyable to be around, while not trying to be a "best friend" to everyone in the church. Surveyed members of one large church in Miami almost unanimously mentioned that their church was warm and relational, and attributed this to the pastors. When the pastors were asked how they could possibly relate to so many people, they shared that "it starts with a commitment to be with people rather than remain cloistered in an office." One pastor of a thriving Asian congregation overflowing with teens and young adults related that two or three times a year, they have a weekend retreat in which, rather than spending time "discussing the church calendar or other business items, [the retreats]... are dedicated to utter honesty and vulnerability about each person's faith journey. The pastor models a life of faith through relational warmth rather than just talking about it."

The authors helpfully relate that one problem some pastors have is that they often "do not focus on the issues that matter most in the everyday lives of their congregants; instead, they talk about culture wars and minute distinctions of doctrine." They contrast this to keychain leaders who, "instead of adding more and more activities to their already busy calendar... strategically prioritize listening to congregation members of all generations."

Leaders surveyed were asked for their most important piece of advice for youth pastors or young adult pastors; the consistent response was, "Don't surprise your pastor" -- anticipate problems rather than let them fester; avoid negative surprises that result from staff choosing to not involve higher ups early enough. Such poor judgment makes pastors want to take back any keys they have entrusted to others.

The authors wisely emphasize one common error to avoid: "We are not saying that you need to be 'all access, all the time' and eliminate your personal boundaries... What we are saying is that Jesus our example in life and leadership, made time to be with people... [Recommendation:] Take a hard look at your schedule over the next two weeks. How much of your time will be spent in your office, and how much of your time will be spent with people?"


Why 25 is the new 15, and 15 is the new 25 -- instead of judging or criticizing, step into the shoes of this generation.

The authors make it clear that by empathy, they are not referring to patronizing young people but rather feeling with young people. Before dismissing this emphasis out of hand as mere wishy-washy aspirational emotionalism, the next time you read through the Epistles, notice how many verses talk about encouraging one another, bearing one another's burdens, and the like. Our authors note that "young people who are surrounded by empathetic adults often become more empathetic themselves. When teenagers and emerging adults are appreciated, understood, and valued, they become conduits through which empathy flows."

When 500 youth group seniors were asked what they had more of in their youth groups, out of 13 options provided, answer number one was "time for deep conversation," followed by mission trips, then service projects. At the bottom of the popularity list was "games."

Pointing out that today's teens and young adults have both a forced accelerated contact with the realities of life (15 is the new 25) and an "extended adolescence" (25 is the new 15), the authors remind us of factors that are rampant among them, including pervasive stress, digital-induced loneliness and isolation, adult abandonment, frequent social bullying, and levels of sexual temptation and experimentation almost unimaginable by previous generations. But like previous generations, they face three ultimate questions:

"Who am I?" -- about their identity -- the focus is on themselves, and the question
is best answered by the church showing them God's grace.

"Where do I fit in?" -- about their belonging -- the focus is on us, and the question
is best answered by the church showing them God's love.

"What difference do I make?" -- about their purpose -- the focus is on our world,
and the question is best answered by the church showing them God's mission.

The authors recommend avoiding stereotypes such as assuming an unemployed 24-year-old is lazy, a high school graduate taking a year off before starting college is uncommitted, an unmarried 26-year-old or a 28-year-old still living with his parents is a loser, or a teenager is inherently rebellious. All of these may be true in some cases, but young people can smell judgementalism a mile away, and it drives them away. There is plenty of time for the Word of God to convict and train them later, not our not-so-helpful comments.

The authors remind us that

Your worship center may be the only place emerging adults visit where they are not allowed to bring coffee. Your worship service may be the only time in the week of high school students when they are sung at. By adults. In robes. [We are not] implying that you should eliminate your choir. [Recommendation:] We are saying we want you to empathize with how the church culture you've come to love feels to a first time visitor, especially a young person [emphasis mine]... Take a few steps to make your worship facility and service even more welcoming to young people...[Recommendation:] Since your church's online presence will often be a young person's first impression of your church, invite a teenager or emerging adult to sit next to you as you visit your church's website. Ask them to show you which portions of your website draw them in, as well as which create distance.

Singles often feel singled out, since extended adolescence means there's a new gap between college and marriage that many congregations ignore. The book says that

We often blame folks in their 20s for not being involved in our churches, but the reality is that we aren't offering much (or anything) for single adults that age. Rather than feeling noticed and welcomed, they feel overlooked or somehow inferior... [Recommendation:] Invite some emerging adults (perhaps both single and married) into your living room for a meal or to a nearby restaurant... Ask them what it feels like to be single in your church... [Recommendation:] [Pair up] engaged and married couples with older mentor couples.

If we genuinely are concerned with the salvation and integration of rootless, searching, or insecure young people in their 20's (who will most likely have families and careers soon, if they do not already), we must ask ourselves, why would they want to come to our church? Just holding services and having a couple of religious education options available (if they are interested enough to come) (which maybe nobody bothers to invite them to attend) is not enough. What do we go out of our comfort zone to do to let them know we even notice that they exist, let alone care?


What's young about the Good News -- instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.

Surveys show that American youth are not necessarily opposed to religious faith, but the version most of them have, if they have not been converted, is called moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD) by the National Study of Youth and Religion. By moralistic is meant that young people think that faith is basically doing good and being nice; by therapeutic is meant that faith is useful as a means to feel better about themselves; by idealistic is meant that yes, there is a God, but he's not particularly concerned about human affairs or likely to intervene.

Young people often perceive Christianity as merely a long list of things they can't do -- sex, drugs, cursing, porn, etc. While that is logical and reasonably fair, as the authors say, "Young people don't just want to be saved from something later; they want to be saved for something now. They want to get to work. They want to be significant. They want lives filled with action, not just restriction."

The best remedy to MTD faith is a robust teaching of the facts of the gospel, and talking less about abstract beliefs but more about Jesus. Even more basic than that is the fact that young people are more open to life-transforming faith rather than mere transactional easy-believism. We should never think that challenge is something to be avoided in teaching young people. As the authors say, "a majority of people in churches growing young talked about here-and-now faith. There was very little focus on going to heaven [emphasis mine]...[they were interested in] a kind of salvation that is more focused on life in the present than something way off in the future... not only reward at the end but also transformation now, in everyday life."

Today's young people see through the shallowness of a quick, noncommittal, no-repentance "profession of faith" as opposed to the Gospel, an entirely new way of living.
[Recommendation:] As counterintuitive as it may seem, in the end they are more comfortable with a challenge to their entire life than with a spur-of-the-moment "decision" about "pie in the sky, by and by." In our efforts to bring people to true conversion, we must keep in mind the words of Jesus: "And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple [emphasis mine]. For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost [emphasis mine], whether he have sufficient to finish it?"

As a practical matter, the very methodology of personal evangelism that an older generation took for granted is changing. Of course, the Gospel itself never changes, nor does the fact that the Holy Spirit of God uses many different methods with many different people. But the authors found that honesty, rather than certainty, seems to make young people better evangelists. Although at first blush this may raise alarm bells in the thinking of those of us who are doctrinally-committed theologians, we are not talking about the heart of the gospel here, but rather what appears to be most expedient and effective in our generation when young people witness to one another. We are not talking about the substance of the gospel, but rather the approach and methodology, which are subject to cultural change and societal understanding. As the authors say, "it's not that teenagers and emerging adults simply want to avoid certainty but that questions -- when articulated -- open up deep exploration of both doubt and faith. What's critical is that the young people you know not walk alone through those canyons." The research results also showed that honesty about their struggles correlated with young people reading the Bible more.

What's more, we must not rebuke our young charges for having questions or doubts. The research shows that [Recommendation:] quality youth workers welcome and encourage serious discussions on matters which earlier generations of personal workers might have answered with a formulaic verse or two of Scripture and then change the subject. [Recommendation:] When one pastor was asked why he thought so many young adults were present in his church, he said "I think it is because we are willing to welcome a lot of questions." [Recommendation:] Another pastor said that their youth ministry team says to young people, "'You need to make this your own. Express your doubts, ask questions, have a thinking faith.' That disarms young people's presuppositions about Christians and church leaders. We're pretty patient." Or as the authors of the study say, "It's not doubt that's toxic to faith. It's silence."


Warm is the new cool -- instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships.

The authors' research proved that structure and programming alone are not enough:

In our analyses of the terms young people and adults used to describe their own [very youth-friendly] churches or parishes, we noticed repeated words such as welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable, and caring. We began to call this the warmth cluster. Across the board in statistical analyses, the warmth cluster emerged as a stronger variable than any one program [emphasis mine]... especially [when] doing ministry in an urban contexts, for kids growing up without biological fathers or being raised by an aunt or in foster care, the church has to stand in the gap and be family. That means much more than a programmatic approach. Young people have to experience, "This is where I belong, or I'm affirmed, where I'm pushed and held accountable."

The authors raise the disturbing possibility that, by offering a wide variety of programs, a church could actually be working against warmth. Unnecessary busyness robs the core work of the Kingdom from precious staff and volunteer time, cluttering up the schedule.

[Recommendation:] The authors recommend that churches "elevate relationships by opening up time and space where they can flourish. Young people can then do life together through shared meals, shared transportation, shared service in the community, or shared child-care. In churches growing young, warmth trumps program." Interestingly, when regular church attenders ages 19 to 23 were asked what kept them coming, 45% mentioned personal relationships, not programs, which was nearly double the response rate to the same question for adults over age 30. When surveyed as to how they would describe their church (with good youth programs) to a friend, only 12% of young people mentioned worship, and a diminutive 9% spoke about the worship style; when asked their opinion about what makes their church effective with young people, only 25% mentioned worship at all, and only 12% spoke about the music. Even more striking is the fact that when the researchers zeroed in on the top one-third of the churches surveyed which they found to be the most effective with young people, that figure dropped to 3%! The authors ask,

So what do they talk about when they describe their church? Overwhelmingly, nearly one in three sure about its warmth. Also telling in evaluating church effectiveness with young people, twice as many pastors as young people named worship music as a vital factor. This reflects a gap between what pastors think young people care about and what they actually care about. One pastor... confessed, "we can hire and by cool, but we can't hire -- or fake -- warmth."

One young person who was surveyed said that he can always watch a quality worship performance from a multiplicity of sources online, but [Recommendation:] the internet won't help when it's time to move to a new apartment; only a warm, caring church that actually helps with something more than "Be ye warmed and filled" will do. A satisfied young lady explained that [Recommendation:] at her church, "'the adults here actually listen to us'... [Good quality] leaders share openly about their shortcomings as opposed to pretending they are immune to failure. This reciprocal authenticity warms up the whole church. The authors approvingly mention the observations of Theologian Miroslav Volf, who says that "'We are the church' doesn't mean 'We meet occasionally' or 'We cooperate in a current project.' Instead, we actually become part of one another." ,

The authors declare that part of church warmth is how a congregation helps newcomers "land smoothly," including such matters as, [Recommendation:] "How are they oriented to the building and to the service or program?... How does the language and direction -- or lack of direction -- given in worship feel to an outsider? Are there particular phrases that need to be explained from time to time?" Attention fellow Anglicans: "Kyrie," "Collect," "Sanctus," "The Fraction"... Do they speak our language? Have they ever even heard it before? Do you think they would bother to ask unsolicited? They continue: [Recommendation:] "Do you host any kind of new visitor or new member connection event, like a monthly meal just for recent attenders?"

One critically important concept, not only for increasing a church's appeal to young people, but to build up the body of Christ in general, was found to be that of intergenerational contact and fellowship. The church's prayer life is a good place to begin; [Recommendation:] one congregation has people of all generations post brief written prayer requests on sticky notes, on a designated board. After the service, people take these notes, with the understanding that they will pray for them. As one person from that church who was interviewed said, "It is just really cool to see elementary students put their prayer requests up, and then the college-age kids put theirs up, and they all take notes [home] with them. There is something incredible about the different generations in our church committing to support each other in prayer." The authors encourage groups or classes to make a point to pray for specific events, trips, retreats, and ministries of age groups other than their own. Why not invite young people (both teens and 20-somethings) to small group or regular prayer meetings? It can't hurt to ask, and they sure aren't likely to start coming by themselves!

Another church fosters warmth by a "take a college student (whether a member of the congregation or someone who has come to their area for college) to lunch" program, which the researchers say involves the following: [Recommendation:] "Adults adopt a college student or two for the afternoon and take them to lunch after worship... The ministry leader reflected that it was one of the most effective things they had done to connect with students. In fact, students asked to repeat this event more than any other." The authors also reflect that "intergenerational relationships [including with senior citizen adults] grow everyone young by helping them break out of the silos of age-and stage-based ministry and create connections across generations. Two of the most common ways churches invest in intergenerational relationships are through mentoring and corporate worship."


From rhetoric to reality -- instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation.

Our researchers refer to a successful church leader's comment that "Teenagers know they are important because they are involved in ministry. They are treated as full-fledged members of the church, not just kids to be entertained." They state that until they began to analyze the collected data in the study, they had no idea what a significant factor prioritization would turn out to be. As they would later put it into words, "Prioritization of young people everywhere represents our tangible, institutional commitment to allocate resources and attention -- not only for specific youth or young adult programming but also across the life of the congregation." One of the surveyed pastors mentioned that focusing on children and teens raises everybody in the church to a higher level.

The researchers emphasize that in order to prioritize young people, it is of signal importance to prioritize the family structure, stating that "we can't engage with children and adolescents apart from the systems in which they are embedded -- in particular, their families." They point to a recent trend in good youth ministries toward increasing attention to partnering with families in the faith formation of their young people, which is logical, since research repeatedly shows that the best single predictor of a young person's future faith is that of their parents. Parents (especially today) need all the support they can get, but most typical churches fail in this to one extent or another; on the one hand, some churches let parents off the hook, attempting to outsource spiritual development to the church without the family's involvement, and on the other hand, some churches put parents on a guilt trip -- "parents are shamed into believing they are solely responsible for their kids' faith."

[Recommendation:] Why not have church staff members and leaders agree to set calendar reminders to pray each day at a specific time for five minutes for parents? For the youth? For the youth workers and programs? For future pastors? The youth is the future of the church!

Another problem in prioritizing young people is the awful reality of divorce. The study's authors sum up the tragic situation well:

Divorce leaves kids permanently conflicted, ping-ponging back and forth between parents in a game they never wanted to play... like they partially belong in both parents' worlds, meaning they fully belong in neither... special events such as birthdays, holidays, and graduations... heighten the tensions of standing with one foot in each parent's world. Lacking a secure sense of belonging at home, children of divorce are three times as likely to feel alone, twice as likely to feel unsafe, and almost four times as likely to disrespect their parents...[they] tend to have higher rates of alcohol and drug use, do more poorly in school, and are more likely to be depressed and withdrawn...

[Recommendation:] The researchers relate that two thirds of regular young adults who were attending church at the time of their parents divorce stated that "no one from their faith community reached out to them during that painful season. As a young person's fabric of family is ripped apart, the faith community has the opportunity to weave itself into a young person's relational network."

The researchers also found that when asked why they keep attending church, young people in churches with good youth programs often referred specifically to their responsibilities in the church -- in the worship band, in the children's ministry, helping their neighborhood, etc. Like a useful load-bearing beam in a building, there is no reason why church young people cannot play a load-bearing role in their church, and become "purposeful co-participants in the life of the body rather than junior participants or future members. Their voices, hands, and hearts matter now for the ongoing life and work of the congregation, and they know it... They thrive when treated with honor and dignity as full members of the body."

[Recommendation:] Why not have the choir director, choir members, or praise band members specifically invite uninvolved youth to join with them in leading worship, as appropriate? [Recommendation:] And rather than merely giving lip service to the idea that children or young adults with disabilities are important to the church, why not do something specific for them, such as pairing disabled or specially challenged young people with a willing buddy at church events? [Recommendation:] Could the church follow the example of some congregations which have a shared meal, either in a home or in a restaurant, twice a month for 20-some things or singles, and not just for the senior citizens?


Loving and shaping your world well -- instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.

The survey's authors refer to the necessity of a careful and sensitive balance between scriptural commands for holiness, and engaging with and graciously loving the unchurched, however different they may be in ethics or culture. Tim Keller, successful pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, says that "all churches must understand love, love, and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it."

Churches should not define themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for; being connected with the culture around them does not mean a church needs to assume they are the enemy. Does your church "glorify the Father which is in Heaven" (Matthew 5:16) by its good deeds? Does it take the example of the Good Samaritan (binding wounds, taking the victim to an inn, and paying for his expenses) seriously, as per Jesus's very definition of being a neighbor, or does it take it as just a nice inspirational story for Children's Church?

Although we must never became a primarily "Social Gospel" church, yet we show the un-churched that we care by reasonable social justice efforts, service to the poor and downtrodden, and racial and ethnic attitudes. We can keep doors open and build bridges by being known for a willingness to offer friendly dialogue or relationship, even when we disagree.

[Recommendation:] There are a myriad of legitimate social needs where our church can demonstrate to the hurting that we care, such as tutoring or counseling children of prison inmates, helping harried working single mothers or infirm seniors with household repairs or painting or yardwork, actively helping willing people find jobs, or regular scheduled assistance at food pantries or unplanned pregnancy centers. Rather than adding to the crushing list of things pastoral staff has to do, these kind of acts are ideally suited for 20-somethings or teenagers. Why not specifically, personally invite them to take on some of these good works?

Approachability and lack of a judgmental feel go a long way toward setting our church up for positive engagement with the culture of the day. As the authors say,

...when it comes to heated cultural issues like politics, interreligious dialogue, or homosexuality, a church's predetermined agenda can become hard for young people to stomach. When churches seem closed to dialogue, young people often look elsewhere for more palatable conversations about issues that matter most to them...[One youth pastor who was cited regularly says to young people,] 'Come as you are. That makes it easy to promise... friends they won't be judged for not being Christians yet.'

The authors mention having heard in the interviews from several young people who do not agree with their church's stance on one or more controversial matters, yet are still faithful to their church because the church engages them in friendly conversation about areas where they disagree, rather than just flatly telling them what they must think. The church should be such a loving, caring place that even though it may have strong biblical positions on LGBTQ matters, people with such temptations can realize that they always will have an open ear and need not feel awkward asking questions. We can certainly honor everyone as having been created in God's image, and avoid making public critical blanket statements, without jettisoning our biblical standards and without losing our ability to speak truth to error in an engaging way when we have the opportunity.

[Recommendation:] Do we make positive efforts to invite and welcome the poor (including poor teenagers and poor 20-somethings), or do they feel inferior or rejected by the way they are treated? Are they specifically welcomed and invited to all activities and meetings and dinners? Or do we unwittingly brush them off with our middle-class or upper-middle-class airs? Are our church preaching and classes aimed mainly at adults or at parents, or are teenagers and single under-30s regularly addressed by the teaching and preaching available, and thus made to feel welcomed and worthwhile?

The authors also remind us about having a proper emphasis on global missions, as a matter of regular discussion, giving, and perhaps mission trips. Young people will never learn responsibility for the great commission beyond their own bailiwick if they do not see it modeled and pursued by their elders.

In Conclusion

The researchers distinguish between adaptive challenges and technical problems with the analogy of a doctor, who can fix a technical problem, such as a broken arm, by setting the bone and putting on a cast. However, it is more difficult for a doctor to provide adaptive help requiring significant changes in behavior or values, such as helping his patient lose weight or quit smoking. He cannot do these things for them.

As Christian leaders, we cannot neglect these six crucial core commitments churches need to grow young which were identified by the researchers; they cannot be treated as technical problems instead of adaptive challenges. The great majority of obstacles preventing churches implementing and thriving on these six core commitments require a shift in the overall attitudes, values, and behaviors of the people in the congregation.

True leadership begins with listening. Do we listen to God? Do we listen to young people, their concerns, their questions, their needs? Do we listen to our volunteers, rather than just hurriedly using them during frantic brief intervals of church activity? Do we listen to wiser older genera-tions? Do we listen to the church's neighbors and the unchurched, to find out what they have heard about our church, or what they might think about it? (Too often, they are only dimly aware that we are even in the neighborhood.)

Don't try to do everything at once. (The church could not stand the shock anyway.) Which two of these six core commitments which churches need to grow young seem most needed in your church? Which two would be the quickest and easiest to implement? What steps could you take to implement them? How much time, effort, or money are you willing to invest in young people, the church's future?

Ad Jesu Christi, domini nostri, cui gloria in saecula saeculorum. 





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Canon Jeff Williams is an Atlanta-area Anglican clergyman, and an attorney at The Williams Law Office LLC

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