Growing Young is the paradoxical title of a book by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. Young people leave church for a variety of reasons and the void that is left means that the church is, in essence, growing old. The book focuses on six essential strategies to aid youth retention, thus enabling churches to grow young. These strategies are underpinned by a study they conducted with churches that are successfully engaging 15- to 29-year-olds. The book strikes a good balance between research and practical advice and also has lots of reflection questions to encourage application. It’s available on Amazon and I’d highly recommend it (I’m keen to read their other books and research, too). However, in case you decide that such a worthwhile investment is not for you – I’ll leave you with this quote: “For many congregations, making the intentional decision to disproportionately prioritise young people (within the context of their families) is the inflection point between growing young and growing old.”
“In the same way, we are many people, but in Christ we are all one body. We are the parts of that body, and each part belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5, ERV)
The key message of this passage (v3-8) is the importance of not having an inflated sense of self-importance because everyone has something unique and valuable to offer. Serving God in the beauty of our diverse spiritual gifts is precisely what He intended: one body, united in service. Paul continues with the body analogy and the value of each part of it in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Young people are part of that body. In an ideal world, the retention rate (not just amongst youth) would be 100% and the church would be thriving as a unit. This isn’t an ideal world. Unfortunately, churches that are growing old are inevitably having to learn to function without a key part of their body.
Young people are essential.
Quite often young people leave church because they don’t want to belong to that particular body of believers (or any at all). That it in itself is a sign that the church isn’t operating the way God intended. On your worst day, it’s unlikely that you’ll have decided to chop off a limb because you’d ‘had enough’ of it. I appreciate that young people leave for different reasons and in some cases there might not be anything the rest of the body could do to prevent it. However, those cases are few and far between. The reality is, there is so much that can and should be done to preserve the youth population.
I grew up being reminded that young people were the ‘future’ of the church. We would be the ones to take the baton and (hopefully) finish the work. My experience of church has been great and that is partly why I’m still here. But what about the others that were meant to be part of the future but have now left? I can’t claim to fully appreciate or understand their experience, but I would hazard a guess that perhaps one or more of the six strategies were amiss in their local church body:
- Unlock keychain leadership
- Empathise with today’s young people
- Take Jesus’ message seriously
- Fuel a warm community
- Prioritise young people (and families) everywhere
- Be the best neighbours
Growing young is a long process; the earlier you implement the strategies the better.
One of the teens I teach during Sabbath School is adamant that church is a waste of time and that they can’t wait to leave. I can’t resonate with that perspective. It’s alien. However, they are the reason that I bought the book. Whilst part of me questions whether it might be ‘too little, too late,’ it’s important to try and implement the strategies in a way that fits our context. Put simply, the body cannot just be ‘old’ people. Neither can we feebly accept that young people leaving ‘just happens’ and we’ll just pray for their soon return. It’s important that the way we ‘do’ church takes into account the needs of all members of the body, not just some.
- Read the book – it’s an excellent tool for everyone irrespective of whether you’re in a youth-related ministry role.
- Reach out to a young person – find out what’s really on their mind. Everyone says they’re ‘fine’ as an auto-response. Ask how they are and genuinely mean it.
- Reflect on – a) what you bring to the body and how you can do more, and b) why others might not want to belong to the body and what you/your church can do to change that.
Churches weren’t meant to grow old but that is now the norm. In order to reverse this trend, it’s necessary that each member takes action so that a valued part of the body doesn’t leave… potentially for good.