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The Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky faith project was one of the most significant pieces of research into children, young people and the Church in a long time: a look into what made faith ‘stick’. The study defined sticky faith as: faith that is both internalised and externalised; faith that is both personal and communal; and faith that is both mature and maturing. Fuller have recently released the follow up to this: Growing young, seeking to identify strategies which will allow churches to grow younger. The results are fascinating and vitally important. Jamie Cutteridge spoke to executive director of Fuller Youth Institute, Kara Powell
Jamie Cutteridge: How did you go about the research for Growing young?
Kara Powell: Part of what I love about being at Fuller Seminary is we have a strong network of denominational and non-denominational leaders. So we went to about 15 different denominations: evangelical mainline as well as the Roman Catholic Church. We went to seven other schools and then to about another ten national leaders who lead large, well-networked organisations in the US, and said: what are the churches that you know that are growing or have something special happening with teenagers, college students and young adults? And so they gave us hundreds of churches and we ended up surveying 250 of those. And then we did interviews at 41 of those churches and site visits to twelve. So it was three years of research; it took 10,000 hours and 10,000 pages of data. And part of what we’re excited about is that half of the churches in our sample are not predominantly white. We’re thrilled with the diversity of the churches in our sample.
JC: What were the key things that you found?
KP: Well maybe I can start by talking about what we didn’t find, because for a lot of leaders this is particularly interesting. You know, there are a lot of myths about what it takes to engage teenagers and young adults. We think the church has to be a certain size; well, our research debunks that myth - we have churches under 100 and over 10,000. Or a certain age maybe - there’s an assumption that it needs to be a newer, younger church. And we had churches in our sample that were less than five years old, but also churches that were over 100 years. You don’t have to be in a thriving metropolitan area. Sure, we had churches that were like that, but we also had churches that were quite suburban and quite rural. So the good news from our perspective is that God is working through churches of such variety. And what that means at the back end is really any church can find itself in our research, because we’ve probably studied a church like yours - regardless of your size, your age, your denomination, your trajectory; some of the churches had been doing well with young people since their inception, others had recently turned a corner. So there is a church like yours in our research. So I always like to start there: what we didn’t find before getting into what we did find.
JC: Do you think then that in the last 20 years when churches on both sides of the Atlantic have poured tons of resources into trying to attract young people, does it feel like we’ve been pouring them into the wrong thing?
KP: I would never say what we did in the past was wrong. It might have fit that generation of young people or that season of what God was doing. But what we’ve found is working today, is these six core commitments. And that’s really that heart of our data - these six things that churches are doing, that are in some ways different and other ways the next logical progression of what we’ve done in previous decades.
Christianity can be awkward, confusing sometimes, but Jesus is always magnetic and compelling
These six core commitments are those that were most common in the 250 churches we studied that were growing younger. And the first one that I will talk about is ‘keychain leadership’. And the order in which I will describe these is the order in which they were most commonly found in churches. This is by no means the only order, but as we look at the chronology of how churches went about getting better at engaging young people, it usually started with what we call keychain leadership. And to be honest, part of me didn’t want it to start with leadership. Part of me wanted it to be more grassroots, but that’s not what we found. There was almost always a key leader - a key team of leaders - who made the difference; who moved the needle and got the ball rolling (to use all sorts of colloquial phrases) with the church’s work with young people. But what’s interesting is that it wasn’t the kind of leadership that we might think is important; it wasn’t dominant, overbearing leadership - it wasn’t even necessarily a dynamic or charismatic leader. It was a keychain leader - a leader who has keys of authority and power and influence on his or her keychain and is quick to take those keys off their keychain and hand them to young people as young people are ready for them. So what we encourage leaders to do is to do an assessment at their church and figure out: what are young people’s gifts / passions, how does that connect with what our church is about or could be about and how do we help young people take the next faithful step? And then figure out how to equip / train / support them when they fail - note I didn’t say if they fail - when they fail, as leaders.
JC: So that was the first thing that needed to happen for these others things to happen. To use keychain analogy, what did that then unlock?
KP: That unlocked young people’s passions and potential to change the church. So all of a sudden they went from spectators to being on the field participating with other generations in what God was doing in and through the church. The second key aspect is empathy: emphathising with today’s young people. Here in the US, young adults are very commonly labeled as lazy and entitled - those are two very common adjectives we hear about young adults today. And these churches were willing to look past those labels and understand young people’s journeys, and in particular three important quests that these churches were, sometimes explicitly but often implicitly, committed to addressing: young people’s quests for identity (who am I?), belonging (where do I fit?) and purpose (what difference do I make?).
We saw this with one church in the state of Indiana that nine years ago was close to shutting its doors. And now it’s a church of 1,500 people, 1,000 of whom are under 30. We met a woman there who I’ll call Gladys; she’d been part of the church for decades. And as young people - especially college students - started coming to the church, she was really excited about that, and she wanted to go connect with them. And they’d be standing in circles in the church lobby and she would try to go talk to them, and all of a sudden when she walked up the conversation would stop. And she said she felt like an intruder - didn’t feel like they wanted to be around her. Well luckily she talked to her pastor about it, and her pastor helped her understand young people’s insecurities, young people’s need to get to know you a little bit more before they trust you. She started mentoring (through a church mentoring programme) a few young adults; she ended up being on leadership committees with young adults, and all of a sudden Gladys moved from judging young people as just being selfish in not wanting to be around her, to understanding who they are and that sometimes it can take time to build a relationship with them. That’s an example of the kind of empathy we’re talking about.
There was one young woman whose parents got divorced and then her mum was deported. So she was living with her dad and he was pretty angry about the family situation and would take out a lot of the anger on the daughter. She ended up finding this church and started attending with a friend. Another woman at the church who had been a former cheerleader heard that this young woman - we’ll call her Diana - was a cheerleader, and Diana would go to cheerleading competitions and there was no adult in the stands who was cheering her on. And so this woman - we’ll call her Kim - decided: “I’m going to go to her cheerleading competitions”. And so she started going and cheering her on in the stands and trying to understand what Diana was really going through, especially in her family situation. All of a sudden Diana starting texting Kim prayer requests and Kim did the same to Diana. The time came for senior prom and Diana’s dad wasn’t going to help her get ready for prom or pay for her prom dress. That might not sound like that big of a deal, but for a 17-year-old, that’s a pretty big deal. And so Kim heard about this, stepped in and said: “I’ll take you shopping.” Kim helped her get a prom dress and came over to her apartment that night to help her get ready. Diana’s mum Skyped in from the country to which she had been deported and thanked Kim for stepping in and being this ‘mum’ that Diana wouldn’t have had otherwise. Kim is the first to say that as much as Diana’s life has changed, Kim’s life was changed too. This all started because Kim looked around and saw this young woman who didn’t seem to have a lot of family around and who was a cheerleader and thought: “I’m going to go sit on the bleachers and let her know that I care about her”.
JC: What’s the third hallmark?
KP: The next one is focusing on Jesus’ message. Of the 1,300 interviews we did, one of the most memorable was with this young woman who was in her late 20s. One of the questions was: how would you define Christianity? And the young woman said: “Um… I can’t really define Christianity but can I tell you what Jesus means to me and how Jesus has changed my life?” And that was kind of her ‘drop the mic’ moment, where she opened up her eyes to really what was a common theme in these churches - that they focus less on Christianity and more on Jesus in their teachings. Christianity can be awkward, confusing sometimes, but Jesus is always magnetic and compelling. And so they were very quick to point young people to the grace and love of Jesus Christ, instead of the shame and fear that so often exists in our culture today and has infiltrated the Church. They were very quick to say: “It’s OK to have doubts, it’s OK to have struggles,” - they didn’t expect young people to be perfect. And so these churches were just saturated with a commitment to teach about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus and have those be central in the message and examples of the church.
JC: And did that mean that they all shared any common theological outlook?
KP: It was diverse in terms of denomination, but in the midst of that variety of denominations, these churches provided places for young people to ask questions. Whether it was letting high school students text in things that they were wondering about or whether it was renting out a local bar - there was one church that had something called ‘theology on tap’ where they ran it at a local bar periodically and young adults came in and had questions. It’s kind of like Alpha with alcohol! So often when a young person raises a question they’re met with a dead end in the church today, and that’s not what these churches did; they created on-ramps to go deeper.
JC: What about the other key aspects?
KP: The fourth hallmark is a warm community. When we asked the young people at these churches to define and describe their churches, the number one phrase they used was that it was ‘like family’. We often tend to think that leaders or churches have to be hip, and this is another one of those myths: that somehow a leader’s got to be super cool, maybe young… And we certainly have leaders in churches like that in our sample, but they were by no means the majority. Instead, out of our research one senior pastor we talked to said - and we loved this phrase: Warm is the new cool”. When it comes to young people today, it’s about being warm.
One of the ways that we saw this was in a church in Pennsylvania, where before we visited we did interviews and the teenagers and young adults kept talking about ‘Bill’ and how much they loved Bill. And how Bill would take them out for coffee and how Bill would show up at their major life events. And so we thought: we’ve got to meet Bill, he sounds amazing! We showed up at the church and Bill is 76. Bill had a tough adolescence; he remembers that in his own life as a teenager, that at his major life events there was no one cheering him on in the stands. And so Bill has resolved that that’s not going to happen at their church; that every young person at their major life events is always going to have an adult in the stands. Bill has written a manifesto and is recruiting other adults from this 1,500 person church - must of whom are senior adults - to be part of this movement to support kids in such tangible ways. Bill embodies this idea that for young people today, warm is the new cool. Hip is fine, but it’s not required.
JC: So it’s more hip replacement than hip-hop, right?! I guess there’s a bit of thinking that it’s easier to build a warm community if your community is smaller. Was there any correlation between that or was it not to do with size at all?
KP: In our research we saw large churches who had figured out how to create a small church feel. They turned their worship centres from theatres into feeling like a family room. They trained leaders to be in charge of / shepherd smaller groups - whether an actual small group or more of a Sunday school class etc. So it’s certainly possible to do. I will say this though; I think it’s harder for bigger churches to do. I think the road is steeper to create a warm community, because sometimes people come to large churches because they kind of want to be anonymous. And so it’s possible, but more challenging.
The fifth key is prioritising young people and their families - or as we like to say, a disproportionate prioritisation of young people. These churches constantly thought about the young people in their midst. A lot of the time that translated into budgets, staffing and facilities but again, we want to dismantle this myth that you have to have a big budget or cool facilities or a great staff in order to engage young people. So one of the churches that we visited was this 200 person Latino church in southern California, and they didn’t have a big budget, they didn’t have a lot of great facilities to offer young people, but what the adults in the church realised is that when they offered worship services only in Spanish, that that was not as appealing to young people - even though Spanish was the primary language of these adults. So these adults are literally learning a new language or saying parts of the worship service that they don’t understand, because they’re prioritising young people.
The last hallmark is that these churches ‘neighboured’ well. We certainly hear that people today want to be involved in service and justice work and engaged in their communities, and they really were. In fact, what was interesting is we would show up at these churches and we thought: “My gosh, they’re doing so much in their community - they’re sponsoring foster children and they’re involved in the local public schools and they’re involved in helping eliminate sex trafficking globally.” But when we would talk to the young people at these churches and ask them what they wished their church would do differently, they wanted to do even more service and justice work. So you know, we were giving these churches pretty high marks, and yet young people wanted it to be even more part of what they did.
JC: is there one practical thing that you saw these churches do well? Was there a common activity that was helping?
KP: Three things come to mind and they’re very correlated with the six: they were intentional in their leadership training, they were giving young people opportunities to impact their community locally and globally, and they provided opportunities for young people to connect with each other as well as adults - so intergenerational relationships, so there was peer and intergenerational community.
JC: What are the mesh points between Growing young and Sticky faith? What do they have in common?
KP: There are a lot of them. The power of intergenerational relationships - that warm community. For most folks that’s been the standout finding from Sticky faith, that every teenager needs five adults who are on their team supporting them. We also saw in Sticky faith that it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith, it’s unexplored doubt that’s toxic to faith. And these churches were doing a good job inviting teenagers and young adults to talk about their doubts. We also saw in Sticky faith the power of moving young people beyond what Dallas Willard called: “The gospel of sin management”; a behavioural gospel. And in growing young churches, behavioural descriptions of the gospel were only ten per cent of young people’s descriptions of the gospel, which we think is actually pretty remarkable given our culture’s tendency to distil things to behaviours.
So what might this mean for our contexts? We asked three youth and children’s ministry specialists to reflect on what the report means for us...
“This is about the whole Church taking responsibility together for reaching, nurturing and raising the next generation”
Ali Campbell is a youth and children’s ministry consultant.
In just seven years the number of mainline protestant adults in America slid from 41 Million to 36 Million. They lost five million in just seven years, a decline of twelve per cent. The problem there is the same as here - it isn’t adults leaving the church, it is our failure to effectively pass on faith to the next generation. In the UK, 90 per cent of adults in church today attended as children, yet, just one in six of those who are part of the church today are children. We need to do more than pay attention to this book, we need to wake up and take action!
With still far larger numbers than in the UK, the American church isn’t taking any chances - hence Fuller’s previous research, Sticky faith which explored how young people can ‘stick’ with their faith into adulthood. Growing young helps the Church address some of the traditional and systemic problems that put obstacles in the way of even our most passionate young Jesus followers remaining in the church as adults.
It would be easy just to focus on the six strategies outlined in the book and shared by Kara Powell, but the book shares other interesting outcomes from the study. Before getting into the strategies the research espouses, the book helpfully dispels some myths. What is great about these is that they are backed up by research; this isn’t anecdotal commentary from the authors to make the reader feel better about the church they are in - what they say here is backed up by the evidence. For a church to be effective it does not need to: be big; be in a trendy location; fit a particular theological style; have a huge modern building with a cafe; have hip youth leaders with delicately manicured facial hair; have a big budget; roll each week with a contemporary Rend Collective-style worship service; have a low brow, this will just take five minutes “Jesus just wants to give you a hug” teaching style; run a ministry programme that looks like it’s been thrown together by Ant and Dec. Phew, that is a relief. For all of us who compare what we do with the church up the road, we need to hear this.
The book also shares some thoughts on what young people bring to the wider church community. As a youth worker you might know your young people are great but, what about the wider church? When those churches who are effective at ‘growing young’ were asked about what exactly it is that young people add, this is what they said:
- More service. They get stuck in, serving in worship services, outreach and discipleship.
- More passion. They pour themselves in to what they do; they bring an energy which is infectious.
- More innovation. Is the creativity of young people bottled up in youth ministry? Let the cap off and see their vision and innovative ideas transform the way the church engages with its community.
- More money. Seriously! It was shown that young people attracted more older adults with more financial resources.
- More overall health. Again, the research was emphatic - developing a great young people’s ministry was good for the kingdom as a whole. Stronger ministry to young people made for a stronger congregation as a whole.
Out of the six strategies identified (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), it is the focus on keychain leadership and empathy that sticks out. In churches that were growing young, leaders unlocked leadership opportunities for young people - equipping and empowering them to make stuff happen. When we start to think about our responsibilities it might surprise us just how much access to leadership and opportunity is in our gift. Are we unlocking leadership for young people? Are we giving those that are ready their own set of keys? Here is what the Fuller team found: “If you are willing to entrust your keys to young people, they will trust you with their hearts, their energy, their creativity and even their friends.”
The book describes empathy as: “Sitting on the curb of a young person’s life, celebrating their dreams and grieving over their despair.” What we know as youth workers is that this is intense, emotionally draining and at times exasperating (although, it does have its fair share of fist pump moments). What the book draws out in this chapter is the three key things young people are asking (who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make?) and we do them a disservice if we simply see these questions in relation to the youth group or their peers - the youth group might be the place where those questions and answers begin - but they don’t end there.
This is not a book about how to do youth ministry better. In a way, it isn’t really about youth ministry. It is about the whole Church taking responsibility together for reaching, nurturing and raising the next generation - choosing to grow young as a worshipping community.
“There is no silver bullet for youth and children’s ministry”
Sarah Long is youth advisor for the Diocese of Winchester
There are two types of research in life: the type of research which lands on you from a great height and blasts your world view with a brand new idea and the type of research which quietly arrives and puts into words everything you already knew but just weren’t quite sure how to prove. Growing young is very much the latter type of research.
It’s felt for a little while like the UK youth ministry world has been in a bit of spin, throwing around words like crisis and losing its confidence. At the start of December, Youthscape released a new piece of research into youth ministry in the UK called Losing heart and they found that when it comes to youth ministry 41.4 per cent of us feel what we’re doing is ineffective. And that’s not even counting the many churches who aren’t engaging with young people at all.
In the midst of this confusion and this confidence deficit, there’s been a temptation to look for the silver bullet, the secret sauce, the hope that one model or resource will ‘work’ when it comes to youth ministry. Maybe it’s a course, maybe it’s a film series, maybe it’s a brand, or maybe it’s a person. If we could just figure out what it is and buy it in, then we’d be OK, our youth ministry will ‘work’ and we can feel calm again. If there’s one thing that Growing young is important for, it’s for blowing that way of thinking out of the water. There is no next big thing, there is no quick fix, there is no new ‘solution’ to youth and children’s ministry. There is only what we have always known to be true - our churches must be places that love God, love young people and live that out in practical ways.
If this report tells us anything, it’s to stop running around looking for the easy way out - the quick fix we can pay for, the easy solution that won’t take much work, or the person who can do it for us. It tells us it’s time to get serious about the gospel we believe in and the young people we claim to love. We need to commit once again to the long, slow, hard graft process of loving young people as they spiritually develop.
This is not an industrial production line we can short circuit and make more efficient. This is an organic process of growth which requires our love, commitment and nurture. And the really good news? All of us are capable of this. No matter the size of our church, the size of our budget, or the brand name on our clothes.
So, together with the whole Church, let’s be encouraged, let’s be reassured, and let’s be re-commissioned to the ministry we’ve had since the beginning: to be churches that love young people, love God, take the gospel seriously, and put in the time and commitment to see that take root.
“As a Church, we need to re-imagine who we are and how we participate in God’s self-giving love.”
Nick Shepherd is assistant director for discipleship and ministry for the Diocese of Southwark.
The church in North America is facing a crisis. What started as an identifiable issue with the Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches is now also fast becoming an issue for old and new evangelical churches. The church is greying and there is an increasing culture gap between the life of church communities and the world of young people. This is the context into which Growing young is pitched. Sound familiar?
One thing which is different about the USA than in the UK is that millions of dollars have been pumped into research to try to find out more about the changes in young people’s religious beliefs and how to address these. What is helpful for those of us based in the UK is that this research is becoming more and more directly applicable. Key differences still remain, but we are beginning to talk about similar things.
If you look at the story coming from recent research in the States there are two primary trends that need attention. The first is the social change seen in most modern countries towards individual rather than collective identities. The second concerns changes to ways in which people engage with religion and belief. My feeling is that Growing young helps to deal with the first of these issues but not the second.
The Church has to adapt its life and practices to be Jesus-centred communities in a rapidly changing social context. The social glue of institutions and groups is becoming fragmented and localised. This affects both large and small churches. American’s are bowling alone and similarly believing away. This is captured well by David Kinnaman in his book You lost me. Young people aren’t as tightly connected to churches anymore and if they are they don’t gain their sense of identity there. The Growing young wheel identifies evidence-based strategy to address how churches engage and adapt to social and cultural change.
Adapting to social and cultural change though isn’t enough. The Church also faces the challenge of engagement with a culture which has either lost faith or isn’t choosing religion. Growing young doesn’t avoid this issue, it just doesn’t deal with it sufficiently. We have a Jesus-centred community at the heart of Growing young, but what does this mean in the context of this wider shift? This for me is where the segment of the wheel which identifies ‘taking Jesus’ message seriously’ needs to move from a pragmatic practice to a more powerful practice of theological reflection which connects to the theology and identity of the Church community itself.
In Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean picks up on the phenomenon of ‘moral therapeutic deism’ which Growing young also identifies as a problem for the health of faith formation. What Dean presses much more forcefully is that the changes in loss of faith this phenomenon emphasises requires a reinvigorated sense of ‘missional imagination’. As the church we need to re-imagine who we are and how we participate in God’s self-giving love. I am sure that if the values and practices of Growing young were to become core to any church in the UK they would be more fruitful places for young people’s faith to flourish. The bigger question is how, in doing this, we might identify where our missional imagination remains dulled and diminished.
For more about these hallmarks, check out the book, Growing young - available from places that sell books, obviously.