I’ve never heard God speak to me audibly. But four years ago as I was praying about the research God wanted the Fuller Youth Institute to do after Sticky Faith, I was pretty sure he pointed me in the right direction.
That particular morning as I was praying and journaling about our future, I wrote these thoughts: “Sticky Faith studied young people themselves. Now we need to study congregations that are really good at reaching young people.”
Those fairly vague phrases penned on a yellow tablet on the navy blue couch in my living room evolved into a dream—the passion of which has startled even me.
I can think of no better way to change a country—any country—than through a reinvigorated church. I can think of no better way to change a church than infusing it with passionate young people.
I can think of no better way to develop passionate young people than to help them understand that God’s grace, love, and mission answer their deepest heart cries.
Telling A New Story
There’s so much bad news about churches today. Legitimately so. The best data shows that most churches are shrinking and aging.
But in the midst of this depressing landscape, there are amazing churches beating the odds. They are heroic. And they are bright lights in the midst of the all-too-often gloomy narratives and research about churches.
Funded by four amazing foundations, the primary goal of our last three years of research has been to understand how and why exemplary churches are effectively engaging 15 to 29 year-olds.
Put more simply, we studied churches that are growing, and growing young.
How did the Fuller Youth Institute team study these “bright spot” churches?
- Nominations: We received nominations of 363 amazing churches from 35 highly respected leaders, ranging from denominational and national leaders to academic scholars.
- Stage One: We received surveys from the senior pastor and youth and/or young adult pastor at 259 of those churches.
- Stage Two: We interviewed 41 of the most noteworthy churches. Almost always by telephone, our research team conducted one-hour interviews with a total of 535 young people, parents, church staff, and volunteers across these congregations.
- Stage Three: We sent teams of two or three researchers to visit 12 of these 41 congregations. By spending a handful of days at each congregation, we were able to experience both their congregational worship services and age-specific ministries, as well as conduct in-person interviews and focus groups with young people, parents, volunteers, congregational members, and leadership staff.
In total, these three stages of research helped us amass over 10,000 hours of research personnel time, 10,000 pages of data, and interviews or surveys with 474 young people and 799 adults.
To our delight, these congregations represented amazing diversity in size, geographic region, denomination/tradition (or lack thereof), and age. Particularly thrilling is that over half of the churches we studied during the project were not predominantly white.
In other words, there are no insurmountable barriers for a church determined to grow young.
Coming This Fall: Growing Young
One resource that showcases all we learned is a new Growing Young book that Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin and I wrote that will be released on September 20th with Baker Books.
Growing Young walks through the six core commitments we’ve found to be most common in churches growing young, and also the ten things you don’t need to reach young people. (Spoiler alert: a super cool senior pastor in skinny jeans is on the “ten things you don’t need” and not one of the “six core commitments.” Some of you are exhaling a sigh of relief at that one.)
I care about books like this one because they change how people think. I care about changing how people think because that changes how we love and serve all generations, but in this case, teenagers and emerging adults.
More than any other book project, Growing Young has expanded my vision for all God intends for every congregation. And our research has given me confidence that change is feasible for any church. Including yours.
There’s more to come.
Our team is spending all summer developing additional tools to help your church grow young. I don’t want to spill the beans yet (and in all candor, we are still figuring out exactly what those tools are), but we aren’t going to leave you alone in the change process. We are going to walk with you. And learn with you and from you.
It’s going to be a grand adventure. Journeying with you is going to make it even better.