Research Reveals What Keeps Millennials in Church
An interview with the authors of "Growing Young."
If you feel like the church in America falls short when it comes to engaging teenagers and young adults, you’re not the only one.
The Fuller Youth Institute, a research institute in California that equips leaders in the church with best practices, conducted research to uncover what the biggest challenges facing the church in this area are.
Their strategy of leveraging the high-level research into practical resources has led to one of the most comprehensive and collaborative studies to date of churches that are thriving with young people. After nearly four years, 10,000 hours of research time, 1,300 interviews, more meetings of people with Ph.D.s than you’d want to imagine and translating all of this data into an accessible format, Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin have released Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church.
The study centered around 250 churches that have been the most effective in reaching young people in America today, particularly those between ages 15-29. The purpose of their study was to understand why these churches are growing young, countering the “growing old” effect most churches are experiencing.
I had the privilege of interviewing the authors of this study to find out what can we learn from their findings:
Who or what inspired the team to do this type of research?
Powell: We believe in young people, and we believe in the church.
Bottom line: We want to help the Church become the best place for young people to grow. And unfortunately, many people have made the case that the Church is falling short in this area. There’s a lot of bad news out there—about Christianity, about the church and about millennials. We didn’t think that could be the whole story and didn’t want to settle for the bad news.
We hold a deep conviction that God is at work in our world, even when things look bleak, so we set out to find churches that are bright spots. In other words, they’re thriving and excelling with young people, even while other churches are struggling.
What exactly does “growing young” mean for a church? And what do you mean by “growing old?”
Mulder: Most any data you’ll find on the age of American church-goers indicates that most congregations are aging. Census data indicates that those between 18 to 29 comprise nearly 20 percent of the overall adult population, but they only make up 10 percent of church attendees. While we love older people, we think that if churches are exclusively growing old, eventually they’re going to have to close their doors.
Griffin: Churches grow young when they are reaching and involving young people—in ways that bring vitality to the whole congregation. One beautiful connection we’ve found is that when young people are present, it often results in growth for the church overall. Sure, sometimes this means numerical growth, but we’re talking about something deeper. Spiritual growth, emotional growth and missional growth.
What was one of the most surprising discoveries you made in Growing Young in one sentence?
Powell: So much of what we think works to reach young people in churches—loud music, fog machines, hip leaders, trying too hard—doesn’t matter nearly as much as driving to the essence of what it means to be a family-like community centered in Jesus.
What would be a few pointers for churches finding themselves “growing old?”
Griffin: Make the conscious choice to listen to the young people in your midst. We’re not saying you need to spoil or idolize young people. But we do think that when all generations notice young people and pay attention to their hopes, dreams and fears, something powerful happens. We met so many church leaders who began to really tune in to the young people in their congregations, and found that innovation and change began to follow quite naturally.
What do you hope to accomplish as a result of Growing Young?
Mulder: Growing Young is about more than just churches and young people—it’s about what God is doing in our whole society. We believe the best way to change society is through congregations that are dedicated to live out Jesus’ commands to love God and love others. And we believe that churches stand the greatest chance of living out these commands when they’re ignited by passionate young people. So transforming our work with young people can transform our churches, which will in turn transform our society and even our world.
What is one final thing you would want readers to know about this book?
Powell: We’ve written this book to bring different generations together to do powerful things. Too often those who are young and old exist apart from one another, especially in the church. We believe this book can be a rallying point to help those who are age 9, 29, 90, and everywhere in between develop deeper understanding and relationships—to really be the church together. If you care about young people and the church, we think this message will resonate. And in particular if you’re under age 30, we hope Growing Young can be an advocate for you as you find your way in a faith community.
While there’s so much bad news about christianity in America, Growing Young carries a message of hope for your church, which is what makes the insights so meaningful. Instead of guessing where your church and institution should invest its time, “We’ve actually landed on six core commitments we found held in common by churches in our study,” said Griffin. “These commitments are helping young people live out the way of Jesus in our complex world.”