Growing Young, Part 1

Posted by Jerry Roth on

This week we explore the key issue of how churches can attract, serve and include younger generations in their church leadership and ministry. Warren Bird, Ph.D., Director of Research and Intellectual Capital Development at Leadership Network, authors a weekly e-newsletter called the Leadership Network Advance. In a recent issue Warren shares his thoughts on Tools for Engaging the Next Generation. Within this edition, he shares six books that he believes will help church leaders and staff understand and engage the coming generations.

One of these books is Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church by Powell, Mulder and Griffin (BakerBooks, Grand Rapids, MI, 2016). This book, which is based on solid research through the Fuller Youth Institute, offers a wealth of insights for church leaders. Over the next couple of CPL Weekly Research Updates, I will be sharing some of the key learning from this book that can inform your leadership discussions and planning on this generational topic.

The authors start by quoting Max De Pree, “The first job of a leader is to define reality.” They respond to this challenge by noting that “most churches are not growing, and they aren’t getting any younger.” My own observations and many conversations with church leaders would anecdotally confirm this reality. Even more definitive, Pew Research Center offers a quantitative description of this reality. Between 2007 -2014, those describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16 to 23 percent. ( ) The 2015 US Census Bureau indicates that “adults ages 18 to 29 comprised 22 percent of the adult population. Yet the same age group represents less than 10 percent of church attendees nationwide.” Even more specific, “from 2010 to 2013, the number of 18- to 29-year-old Latinos who identified as Roman Catholics dropped from 60 to 45 percent, while those who identified as ‘religiously unaffiliated’ skyrocketed from 14 percent to 31 percent.” ( )

After setting the reality, the authors go one to offer hope and specific action steps that can engage this population. As with any problem analysis, it is important to discuss what isn’t needed. The authors describe “10 qualities your church doesn’t need”. They describe this activity as the “need to prune the distractions so the only branches remaining are those that help our churches grow young.” Some examples  of things churches don’t need include:

  • A precise size
  • A trendy location or region
  • A big modern building
  • A big budget

The book then focuses the next six chapters on the six core commitments that churches need to grow young. The first core commitment is: “Unlock keychain leadership. Instead of centralizing authority, empower others – especially young people.” They describe keychain leaders as those who “model a posture of giving away access and authority. This posture not only empowers others but also meaningfully links them to the life of the congregation.” They believe that keychain leaders can be pastors, staff or volunteers of the church. They note, “Beyond any particular role, keychain leadership is a spirit and commitment demonstrated by both paid and volunteer leaders that permeates every area of the church.”

Six essential characteristics of keychain leaders are:

  1. Leaders are mature, not always young
  2. Leaders are real, not “relevant”
  3. Leaders are warm, not distant
  4. Leaders know what matters to people, not just other pastors
  5. Leaders entrust and empower others
  6. Leaders take the long view, not shortsighted steps.

The key takeaway from this chapter is that sharing power, authority and decision-making within your church with young adult leaders is a key factor in attracting and retaining young people in membership, leadership and ministry. In coming Weekly Research Updates we will explore the other five core commitments that these authors believe will help young people discover and love your church. Stay tuned.



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