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As Bay Area residents, we all know that church attendance has been dropping for a while now. We might think that’s mostly a product of where we live, where active Christians usually measure somewhere in the single digits depending on the research. Yet it’s not just here; churches are shrinking and dying all over the country.
Lots of people and research groups have taken on figuring out why people are leaving church, and in particular why Millenials are leaving church in droves. Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) decided to ask a different question. There is lots of good research out there about why younger generations are leaving, but FYI wanted to know, what about the ones who stay? Why do they stay? With that question, they searched for churches that were “growing young” – that is, churches who were doing well at engaging young people and continuing to grow and flourish holistically as a church, when so many are doing the opposite.
Fun fact: Highway was actually part of this research! I have long been following the work of FYI, particularly since 2012 when we participated in a yearlong church cohort around their research on what contributes to teens having a faith that lasts (called “Sticky Faith”). So, a few years ago we were one of about 300 churches invited to fill out a survey about our ministry, particularly to young people. From there, we were one of 40 churches they asked to research further. I came up with 30 names of people in our community, half young people (age 15-30) and half adults who care about young people. FYI interviewed them all, and ta-da: we’re in the footnotes!
But beyond being a part of the research, why does Highway care about “Growing Young”? Well, lots of reasons. Top among them being we care deeply about the fact so many teens and young people are leaving both faith and the church as they get older. And frankly, it’s not just about engaging young people well, but engaging all people well. They focused on young people in part because that’s the focus of this institution, but also because that is the demographic least present in churches. That means presumably those who are successfully engaging young people as well as other generations are doing something well.
Growing Young can be a misleading title, because it is not a growth-strategy. It’s not about “growing” in the sense of how to attract young people to our church so we can be the next big, hip, young church. In fact, needing to be a certain size, or “cool” or trendy are myths they busted quickly. The healthy churches they studied varied in just about every category you can think of.
What FYI found in their research was nothing revolutionary or earth-shattering. Really, they saw the same core principles we see in the early church and the authors joke their findings are about 2000 years old. While some people want the latest, greatest thing - I find this comforting! Growing Young isn’t about a new program or strategy or methodology; it’s about being a healthy, holistic, Jesus-like church. Turns out, people are drawn to healthy, Christ-centered churches.
So why did we spend a year learning more about this and choose it as a focus if it’s nothing new? Because shared language and a shared vision or framework is extremely helpful. We may have a similar vision for what church should be, but if we all use different terminology, it’s hard to get there. Growing Young gives us a shared vocabulary and framework to work with, so we can do the more important work of living it out. It gives us the very useful tool of a few key research-based, biblical commitments and concepts to keep us focused on what matters.
What are those core commitments? Glad you asked! There are 6 core commitments, all with the understanding that Jesus-centered community is at the heart, and that these must be contextualized for who and where we are. FYI puts these in a wheel, because they are not necessarily linear, but they have found that often they develop in this order:
It’s not hard to see how these capture so much of the vision for the church from the beginning. A community where all contribute; a community marked by compassion and love for all people; a community originally known as followers of “the way,” living out the way of Jesus; a community where people of all ages and backgrounds were welcomed into relationship; a community where children were welcomed and whole families were baptized together; and a community that was known for their radical care for their often-overlooked neighbors.
This is not a new program, this is a re-centering on what Church and being followers of Jesus has long been about, but sometimes we (global Church “we”) get off track and have to refocus. That’s what Growing Young is about.
So, if at Highway you hear terms, like “Growing Young,” “keychain leadership,” or “warm community,” it’s because clear, shared language gives us the tools to spend less time trying to articulate these commitments, and put more time and energy into living them.
1 Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, and Jake Mulder. Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. Baker Books, 2016. 43