At first glance, this phrase can seem confusing. To some, it conjures up the image of a church who is desperately trying to be cool and trying all sorts of hyper-entertaining programming styles in an attempt to attract the younger generation. To others, it feels like a phrase that reinforces the rising fears of disconnection and irrelevance that can naturally creep in as we age. Perhaps just another example of the culture-wide trend of “ageism.”
Neither of these could be further from the truth.
To us at WMBC, Growing Young captures our heart and our vision for what we desire for the culture of our faith community; not just for one generation, but for every generation. This is about becoming a church that engages young people in a way that breathes life into the entire church. This is about building bridges between the young and the old, and everyone in between. This is about creating an environment that values, accepts, and empathizes with the unique experiences of the different generations. This is about raising up leaders within the community that multiply themselves by empowering and walking alongside the young. Quite simply, this is about not wanting our church to grow old and silently fade into the background, but to remain a vibrant and hopeful presence within our city.
While it might be more comfortable to simply grow old together as a community, our mission and vision is so much bigger than this. We want to lead people to Jesus and help them discover the good and beautiful life that they were created to live. We want to change the negative perceptions of the church within our city and curb the mass exodus of young people that are leaving behind both the church and their faith today.
2 out of 3 young people who grow up in the church will walk away as teens and young adults. The vast majority of these never return. To put that into perspective, at WMBC, we have over 200 kids engaged in our Sunday Kids Groups and over 100 teens engaged in our ministry teams and midweek Student Ministry groups. Are we ok with 60% of those young people walking away from our church when they graduate? Are we ok with 180 individual kids and teens, who are currently in our midst, never discovering a real relationship with the God who made them and loves them?
I don’t think so.
So what does it look like to stem the tide and become a church that young people love to be a part of?
In 2016, the Fuller Youth Institute released the findings of a four-year study where they combined the best research and writing on young people and church health with an in-depth look at over 360 churches in the US that were defying the national trends and effectively engaging young people.
By focusing not on what is broken, but on what is working well, they identified these 6 Core Commitments that were shared across the various faith contexts:
Unlock keychain leadership:
Instead of centralizing authority, empower others—especially young people.
Empathize with today’s young people:
Instead of centralizing authority, empower others—especially young people.
Take Jesus’ message seriously:
Instead of asserting formulaic gospel claims, welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
Fuel a warm community:
Instead of focusing on cool worship or programs, aim for warm peer and intergenerational friendships.
Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere:
Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation.
Be the best neighbors:
Instead of condemning the world outside your walls, enable young people to neighbor well locally and globally.
how are we doing
This November, we launched the Growing Young Assessment at WMBC to get a sense for how we, the community, believe we are doing in each of these six areas. Over 30% of us took part in this assessment. The results were fascinating.
To read the full report, download it here.
At the end of the month, we gathered for a Community Forum to look through this report together, to talk about where we’re strong and where we need to grow, and to dream about what our future could look like.
To read a summary of our discussion, download it here.
To give you a snapshot of what you’ll find in the report, here is what our wheel looks like (each area is categorized as red, yellow, or green, depending on how well we think we’re doing in each):
our strength areas
As you can see, the strongest area for us is “Taking Jesus’ Message Seriously.” Examples of statements that we believe to be true about ourselves include, “WMBC has preaching that is relevant to people’s daily lives,” and, “WMBC challenges people to grow in their faith.” However, if you dig into the report a little further, you find that there are some key strengths in some of the other areas as well. These include:
- Warm Relationships. The majority of respondents believe WMBC is “a community I trust,” “supports families well,” and, “is hospitable.”
- Prioritize Everywhere. While there is room to grow in this category, most people believe that WMBC “has young people whose involvement makes our church better.”
- Best Neighbors. There is a strong belief that WMBC is commited to the City of Winkler. We believe that WMBC “partners with the local community in significant ways,” “has a reputation as a caring neighbor in our community,” and, “would be missed by the local community if we left.”
There is lots to celebrate and be encouraged by in this report. It is clear that we believe the people of WMBC are a Jesus-centred community who go out of their way to make guests feel welcome and who have a strong commitment to the wider city.
our growth areas
While we have many healthy aspects of our faith community, it is also clear from our report that we have areas that we need to grow in. There were multiple statements on this assessment in which people just weren’t sure if they were true of our church.
The area with the lowest scores was Keychain Leadership. Many of the respondents scored low on statements like, “WMBC asks young people to participate in making important decisions,” and, “Supports creative ideas and initiatives suggested by young people.” While we may have many teens and young adults serving in volunteer roles, there is a sense that perhaps they’re “doing the work” of ministry without being given the authority to actually shape what that work looks like.
Close behind this area was Empathy Today. Many were unsure about statements like WMBC “is made up of adults who go out of their way to better understand young people’s perspectives,” and, “makes efforts to put itself in the shoes of young people.” It is very easy to believe that you understand a young person’s experience because you were young once as well, but we forget that today’s generation is growing up in a world vastly different than what has been experienced previously.
Other growth areas can be found in our three “yellow” areas as well:
- Warm Relationships. Despite our strengths of hospitality and supporting families, many struggled with statements like WMBC “feels like a family,” and, “helps people of all ages feel like they belong.”
- Prioritize Everywhere. While WMBC has a large number of young people engaged in different ways, there is a perception that we’re not as strong in areas like, “WMBC makes young people a primary focus,” “has a thoughtful approach in our ministry to people in their 20s,” and, “has enough volunteers or staff members who ministry to young people.”
- Best Neighbors. Our strength seems to be local, but falls off pretty quickly when we look at larger issues. Many reported low scores on statements like WMBC “actively responds to global crises,” and, “actively addresses injustices in our society.”
What Are You seeing?
The process of working through the Growing Young report has created many conversations and brought a lot of questions to the surface that are worth wrestling through.
As you read through this report, we encourage you to make notes and to talk through this with others from the faith community. Some questions to discuss include:
- What aspects surprised you or made you uncomfortable?
- Which are the findings that you most agree with?
- What do you think has contributed to the list of our strengths? How did we accomplish that and how do we make sure that continues into the future?
- What do you think has contributed to our growth areas? How did we get here?
In order to make sure this is more than simply intriguing information, it’s important that we ask ourselves some questions that can help us move forward as well. These include:
- What might it look like organizationally to see our red areas become green (think: programs, teaching, leadership roles, systems – all the things that fall under the bigger banner of what we could do collectively)?
- What might it look like personally to see our red areas become green (think of your personal relationships and role within the community here)?
In other words, we want to be asking both, “What is our next step here,” as well as, “What is my next step here?”
As a church, there is a volunteer “Growing Young” team that will continue to work its way through these findings and initiate conversations with various people in the church in order to hear the stories behind the numbers.
There are a number of other teams committed to working towards change here, including our Student Ministries teams, our Young Adults teams, our Leadership Development team, as well as our staff and leadership board.
Changing the culture of a church is a slow and complex process, but we believe that a committed and unified people, powered by the Holy Spirit, can do remarkable things.
Let’s continue to talk with one another, and talk with God, as we move forward in this.
If you have a story or experience to share related to one of these 6 areas, we would love to listen. Give us a call or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be in touch.