Growing Young

Mar 25, 2023

By Tracey Breashears Schultz, Bishop’s Associate for Leadership

When I visit congregations, especially those in transition, one of the concerns I hear raised most often is about bringing young people back to church, engaging youth, and/or calling a pastor or deacon who has youth ministry experience. Recently, while at a conference gathering of bishops’ associates, I heard a presentation by Kris Bjorke, Interim Program Manager for Youth Ministry, ELCA, which spoke to these needs. What if, instead of looking for one person to do youth ministry or hoping someone has all the answers, we focus our energy on growing young?

This title and concept are from a study (and book) by the Fuller Youth Institute for which 250 congregations of diverse geography, denominations, and ethnicity were interviewed. The content amounted to 10,000 hours of research, 10,000 pages of data, and interviews or surveys with 474 young people and 799 adults.

For congregations who are worried about growing older, the invitation is to grow young! How do we do that? By listening to young people.

There is a misunderstanding that youth want particular things – praise bands or cool coffee bars or a particular kind of building. What do they really want? Six core commitments from church communities:

  • Empathy. Youth want to spend time with adults who will model for them how to navigate grief, how to be vulnerable, and how to cope with everything new the world presents. Rather than being “buttoned up,” as some generations have been, this is an invitation to be authentic, to refrain from judgment, and to let youth in.
  • Warm relationships. Relationship is so much more important than any “cool factor.”
  • Jesus-centered community. Youth are interested in the good news of Jesus (and less interested in Christianity), which means they look to the adults in their churches to learn about witnessing or “walking the talk.”
  • Prioritize young people everywhere. If youth really matter, then don’t give lip service to their importance. Involve them in all facets of ministry and congregational life. Give them a voice and a budget. Allow them to serve.
  • Be the best neighbors. Ask: who is my neighbor? Courageous neighbors embrace ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. They look for ways to neighbor well, whether that’s by serving or listening. How can our churches be more for the community?
  • Keychain leadership. “Keys refer to the capabilities, power, and access of leaders who carry the potential to empower young people.” Which young people are ready for keys, not necessarily to the building (although it can mean that), but who is ready for training and leadership? Who needs to step down to let a new generation lead?

The whole church can do this! It does not have to belong to any one person! “Growing young isn’t about changing youth ministry. It’s about changing church culture.” Growing young means things will not be the same, but this is a very good thing!

For more about Growing Young, or to hear about congregations who have prioritized these six commitments, contact my colleague, Pastor Dan Fugate, Assistant to the Bishop for Discipleship, Indiana-Kentucky Synod, ELCA.