Growing Young: Churches Reversing the Aging Trend

In my weekly visitations and financial conversations with parish leaders, I often hear variations on two themes: “Our membership is aging but that’s true of all Episcopal churches,” and  “We want to reach out to young people.”

It’s true that we are, in general, an aging church. The most recent study of Episcopal Church growth trends found that, “Episcopal Church members are older on average than the American public. The differences are greatest among the oldest and youngest age categories. Proportionately, we have many more persons age 65 or older and many fewer children, youth and young adults than the general population.”

But not all Episcopal churches are aging. Roughly 20 percent of Episcopal churches, according to the study, are growing. While congregations able to attract younger adults are more the exception than the rule, they also have many characteristics in common, which, if we’re serious about wanting to reach young people, we would do well to study. “They tend to be more exciting, innovative and are more involved in recruitment,” the data suggests. “They want to reach people and make the effort to do so.”

Yet by far the most important factors in congregational growth, according to this study, are the religious identity of the congregation and its sense of mission and purpose. Churches that are clear about why they exist and what they should be doing are most likely to be growing congregations.

Listening to Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast on church leadership, I learned of another congregational study, recently completed by the Fuller Youth Institute, entitled: Growing Young.  The research is impressive: over 10,000 hours of data collection, focused on 250 congregations identified as being successful in involving and retaining young people in the congregational community and helping them develop a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ.

There is good news in their findings–many denominations, including ours, are represented, and there is great variant in culture, worship style, ethnicity, and size. What the study found among these diverse churches are six core commitments that create healthy environments for young people to thrive:

Among them:

  • Empathy. Churches who empathize understand the main questions that young people are asking and journey with them as they struggle to find answers. Young people, they discovered, are asking three basic questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? What purpose do I make?

  • A Focus on Jesus and His Teachings. For many younger people, Jesus himself is far more compelling than Christianity.
  • A Priority on Young People. From allocating a budget to speaking their language, churches doing well at reaching younger audiences invest in them.

  • Focus on families. One of the best ways to reach young people is to equip their parents and partner with them.

The study’s lead author, Krista Powell, sums up their work this way:

“Churches don’t need big budgets to reach young people, and they don’t need to be perceived as ‘cool.’ Every church can leverage its time, talents, and volunteers to serve, and all leaders can get better at engaging young people, no matter how ‘old’ they are.”

A common denominator in both studies is intentionality. The churches that are growing and successfully reaching young people work at it, strategically, over time. They have made ministry to rising generations their top priority. It’s something to remember when we hear ourselves say that we want to reach out to young people. For if we’re serious, and if we believe that is God’s call to us, then the work is clear and our priorities will need to change. The good news is that there are models to learn from and examples to follow. It isn’t impossible work, beyond our reach. We can do this.

Do you have a success story to share? Would you like to join others in reading Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love You Church? Let me know.

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