Written by Jake Mulder of the Fuller Youth Institute:
In our recent posts, we’ve shared the bad news about young people and the church and introduced you to some churches young people love. You might be wondering, “So what’s the secret of churches that are bucking the trend and engaging young people well?”
We wondered the same thing, which is what kicked off this four-year study in the first place. Like us, you might be surprised not only by what these churches do but even more by what they don’t do.
The myths about what young people want
Surely churches that draw young people today must have a super-cool vibe, young pastor with skinny jeans, a laser light kit in a new multimillion-dollar facility, or some other hype. Right?
Yes, we discovered some churches that are flashy and hip, and as a result, they draw lots of young people. But this was certainly not the case for all of the congregations in our study—not even most.
One thriving church actually prided itself on not being hip.
The pastor wanted to drive the point home and emphasized to our team, “Our church is nothing flashy; just a great healthy place.”
After conducting nearly 1,500 hour-long interviews and analyzing over 10,000 pages of research data, we’ve discovered that much of what we often think we need to engage teenagers and young adults perhaps isn’t so essential after all.
In the coming months, we look forward to countering several of these myths with the reality of what we’ve learned helps young people discover and love their churches. But there’s one BIG myth we want to do away with right now.
Myth: Young people want a shallow or watered-down teaching style.
You’ve likely heard plenty of discouraging news about young people’s faith habits, such as reading the Bible less, praying less, volunteering less, and attending church less than older Christians. Given some of the teenagers and young adults you know, maybe you’ve concluded that they just want feel-good messages that are easy, uncontroversial, and don’t require anything of them.
This means that if we want young people to show up to our churches, we should make the messages shallow and easy to swallow, right?
That’s not what we found. Engaging today’s young people doesn’t mean we refrain from talking about Jesus too much, or the very real cost of following him.
What young people say they want
Don’t just take our word for it. Reflecting on the “secret” to his church’s success, one young person explained, “Yeah, I think the goal for our church is not really effectiveness with young people but serving and following Jesus. And young people like me are attracted to churches that want to do that.”
During the Growing Young project’s interviews, 40 percent of young people specifically mentioned “challenge” when they talked about why their church is so effective with their age group. They appreciate challenging teaching in their churches, even when it makes them feel uncomfortable and invites them to make changes based on scriptural principals.
40 percent of young people specifically mention wanting to be challenged by their church.
Contrary to popular thinking that young people today want it easy, many told us they love their churches because their churches inspire them to act. This inspiration flows from leaders who model authenticity and humility and extend the challenge of following Jesus not from a place of superiority or power, but out of an invitation to pursue the way of Jesus together.
In short, teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running toward it.
Still not convinced?
We get it – the myth that young people want a church that is shallow and easy runs deep. But our team kept hearing from young people who convinced us otherwise.
One twenty-something explained it this way: “I think many churches have fallen into a consumer mindset as a default mode. Churches have tried to appeal to people’s desire to feel good. But the problem is, if you’re just trying to make people feel good, church isn’t going to measure up to that.”
Another college student made it clear: “There is never a time, even in just catching a meal with someone from our church, that the gospel doesn’t come into the conversation. The quality of the conversation with people from my church is consistently Christ-centered. The gospel comes up everywhere.”
Let’s go deeper together
These shifts toward deeper teaching and ministry that appropriately challenge young people require time, and they are anything but easy. Additionally, there’s always the chance that some young people won’t like it. We want to equip you for this journey with all the information and strategy you’ll need, and you’ll discover a great starting point in our new book.
For now, we hope you’re encouraged that in churches growing young, it is the authentic teaching of Jesus’ message that meets young people’s desire for life-giving direction. Proclaiming Jesus as the centerpiece of the story of God, and seeking to live out his instruction in everyday relationships, the churches we’ve studied are reclaiming the very heart of the good news.
Your church can too.
Don’t buy into the myths about what young people want in a church. Join us and we will journey together toward deeper, truer, more faithful ministry that engages young people and all generations well.
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