The stereotyped youth pastor wears cargo shorts, a camp tee, Chacos, and sports some serious facial hair (see Ben Beswick’s article on Rooted last week). He loves fun, seems a little immature, lacks depth, theological nuance, and is a little “unkempt.” More and more youth pastors in America are flipping that script. Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin), on the other hand, represents a rising movement of “next gen” pastors that are taking youth, and young adult ministry seriously.
I should note up front that Growing Young flows from a very particular ministry source, Willow Creek being the most recognizable name. This may cause you to be skeptical; don’t let it. The authors admit all this up front (30) and their findings are gold, even if you take issue here and there with its ministry philosophies.
At first, Growing Young can seem overly pragmatic: “If your overall hope and prayer is to have a vibrant congregation, there is no better starting place than the contagious passion of teenagers and adults” (23). The book lists the “mores” you get from “growing young”: “more service… more passion… more innovation… more money… and more overall health” (41-42). It can seem like growing young is code for the newest way to “energize your entire congregation” (23) and to promote growth just for the sake of growth. While it’s true that Growing Young is the product of a different tribe than many readers of this blog (perhaps), I found this book both deeply encouraging and challenging (in a positive way). At its conclusion, you will be hard pressed to not take seriously the task of growing our church young.
“Growing young” is shorthand for the efforts churches undertake to fight against a declining and graying church population. The criteria for these churches are twofold:
1. They are engaging young people
2. They are growing – spiritually, emotionally, in missions, and sometimes also numerically
This book is the fruit of years of research, interviews, site-visits, and observations, which Kara Powell et al attempt to use to describe what they found, and “spell out the core commitments [they name six] of churches that are not aging or shrinking but growing young” (20).
The authors succeed in their goal, resoundingly. Growing Young is a thorough analysis of best practices from hundreds of churches. It offers up-to-date information and interpretation on how churches are engaging young people well, and it’s full of suggestions from those findings. Each chapter ends with pages of “Ideas for Action” and tools to gauge the health of your church in its efforts to grow young.
Deserving of special mention is chapter three. It outlines what it means to be a young person today and is worth the price of the book. The subtitle for the chapter is prophetic: “Why 25 is the New 15, and 15 is the New 25.” Powell underscores the unique tension teens and emerging adults inhabit. Through consistent access to popular culture, teens are forced to start their adult development far earlier. At the same time, and through those same cultural forces, 20-somethings are encouraged to elongate their race by placing the traditional markers of maturity (home ownership, marriage, children) far in their future. Again, this one chapter is worth the price of the book and a remarkable resource for youth ministry leaders, and as well as the many parents who will read it.
Not only are Powell and her co-authors knowledgeable, they are pastorally sensitive. Sprinkled throughout this thoroughly strategic book are great examples of tempering strategic machinations with spirit-led caution, wisdom, and patience (32, 44, 130, 278). Growing Young was written with the heart to be faithful to God’s bride by leveraging the unique skills and resources Fuller Youth Institute has been blessed with.
More than that, Growing Young points out the importance of preaching the “grand narrative” of Scripture – placing “each part of the Bible within the whole unfolding story of God and God’s people” (139). Too few churches, and far too few student ministries take this point to heart. The fact that so many churches are embracing, preaching, and prescribing this understanding of Scripture, and mode of gospel proclamation is encouraging. Not only because it works but also because it correctly interprets the Word God has given us, placing the Good News in its broader context, and teaching a new generation of believers how to read their Bibles.
While there are times I felt Growing Young overly dipped into pragmatism (more on that later) the overall tenor of the book was love for the church, and strategic, spirit-led thinking. Growing Young isn’t about pursuing young people for the sake of growing the number of young people in your congregation. It’s clear that it aims at “the pursuit of Jesus [as it’s] the overriding motivation” (44). In line with that, Powell proves to be ruthlessly gospel-centered. Yes, that term is over-used, but I appreciated the consistent emphasis that taking the message of Jesus seriously isn’t just a means to the end of growing young – it’s the whole point.
A FEW NIGGLY BITS
However, there were some things that concerned me. The stated aim of the book is to “describe” their findings (20). From this review alone, you can tell they do far more than just describe; they analyze and then suggest courses of action. And while their analyses are normally helpful and accurate, here are three conclusions they draw that I am uncomfortable with:
1. Since preaching wasn’t mentioned in parishioner’s descriptions of the churches growing young, the authors suggest that it’s “an area in which some leaders could invest less time… After all, young people who want top-notch preaching can download sermons from amazing communicators nationwide. But they can’t download a vibrant community” (72). The implication is that, since community is such a high value to parishioners, churches should focus efforts there.
2. Growing Young declares it “refreshing” that “there is little focus on going to heaven and hardly any talk of Hell” (141). They even say this is evidence of “taking Jesus seriously” since, in favor of eternal thoughts, we are focusing on real-time, real world gospel implications (You can check out Trevin Wax’s similar concerns here).
3. Finally, in the chapter that emphasizes the need for community: “The small group community is so important that it becomes like a tiny church. So much so that people may be willing to miss Sunday worship but not their small group” (186-187). Almost pitting the corporate experience against the greater felt need of warm community.
While I cannot judge motives, it seems as if each of the above concerns have a common root in some latent pragmatism. The on-the-surface logic goes something like: “Since parishioners have certain felt needs and preferred solutions, we should perhaps prefer those solutions to the historic ones if we want to grow young.” While these final concerns are minor compared to the strengths in the rest of the book, I would like to have seen a firmer stance taken in favor of more traditional marks of a local church.
At the end of the day, if your church is looking to start a conversation about engaging younger generations in your church, Growing Young needs to be on your list. Rather than allowing the final qualifiers dissuade you from purchasing the book, allow those criticisms to start a conversation about the interplay of faithfulness and how it intersects with out desires to grow, and be effective.