Growing young: sharing the keys of leadership with youth

By Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin

You may have heard some bad news about the church in North America.

Churches are closing their doors. Young people are walking away from faith.

But how bad is the bad news, really? It’s true that most churches in America are not growing, and the share of adults in the United States who identify as Christian is dropping. What’s more, while young adults aged 18–29 make up 22 percent of the U.S. adult population, they represent less than 10 percent of churchgoers.

Many churches see the average age of their attendees increase year by year and wonder what the graying heads mean for the future of the church. Perhaps you can relate.

How strategic churches are growing young

Regardless of your own church’s trajectory, your congregation needs young people, and they need your church. One without the other is incomplete.

Our research team at the Fuller Youth Institute, Pasadena, Calif., spent the past four years studying more than 250 congregations of diverse sizes, ethnicities and geographic regions that are unlocking the potential of teenagers and young adults. These churches are bucking the national trends, and seeing not only young people, but their entire congregation, thrive. They are bright lights in the midst of the all-too-often gloomy narratives and research.

These churches joined us for one of the most comprehensive and collaborative studies on churches engaging young people, involving more than 1,500 research participants, 10,000 hours of staff research time, more than 20 denominations, nearly 40 states, and both new church plants as well as those with more than 100 years of history.

All that work was focused on learning more about what’s going right in the church. The primary goal has been to understand how and why these churches are effectively engaging 15- to 29-year-olds. Put more simply, we studied churches that are growing, and growing young.

One critical way these churches are thriving is in their approach to leadership and mentoring — especially with young people. Both leadership in general, as well as specific leaders, were mentioned in every stage of our research as one of the principal contributors to churches that grow young. When pastoral leaders were asked to describe what accounted for their success with young people, the highest response — named by half of pastors — was church leadership. Congregation members were even more likely to attribute their church’s effectiveness to leadership, at over 77 percent.

So how does leadership look different in a church growing young? It all comes down to who holds the keys.

One ‘key’ strategy to help your church grow young today

Remember your first set of keys?

Stephen — who goes by “Stretch” — received his first set of keys when he was 16. His town handed him a driver’s license, and his parents handed him the keys to the family car. Heart pounding with excitement, Stretch climbed behind the wheel and pulled out of his driveway for the first time on his own. He couldn’t believe the newfound freedom and responsibility he had been given.

Stretch pulled onto the street and decided to drive to church. As he pulled into the parking lot, the church’s childcare was wrapping up for the day. One of the leaders who knew Stretch noticed him driving. Given a recent shortage of childcare workers, she asked if he was interested in helping after school.

She was only halfway through the question before Stretch knew his answer. He would get to hang out at the church, spend time with kids and actually get paid. This day couldn’t get any better!

Until a few minutes later, when she returned from the church office and handed him a key to the church. “If you’re going to help us, there will be times when we need you to lock up,” she explained. Stretch was staring so intently at the key that he barely heard her words. The pastor had this key. His Sunday school teacher had this key. Other adults who were mature — who had power — had this key. But him? It was like he had been waiting on the sidelines during the big game and was now being called to step onto the playing field.

A week later, while Stretch was working in the childcare center, the youth pastor dropped by. “You know, Stretch,” he said, “if you are already at the church, would you be willing to stock the soda machine for me? The job comes with all the Mountain Dew you can drink.”

A lot happened for Stretch that week. Leaders he deeply respected had entrusted him with access and authority by giving him keys, both literally and figuratively. In the decades that followed, others continued to entrust him with the keys of leadership.

Churches that grow young are brimming with staff, volunteers and parents who demonstrate what we describe as keychain leadership. Whoever holds the keys has the power to let people in or to keep people out. Keys provide access not only to rooms but also to strategic meetings, significant decisions and central roles. The more power you have, the more keys you tend to possess.

By keychain leaders, we mean pastoral and congregational leaders who are:

  • acutely aware of the keys on their keychain and
  • intentional about entrusting and empowering all generations, including teenagers and emerging adults, with their own set of keys.

Practicing keychain leadership

Beyond simply launching a student leadership team in your church’s youth ministry, keychain leadership is a spirit and commitment that permeates every area of the church. With just a few intentional decisions, you can increase your ability to pass off keys to others.

The keychain leaders we observed understood they shouldn’t immediately throw young people keys from a distance and expect them to learn to use the keys on their own. But they also knew young people shouldn’t be forced to sit in the back seat of the car for too long. Instead, keychain leaders discipline themselves to pay attention to young people who are ready for their own set of keys and then train those young people in the skills they need to succeed.

Someone probably offered keys to you at some point, and that’s the reason you’re leading your congregation today. Like Stretch, a new generation of young people are sitting on the sidelines, ready. Let’s invite them to join us on the field.

Portions of this article were adapted with permission from “Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church” (Baker Books, 2016) by Kara Powell, Ph.D., Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin.

Powell is executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, both Pasadena, Calif. Mulder is director of strategic initiatives at the Fuller Youth Institute and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Fuller Theological Seminary. Griffin is director of the Fuller Youth Institute and is also a speaker, blogger and youth pastor.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.