Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Who holds the keys?

You may have heard the sky is falling.

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

So how bad is the bad news, really? It’s a question we have recently pondered at the Fuller Youth Institute. With the aim of translating research into practical resources, we are hopeful about how research can empower leaders in the midst of some discouraging news about the church.

Churches Are Shrinking

Most churches in America are not growing.

According to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center, the share of adults in the U.S. who identify as Christians fell from 78 to 71 percent between 2007 and 2014. The increase in those who identify as “religiously unaffiliated” (meaning atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) jumped by almost seven points, from just over 16 percent to 23 percent.

This well publicized “rise of the nones” varies by denomination. Mainline Protestantism has experienced the greatest dip in numbers. From 2007 to 2014, mainline Protestant adults declined by about 5 million. Roman Catholic adults dropped nearly 3 million. Adults in evangelical denominations, as well as adults in nondenominational churches with evangelical leanings, actually grew from 60 million to 62 million. 

However, while the total number of evangelicals has increased, the percentage of Americans who identify as evangelicals has actually decreased almost 1 percent from just over 26 percent to just over 25 percent.

In short, while some denominations are growing globally, no major Christian tradition is growing in the U.S. today. A few denominations are managing to hold steady, but that’s as good as it gets.

Churches Are Aging

Most churches in America are also aging.

While young adults aged 18 to 29 make up 22 percent of the U.S. adult population, they represent less than 10 percent of churchgoers. In a recent 10-year study of congregations, people over age 60 increased by 5 percent and people under age 35 decreased by 5 percent.

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.

Young People Do Walk Away

Alongside this shrinking and aging, churches are watching young people walk away.
A major turning point for young people’s faith in America tends to be high school graduation. Multiple studies highlight that about half of youth group seniors drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school. We’ve spent the past decade studying how to reverse this trend through our Sticky Faith project.

Some—perhaps more than half—of those who drift from the church end up rejoining the faith community, generally when they get married and have children. But even those who return have made significant life decisions about worldview, relationships and vocation—all during an era when their faith was shoved aside. The consequences of those lasting decisions are often tough to erase.

“But Wait, my Church Is Growing!”

Perhaps your congregation is growing, and bursting with young people. But in the midst of that growth, you may wonder if young people are merely consuming what you offer. You want more than that; you want them to be unleashed to join—and help lead—God’s redemptive work in the world.

Regardless of your church’s trajectory, your congregation needs young people, and they need your church. One without the other is incomplete. Our research reveals that growing young can energize your entire congregation. As you navigate the waters of growing young, your other priorities (like effective evangelism, dynamic worship services, powerful service and missions, and authentic community) will gain momentum. If your overall hope is to have a vibrant congregation, there are arguably few better starting points than tapping into the contagious passion of teenagers and young adults.

How Strategic Churches Are Growing Young

The data is clear that shrinking and aging are the default for most American congregations today. But that’s not the way it has to be.

And it’s not happening in every church. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t have to be true for your church.

Our research team at the Fuller Youth Institute spent the last 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, over 20 denominations, nearly 40 states and both new church plants and those with more than 100 years of history. Half of the congregations were predominantly white, while one-third were multiracial (see ChurchesGrowingYoung.com for more details and resources).

All that work was focused on learning more about what’s going right in the church.
The primary goal of our last three years of research has been to understand how and why exemplary churches are effectively engaging 15- to 29-year-olds. Put more simply, we studied churches that are growing, and growing young. To ensure both the quality and practical applicability of the research, we enlisted a world-class team of advisors to guide the process, including Andy Crouch, Brad Lomenick, Brenda Salter McNeil, Carey Nieuwhof, David Kinnaman, Efrem Smith, Eugene Cho, John Ortberg, Sergio De La Mora and others.

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

Church leadership ranked ahead of worship style, emphasis on social justice and use of the latest technology. Congregation members were even more likely to attribute their church’s effectiveness to leadership, at more than 77 percent. That held true in interviews and site visits, from The District Church in Washington, D.C., to Flood Church in San Diego, California.

So how does leadership look different in a church that is 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, he climbed behind the wheel and pulled out of his driveway for the first time on his own. Stretch couldn’t believe the newfound freedom and responsibility he had been given. He was taking a step away from childhood and a step closer to adulthood.

Stretch pulled onto the street and decided to drive to his 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 on top of it all … he would 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 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 have your license and 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.”

Key to the car. Check.
Key to the church. Check.
Key to the soda machine. Check.

What’s more, later that night, standing alone in the empty church, Stretch sensed a clear call from God to ministry. What other key could he possibly need?

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, and he shared with our team that it’s the reason he’s now been in ministry—and empowering young people—for over 20 years.

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:

1. Acutely aware of the keys on their keychain, and
2. 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.

The great news is that you are probably already closer than you think to keychain leadership. With just a few intentional decisions, you can increase your ability to pass off keys to others.
Based on our research, we’ve identified four types of key leadership ranging from key-less leaders to keychain leaders. Take a moment to place yourself and others on your staff or volunteer team on this continuum. There are four types of key leadership in churches:

1. Key-less leaders: Often young and inexperienced, without much authority or access, their time is spent proving they’re worthy to possess keys. This could be a high school student ready to volunteer in the children’s ministry—full of potential and passion as he begins his leadership journey. It may also represent an older congregant who feels as though she lost access to keys—and her voice in the church—a decade or two ago.

2. Key-hoarding leaders: Always holding the keys and refusing to give others access, they run the show. This might include an outgoing, extroverted ministry leader who draws a crowd through sheer personality and ends up driving away others who offer to help (we won’t ask you to name any names, but would wager you could name a few leaders in this category pretty quickly).

3. Key-loaning leaders: Often taking keys off the keychain and letting others borrow them temporarily, they make sure the keys are returned quickly. One example might be a pastor of a fast-growing church plant who knows the contribution of others is important—but also believes others won’t do as good of a job as he or she will.
4. Keychain leaders: Very aware of the keys they hold, they are constantly opening doors for some while training and entrusting others who are ready for their own set of keys. This could be a longstanding senior leader, associate pastor or trusted volunteer who young people, staff and congregation members turn to for advice or to be sharpened in their ministry skills. Everyone seems to get better when this leader is involved, and a long list of people can point to this leader as the reason they serve in the church today.

The keychain leaders we observed understood that 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 (with the senior leader driving) 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.

In fact, when young people in our study were asked what made their church effective, 43 percent pointed to the relational nature of their leaders. Being relational doesn’t mean leaders jettison their boundaries and try to be a “best friend” to everyone in their congregation. But it does mean that leaders are approachable and genuinely care and connect.

At Metro Community Church, a 10-year-old multiethnic church in New Jersey, keychain leadership is made possible by a lead pastor who recognizes he doesn’t have all the leadership answers. A 22-year-old college student described to our team, “The main draw is how transparent our senior pastor is. It’s the only church I’ve ever been part of where the pastor shares how he feels and even shares his mistakes.”

Rich and Robyn Wilkerson of the 5,000-member Trinity Church in Miami, Florida, recognize that keychain leadership is possible in both large and small congregations. During our visit, nearly everyone mentioned the empowering leadership culture in the church and attributed this to the pastors. When we asked Rich and Robyn how they set this tone, they explained that they strategically invest in leaders who will replicate this influence throughout the church. Every Monday, nearly 100 core volunteers and staff gather for a chapel service that includes worship, testimonies and prayer for the congregation.

Rather than try to connect with thousands at this level of depth, these keychain leaders strategically infuse this smaller group with a leadership culture that spreads to the rest of the congregation.

Evaluate Your Own Keychain Leadership

Taking into account all of the bad news about young people and the church, as well as the great potential for your church to grow young, we urge you to take the risk of empowering young leaders. The first step is to work either on your own or with your team to make two lists. The first list should include all of the keys of leadership you currently hold in your church. The second should include all of the young people in your church who have been given (or could be given) significant keys of leadership. Then reflect on the two lists and identify some steps you could take—a conversation, sharing a task or developing a promising leader—that would offer more keys to more young people.

Someone probably offered keys to you years ago and that’s the reason you’re leading your congregation today. Stretch and a whole generation of young people in your community are tired of sitting on the sidelines. Let’s invite them to join us on the field.

Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), is the author of several books including Growing Young and Sticky Faith, and a regular speaker at national leadership and ministry conferences. Jake Mulder, director of strategic initiatives at the FYI, is a co-author of Growing Young, and has served ministries in the U.S. and globally. Brad Griffin, associate director of the FYI, is a speaker, blogger, youth pastor and a co-author of Growing Young and several Sticky Faith books.

Portions of this article were adapted with permission from Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin,Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, available this fall from Baker Books.

No comments: