Laurence became disillusioned with church during his sophomore year of college. Despite squeezing in a Sunday worship service most weeks, something wasn’t clicking. So week by week, his attendance grew less and less frequent. Until he just quit.
For the next couple of years, Laurence would occasionally drop in on a church, usually sitting in the back, critical of everything. He’d leave even more discouraged.
When his fiancée moved to town, they decided it was time to pick up the search again. Someone told them about a congregation that almost sounded like a secret. With little online presence or exterior allure, word of mouth seemed to be how people found this small community. Laurence and his fiancée gathered their courage and stepped cautiously into worship one Sunday, first walking in the wrong door of the ancient pink building before winding through the halls and stairwell down to the gathering in the basement.
They were readily welcomed, took their seats in two rickety folding chairs, and Laurence would later share what made this experience connect with him wasn’t the preaching or worship style. It certainly wasn’t the building. It was the life shared among the people that drew them in.
Genuine connection can’t be forced.
It was the moment at the end of the service when the older lady in the wheelchair shared about ways to participate in the community. It was how a particular red-headed child grabbed an oversized portion of communion bread each week and dunked it to the bottom of the cup. It was the way honest petitions were shared during prayer by tearful 20-somethings and eager 7-year-olds. It was the steady stream of invitations to meals in homes of caring adults who fed them as struggling newlyweds.
For Laurence and his new wife, every doxology the church sang, every long decision-making process, and even (or perhaps especially) every little “imperfection” throughout the worship service drew them ever closer to what they had been looking for all along: a place to belong.
The chorus of reasons young people are leaving the Church is loud and volatile—perhaps even more so in recent weeks following the election. From political infighting to theological differences over social issues, churches are taking a beating for all they seem to be doing wrong. And some of those wrongs absolutely need to be named.
But what about the things churches are doing right?
When it comes to engaging young adults and teenagers, our research team at the Fuller Youth Institute discovered and explored over 250 churches thriving with young people. These churches are not seeing millennials walk away in droves. In fact, instead of following the national trends of shrinking and growing old, they’re doing something surprisingly different: growing young.
Community is about more than just a welcome committee.
We had a hunch at the start of our research that authentic community would be important to young people. But we were surprised by how much of growing young is influenced by whether or not congregations are warm and accepting.
Walking into a room and knowing you’re expected, accepted and welcome for—not in spite of—who you are in someone searching for a new church home. Warmth is what we long for in our families, but sometimes feels elusive. And believe it or not, it’s what some young adults are finding in their communities of faith.
In our analyses of the terms young people and adults use to describe their churches in over 1,300 interviews, we noticed repeated phrases such as welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring. We began to call this the warmth cluster.
Warmth is more than superficial community. It’s like family. In fact, the phrase “like family” surfaced as one of the most common terms young people used to describe their church in our interviews and field visits. This metaphor of family is rich with images of hospitality and unconditional acceptance.
Across the board in statistical analyses, the warmth cluster emerged as a stronger variable than any one program. Warmth often lives much deeper than programs and structures—it’s the lifeblood coursing through the veins of your church body.
Programs alone don’t cut it.
Ironically, it is possible that your church actually might be working against warmth by offering too many programs. In churches growing young, many young people share that their church culture is moving away from unnecessary busyness. A de-programming strategy sometimes helps to elevate relationships by opening up time and space where all generations can flourish. Young people and adults of all ages can then do life together through shared meals, shared transportation, shared service in the community or shared childcare. In churches growing young, warmth is a priority to programs.
When someone says the name of your church, what image comes to your mind? A building? A worship service?
If you were a teenager or young adult in one of the churches in our study, your answer might be different.
For young people today, church means much more than a worship service or a place to gather.
Despite how much energy money, and other resources we pour into making Sunday spectacular, the worship service may be less important to young people than we think.
When we asked young people how they would describe their church to a friend, only 12 percent talked about worship, and only 9 percent mentioned worship style.
Similarly, when we asked, “What makes your church effective with young people?” only a quarter mention worship at all, and only 12 percent mention anything about music (that figure drops to only 3 percent when we isolate the top third most effective churches).
So what do they talk about when they describe their church? Overwhelmingly, nearly one in three share about its warmth. Also telling, in evaluating church effectiveness with young people, twice as many pastors as young people name worship music as a vital factor. This reflects a gap between what pastors think young people care about and what they actually care about. One pastor who understands this gap confessed, “We can hire and buy cool, but we can’t hire—or fake—warmth.” Cultivation of warmth requires much more than staffing or planning in order to attract young people to your services.
Staying intentional matters.
In research site visits, we couldn’t help but notice that some churches are moving away from the models of attractive worship sets and highly polished, timed-to-the-minute experiences. More than one research team noted that what a particular church lacks in physical resources or flashiness, it makes up in warmth, authenticity and hospitality. As it turns out, warm is the new cool.
However, these statistics don’t mean that worship planning no longer matters. In our site visits to churches, we didn’t encounter any “bad” worship services. Churches growing young are thoughtful and intentional about worship.
Yet in the midst of their effort to develop meaningful services, they realize that the pursuit of excellence can become the death grip of warmth.
Many young people are drawn to churches that are more like family rooms than theaters and that invite young people not just to share beliefs, but to share life. Rachel Held Evans said it well in Searching for Sunday—millennials “aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity … we’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity … No coffee shops or fog machines required.”
Or as one 20-something in our study reflected, it’s one thing to watch a worship performance—anyone can do that online. In contrast, “The internet can’t help you move to your new apartment. Only a close community will do that.”
This article was co-authored by:
Kara Powell, PhD, is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. Kara is the author or coauthor of several books, including Growing Young and Sticky Faith, and a regular speaker at national leadership and youth ministry conferences across the country. Jake Mulder is the director of strategic initiatives at the Fuller Youth Institute and is pursuing a PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has worked in a variety of ministry and professional roles. Brad Griffin is associate director of the Fuller Youth Institute. A speaker, blogger and youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of Growing Young, several Sticky Faith resources and Can I Ask That? 8 Hard Questions about God and Faith.
You can learn more about their work at here.