Does focusing on young people mean neglecting older generations?

Photo by Christian Langballe

Most everyone agrees that young people in the church should receive some level of care and attention. In practice, however, this becomes a little more complicated. Questions arise, such as:

 

How much focus and resource investment should young people receive?

At what point does caring become spoiling or idolizing?

How do we ensure other groups aren’t neglected?

 

I’ll admit our team at the Fuller Youth Institute is a little biased in our answers to these questions. We believe in and advocate for a significant focus on young people.

The title of our new book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church takes this belief a bit further, carrying the suggestion that congregations should aim to grow young rather than old. Taken to the extreme, this suggestion can lead to at least two incorrect and sometimes dangerous conclusions:

  1. There are a limited amount of resources in any congregation, so prioritizing teenagers and young adults means other age groups will automatically have less.
  2. Since other groups will have less, they’ll inevitably be neglected, forgotten, or in some cases actively driven out of the church.

What we’re not saying:
 

Let us be clear – we’re NOT saying younger people matter more than older people.

We’re also NOT saying it’s a good thing for congregations to become exclusively young.

On the contrary, we believe that the church is the body of Christ and therefore every part is important (1 Corinthians 12). In other words, both young and old (and everyone in between) should matter in a healthy church.

What we are saying:
 

Young people need the church, and the church needs young people. We believe it’s possible for every age group in the church to matter equally, while still placing greater priority on young people. Based on research from the Growing Young project, we’re actually calling for churches to dedicate a disproportionately large amount of attention and investment in teenagers and young adults.

Why? First, young people need our churches. Given the changing developmental realities of teenagers and young adults today, combined with the increasing complexity of our society in general, young people need a special measure of support and guidance in order to navigate adolescence and emerging adulthood.[1] Certainly adults are navigating a complex world, too, but young people are charting it for the first time and without significant perspective. We believe that churches can become the best place for teenagers and young adults to find answers to their toughest questions of identity, belonging, and purpose.

Second, our churches need young people. Despite the reality that churches across the US are shrinking and aging, we found that effective ministry with young people leads to a thriving church—the whole church. Churches that make young people feel at home experience growth across all generations. In other words, young people multiply what is invested in them into the rest of their congregation.

What young people add to congregations:
 

During our four years of research, we paid special attention to how an intentional investment in young people affected the overall congregation. When we analyzed quantitative data alongside lived experience in the churches we visited, we discovered that young people tend to add more to congregations.

More service. More passion. More innovation. More overall health. Yes, even more money, in particular as older adults get inspired by the overall “more” young people bring.

As we explored the specific contributions young people make to churches that grow young, the specific term we heard more than any other was “vitality.” Young people infused congregations with energy and intensity. With life.

This response was common from senior pastors, such as one 40-year ministry veteran who said, “Everybody rises when you focus on children and teenagers.” A leader from another church reflected, “Young people are like salt. When they’re included, they make everything taste better.”

What senior adults say:
 

While church leaders in our study consistently advocated for a strong focus on young people, surely senior adults must feel as though they lose out, right? Not when the concepts from Growing Young (like the importance of empathy) are taken seriously and implemented thoughtfully.

For example, Volga Christian Reformed Church is a congregation that has experienced a significant revitalization over the past decade. Their strategic effort to better engage younger generations well has certainly led to a handful of shifts. There are fewer hymns, more young people involved in leading Sunday morning worship, and additional budget now dedicated to this age group. But does the older generation regret it? Not for a second.

They shared with our team how young people are fueling the growth of their church through their bold and passionate invitations to their friends (and their friends’ families). The mission-minded teenagers are well known throughout the church for their willingness to rake leaves or otherwise assist older members of the church with needs around their homes. Their honest questions and continuous new ideas help the church stay relevant to the surrounding culture. As they share stories of how God is working in their lives, it challenges all generations to pursue God with the same fervency.

And perhaps best of all, we heard how young people infuse the rest of the church with an infectious sense of joy. One grandparent from the church admitted that she occasionally misses singing all hymns all the time. She added that while many of her friends sing exclusively hymns, they lament how their children or grandchildren are no longer part of their church. With tears in her eyes, she reflected, “seeing so many young people around our church brings a smile to my face.”

Finding a balanced approach:
 

While we are advocating for churches to place a greater focus on young people in the church, we do not believe teenagers and young adults are the answer to every problem. And there are certainly dangers of both idolizing and spoiling young people.

Instead, we believe sociologist Christian Smith (who led the landmark National Study of Youth and Religion) offers wise words to those who engage in these efforts, “Teenagers and emerging adults desperately need mature and concerned adults who genuinely care about and for them. Young people need to be loved, to put it as plainly as possible. They need to be engaged, challenged, mentored, and enjoyed. They, like every human being, need to be appropriately cared for, no matter how autonomous and self-sufficient they may think they are.”[2]

Let’s love, care for, and prioritize the young people in our midst well. When we do, everyone flourishes.

Get our latest research on churches engaging young people

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[1] For more information on this topic see the work of Chap Clark, Christian Smith, and Jeffrey Jensen Arnett.

[2] Christian Smith, Kari Marie Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford UP, 2011), p. 7.