How well do you (and your church) empathize with young people?

3 research findings to help you reconsider

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image Tyler Greenway, PhD Giovanny Panginda Image Giovanny Panginda | Jul 22, 2020

In the wake of more and more disturbing footage of racial injustice against Black Americans and the protesting that followed, many parents and churches are wrestling anew with how to have conversations with young people about racism and injustice.

Admittedly, my (Giovanny) Indonesian American church and many of the parents in my church feel unprepared and unsure about how to approach the topic. Many are reluctant to get involved. Most of the parents didn’t attend school in the United States and are uninformed of America’s history. Many live in monoethnic suburbs, rarely interacting with a Black person. On top of that, a language barrier increases the likelihood that current events are lost in translation.

So it was no surprise when I received a tearful phone call from Victoria, one of my teenagers, who yelled, “My parents don’t get it! Our church doesn’t get it!” She joins many of our second-generation Indonesian American students who are processing the racialized violence and injustice they see. They want to use their voice, speak up, and support their Black classmates, but they don’t quite know how to do that.

Have you experienced a similar disconnect in your ministry?

This disconnect around race highlights a gap we frequently feel between generations. We struggle to communicate and often can’t agree. We believe one reason for this gap is a lack of empathy.

Definitions of empathy vary,[1] but here we use the word to mean an effort to understand the feelings, thoughts, perspectives, and experiences of others, young and old.

Ministry experience combined with research can help us shed light on this “empathy gap” between generations in our churches. Our Growing Young study elevated empathy across generations as a critical core commitment of churches engaging young people well. Since then, we’ve tracked data from our church-based Growing Young Assessment tool to learn about congregations nationwide. Three recent findings from assessment data shed light on the empathy gap and what we can do to move our churches forward.

Most churches struggle with empathy across generations

Similar to Giovanny’s experience in ministry, I (Tyler) observe a similar finding in my analysis of Growing Young Assessment data. When your congregation takes our assessment, FYI coaches analyze responses and work with you to create an action plan that’s personalized for your church. As I prepare for coaching calls, I often see red (indicating lower scores, not anger) when I turn to the page on empathy.

To date, over 38,000 churchgoers have completed surveys. Our analysis of these data found that across core commitments, many people—ranging from leaders to adolescents—rate their church lowest when it comes to how well they empathize with young people.

In the chart below, you’ll see that empathy receives the lowest overall rating among the six core commitments, with an average of 3.12.

We continue to wonder why this is this case. Thankfully we have plenty of data, and I (Tyler) love data analysis.

Empathy ratings vary by age

When we analyzed empathy ratings more closely, the results surprised us.

Contrary to expectations, we find that 24-29-year-olds rate their church lower than other age groups. In fact, 14-17-year-olds are second only to 70+-year-olds in their ratings of empathy. In the graph below, you’ll see 24-29-year-olds represented by the red bar, 14-17-year-olds represented by the first green bar, and 70+-year-olds represented by the second green bar.[2]

These findings raise additional questions. Why are the ratings of 14-17-year-olds higher than most of the other age groups? Why are the ratings of 24-29-year-olds the lowest? Is the experience of high school easier for older adults to empathize with or are high school students simply more likely to rate their churches positively?

A deeper analysis provides additional insight.

Not all young people share the same experience of empathy

Our Growing Young Assessment asks participants to rate several statements about empathy.

One of these statements—“Our church is made up of adults who go out of their way to better understand young people’s perspective”—reflects the surprising pattern from the chart above. 14-17-year-olds rate their church higher than average; 24-29-year-olds rate their church below average.

A different statement—“Our church recognizes the problems young people face in their day-to-day lives”—reflects something slightly different. All age groups under 60 rate their church below average.

Though 14-17-year-olds still rate their church higher than 24-29-year-olds, this finding suggests the experience of all young people ages 14-29 differs more when it comes to the empathic effort of adults than accurate recognition of real problems. In other words, adults may be seeking the perspectives of 14-17-year-olds more than 24-29-year-olds, but both age groups report below-average recognition of their problems.

In the chart below, you’ll see the statement, “Our church recognizes the problems young people face in their day-to-day lives” represented by the light blue bar and the statement, “Our church is made up of adults who go out of their way to better understand young people’s perspective” represented by the dark blue bar.

What we can do to better empathize with our young people

Taken together, these findings point to important ministry implications for our churches.

First, these data suggest that across age groups, empathy is one area where our churches can grow.

Second, 14-17-year-olds may more readily identify adults in their church who are trying to understand their perspectives. This is great news and we’re grateful to find this result in our data. The disappointing news is that there’s still a disconnect between effort and actual recognition of young people’s problems.

Third, 24-29-year-olds experience a similar lack of recognition concerning their problems, but they’re also less likely to identify adults in their church who are making this effort.

If these findings resonate with our experience in church, what do we do next?

Many of us are feeling the weight of this current season of unrest. Many of us are tired, and empathy is hard when we’re tired. But at this moment, amid difficult conversations—perhaps especially amid difficult conversations—churches have the opportunity to show empathy for their young people. It’s a chance for our churches to sit and listen to students and ask questions.

You might want to start with a few questions like the following:

  • Why is this concern important to you?
  • How does Scripture inform what we might do next?
  • What are the practical ways our church can get involved in supporting you?

This is also a moment when young people can learn to have empathy for their parents and their church. It’s an opportunity for students to ask and wonder. You might help them process by learning to ask questions of adults like:

  • What current issues don’t you understand and why?
  • What concerns or fears do you have with me standing up for what I believe?
  • How is what’s happening now connected to what older generations have experienced about racism and injustice?

Let’s close the empathy gap; let’s reach out from both sides.

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[1] Argue, S. C., & Greenway, T. S. (2020). Empathy with Emerging Generations as a Foundation for Ministry. Christian Education Journal, 17(1), 110-129.

[2] This chart displays z-scores. Numbers above the centerline (0.0) indicate scores that were above average among Growing Young Assessment participants. Numbers below the centerline indicate scores that were below average. Z-scores help us identify differences within specific populations. To learn more about Z-scores, visit this website.

Tyler Greenway, PhD Image
Tyler Greenway, PhD

Dr. Tyler Greenway is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Calvin University. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Psychological Science from Fuller Theological Seminary, an MDiv from Calvin Theological Seminary, and a B.A. in Psychology from Calvin University. Dr. Greenway’s work focuses on the psychology of religion, character and virtue development, the integration of psychology and theology, and the application of psychology in religious contexts. Before joining Calvin, Dr. Greenway also served as an Associate Research Scientist in the Science of Virtues Lab at Baylor University.

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Giovanny Panginda Image
Giovanny Panginda

Giovanny Panginda is the Social Media Lead at Fuller Youth Institute. With a BA in Psychology and Sociology from UCLA, he integrates an understanding of human behavior and empathy into content strategies. As a bivocational youth pastor, Giovanny holds an MDiv with an emphasis on Asian American Context from Fuller Theological Seminary. This unique blend of academic knowledge and hands-on experience allows him to connect with the 3 Indonesian American churches he serves. Beyond shaping digital narratives, you’ll find Giovanny behind the lens capturing portraits, indulging in delectable cuisines, or simply enjoying a cup of chai.

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