Lead a changing church for a changing world

Zach Ellis Image Zach Ellis | Apr 29, 2021

Grace Wesleyan Church thought they had everything together. They prided themselves on being an intergenerational church where all felt welcomed and loved. But recently, they noted a concerning trend—more and more young people were leaving their church. At first, the leadership team wasn’t too concerned. There are always people coming and going. But eventually, the trend became more noticeable.

Grace Wesleyan isn’t alone. The statistics show that older generations are much more likely to participate in a Christian community than younger generations. Sometimes young people leave for congregations that are larger or have a more active youth group or young adult ministry. But often, they just leave the church altogether.

Since Growing Young was released, we have helped Grace Wesleyan and over 500 other churches engage young people like never before through our Growing Young Cohorts. Grace Wesleyan learned how to listen to the big questions that teenagers and young adults are asking, understand their longings and losses, and discern where God is already at work in their lives. Then, they put together a long-term plan for culture change so that their church could grow young.

Leadership begins with listening

As Fuller Seminary professor and frequent FYI speaker Scott Cormode often says, leadership begins with listening. Yet we church leaders so often forget to listen before jumping into new strategies, programs, or emphases. We jump to conclusions based upon limited experiences or take strategies that worked in other contexts and try to apply them to our own. As Grace Wesleyan found out, listening is the foundation of any successful culture change.

When church leaders at Grace Wesleyan began listening to the young people entrusted to their care, these young people exposed a lie that Grace Wesleyan’s leaders had been telling themselves. It may have been an intergenerational church once. But now, young people did not feel like they belonged. They were asking tough questions about God, faith, justice, sin, forgiveness, and the church. This made others uncomfortable, and the young adults perceived that certain topics were off limits in church. So they left.

Once church leaders began listening, they started to empathize with what it means to be a young person in today’s world. Young people described the anxiety they feel due to extensive social media usage, experiences of racism, academic pressures, pervasive school shootings, and terrorist attacks.[1] They talked about the disconnect between the lack of diversity in their congregation and the different cultures of their school and work friends. And they shared their hopes and dreams for what the world could one day be. As they listened, leaders at Grace Wesleyan moved from fear to empathy and things began to change.

Explore what God is doing in your community

I have a confession to make: After spending so much time listening to stats about young people and church participation, and hearing stories from churches like Grace Wesleyan, I can get pessimistic. I can forget that, as Isaiah 6 reminds us, the whole world is full of God’s glory. But if I remember that God is at work in the larger community and in the lives of young people who are either no longer in a church or have yet to become part of a church, my perspective changes.

When Grace Wesleyan listened to young people, they realized that the younger generation hadn’t given up on God. Students still wanted to know Jesus. Instead, many young people had given up on a church that would not allow them to bring their whole selves. They discovered other places where they felt accepted and understood. Sometimes, this was with another church. Often, this was in unchurched or de-churched communities. They told Grace Wesleyan’s leaders about the different ways they experienced God through these different communities and non-church activities. This helped church members realize the ways they had missed what God was doing around them, and prepared the way for Growing Young action steps.

Experiment, experiment, experiment!

Have you ever had a great idea that you couldn’t wait to put into action? You might mention it to a couple of people—who think it is a great idea—and then you run with it. You’re sure this is going to be a huge success. And then … your icebreaker falls flat, the intergenerational activity only appeals to the kids, nobody connects with the theme, and almost everybody leaves early. You know you have a great idea, but you realize you should have worked out the kinks before making it a community-wide event!

After discerning where God is at work in your community, the next step is to experiment and find out what works. This allows your team to test ideas, collect success stories, build momentum, and develop Growing Young champions who will spread the word in your congregation. The core leadership team at Grace Wesleyan spent six months experimenting with one idea before inviting more church leaders to participate. Only after another six months of experiments (involving more church leaders) were they ready to invite the larger church. They found out what works and what doesn’t. By the time the congregation was invited into their work, they had a solid idea and dozens of people to share success stories.

Take the next faithful step

Finally, after listening, discerning, and experimenting, it’s time to take your next faithful step. Churches in our Growing Young Cohorts develop a strategic plan to guide their next one to three years. But we encourage them to view their plan as a fluid one: Focus on the next faithful step. Then listen, discern, experiment, and take another faithful step. Repeating this cycle allows your church to adjust goals according to what your people are saying and what God is doing.

Creating a Growing Young culture takes time. But the good news is, the Fuller Youth Institute is here to help. We’ve journeyed with hundreds of churches who are committed to engaging young people like never before. The Growing Young Cohort, our in-depth cohort experience, includes:

  • Summits where you’ll learn from ministry experts
  • FREE access to our comprehensive Growing Young church assessment tool
  • 9 months of personalized coaching with experts addressing today’s most pressing conversations
  • Regular training webinars with FYI researchers and leaders
  • Full access to our in-depth online training course on the 6 Growing Young Core Commitments
  • Downloadable video curriculum to help spread your Growing Young vision
  • Connection with an exclusive community of fellow cohort churches
Tweet this: What steps can your church take to retain and engage young people? The Fuller Youth Institute’s Growing Young Cohort can help you develop a strategic plan and discover what growing young means for your church.

Want to learn more about joining our next Growing Young Cohort?

Let our expert training lead your church forward to engage young people like never before.


[1] Zraick, Karen. Teenagers say depression and anxiety are major issues among their peers, New York Times. Feb 20, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/0...

Photo by Debby Hudson

Zach Ellis Image
Zach Ellis

Church Training manager

Zach Ellis is the Church Training manager at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). Zach holds an MDiv from Nazarene Theological Seminary and a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is ordained in the Church of the Nazarene and is an active volunteer in his church’s youth group. Before joining FYI, he was a youth pastor in Eastern Oregon. In his free time, you’ll likely find him hiking with his wife and two kids or watching Sporting Kansas City score goals.

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