5 surprising strengths your small church can leverage to grow young

Zach Ellis Image Zach Ellis | Feb 22, 2024

After spending six years in the city, I was elated to start a new job as youth pastor in a small, rural town in Eastern Oregon. As soon as I arrived, I was treated to delicious homemade dinners, introduced to little-known hiking trails, and included in long-standing traditions. But after the initial excitement passed, I began wondering where a 23-year-old like myself might make friends. Our church had vibrant children’s and youth ministries, but our “young adults” Sunday school class consisted of couples in their thirties, some of whom had children in middle school.

Like many small, rural towns, it seemed as if there was a large gap between ages eighteen and thirty, as many had left to gain education or employment elsewhere. Our church was one of the lucky ones in town—only four congregations had enough teenagers for an active youth group. Over the years, I ended up making many friends and saw God work in the lives of young people in incredible ways. But it was important that I first recognized both the unique challenges and unique strengths of our small town.

Small and rural churches have unique gifts

Rural churches face several unique challenges. To begin with, many rural areas are slowly shrinking: over the past twenty years, half have declined in population. Rural areas also have higher poverty rates than urban or suburban areas, making it difficult for young people to find good jobs.[1] That means many young adults often have no option but to leave their home to search for greater economic opportunities or join the military. Some return, but many choose to stay in their new cities or communities. Young people also leave small towns for educational opportunities they cannot receive near home. Because of this, adults in rural areas are 40-50% less likely to have a college degree. All of these factors cause rural areas to trend older. Around 1 in 5 (18%) people living in rural America are over the age of 65, significantly more than in urban and suburban areas.

Despite these challenges, small and rural churches have an incredible number of unique, God-given gifts. Although many young people may leave after high school, those who make their home in rural communities often maintain the same residence longer than those in larger cities, leading to more long-term connections with neighbors. For churches, this can translate into warm communities where members feel like family. It can also mean long-term volunteers serve multiple generations of young people. Three years of data from our Growing Young Assessment shows that those who attend rural churches give their congregation a much higher score on the warmth they feel in their congregation. When I visit my small hometown, I still feel this warmth from my old Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and school teachers. Even though I left town after high school, whenever I return home, I am greeted warmly by a church family who continues to love and care for me.

Fuel warmth for young people in your church, no matter how many you have

God has given small communities incredible gifts and a head start on the Growing Young journey. Whether your church is small, rural, or both—how can you leverage the warmth in your congregation to become more effective with other Growing Young core commitments?

  • Unlock keychain leadership: Aging congregations might struggle to identify and develop young leaders. It can also be difficult to look at well-known young people with fresh eyes as they grow and mature. But at the heart of keychain leadership is relationship—walking beside others and developing them as people and as church leaders. Leverage the warm relationships you already have to mentor young people as they take on new keys of responsibility in the church.
  • Empathize with today’s young people: Those under thirty today live in a much different world than those who are over thirty, making cross-generational empathy difficult. But small churches that nurture warm relationships can use those connections to build empathy. Instead of viewing other generations as a strange group, empathy changes the conversation to “Zach, the youngest child of my good friends, Tim and Kathi, who I have known for decades.” Warmth leads to empathy, which leads to growing young in your congregation.
  • Take Jesus’ message seriously: This core commitment is routinely ranked highest among many who’ve taken our Growing Young Assessment, which is great news. Small churches have the advantage of leveraging intergenerational relationships as they model what it means to take Jesus’ message seriously. It is difficult to hide in small communities because neighbors know each other extremely well. Young people in smaller communities see the adults around them day in and day out, responding to joys and pains, interacting with others. This is such an opportunity to show young people that the church takes Jesus’ message seriously on Sunday mornings and every other day of the week.
  • Prioritize young people (and their families) everywhere: Even if there are only a few young people and families in attendance, churches that start by listening to and prioritizing the young people in their midst can make real progress toward growing young. This might mean welcoming grandchildren who visit in the summer or partnering with local schools. Young people may leave for employment and education opportunities, but welcoming young people into warm communities—for however long God entrusts them to your care—is an important step toward growing young.
  • Be the best neighbors: One trait many small communities are known for is care. When community is like family, it’s easier to know who is struggling and how you might help. Young people notice when churches in their community neighbor well and are drawn to that. By leveraging the warmth that is already in your church, you have the opportunity to be the best neighbors and invite young people to do the same.

Don’t give up

It's easy for rural or small churches to get discouraged as they grow young. I know I did! But when a congregation starts with what God has given them—a warm, loving community—then taking the next faithful step towards growing young becomes easier. There will always be unique difficulties for small churches. But focusing on advantages can kick-start progress on growing young. What are you waiting for? Start leveraging your warmth today!

Reflection questions:

  1. What relationships (both across and within generations) are already present in your church that you might help further your growing young journey?
  2. Where are young people present in your community? In schools? In your church? In sports? How might you bring the warmth of your church community to the spaces where young people hang out?
  3. What is one core commitment your congregation might focus on in this season? How might God use the warmth of your church community to bring about progress in this area?

Let our expert training lead you forward.


Imagine a church with energy and excitement. Teenagers are excited about coming to worship services and have relationships with people of all ages. Young adults are eager to serve and participate in leadership opportunities. Older adults understand the realities of being a young person in today’s world and empathetically listen to young people. Children are being mentored and taught by teenagers and young adults. Young people throughout the community know that this church is a warm community where they are welcome. This church has a bright future.

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[1] According to the Pew Research Center, 18% of rural residents live in poverty, compared to 17% for urban and 14% of suburban residents. Additionally, rural counties are much more likely to have concentrated poverty, where at least 20% of residents live in poverty: “Three-in-ten rural counties (31%) have concentrated poverty, compared with 19% of cities and 15% of suburbs.” “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities,” https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/05/22/demographic-and-economic-trends-in-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities/.

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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