Thought Factory Podcast #304 || Help Young People Love The Church: Kara Powell Interview

Churches are losing both members and vitality as increasing numbers of young people disengage.  In this episode, we interview Kara Powell, who is the executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary.  Kara co-authored Growing Youngwhich is about 6 essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church.  Growing Young is based on groundbreaking research with over 250 of the nation’s leading congregations and it provides a strategy any church can use to involve and retain teenagers and young adults.  The book shows pastors and ministry leaders how to position their churches to engage younger generations in a way that breathes vitality, life, and energy into the whole church.

Kara, let’s talk about what you’ve been doing in previous years to lead up to what we’re going to talk about today and tell us a little bit about Sticky Faith.

“I’m a faculty member at Fuller Seminary but really my main job is I get to work with the amazing team at the Fuller Youth Institute.  We at the Institute, we believe in young people and we believe in the church and we want to help identify the toughest questions of parents and leaders.  Then we develop research-based proven answers to those questions so that young people will develop a faith that lasts and that grows with them.  We turn research into resources that equip young people with the faith they need.  One of our first projects emerged because we were hearing data about how 1 in 2  youth group graduates from great churches, like represented by your listeners, 1 in 2 youth group graduates drift from God and the church after they graduate from high school. And as a mom, and a leader, and a follower of Jesus, I’m not satisfied with that.  Our team isn’t satisfied with that and I’m guessing your listeners are not satisfied with that. So we studied over 500 youth group graduates to try to figure out what helps them have faith that lasts or what we call “sticky faith.” That was multiple years of research and we developed mini books for leaders, for parents, curriculum, etc. But then as we were praying about our research project after that, I was sitting on a blue couch in my living room and I was just kind of journaling God what do you have next for us and I felt like the Spirit said, not audibly but I felt as I was journaling what I wrote was,  ‘you studied amazing young people now it’s time to study amazing churches,’ so that led us moving from studying young people and their families from sticky faith that now we study entire churches.”

We are currently in a series on the topic of ‘Are Students Leaving the Church?’ just asking that question for our listeners – the youth leaders, youth pastors, parents even and you mentioned one in two leave the faith. So we hear that young people are leaving the church and Christianity significantly, so what have you learned from your research that would make the difference in terms of young people leaving the faith?

“I’ll tell you, our research on Sticky Faith has changed my view of faith and my view of parenting, my view of the church.  Just a couple highlights of what we’ve learned is that a lot of young people view the gospel as a list of do’s and don’ts, what Dallas Willard would call the gospel of sin management.  They think it’s kind of a behavioral checklist and when they do all the right things and avoid all the wrong things then somehow God loves them more, likes them more, and they can feel better about themselves.  Well, there’s a lot of problems with that version of faith but one of which is when students fail to live up to that checklist and note, I said when not if, when students fail to live up to that checklist they chuck their faith.  They feel like I’m not doing the do’s and I’m not avoiding the don’ts and so my faith no longer has relevance and so they run from God and God’s grace just when they need God and God’s grace the most.  One of our major tentpoles with Sticky Faith, we have to reclaim what faith really is but it’s not a behavioral checklist. It really is a grace-filled relationship with Immanuel God, just like in the parable of the prodigal son who’s waiting and runs toward us as we turn and make our way back to God.  Key to Sticky Faith, it’s really reframing faith and reorienting around grace, not works and behaviors.”

One of the things that is incredible about who you are and your work individually and with Fuller is your focus on students and young people.  That’s something here at Never The Same that we feel exactly the same way.  Tell us about why you feel like you’re personally passionate about that area and why do you think it matters to do the work that we’re talking about here to do with students?

“It’s a divine calling. I drive by a middle school, I drive by a high school, I drive by a college and I just want to stop and talk to the students. I can’t help but keep glancing at them as I’m driving by wondering how they’re doing, what they’re talking about, how their relationships are.  When I sit in an airplane, and I usually get a window seat because I like to sleep leaned against the side of the plane, and when I look out a window and when I see buildings, I think about the young people who are in those buildings.  So really, at my core, that’s who I’m burdened for, that’s who I cry over, that’s who I pray for is young people.  I have a bias that the best way to change any country, including the United States, the best way to change any country is through the church and I have another bias that the best way to change the church and to help the church reach its potential is for young people to be a catalyst of even more exciting ministry and evangelism and discipleship.  I just personally have this burden for young people and then I also feel like young people often are the tip of the arrow for the change that God wants to bring in and through the church.”

Growing Young describes these Six Core Commitments that the churches that you’ve studied hold common.  Would you take a few minutes and go through those Six Core Commitments as well as start to unpack them?

“As I was sitting on my blue couch, I felt led to study amazing churches and so we got a grant from the Lillian Endowment that allowed us to study over 250 diverse churches nationwide.  The typical church in the U.S. is shrinking or aging and so we wanted to study churches that were beating those odds that were growing and engaging young people.  So we called them churches that are “growing young.”   We spent over 10,000 hours, collected 10,000 pages of data, did over a thousand interviews, did site visits at churches.  Again, diverse churches all across the US trying to figure out what all these 250 churches have in common.  We were able to identify the six core commitments that seemed to help them be so effective with young people.   I’ll just start by talking about the first one.”


1. Unlock Keychain Leadership

“The first one is the type of leadership that they offer and as much as I love leadership, I read about leadership for fun, part of me didn’t want the Growing Young process to start with leadership.  Part of me wanted it to be kind of a bottom-up, grassroots, priesthood-of-all-believers change but what we saw is that that wasn’t the case.  It really was about leadership but a different kind of leadership that we might think.  I think we’re often prone to believe the lie that in order to be effective with young people we have to be hip or cool or maybe even young and sure we saw leaders that fit those categories but that was by no means the majority of leaders in our study.  In fact, again world leaders who fit those categories, but some of the leaders who became our favorite.  We talked about more than any other as we were going through research notes, would be the first to say they’re not young, they’re not hip, they’re not cool, but they’re what we came to call “keychain leaders.”  Leaders who understand keys of influence they have, meaning capacity, access, opportunities that they are quick to hand over to all people in their church not just young people but are particularly quick to hand over to young people so that young people really feel like their passions and skills and ideas matter and are being used in their church.   Of the six core commitments, the one most commonly started in church was in leadership.  Like I said, different kind of leadership.  It was about a teaching leader, not a funny leader, a dynamic leader, some of those myths that we tend to believe about leadership with young people.”

2. Empathize with Today’s Young People

“It started with keychain leadership and then we quickly saw how important it was for the church to empathize with young people, to really journey with young people.  The churches that we studied were effective with 15 to 29-year-olds, so that was the age group that we looked at.  Young people, both teenagers and young adults, they’re so often judged in our culture and quite honestly in our churches today.  We make jokes about them, we criticize them as being entitled, and there’s perhaps some truth there.  But, what these churches did is they really understood that this generation is different than the previous generation even in their timeframe.  Census data is showing they are getting married five years later, they’re having babies five years later, they’re becoming financially independent five years later, there’s just a really significant shifts in the timeframe of some of the typical markers that we’ve come to think of as being corners that young people turn when they become adults, those are happening later these days.  What churches that are effective with young people do is they don’t judge young people because of that but instead they’re very quick to journey with young people, to talk with them about how they’re feeling about some of the delays and things that they thought would come quickly to them in terms of job and financial stability, etc.  They are recognizing that it’s just so important to journey with young people.”

3. Take Jesus’ Message Seriously

“The third core commitment was that these churches were not theologically wimpy like they were very passionate about Jesus’ message.  But, what they did well, which sometimes churches don’t do well, is that they very much understood that the difference between Christianity and Jesus.  In fact, I mentioned we did over a thousand interviews and probably one of my favorite interviews or at least the one that convicted me the most was, we were interviewing a young woman, she was in her 20’s.  And eight Fuller faculty helped create this survey, I was one of them.  We carefully tried to vet these questions and the question that we asked was, ‘how would you define Christianity?’  And this young woman, she said, ‘well, you know what? It’s kind of hard for me to define Christianity.  Instead of defining Christianity, can I tell you who Jesus is and what Jesus has meant in my life?’  I mean, that was this young woman’s ‘dropped the mic’ moment.   We’re like, ‘yeah, okay, she could talk about Jesus you know if you want.’  It’s kind of a classic example of how young people, they’re riveted to Jesus.  Christianity can sometimes be awkward or confusing, but Jesus, the real teachings of Jesus, the real-life death and resurrection of Jesus, that is compelling.  These churches were so good at peeling away the layers of Christianity that often interfere with our ability to really understand Jesus and they just kept pointing young people to Jesus.  Now, it’s fascinating in that is that these churches also very much challenged young people and young people liked being challenged.  So, as they heard about the life that Jesus was inviting them to, many young people that was one of their favorite things about the church was how the church challenged them.  We’re not saying offering a cuddly, warm Jesus.  We’re saying a Jesus who, yes is the Immanuel, but also the Jesus who invites them to live and serve and obey radically.”

The evangelism conversation is something that has been curious to me lately.   This summer at NTS Camp, we do events all over the country, and we talked to students about sharing their faith verbally and what that means today.  I went in and changed my perception this summer because I went in this summer with the perception that students and youth workers and their interest in sharing their faith was really not just on the decline but maybe had died and there wasn’t interest.  I think my personal opinion was that I think a lot of it has to do with “old wineskins” that a lot of the old methods of how some of us listening were raised to share is different and we definitely found that to be the case.   What are you sensing when it comes to students sharing their faith?

“That’s a great image, the wineskin image.  I think it’s really accurate because what we’ve found is that students definitely wanted to share about their faith and wanted to have opportunities for their friends to share about their faith.  But, different strategies then maybe we’ve used in previous decades of youth ministry.  So, it’s less about an event and it’s more about a discussion.  It’s often less, “hey come to the church” and more, ‘no, we just want to have a conversation over coffee’ or ‘we want to search together and then process what that means from the perspective of Scripture and Jesus’ teachings.’  So, evangelism is alive and well it just tends to be less programmatic and more about process and more about discussion and more about being honest about the tough questions of Christianity.  We saw this both in Sticky Faith and Growing Young, just how important it is, and these churches did this so well, gave young people the opportunity to ask hard questions.  Many of them were gathering young people and just saying, ‘ask us your toughest questions about Jesus – why Jesus would allow certain things? why suffering exists? etc.’ and making a safe place for followers of Jesus as well as those who aren’t yet following Jesus to ask those questions.  Sometimes they met and created places.  A couple churches were meeting in bars for young adults you know those over 21 and one of them even called it ‘theology on tap’ like ‘we’re going to have theology?’ and we’re gonna have that discussion in an environment that works for people who might not walk into a church.  That might be a little radical for some folks and I’m not saying every church should have small groups in bars but I’m saying you know how do we think about our environment and what kind of environment is most conducive to having the best possible discussion on some of those tough questions.”

4. Fuel a Warm Community

One of your core commitments is fueling a warm community, providing more of a close authentic community and not just relying on programs.  The programs alone aren’t going to foster close relationships and so you’ve found that the young people were describing their churches as welcoming, accepting, hospitable, caring, and you use the term “warmth cluster” and so how do you as a church provide that when you are there for a program?

“That was the fourth core commitment and it had to do with the overall relational climate in the church.  When we ask young people what do you love most about their church the most common answer was that it’s like family.  That’s what they love.  They weren’t talking about the church’s worship style, they weren’t talking about the coffee the church served, not that those things are unimportant but what they cared about most was that it was like family.  As we coded for words, we actually came up with as you said, a ‘warmth cluster,’ as young people would describe their church as hospitable, welcoming, friendly, I can be myself, authentic, etc.  So out of that research, we developed a new phrase which is, ‘warm is the new cool.’  A lot of times we’re trying to figure out maybe how to be cool to young people and cool programs aren’t what necessarily are the best magnets for young people.  The best magnets for young people is a warm relationship.  We saw that in spades when we visited a church in Pennsylvania, one of the churches growing young.  Before we went, we conducted interviews and we kept hearing people at the church talk about how much they loved this man who we’ll call Bill.   And how Bill was so friendly and how Bill would show up at their games and take them out to coffee at work, etc. and that Bill was one of their favorite things about their church.  So we thought, ‘oh my gosh, we’ve gotta meet Bill.’  Well, we show up at the church and it turns out, Bill is in his seventies and Bill is someone who when he was a young person nobody was showing up at his games, nobody was taking him out to coffee.  So he’s made it his vow that that’s not going to happen at their church in Pennsylvania.  Not only is he showing up at games and at workplaces, he’s recruiting other adults, often senior adults to do so.  We just love the idea of Bill.  Bill would be the first person to say, ‘look, I’m not particularly cool,’ but he’s warm and that is what young people were flocking to.”

5. Prioritize Young People (and families) Everywhere

Number five of your core commitments is prioritizing young people and you talk about how churches that grow young are willing to make young people a priority not just in their words but in daily reality.  Give us some examples. I think it’s so powerful and if churches, as they’re trying to relay this or engage their senior leadership at a church in the concept of growing young, this one seems to be really key, so talk about what it means to prioritize young people.

“First off, young people can tell when they’re being prioritized.  A lot of times we use rhetoric to talk about how much we value young people but if that doesn’t translate into reality, young people can tell that they’re not really that important.  What was interesting is, at some of the churches, the young people could pinpoint like ‘it was at that prayer meeting that everything changed.’  I mean, that’s how clear it became to them, that they could identify those liminal moments where all of a sudden their church started treating them differently.  These churches, they had all different sized budgets, all different sized churches.  Some of these churches were under 200 to over 10,000, some of them were under five years old, some of them were over a hundred years old.  But, in the midst of whatever size budget they had, they disproportionately prioritized young people.  So they gave young people a greater slice of the pie, of the time, energy, resources, and just overall thought a church might have.  One of the things that I’m telling my own church in Pasadena out of this research is, I would just love if one of the top five questions that we asked ourselves as we were getting ready for Advent, as we were thinking about small groups, as we were thinking about summer short-term missions.  Whatever it is, one of the top five questions is, ‘how does this relate to what God is doing in and through our young people?’  That our young people are just constantly on our minds and it doesn’t have to be the number one question but just somewhere in the top five.  Earlier I mentioned that these churches gave young people a disproportionate piece of the pie.  And what was fascinating is that, as young people got a bigger piece of the pie, I went into the research assuming well, then somebody’s gonna get a smaller piece of the pie.  That just makes sense right?  If you give one area say, young people, more energy, thought, resources, time, etc. then somebody’s going to get less – women’s ministry, a senior adult ministry, whatever.   But, that’s not what we found.  We found that when young people got a bigger slice of the pie, pastor after pastor, leader after leader told us that it was like the whole pie grew.  Everybody benefited.  Nobody got shortchanged because prioritizing young people brings new energy, vitality, and excitement that the whole church benefited from.”

6. Be the Best Neighbors

The final core commitment that you have in the book is ‘be the best neighbor’ right?  And, that’s the dance between scriptural commands for holiness as well as loving our neighbors well.  Could you speak into that?  Especially for young people going they might compromise on the scriptural commands in order to love their neighbors well and to accept them, to show that they love them, so can you discuss that topic of how to do that?

“That was our sixth core commitment and you know what we found is that we thought the churches that are growing young were doing a good job neighboring well and being engaged in their community.  While that was true, when we went and talked to the young people at these churches and asked, ‘what do you wish was different?’  Even though we thought they were doing a good job, the young people said we want to be even more engaged.  Whether it was involved in local ministry with people who are homeless to more global ministry related to sex trafficking, immigration questions, refugee questions, whatever it might be. Young people just wanted to be even more engaged than their already amazing churches were.  As to your question, in the midst of neighbor, I mean, they understood Jesus’ posture toward neighbor which Jesus radically redefined who our neighbor is in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  That everybody is our neighbor.  Jesus did not take a condemnatory stand for people who were outside of the church for the most part.  He met them with love and acceptance and grace and so that was the posture of these churches.  How do we truly love our neighborhood?  How do we reflect our neighborhood in our upfront leadership in the programs that we offer?  How do we listen to our neighbors to make sure that we’re really doing and serving in ways that our community needs?   So, those were some of the ways that churches were engaged in culture and neighboring well.”  

So Kara, let’s imagine you’re in a room with 10,000 senior pastors.  What would you say to them on behalf of youth ministry and students and what they can do to be a church that’s growing young?

“I think sometimes we don’t know what to do with the energy of you people and so we might view young people as perhaps our church’s greatest problem.  I don’t think young people are our church’s greatest problem.  I think young people are a church’s greatest solution.  That the energy, creativity, passion, innovation of young people, I mean, what we saw in these churches is it unleashed these churches to step into new arenas that again benefited all generations.  What I would say is think about these six core commitments and we have a growing young assessment tool to help any senior leader, any youth pastor, any church figure out how they’re doing in these six core commitments and how they can be doing even better.  We realize that it’s hard for me to change six things in my life, let alone for a church to change six things.  That’s a lot of things to change.  So, if folks want to go to – that’s our website where they can find out more about our assessment.   In 5-10 minutes as individuals or they can have their whole church take it, they can get a pulse on how are they doing these six, where are they excelling, where are they struggling,  We also give some suggestive next steps based on how a church scores.  So, that’s what I would encourage a senior leader to do is check out the website and figure out how they can move forward.”

What is the practical step for a youth leader, a church leader, pastor, a youth pastor, what can they take as that next step to help their church grow young?

“Well, in addition to checking out our website and looking into the assessment, what I said was that for most churches it started with teaching leadership.  So, I would invite any leader to look around and figure out how are we doing at handing keys over to young people.  And who are ready for a next key that can help them and help our whole church make even more progress.  For leaders to think about what are the keys of power and access they can offer to young people to help young people take a step forward and in really loving the church, serving the church, and being part of not just the church’s present but the church’s future.

Also one additional question just for fun, what are you working on for the future?

“We’re kind of an R&D think-tank in that while we were publicly talking about Sticky Faith, we were behind the scenes doing Growing Young research and now we’re doing the same thing.  We’re publicly talking about Growing Young and we’re behind the scenes doing some new research.  We’ve gotten some grants from the Lillian Endowment that are actually allowing us to do some innovative youth ministry and young adult projects.  So a lot of our research up to now has been studying exemplars which is fantastic, a great way to learn a lot but now we are also trying to launch new experiments and figure out some new fresh ways to help young people discover God’s answers to the questions of identity, belonging, and purpose.  So stay tuned because we’re doing a couple years worth of experiments and we are eager to share what we learn when we’re done with it all.”

© 2017, Never The Same