Growing Young – Take Jesus’ Message Seriously

This is post four in a series of reflections on the book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies To Help Young People Discover And Love Your Church. For an introduction to the series please read part one and continue reading the reflections in part two and three.


As the title of the chapter states, another reason for seeing ‘young people’ actually stay in church is through churches taking the message of Jesus seriously.

This is pleasing to know.

It means that instead of softening the message of the Gospel and the teachings of the Bible, as many kids and youth ministries are assumed to have done over the years, it is better to increase the temperature of what it means to follow Jesus.

In providing a place for young people to discover and discuss the hard questions of faith, receive a challenging vision of what it is to follow Jesus, and see how this faith becomes counter-cultural in its application is what is keeping those in their teens and twenties at churches.

It’s not surprising that the research highlights how those under 30 are more focussed on Jesus than the Bible or Christianity. In recent years there have been plenty of YouTube vids, posts, and other articles and papers highlighting how Millennials are following Jesus and doing away with institutionalised religion. Reading this reminded me of when I signed up for Facebook and entered my religious views as “A Jesus Guy”. It was something I thought was a bit different, but evidently not. It also speaks of how those my age and below (Millennials/Gen Y) are more prone to say they follow Jesus rather than say they are “a Christian”.

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Chapter 4 of Growing Young outlines a variety of reasons why taking Jesus’ message seriously actually keeps young people in the local church. Anecdotally I can see in my own experience, and with a number of my friends, that throughout our emerging adult years we craved serious Bible teaching and looked up to people who took Jesus and the Bible seriously.

One particular section of this chapter outlines a phenomenon known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the idea that young people in the West are generally following a philosophy of thinking that is (1) moralistic, where faith is equated to being a good moral person. It is (2) therapeutic, because it is this faith that makes them feel better about themselves. And it is (3) deistic, meaning that God does exist but this god is not involved in human affairs.

MTD a curse upon the youth and young adult conscience and has been helped to solidify itself in those who’ve had a little church background because of the super-mega-hype youth ministries of the last 20-30 years. To be a nice person, believe in a God you think is going to help you and bring favour upon you, but not be too close to you in your daily life is a distortion of the reality of the Christian faith and what it truly means to follow Jesus. Sadly, the rise of individualistic Christianity, a sprinkle of post-modern thinking and the dumbing down of Jesus through youth ministries have no doubt contributed to this.

Yet all is not lost.

As young people seek a faith that is authentic and in line with the reality of who Jesus is churches are beginning to realise that teaching the costly and sacrificial side of faith might actually be important. Growing Young puts it this way:

“Following Jesus is costly, requires sacrifice, and invites us to actively participate in God’s kingdom. In fact, the church by its very nature is participatory, which means everyone shares the work. It’s a body (Rom. 12:5–8; 1 Cor. 12:1–31; Eph. 4:1–16), and every part needs to play its role in order to build up the whole. As indicated by Jesus’ command to both “follow me” and “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23), pursuing Jesus requires no less than everything, every day (Rom. 12:1). There’s nothing therapeutic about that call…In short, teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running toward it.”

In what ways can your church help young people run toward faith, a genuine faith, that takes the message, actions, and words of Jesus seriously?

One of the critical experiences in my time as a Youth & Young Adult Pastor is small groups. That is, groups of around 10 people who gather together to eat, read the Bible together, and then pray for one-another. In one group I’ve been involved in we had a couple who had just joined the church. Both were reasonably new to faith but one of them wasn’t a Christian. Over a period of time, by simply looking at the Bible, passage by passage, she became a Christian. It showed me how instrumental it is to simply read through books of the Bible week by week and then seek to communally apply it to peoples lives. Through doing so we take the Bible seriously, but more so, we take the person, work and message of Jesus seriously too.

How this taking-Jesus-seriously thing applies further in our churches might be to consider the application we teach in children’s and youth ministry. The classic example for people teaching Sunday School, particularly the ‘famous’ stories of the Old Testament, is to make the application moralistic. Through the story of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, and Jonah we somehow come to suggesting that our hearers should change behaviour and because of that change in behaviour God will be happy with us. In the end we get the reading of the passages incorrect by making them all about ourselves and then say all we need to so is be a nice person and through this we’ll be made right with God.

Sound familiar?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism perhaps?

Rather than this let’s teach the Old and New Testaments in line with the overarching redemptive storyline. This is where we see the main person of the story is not actually us but it is about God and his work in this world, culminating in Jesus Christ. A good example of this type of teaching is The Bible Project and The Gospel Project.

Growing Young itself gives a good outline in how to teach the storyline of the Bible in this way through a Good-Guilt-Grace-God’s People-Gratitude-God’s Vision framework:

  • Good (Gen. 1:26–27): God created us good, in God’s image.
  • Guilt (Rom. 3:10–12): We then chose to disobey God, leaving us with the guilt of sin. All of us carry this mark and it impacts us every day.
  • Grace (Rom. 3:23–24; Eph. 2:6–10): Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has extended grace to us to make things right and restore us to relationship with God and one another.
  • God’s People (Eph. 2:19–22): As we experience grace, we are adopted into the body of Christ, enacting God’s reign in the world. We join the mission of God, participating in the work of God happening in and through God’s people today.
  • Gratitude (Col. 2:6–7): Out of this gift of grace, we respond in gratitude toward God. This is the well out of which our obedience—which includes moral behaviours—flows. In other words, the gospel doesn’t begin with behaviours nor is it dependent on behaviours. The behaviours are an act of thanksgiving to God in response to grace. As we grow in trust, we naturally grow in obedience.
  • God’s Vision (Rev. 21:1–5): We are living in between Christ’s first coming and his return.

Other areas where churches can increase the temperature of their teaching regarding Jesus is in one-on-one meetings, youth leadership meetings, youth group itself, and in other gatherings where there is a discipleship purpose. But wherever that may be for you, your church or ministry may you be encouraged, as I was, knowing that teaching the hard things of Jesus and the Bible isn’t something to be scared of.


Another good article reflecting on the book, and mainly on this chapter, has been written by Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition.


Here are the links to the series of reflections on the book:

  1. Growing Young
  2. Growing Young – Keychain Leadership
  3. Growing Young – Empathise With Today’s Young People
  4. Growing Young – Take Jesus’ Message Seriously
  5. Growing Young – Fuel A Warm Community
  6. Growing Young – Prioritise Young People (And Families) Everywhere
  7. Growing Young – Be The Best Neighbours
  8. Growing Young – Growing Young In Your Context
  9. Growing Young – Final Reflections

Growing Young – Empathise With Today’s Young People

This is post three in a series of reflections on the book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies To Help Young People Discover And Love Your Church. For an introduction to the series please read part one and continue reading part two about Keychain Leadership. 


“Young people these days…”

It’s the classic derogatory quote used to describe the actions or opinions of a ‘young person’. It’s usually said by someone one or more generations older than said young person and highlights the generational gap. Unfortunately it is within the church where this phrase and those of its kind are repeated often.

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In churches, where loving God and loving others is promoted heavily, young people often get the rough end of the stick when it comes attitudes and how people view them. Often things are said in a way that isn’t meant to be demeaning or offensive but they end up putting the ‘young people’ in their place because of what is or isn’t expected of them. Let’s look at a couple of scenarios.

Cleaning up after youth group

It’s often expected that the cleanliness of the church is going to be lowered somehow because the youth group had an event. Yet, for those of us in youth leadership know that part of being a healthy youth ministry includes cleaning up well for others and getting those who came to the event to help. It instills values, makes them part of the community, and helps the wider church.

Young people aren’t committed these days

It’s either they aren’t committed or not committed enough. And in some cases this may well be true but there is a big difference in understanding what ‘committed’ means. I don’t believe I know too many young people who aren’t committed to things. It’s what they’re committed to and why.

Currently churches need to deal with this in regard to church membership. Church membership is something that young people don’t seem to be taking up or ‘committing’ themselves too. Yet churches (1) don’t really push church membership in a big way and (2) the reasons why a young person should join the church in a formal way is never well articulated. Many are already serving in some capacity, whether it be on the music team, youth leading or running the children’s ministry. These are significant positions and not much will change if they change their membership status. But if churches outlined their vision of what it is to be a disciple of Jesus, be part of the movement of God through that local church, and play a significant role in shaping that vision themselves then perhaps church membership might be something more young people would sign up for.

All this is to say that there can be a fair bit of pressure for ‘young people’ in the church. There is the realisation that not everyone sticks around and as that number has dwindled significantly in the last 20-30 years churches are grasping on to those they have.

The question Growing Young deals with is not how to hang on to those who may be leaving but what is keeping them at the church in the first place? This is the thesis of the book and this chapter highlights how it is on the older generations to be empathetic to young people and the pressures they face.

One of the main helps is realising the three main questions young people are dealing with.

  • Who am I? (Identity)
  • Where do I fit? (Belonging)
  • What difference do I make? (Purpose)

Here we have three crucial questions all people need to answer for themselves but are of particular importance to teenagers and students as they mature in the game of life.

Due to the changes in life and culture in the past 20-40 years the actual length of being a young person has extended. No longer are the markers of adulthood achieved in the early 20s. Those markers of adulthood – being a spouse, having a family, completing school and/or university, working in a steady job, and being financially independent – are all occurring five years later than they used to. As the authors suggest, “This means there is no hurry to set down permanent roots and there is the possibility of rejecting one of these markers totally. Today’s emerging adults seem to be explorers by nature.”

It is also important to note that the opportunity to explore and discover various parts of their personality occurs much later too. Due to the increased pressure from schooling and general family life there is little time to explore a variety of hobbies, sports, instruments and other creative pursuits. More often than not young people are required to choose what they would like to specialise in much earlier than previous generations had to. As a result when this generation hits their 20s they begin travelling, changing university courses, and taking gap years in order to explore their passions, gifts, abilities, and grow in their skills. Something that was restricted while in their teenage years.

And so Growing Young suggests that “Parents don’t often realise the constant heat felt by adolescents, increasing the pressure for them to figure out who they are and what important to them.” A perfect example of the pressure emerging adults face is this article recently published on Relevant. It’s great to learn stuff but there is the underlining pressure of having to be the best in their chosen field, be the most productive person they know, and someone who has sorted their life out by the time they’re 25.

Growing Young also reminds us that this pressure is depicted this way:

“On the one hand, today’s young people are touted as justice crusaders devoted to helping those who are poor or marginalised. They are portrayed as selfless revolutionaries ready to change the world one dollar and social media post at a time. On the other hand, the very same cohort of young people is depicted as egotistical and entitled, motivated primarily by whatever best serves their pursuit of their own happiness.”

There’s a lot of challenging things here for the church and society. Thankfully Growing Young also provides some answers.

One of the main ways churches can help young people is to provide people who are more mature in their faith and life to walk alongside them.

I think this is of major importance.

Those who are older can make such a great contribution to the youth and young adult ministries of their church by simply being a person who walks with a young person. This is commonly called mentoring, coaching, discipling, and whatever other name you can think of that describes this kind of care. To have an open adult who is willing to meet, ask questions that make the young person think through their faith and life for themselves, and be a support when it’s needed, is the perfect person for youth and young adult ministry.

Of those three questions above, Growing Young also suggests:

“We think that young people’s deepest questions about identity are best answered by God’s grace. We are convinced that teenagers’ and emerging adults’ need to belong is ultimately met through the unconditional love of community. We believe their hunger for purpose is satisfied by being involved in God’s mission in the world.”

Rightfully so and very well put.

It is now on churches, with special reference to Youth Pastors and Young Adult Pastors, to enable and invite a community of people, both young and old, to show God’s grace, provide connectedness and relationship, and to lead them into the places where God is at work, helping them understand their place in God’s mission.


Here are the links to the series of reflections on the book:

  1. Growing Young
  2. Growing Young – Keychain Leadership
  3. Growing Young – Empathise With Today’s Young People
  4. Growing Young – Take Jesus’ Message Seriously
  5. Growing Young – Fuel A Warm Community
  6. Growing Young – Prioritise Young People (And Families) Everywhere
  7. Growing Young – Be The Best Neighbours
  8. Growing Young – Growing Young In Your Context
  9. Growing Young – Final Reflections

Growing Young

In #YouthMin world September 20, 2016, was a big day. The people over at Fuller Youth Institute released their latest book, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies To Help Young People Discover And Love Your Church. This is the culmination of many years and many pages of research and data to help the church understand what makes ‘young people’ stay in church and committed to their faith.

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I picked up the book a few days after release and am slowly making my way through it. But as an exercise in reflection I hope to write a few posts about the book as I read it, and hopefully provide some application into the youth ministry context here in Australia.

If you’re a Youth Pastor or in youth ministry then it would’ve been hard to ignore the impressive launch of the book. There were plenty of posts leading up to the release and on the day it was available there were numerous interviews with the authors.

Growing Young has eight chapters. The first being a summary of the book and the final chapter putting the learnings into practice. The rest of the book describe in detail the six core commitments churches who are growing young are doing. These six core commitments are:

  1. Unlock keychain leadership
  2. Empathise with today’s young people
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously
  4. Fuel a warm community
  5. Prioritise young people (and families) everywhere
  6. Be the best neighbours

From the outset this book brings a positive look to church and engaging ‘young people’ in church and faith. It’s a shame no one can think of a better phrase than ‘young people’, because it makes me sounds tremendously old and I cringe as I write it. Yet, it is ‘the young people’ who are exiting the church in droves with 40-50% of those in youth groups today drifting away from God and a faith community when they finish up high school. This is a harrowing fact and one I suspect most Youth Pastors, parents, and churches can resonate with anecdotally, even here in Australia.

It seems, however, there are pockets of hope and encouragement as the church seeks to engage young people in faith and church. Those churches growing, and ‘growing young’, are doing so through (1) engaging well with 15-29 year olds, and (2) are churches which are growing spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and sometimes numerically. This leads the FYI authors to say that in order to grow young everyone and every generation in the church needs to be involved, by doing so it will actually energise the whole church.

While the six core commitments state what is needed to help a church grow young there are a number of points that are not necessary for a church to grow young. These things include:

  • A precise size
  • A trendy location
  • An exact age
  • A popular denomination or no denomination at all
  • An off-the charts cool quotient
  • A big modern building
  • A big budget
  • A ‘contemporary’ worship service
  • A watered-down teaching style
  • A hyper-entertaining ministry program

This certainly gives me hope. To know that you don’t have to be big, cool, soft on teaching, and have all the bells and whistles of what is assumed to be an awesome youth ministry then I’m all in! This is not to say that I’m against these things, but it allows churches and those in youth ministry to be realistic about how to engage ‘young people’ in faith and not worry about superficial things.

The research also found that churches who did grow young and were focussed on doing so energised their own congregation because ‘the young people’ added more service, more passion, more innovation, more money, and greater overall health to the church. And who doesn’t want a church with these things?

So it comes back to these six core commitments, and I’ll explore each one in later posts. But for now, with that summary of the book in mind, I wonder what strikes you?

For me, this causes me to reflect on how churches go about thinking through their youth and young adult ministries. Whether they see them as separate entities of the church looked after by a Youth Pastor or whether they genuinely think of them as part of the overall church, part of the family of God, and giving opportunity for them to serve in meaningful and significant ways within the church community.

As a local congregation, is your church engaging ‘young people’? Is this a focus? Is there a willingness to make significant changes to do so?


Here are the links to the series of reflections on the book:

  1. Growing Young
  2. Growing Young – Keychain Leadership
  3. Growing Young – Empathise With Today’s Young People
  4. Growing Young – Take Jesus’ Message Seriously
  5. Growing Young – Fuel A Warm Community
  6. Growing Young – Prioritise Young People (And Families) Everywhere
  7. Growing Young – Be The Best Neighbours
  8. Growing Young – Growing Young In Your Context
  9. Growing Young – Final Reflections

 

Education, Millennials and Missions

millennials-graphic-600The post ‘Six Millennial Statistics Every Adult Should Know‘ was published a little over two weeks ago. I was sent a link for it through a colleague who also challenged a group of us to respond to one of the questions being posed and how it related to missions and missions engagement. As a side note, I reckon this article is worth consideration, as opposed to other Gen Y blog posts because it actually asks really good questions at the end of every point. In any case, I responded to the question through the group email in the following way. You’ll notice I’ve also included the paragraph and questions I was responding to.

Well Educated

School plays a larger role in this generation of young adults than any in American history. 23% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, making them the most educated generation ever. Obviously, some have stayed in school due to a poor economy. (It just wasn’t a good time to launch a career). Others stayed in school because mom or dad pushed them to get that college degree and a “white collar” job instead of a “blue collar” job, and parents were all too happy to have them live at home during (and after) the process. So they’re well educated but may need to take a job they are over-qualified for at first. It also may mean they take a job where they must “pay their dues” in order to make progress. This is difficult.

Question: How can we enable young adults to capitalize on their education and leverage it to take them where they’re most gifted to serve?

My thoughts:

Most of my “ministry career” has been doing youth and young adult ministry in the rich part of Melbourne. The majority of my kids were going to private schools or top public schools in the state. The importance of education is taught at an early age and takes away time from church. The pressure from the school and parents was enormous, so much so that many of the year 11-12’s were having mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

The expectation is to continue this education into their university studies and then career. Western culture teaches them to continue studying and gain better and better results in order that they can do the exact same with their kids etc.

We all really know this don’t we…?

But, because they’re so educated it means they won’t begin to think about missions in a serious capacity until they’re almost out of their university degree. This has implications for us as the average age of someone jumping into missions and heading off long-term will continue to be pushed out to the 30s and 40s – once their education and career has been established.

Because they’re so educated it means they will want to use what they’ve learnt in the future. It’s not often to have someone come and say they’d like to just give up what they studied and worked toward for something else. Well, unless they’ve been in the workforce for 10 years and its time for a career change or something. This has implications for us as those who wish to do missions will want to use their skills and education as the backbone to their missionary effort. This might mean people won’t fit into our organisation but on the other hand it will mean we get well-educated professionals when they do fit.

Because they’re so educated they will be better able to understand the concepts and ideas that missiology and theology present to them. I don’t think any teaching is too deep for any Millennial, as long as its clear and answers the question of why. The implication for us is that there needs to be in-depth and rigorous training and development given throughout their “missionary career”.

Because they’re so educated they will have a fair bit of financial debt. While Fee-Help and HECS is brilliant and in reality may not need to be paid off because they won’t earn enough it is still a debt they will be carrying. Depending on their personality they may wish to pay it off or live with it hanging over their head – like I do. This has implications for us because they may wish to pay this off as they serve and therefore have it included in their support budget. Also, if they’re required to go to theological college then that debt will be increased at a significant rate because of the private nature of theological schools.

I think the tough question is how do we show that they will be using their education as part of their missionary efforts on the field?

To suggest that they won’t be using any of their studies will simply drive people away. We need to take each person as they are and show them how they can be of great help using their skills and what they’ve learnt. Telling stories of workers who’ve gone over and found that their skills and education help them build relationships and teach others is important. And, I think it’s important to show people that their education is more than just a visa platform too.

How would you respond? 

Book Review: The Road Trip by Mark Sayers

theroadtripHere is a travel book with a difference.

Most travel books give information about a certain place. The good and bad hotels, the best restaurants, the sites to see. In The Road Trip Mark Sayers travels through the last 50 years of culture enlightening us on what’s happened to the West. Following the travels of Jack Kerouac, writer and experiential junkie of the 1950s, Sayers shows how Kerouac’s journey across America is now mainstream for the life of a Western young adult.

The book is in two parts. The first, offers a critique of young adult life in the 21st Century. The themes, illustrations, and connections between the journey of Kerouac and journey of today’s millennials resonates strongly. The second, turns toward the cross and gives broad examples of what the church must do to re-engage with young adults today. Following the journey of Abraham and centred of the cross Sayers describes how young adults can find true meaning for their lives.

Here’s what I liked about the book:

(1) The Cultural Analysis

In many ways Sayers depicts young adult culture; its aims, its experiences, its lack of meaning, its search for something better, its hopelessness, with compelling accuracy.

(2) The Writing

Sayers pulls you along with him. It’s hard to put the book down. There are illustrations, quotes, stories, and his own ideas, which keep you reading and reading. It’s a very well written book that enables you to travel the cultural contours with him.

(3) The Gospel

In part-two Sayers turns to how Christianity is to deal with this “culture of the road” that young adults seek to travel. The central answer to this ‘issue’ is the Gospel, which “reconciles us to God, others, and creation”. It is only through Christ’s death on the cross that gives meaning to this world and to this life. Therefore, it is this reality that provides the necessary answer to this “culture of the road”. It is an encouragement to see the explicitness of the Gospel within this book, and how it is the basis for further application.

(4) Morality and Covenant

These are two themes, among others, are tackled by Sayers toward the end of the book. They are themes put on the agenda for Christians and wider Western society to think through. Morality and covenant have both been thrown out the metaphorical window in recent time and so it is a good reminder to again reflect on these issues.

Here’s what could be improved:

I should say that I liked everything in the book. It was very good. There is much to take away and dwell on, particularly for those in youth and young adult ministry. It’s hard to come up with much in terms of critique or growth areas. However, when I put the book down I did feel there was something missing.

A couple of caveats:

First, I opened the book expecting big things. Maybe bigger than Sayers could deliver. I’ll name that.

Second, I recognise I’m involved in young adult ministry. I get to see the culture first-hand and affirm almost everything Sayers said about it. I believe these two factors affect my thoughts here.

However, toward the end I was wanting to know more. I was wanting to know what was next. I was wanting to know how to connect the young adult world of experience, journey, and meaninglessness to the worldview of the Bible.

I know I was offered suggestions; to bring back the transcendent, to bring back covenant, to bring back sacredness, to bring back commitment. In other words, to show that living the Christian life actually means giving up what the world offers and travelling the journey of God into full discipleship and devotion. This was made clear, I don’t want to deny that. Yet, this still leaves me hanging for more as I try to connect and apply these themes back to culture.

Since finishing the book I’ve worked out what I’m really asking. It’s the “How?” question.

How do we bring these themes back in a way that enables young adults to have a big vision of God and involved in His mission in the whole of life?

Maybe that’s not Sayer’s task here but mine as the practitioner. In any case, it’s left me pondering that task and something all of us should be pondering as we reach out to the young adults of today.


After writing this review Mark was kind enough to go back and forth on some of my thoughts. Below is an excerpt from our conversation and a reply to the “how” question. Many thanks to Mark Sayers for his time and willingness for this.

Mark’s response:

“…As I get around across the evangelical/charismatic/pente scene I notice that there is no one programmatic thing that is reaching young adults. Rather, it is the simple stuff in the book which I think is important e.g. covenant, living at the foot of the cross etc. I think because western young adult culture at the beginning of 21st Century seems so shiny and powerful we expect the answer to be so as well, but again I think that the answer is simple, humble obedience to Christ, simple non-sexy stuff that we already know. I have positioned our whole Church around this idea – no show, just less of us, and excitingly over time it is incredibly transformational…

…The other thing is that I often notice after workshops and talks that I do, describing western cultures journey to secularism and now post-secularism, that people become overwhelmed and want quick and easy answers. However, how do you reverse 500 years of this stuff in some simple ministry tips? I don’t think you can, it is going to take generations to turn things around in my opinion. No one likes to think of it this way but the questions of today’s young adults are essentially Hamlet’s questions at the dawn of the modern. We have a lot of work to do.”