For churches that are working hard to attract — and keep — more teenagers by engaging them with flashy technology, alternative music, and the brightest and coolest gimmicks, there’s good news.
Stop trying so hard.
That’s the message youth and generational experts want church leaders to know. Youth ministries don’t have to be cool, dumb down, or entertain to attract the teen audience. Turns out, today’s young people prefer authenticity, connection, and meaningful service rather than having some special “wow” factor.
“It’s a myth that young people want a cool, hip environment,” says Kara E. Powell, a licensed Assemblies of God minister, executive director of Fuller Youth Institute, and author of Sticky Faith. “Warm is the new cool. They want authentic relationships with their friends and with older adults. They want to serve and be involved in the life of the church.”
Powell and a team of researchers at Fuller Youth Institute recently completed an extensive study of churches with an active youth presence and published their findings in Growing Young. As the team talked with 1,300 young people, they heard words such as welcoming, accepting, authentic, hospitable, belonging, and caring to describe why youth and young adults remain in church.
People shouldn’t confuse warmth with nice, though, Powell warns. “Nice doesn’t cut it,” she says. It’s about making “family-type” connections.
Research shows ministries that have at least five adults — apart from parents — who connect with young people end up having a higher success rate of teens staying in the church after high school.
“If you want to keep teens involved at church and keep them after they graduate, text them,” says Haydn Shaw, expert on generations and author of Generational IQ. “Keep in touch with them — not just when they’re in church, but throughout the week. Let them know they matter. A quick text is simple, but meaningful.”
“Many within the church are inviting teens into their homes,” he says. “Teens get to watch and be part of a family who sits down at a table to have a meal and discuss their day. That makes a huge impact.”
This is especially influential since many of today’s teens deal with what Powell calls “systemic abandonment.” With a greater dissolution of the family and with self-absorbed adults around them, teens often have few if any meaningful relationships. “It stands out when multigenerational connection happens in the lives of teens,” she says.
It’s also essential, Powell believes, to make sure young people are involved in the life of the church — not just with youth group activities, but actually helping to influence and shape the direction of the church, which she calls “keychain leadership.”
“Give responsibility to teens and you’ll keep them,” Powell advises. She suggests starting small, such as setting up chairs for an event. Then progress to more meaningful assignments such as participating in key leadership groups or on the worship team, as young people prove themselves faithful.
“These young people want service opportunities, both inside and outside of the church,” she says.
But retaining youth is also about the content of the message.
“So many churches are dumping money and energy into media, and some of that makes sense because we do live in a media age,” says Adamson. “But media never changed anyone’s life. Making disciples is what we’re called to do. And it’s really what these teens long for.”
That shows a marked departure from youth programming of the past in which the message got watered down, supposedly to make it more engaging and relatable. But that’s not what this newest generation of teens wants. Generation Z, also called Homelanders, doesn’t shy away from the hard truths of the gospel because they want to know the what and the why.
“Gen Z is the perfect generation for orthodox teaching and approach,” Adamson says. “It’s not enough to use the Bible as an appendix to the message. It has to be the message.”
Yet what happens after high school graduation to make church more inviting? Shaw sees the period between ages 18-23 as the biggest danger zone. Statistics back him. Overall, an alarming 70 percent of teens drop out of church after graduation. To combat that, Shaw suggests extending youth ministry for that age group as well, with the same leaders.
“The best youth groups are those that don’t drop young people after high school,” he says. “You already have built-in adults who know and love these kids. Keep connecting, stay with them, and they’ll stay with you.”
The U.S. Assemblies of God is doing a better job at retaining teenagers and young adults than most denominations. Of the Fellowship’s 3.2 million adherents, 54 percent are under the age of 35 and 31 percent are under 18. More than 10 percent are between 13 and 17 years old.