ArticlesMy Journey with Growing Young

My Journey with Growing Young

Brandon McCarroll, Pastor at Highland Baptist Church 


My Journey with Growing Young

Last Christmas Eve, my wife took this picture of me giving the children’s message during our Candlelight service.  It’s one of the most meaningful pictures I have taken during my time serving at Highland.  I still remember the first Christmas Eve service I led in 2013.  The time arrived in the service when our music minister invited all the kids to come to the front for a Children’s message.  One small child slowly approached the stage, all alone.  I could sense everyone else turning their heads around waiting for someone else to come forward, but that was it.  We had one child present on Christmas Eve.  It was an all-too-visible picture of a critical group that was missing from our church. 


Before I started as Pastor here, the church realized they needed to reach younger people, if they were going to survive.  Our church had a genuine desire to see more children and youth in their midst, but we didn’t have any clear direction on how to go about it.  I was just starting out in my first Pastorate and trying to figure out which way was up. So I was not much help.  It was around this time that our then-Youth Pastor handed me this green-covered book and said, “You have to check this out.”  I read it and the book quickly grabbed my attention because it provided data, direction, and practical insight into how we could go about this.  It gave legs to the heart our church was expressing. 


The book, Growing Young, was written by Kara Powell and the team at Fuller Seminary (the same folks who wrote Sticky Faith).  They recognized that what my church was struggling with was a wider problem in the church across North America: the church was missing a generation. The researchers wanted to know what churches could do to get them back.  So they studied hundreds of churches who were already reaching young people well, and asked what do these churches have in common? What are they doing that is making them so effective in reaching the next generation for Christ?


From this, they determined there were six key characteristics that made these churches effective in “growing young.” Perhaps what was just as informative for me though, was the items they said your church did not need to grow young.  Before laying out what did help churches reach young people, the authors shared 10 things they found had no correlation with churches “growing young.” 


10 Myths of Growing Young //10 Qualities Your Church Doesn’t Need to Grow Young


  1. A precise size.  When it comes to growing young, there was no “Goldilocks church” whose size was “just right.”  Whether your church was large, small, or somewhere in between, it made no difference in reaching the next generation. 
  2. A trendy location or region.  They found growing young churches in urban centers, near college campuses, and in rural one-stoplight towns.  As Kara Powell puts it, “Your location does not have to be a limitation.”
  3. An exact age of church or church-leader.  I know I have heard many aging churches express the sentiment that “we need to hire a young pastor so that we can reach more young people.”  When interview participants were asked, however, about what made their churches effective with young people, only one in ten mentioned having younger leaders.  When young people were asked why they stay involved with their current church, almost no one talked about how their church or its leaders were exclusively young.  Hiring a millennial pastor is no guarantee that you will suddenly have droves of millennials joining your church. If you are an older pastor, it does not mean you cannot reach young people. “When it comes to churches that grow young, there is no age discrimination.”
  4. A popular denomination…or lack of a denomination.  This one surprised me a bit because when I was growing up, the prevailing wisdom was denominational names carried too much baggage. If you wanted to grow, people said you needed to drop the denomination from your name. The Growing Young research found though that no denomination (or non-denomination) rose to the top of their studies.
  5. “An off-the-charts-cool quotient.” The researchers wrote that churches with “a certain hip factor…were in the minority of those they studied.”    If you are decidedly “not cool” like me, there is no need to fear.  Your church can still grow young.
  6. A big, modern building. Some churches they studied had new, state-of-the-art facilities.  Others were renting schools, community centers, and even living rooms.  Most were meeting in “decent, but not spectacular, spaces.”
  7. A big budget.   A church’s effectiveness with young people had nothing to do with the size of their budget. Rather, it had to do with how they prioritized the budget they did have.
  8. A contemporary worship service.  When I’ve talked about this book with other pastors, this finding is always the most controversial.  Many pastors are convinced that if they want to start reaching young people, the most pressing change they need to make is to immediately make the music more contemporary.  I must confess that when I first started at our church, I similarly thought our traditional worship style might be the biggest barrier we would face with young people.

The data says this is not completely off-base. Contemporary worship can help. Churches they studied were more likely to prefer modern worship, but there were churches with all different styles (traditional, high-church, etc.) reaching young people.  More importantly, the contemporary churches were not relying on worship alone as a magnet.

When the researchers asked young people “What makes your church most effective with young people,” only 9% mentioned worship style.  Among the top-third of churches most effective with young people, only 3% mentioned worship style. When pastors were asked the same question though, nearly twice as many mentioned worship style as a vital factor.  Pastors are right that worship style does matter, but they are vastly overestimating how much it matters.

9. A watered-down teaching style.  Many may be under the impression that to reach young people, they need to avoid certain issues, or “whitewash” scripture to make it more palatable.  The research showed the opposite.  Young people want to hear about difficult subjects.  They want to hear about Jesus and all of what it means to follow Him.  What makes the difference is not what we say about difficult topics, but the manner in which we approach them.

10. A hyper-entertaining ministry program. Young people today have more entertainment options at their fingertips than any other generation in the history of the world. If young people come to church, they aren’t coming because they need to be entertained. They are coming to church for something different, something more.  A church “[being] slick is no guarantee of success.” If anything, I find that being overly slick might work against you.  Young people have antennas that are highly attuned to fake.  If you’re entertaining but they sense you are not authentic, they are out. 



No Silver Bullet

In my brief time in ministry, it’s been my experience that many churches are looking for a silver bullet.  They want one easy, quick fix to this problem.  “If we just hire a young pastor…” Or “if we just bring in a drummer and subwoofers,” then we will have young people flocking to our doors (I seriously had a conference speaker tell me the part about subwoofers once).

These solutions rarely have the desired effect.  It’s not because there is anything wrong with hiring a young pastor or implementing contemporary worship. These things may well be part of your solution. The problem comes when we view them as a silver bullet that will solve everything, without any other effort or change on the part of the congregation. 

The characteristics that do help churches grow young are not silver bullets. They are biblical principles that take time to implement and will require the whole church to work together. The good news is though, that this means any church can grow young because any church can cultivate these principles. 

What this list of myths did for me and my church, was remove many of the excuses we had told ourselves.  I had heard so many people say things like “Young people today just don’t want to hear the full truth of scripture.”  Or “Families won’t come here because we can never compete with the flashy programs at the big church down the street.” “Our music is too old-fashioned to attract young people.” To be honest, I had been guilty of saying things like this myself at times.  

The Growing Young research gave us concrete evidence that we were wrong.  These things had become excuses for why we weren’t growing, but the good news was we could do it.  We didn’t have to mimic the megachurch down the street. I didn’t have to put on skinny jeans and pretend to be cool (is that even cool anymore? I am getting old myself).  Our church could cultivate these principles in a way that was authentic to who we were as a church.


So can you.



The picture from Christmas Eve is so meaningful to me because it’s a picture of God’s grace to me and our church.  Today, our church still skews older, however, we have a solid group of families, children, and young people who have joined.  Out of about 100 in our church on a Sunday morning, we usually have 15-20 kids present.  In the last two years, we’ve had 20 new members join our church, 8 of whom are under the age of 27. Last December, I was able to baptize two new college students.  


We are an average-sized, established church (est. 1891). We still have a piano and an organ every Sunday. I am the only full-time staff member and, until recently, we were aging significantly.  We don’t have a multi-million dollar budget and I most certainly do not have a “hip factor,” but we do have a lot of faithful, godly people who love Jesus and love each other.  They especially love the children in our church and want them to love Jesus too.  When young people show up, the church is eager to welcome them in and invest in their lives  When I see those children sitting on the steps with me, I see how God has worked through people like that at our church to help us grow younger.  If God can breathe new life into our church, He can do it in yours too. 



*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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