ArticlesBecoming a Benjamin Button Church

Becoming a Benjamin Button Church

Brandon McCarroll, Pastor at Highland Baptist Church


Editors Note: This is the second part to a previous article written by McCarroll that you can find here:


In 2008, Brad Pitt starred in the movie (based on a book) titled, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Benjamin Button’s case was curious because his life did not follow the natural aging process.  He was born into an old man’s body.  As he matured mentally and emotionally, his body was growing younger physically.   

Last month, I shared about my church’s desire to “grow younger” and a book we came across that helped us in the process.  When I started out on this journey, I told our congregation that we wanted to be a Benjamin Button church.  We needed to be maturing in our faith and walk with Christ, while at the same time growing younger in demographics.  The more I’ve talked to other pastors about our journey, the more I’ve discovered they are in a similar position.  Pastors and churches everywhere are struggling to figure out how their church can reach more young people.   

One of the reasons so many of us have this need is that growing younger is not natural.  Growing old is the natural course of events.  Without any effort on the part of the congregation, churches will age. It will take commitment and intentionality from the entire church if they are going to reverse the aging process and become a “Benjamin Button church.”  

The book that was helpful in giving my church direction on how to approach this issue is Growing Young.  It reported findings from the Fuller Youth Institute after they studied over 250 churches across North America, who were successfully reaching 15-29 year olds.  They wanted to know what these churches were doing that made them so effective with young people.   

Last month, I shared about the things they found did not correlate with a church growing younger.  They were characteristics many often assume would correlate, like a certain age of leader, a contemporary worship service, or an “off-the-charts cool quotient.”  This month though, I wanted to share the six essential strategies or core commitments they found these Benjamin Button churches did have in common.  


Six Core Commitments of Growing Young Churches 

1. Keychain Leadership:  As a Pastor, I carry an absurd number of keys. It sometimes feels as if every door on the church property has a different key to it.  There’s different keys for the office, the counting room, the sound booth, the storage shed, on and on. Every key on that ring represents some level of access and responsibility that has been entrusted to me.   

As leaders, we also carry figurative keys. These are ministries and areas that we are responsible for.  What often happens in churches is that a few leaders keep adding more “keys” (responsibilities) to their keyring and refuse to share them with anyone else.  Pastors can sometimes be the worst about this. We typically carry an absurd amount of figurative keys, but we feel it will be easier—or the work will be done better—if we do it ourselves.  So we refuse to give any of them up.    

The growing young research found that young people want opportunities to serve and to lead, but they need those opportunities to be given to them.  Then, they need caring leaders who will help train them for these roles.  Churches who are most effective with young people have “key-chain leaders.”  These are leaders who are keenly aware of the keys they hold.  Yet, they are intentional about entrusting and empowering all generations with their own set of keys. They are willing to give some of these keys over to others and equip them to use their gifts to serve. 


2. Empathy with Today’s Young People.  Every generation has a natural tendency to look down their noses on the generations after them.  The problem is you can’t reach people who you are looking down upon, and you can’t reach people you don’t at least attempt to understand. Churches reaching the next generation for Christ are those that empathize with young people today.  They define empathy as “feeling with young people.”  

One of the most effective ways to do this is simple: get to know a young person.  It’s easy to be condescending to people you do not have any real, meaningful contact with, but much more difficult when you have a relationship.  When you see something new, confusing, or offensive in culture, try asking them why?   


3. Take Jesus’ Message Seriously: There is a common misconception out there that young people don’t want to hear “the full truth” of scripture. The researchers with Growing Young found just the opposite.  Young people want to be challenged to follow Jesus more closely and want to hear what the Bible has to say about hard issues.   Since this book was released, I have seen growing anecdotal and research evidence that suggests this generation may be more spiritually hungry than their predecessors.  One recent study found that 18-to-24 year-olds were twice as likely to pray as those over the age of 55.   This past week, several of my pastor friends have been sharing a new article that found younger evangelicals are more likely than their older counterparts to crave in-depth teaching on scripture. 

Churches who are reaching younger people are teaching a robust gospel and challenging them on hard issues.  What makes the difference is how these topics are approached.  The authors wrote “young people appreciate being challenged if it comes from a place of inviting them to pursue Jesus together, not from a place of superiority.” Tough topics need to be tackled with grace.   


4. Fuel warm community:  When young people were asked to describe their churches, almost none used words like “trendy, sleek, cool, or entertaining.” The words they did repeatedly use were welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, and caring.  In their interviews, the most common term young people used to describe their church was “like family.” 

One of the overlooked ways in churches could stimulate this sense of family is by fostering warm intergenerational relationships.  When asked what the weakest area of their church was, the most common response from young people was “helping people from different age groups get to know each other.”   

We had a college student who used to joke that he didn’t have to pay for his Sunday lunch for months after joining our church because so many senior adults would invite him out after service.    Another widowed senior adult in our church has taken to “adopting” some of the college students as her “grandchildren.”  Every Sunday before service, she walks up to one, gives him a big hug, and asks him “how is my grandson doing today?”  The sense of belonging and family those senior adults are providing them with is one of the reasons those college students come back every week.   


5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere:  The authors said “the prioritization of young people everywhere represents our tangible, institutional commitment to allocate resources and attention—not only for specific youth programming—but also across the life of the congregation.”  This does not mean churches should neglect other ages groups, however when there’s a tough choice, all generations must come together to display a common commitment to teenagers and emerging adults.   

We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes, but here’s one way we got this right at our church recently.  We’ve been in the process of renovating our kids’ space.  Due to the way our building is laid out, the best way to make the area secure required cutting off access to a secondary bathroom which had previously been open to the whole church.   

In our meetings with the church though, it was many of our adult leaders (including the group who was going to be most inconvenienced by it) who stood up and said “please add the security doors there. Making our kids area safe is far more important than being inconvenienced by the bathroom.” 

Those words sent a message to all the kids and young families that they mattered to the church.  This is critical for any church who wants to grow young.  The research found this trait was a hinge point.  If a church did the first four things well, but did not prioritize young people in their institutional commitment, they would not grow young. 


6. Be the Best Neighbors:  Around 60% of the young people interviewed mentioned service projects, missional practices, or being outward oriented as important to what makes their church effective. Young people want to opportunities to serve and to feel like they are doing good both locally and globally. 

The churches that loved their neighbors did not deny the problems of the world.  They were however, able to honor what was good in their community, while maintaining dialogue and relationship where they disagreed. This posture allowed growing young churches to offer young people a thoughtful path to loving their neighbor well.   

None of this is really new though.  When I read these six core commitments, I thought about the example of the early church. Acts 2:42-47 tells us: 

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. 

The book of Acts never describes the church as sleek, entertaining, or cool. What it does show us though, is a church filled with people serious about following Jesus.  They weren’t just showing up for an hour each week to check off a box. They met together, prayed together, worshipped together, and ate together in each other’s homes. They did not treat each other with condescension or disdain, but displayed empathy and became like a family.  Then they went out into the Temple Courts and helped those in need. They were good neighbors!  This is why they “enjoyed the favor of all people” and “the Lord added to their number.”  The church took off! Instead of growing older and dying, the church grew younger and thrived.  They became a Benjamin Button church.  Perhaps, we can go and do likewise. 



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

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