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Bethel Seminary Alum Teaches Churches How to “Grow Young”

Kara Powell S’94 is executive director of Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.

At a recent pastors and ministry leaders event at Bethel University, Kara Powell S’94 presented the bad news first: One in two students who graduate from youth group end up drifting from God. No major Christian tradition is growing in the U.S. today. And religious “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation—are on the rise. But, she asked, what if this isn’t the whole story?

The whole story, it turns out, is that hundreds of churches across the U.S. are increasingly involving and retaining young people, bringing overall vitality to the entire church. Powell calls this phenomenon “growing young,” which also happens to be the title of her new book. Based on groundbreaking research with more than 250 of the nation’s leading congregations, Growing Young provides a strategy any church can use to involve and retain teenagers and young adults. It profiles innovative churches that are engaging 15- to 29-year-olds and as a result are growing—spiritually, emotionally, missionally, and numerically.

Powell brought the “growing young” concepts to Bethel, where an overflow crowd of youth pastors, children’s ministers, senior pastors, and other church leaders eagerly engaged with her content during an event sponsored by the Office of Church Relations and Work With Purpose initiative. She told the ministry leaders that certain qualities are not necessary for churches to grow young, including a precise size, a trendy location, an exact age, or a popular denomination (or lack of denomination).

Instead, her research with co-authors Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin identified six core commitments of churches that are successfully growing young:

  1. Unlock keychain leadership. Empower young people by handing them the keys to incremental leadership opportunities with increasing responsibility.
  2. Empathize. Listen to young people, feel with them, refrain from judging, adopt a posture of “tell me more.”
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously. Focus less on beliefs and more on Jesus. Encourage less dogmatic certainty and more authentic honesty. Preach both grace and obedience.
  4. Offer warm community. Young people describe warmth as welcoming, accepting, belonging, caring, authentic, and like a family.
  5. Prioritize young people everywhere. Prioritizing means intentionally paying attention, budgeting accordingly, and partnering with parents.
  6. Be the best neighbors. If your church’s building and people were removed from your community, would your community notice? Would it care?

Powell, a 1994 graduate of Bethel Seminary San Diego, is executive director of Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” she speaks regularly in the media and at parenting and leadership conferences.

In addition to Growing Young, Powell is the co-author of 2011’s Sticky Faith, a response to research finding that 40-50% of graduating high school seniors walk away from their faith. The book received national acclaim for its research-based, practical tips for parents and leaders to help kids develop a faith that “sticks,” and its concepts grew into a wider collection of resources bearing the same name.

In 2015, Powell was chosen as Bethel Seminary Alumna of the Year. “Kara represents the best of what a Bethel Seminary education has to offer,” says Justin Irving, professor of ministry leadership and director of Bethel Seminary’s doctor of ministry program.

Learn more about Bethel Seminary programs, or find further information and resources offered by the Fuller Youth Institute.

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