Sean McDowell | March 14, 2017

Book Review: Growing Young

Book Review: Growing Young

We have all heard the grim news: Church attendance is declining across denominations and young people are disengaging the church.[1] In an effort to address this problem, the team at Fuller Youth Institute has released a new book: Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin).

What makes Growing Young unique is that it is based upon an in-depth study of scholars, national ministry leaders, youth ministry experts, as well as research and visits to 363 diverse congregations who have effective ministries to young people. Like their previous book Sticky Faith, this book is based on careful research and analysis.

There are a few things I particularly appreciate about Growing Young. First, the authors recognize that there is hope for the church today. All is not lost. There are congregations truly engaging and equipping the next generation. Second, young people should not be an add-on to the church, but the heart of the church. When this is done right, it brings a true vibrancy to the entire congregation. As the author observe, “The good news is that when we bridge generation gaps, everyone grows young.”[2] And third, at the end of each chapter there are practical steps for church leaders and volunteers to take to help their church “grow young.” This is a book of research, stories, and application.

Here are ten of the more interesting findings from their study:

1. Young people regularly expressed that they desire relationships not just with young youth leaders, but with more seasoned leaders as well.

2. US teens are not hostile towards religion, but they do not care much about it either.

3. Churches that successfully engage students don’t water down the gospel or the cost of following Jesus.

4. Young people seemed compelled by a faith that promises reward in Heaven, but also renewal and transformation in the present.

5. Effective youth-focused churches embrace tough questions and give students room to doubt.

6. Rather than merely inviting students to volunteer, youth-focused churches help students participate in the life of the church.

7. Nearly twice as many pastors as students list worship music as vital to church effectiveness.

8. The highest response of what kept young people in church was personal relationships and warmth.

9. Churches that are growing young genuinely prioritize young people and their interests in programs, budget, participation, and emphasis.

10. Few students expressed that they stayed in church because of a “Superpastor.”

Their research revealed that one of the biggest challenges churches face in ministering to teens and emerging adults is navigating culture. And this includes difficult issues like sexual identity, gay marriage, and racial diversity. This fits my experience perfectly (And it is one reason why I am excited about the upcoming book by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle: A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World).

The authors of Growing Young emphasize that churches who effectively reach young people are open to dialogue with outsiders and don’t treat culture as the enemy: “Churches that grow young recognize the careful dance that values both fidelity to Scripture’s commands for holiness and knowing and graciously loving their neighbors.”[3] Amen.

I do wish the authors had given some more specifics about how youth-focused churches actually help students navigate culture. If David Kinnaman is right in You Lost Me, one of the great tragedies of the church today is that we’re not teaching kids how to think Christianly about all aspects of life: “I think the next generation’s disconnection stems ultimately from the failure of the church to impart Christianity as a comprehensive way of understanding reality and living fully in today’s culture.”[4]

This is not so much a criticism of the book. After all, they’re writing to a broad spectrum of theological traditions, and they do give some helpful principles. Yet teaching students to biblically navigate culture is perhaps the most pressing issue for youth workers and parents today.

Although Growing Young is primarily aimed at church workers, I found it immensely helpful in my own work with students (as a professor, part-time high school teacher, parent, and youth speaker). The church today desperately needs to learn how to engage and equip young people, and this book offers some helpful steps how to do so.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, a part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[1] According to the authors of Growing Young, “Multiple studies highlight that 40 to 50 percent of youth group seniors—like the young people in your church—drift from God and the faith community after they graduate from high school” (p. 17).

[2] Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, & Brad Griffin, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 175.

[3] Ibid., 237.

[4] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 114.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: