So many churches pour money and energy into flashy worship services meant to make teenagers and young adults think that church is cool.
But it turns out cool isn’t what young people want. Forget the rock-band vibe and the flashing lights. Warm is the new cool.
For our book “Growing Young,” we researched more than 250 congregations. When we spoke to more than 1,300 young churchgoers, ages 15 to 29, they told us what they want: authenticity and connection.
In a word: warmth.
When we analyzed the terms that young adults used to describe the churches or parishes that they chose, we noticed repeated words: welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable and caring. We began to call this the “warmth cluster.”
Across the board in statistical analyses, this warmth cluster emerged as a stronger variable than any ministry program. Ironically, it is possible that your church might be working against warmth by offering myriad programs. Busyness doesn’t equal warmth.
By suggesting that churches need to grow warmer, we don’t mean adults should be nice to young people. Nice does not cut it. And warmth is more than superficial community. It’s “like family” — as young people told us again and again during our interviews and field visits.
Here are some ideas to help your church become a warmer community:
- Redirect your budget to facilitate warmth whenever you can. At one multiethnic church, we were struck when volunteer leaders told us that they all have meal budgets. Every small group leader in the youth ministry is encouraged to take students out for meals or treats regularly as part of their formation process. The students trumpeted the value of this investment, as you’d expect from teenagers who are getting fed. But it wasn’t just about food; when describing their meal conversations, students used many of the phrases common to warm communities that emerged in our research.
- Encourage intergenerational worship. Intergenerational relationships grow everyone young by breaking the silos of age- and stage-based ministry. Consider setting up mentorship pairings so teens and parent- or grandparent-aged people can learn from each other. Make sure that young people have plenty of opportunities to worship not just in youth groups but side by side with older generations, so youth can learn from their elders’ dedication and older people can be inspired by youthful enthusiasm.
- When you renovate your worship space, think of it as a big family room. Rather than lean into the allure of viewing the worship service like a trip to the theater, imagine it as a gathering in the family room. Whether you meet in a sanctuary filled with pews, a contemporary auditorium, a high school gymnasium or an actual house, envision your worship experience like a family room. How would you set up the space if you felt you were convening cherished relatives?
- Generate tiny churches within the church. While we can’t tell you which small group format will work best for your community, we encourage you to consider how what you’re doing fuels warmth through peer friendships and intergenerational connections. Evaluate how your current small group leaders are trained and supported. Gather them and brainstorm improvements to make your small group strategy even more effective for nurturing warmth.
- Help newcomers land smoothly — and soon. Assess your church’s approach to visitors, with the aim of turning bystanders into central community members. Perhaps think specifically about how to approach visitors of different age groups and life circumstances (e.g., single adults, families with kids and college students).
Warmth may not seem like a big secret. But it does come with a hard truth: warmth is often slow. Really slow.
Stability, patience, faithfulness to a local community. These unsexy traits give root to churches that grow young, eventually producing the fruit of warmth. It takes time and commitment to move past the superficiality of lobby hellos into the intimate space of authenticity.
Progress may be slow. But that’s all the more reason to get started today.
The authors’ book “Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church” comes out this month from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. This excerpt is used with permission.