NC Family President John L. Rustin speaks with Brad Griffin, Associate Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, which focuses on providing research, resources, and support to churches who want their youth ministry programs to help young people develop a fruitful, and long-lasting faith.
This radio show was first aired in October of 2016. It re-aired in August of 2018.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today we’ll be hearing about an innovative, research-driven approach to helping prevent “faith drift” among younger generations. Our guest today is Brad Griffin, associate director of the Fuller Youth Institute, which focuses on providing research, resources, and support to churches who want their youth ministry programs to help young people develop a fruitful, and long-lasting faith. Brad and his colleagues at the Fuller Youth Institute focus on translating research into practical resources for youth leaders, particularly through their “Sticky Faith” line of training and resources. They also have published a new book called Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. Brad, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.
BRAD GRIFFIN: My pleasure. It’s great to be here.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, as we begin, let’s set the stage for our discussion. Talk for a minute, if you will, about the trends you are seeing among America’s younger generations as far as faith and church engagement is concerned. How do the younger generations of today compare with their parents and their grandparents when they were young?
BRAD GRIFFIN: Really great question. Certainly, a lot of parents and grandparents are concerned about this question because they see a lot of shifts. And one of the things that has really kind of risen people’s concern over the last decade or so is some research that has shows that about one out of two young people who are involved in the church during high school, walk away from God and the church within the first 12-18 months after graduation. And you know that can be alarming, certainly for those of us in ministry and/or any of us who are parents or grandparents. But that’s coupled with the trend that church attendance overall is on the decline in our country, and churches are aging. The average attendance in your average church across the country is aging and shrinking, and we need to kind of understand that a little bit better.
JOHN RUSTIN: Interesting. Are there any explanations or theories on the “why” behind this drop in faith?
BRAD GRIFFIN: There’s a lot of things we can wonder about. Certainly, there [have] been some massive cultural shifts about the role of you know the church and society and the importance of faith. There’ve been cultural shifts that kind of align with the growth of affluence as well, and a culture where there’s a lot more choice about what to do with your time and entertainment options. But there’s another piece of that, that [is pointed out by ] the National Study of Youth and Religion, one of the larger sociological studies of young people and faith in the past decade or so. One of the things they said is that young people are mirroring adult faith in our culture: this adult faith that really is kind of compartmentalized and tends to be something that’s easy for young people to walk away from in some sense, because it’s kind of an anemic faith. So, I think in some ways this is about young people, and in some ways it’s about us, it’s about adults in their lives. Those are a couple of the things. One of the other trends is that, in the past, folks were getting married, having children much younger. Now, the average age of first childbirth, average age of first marriage, both of those are nearing 30 for the first time in our history. And more and more people are choosing not to get married than ever before, and more people are not having children. So, those triggers tend to be also what draw young people back to church historically and they’re not happening or they’re happening much later. So it leaves this decade or more of time when some of those cultural forces that might have drawn people in are not present.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, tell us about the “Sticky Faith” program. I love that name. How did it come to be? What are its goals? And what kind of results have you seen so far?
BRAD GRIFFIN: We went after this research because we weren’t satisfied with some of those statistics and trends, and we are a researched-based resourcing organization. We believe in young people. We believe in church. We want to see the church and the family succeed when it comes to helping young people have lasting faith, lifelong faith—what we began to call “Sticky Faith.” So a while back, we began a three-year research project that was the core of Sticky Faith. We tracked with 500 young people across the transition from high school to college, and we followed that up with some other studies and studies of families. That’s really what Sticky Faith emerged out of. And we found that leaders and parents and churches are really hungry to come around this problem, and more importantly, to come around young people and support them and help them develop that kind of faith.
JOHN RUSTIN: Many parents may start to panic a bit when it is time for their children to go off to college or to start their careers, for fear that they will succumb to either religious apathy, which you’ve addressed somewhat, or outright hostility toward the Christian faith. In our culture, that is so pervasive. What should parents be doing to help their children develop a deep, growing faith that will stick with them throughout their lives, and when should parents start to do that?
BRAD GRIFFIN: The good news is it’s really never too late to start talking about faith more in the family, but we have so much more leverage when we start sooner. And one of the realities of the research, when you when you look across the span of research on young people and faith, parents are the number one influence on their kid’s faith. And whether we believe that or not, whether we believe it or not—even in adolescence, when other influences become important in young people’s lives, parental faith is still very important. A lot of parents I know kind of give up that leverage or that influence in those teenage years. And one thing we’ve found is we’ve learned a lot from parents who just hang in there with their kids and remember that their influence still matters. Another piece is that while parents are the number one influence on faith, a lot of parents don’t talk about their faith much with their kids. But those who do, research shows that parents’ talking about their own faith actually helps their kids’ faith grow. And unfortunately, a lot of parents may feel like, if I’ve taken my kid to church or I’m involving them in youth programs, that’s enough. And those are all wonderful things to do, but if we are silent at home around our own tables and in our own cars about faith and the impact it has on our life, that silence really speaks volumes to our kids more than whatever else we do to involve them in religious activities. So, we really encourage parent to talk with kids, talk about your own faith, don’t just interrogate them about what you do at youth group. But allow your kids into your own story, and even maybe your own questions and struggles about faith, particularly with older teenagers. We heard from one parent who said, our son came back from college and a lot of his friends were really struggling with their faith and we asked how that had been for him. He said, I’ve had some new questions, some new things that have come up, but I remember dad talking about how he went through a season as a young adult and I knew that it was okay. I knew that it was okay to have these kinds of questions. And so it hadn’t been as rocky for him, simply because his parents had actually shared a little bit about their own journey.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, I know your new book, Growing Young, looked specifically at about 250 churches across the country as you were doing research and your studies into this. What kinds of churches were included in your review, and what did you learn?
BRAD GRIFFIN: The great news is we were studying what we call “Bright Spot” churches. So in the midst of some of the kind of bad news about churches on the decline in America, these were bright spots. They were diverse churches from across the country, all different sizes and ethnicities, that were nominated because they were doing well with engaging young people. And specifically ages 15-29, that high school, post high school and emerging adult stage. These churches were growing not only in reaching young people, but in their overall vitality and life, because they were engaging young people well. That was really the heart of our study.
JOHN RUSTIN: Brad, I was really struck by one of the book’s major findings, which really seemed to be a bit counterintuitive. I know there’s a prevalent trend—or there has been—in youth outreach programs that says, in order to attract young people, churches must have cool music, more entertainment, the best coffee, and be in the trendiest spots. Basically kind of marketing themselves to the youth of today. But is that what you found in your research?
BRAD GRIFFIN: We found something different, which was refreshing. And the way we’ve been talking about this is, we found that warm is the new cool. When we asked young people to describe their churches, and when we asked them to talk about why their church is effective with their age group, the kind of things they said to us—they didn’t talk about the entertainment. They didn’t actually talk about the worship service that much, or the style. They didn’t talk about the coffee at all! What they did say, the most common phrase they used was “like family.” This church is like my family, or this church is my family. I feel like I belong here. I could be myself here. This sense of authentic community. And we began to call that “warmth,” as we looked at this cluster of terms that was all about belonging, family, community. And the great news is, you don’t have to be very hip or cool and you don’t have to have big budget in order to do warmth. Any church can grow in their warmth, no matter what their resources. So that was one of the surprises that we thought was really good news for every church.
JOHN RUSTIN: And I know that the book does look at six core commitments that successful youth programs tend to share, but it really does seems that a lot of that comes down to personal relationships. Why is that personal connection, in your opinion Brad, so important, and how can churches successfully work to foster that in their own programs?
BRAD GRIFFIN: I think, fundamentally, it’s so important because it’s how we’re made. We’re made for relationship. We’re made for connection, and we are made to follow Jesus along with other people. That’s why we believe in the church so much, because we believe we were made for this. God created the church for us to be a support to each other and to be, as Paul says, the tangible body of Christ here on earth. And I think too many young people feel like they’re going through life in isolation from others, and no matter how connected we may be by social media and other kinds of digital forms of connection, there’s a longing for that real, personal connection. And, I’ll tell you a story about someone called Bill Wallace, whom we met in our research, that kind of illustrates this. Bill was at a church in Lanceyville, Pennsylvania. We kept hearing from young people about what they loved about their church, and why they’re so connected to this church, and we kept hearing Bill’s name. And we found out that Bill Wallace is actually a 71-year-old, and he just loves young people. And in his own background, in childhood, he was involved in things and didn’t have a lot of adult support and presence, and so he said, that’s not going to happen to the young people at our church. So Bill took it on himself, not only to get involved and to show up, he’ll go to ball games and plays and you know recitals, and just kind of support and cheer on the youth in the church. But he also has taken it on himself to recruit other senior adults in that congregation, and he calls it their “brigade.” And they are a brigade on behalf of young people. People like Bill, stirring up the imagination of others to say: hey this is about relationship.This isn’t only about young people! This is about all of us.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s a great example. I know that many of our listeners are interested in learning more about the resources that you all have provided and this book. Where can our listeners go to learn more about Sticky Faith, and to order your book, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church?
BRAD GRIFFIN: I’ll start with the latter, Growing Young. You can visit churchesgrowingyoung.com in order to not only order the book but there’s a host of free resources there and there’s a free assessment that anyone can take that helps kind of get a handle of what’s going on in their church right now related to these six core commitments. And for Sticky Faith, visit our website: fulleryouthinstitute.org. We have a host of free resources there, in addition to the Sticky Faith books.
JOHN RUSTIN: Excellent. And with that, Brad Griffin, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for putting in the time, effort and research into understanding what’s going on in our culture with young people and faith today, and then helping to communicate that information so that we all can take a part in helping our young people develop a Sticky Faith.
BRAD GRIFFIN: My pleasure! Thank you, John, for having me.
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