In this is new series Bart Frost reviews books relevant youth and young adult ministry ranging across the spectrum of denominations to help you decide which ones are worth your time and which ones you can pass on. Each installment features a brief review, examines the relevance of the book to our Unitarian Universalist context, highlights positives and negatives, and ends with a few choice takeaways.
Growing Young—Fuller Youth Institute
I’ve decided to begin this new book review series with my current favorite book, Growing Young by the folks over at the Fuller Youth Institute. Fuller Youth Institute is also affiliated with the outfit behind the Sticky Faith theory and framework. A group of veteran youth pastors, I find the Fuller Youth Institute work to be on-the-cutting-edge and accessible to our Unitarian Universalist faith.
I love Growing Young because it presents six concrete strategies for ministering to young folks in your congregations: keychain leadership, empathize with today’s young people, take Jesus’ message seriously, fuel a warm community, prioritize young people (and families) everywhere, and be the best neighbors. While having six strategies might seem overwhelming, the truth is that Powell, *Mulder, and Griffin provide multiple anecdotes of their value from their research, and at least one of the strategies is going to create an “ah-ha!” moment for you and your leadership team.
You might be thinking to yourself, “But why do our congregations need to support young folks? Why do we need to grow young? Is growing old bad?” Let me share an example from the first chapter:
Visualize a photograph of the young people in your congregation. Now imagine holding a red pen and drawing an X through almost 50 percent of their faces. That many will fall away from the faith as young adults. (p.18)
Up that number to 90% for our youth and young adults. The myth that they will return once they have children is not true and our congregations are aging faster than the US average. Furthermore, the anecdotes in the field put the average length of involvement in Unitarian Universalism at 5-10 years. How would our faith change if 90% of our congregations were folks who grew up in the faith or found it as a young adult?♦
So now that you’ve accepted the premise that we do need to support our young folks better, we can talk about some really cool elements of Growing Young:
1. The graphics and text boxes provide useful anecdotes, data, and resources and every chapter has lots of them.
2. It’s an easy read and translates into Unitarian Universalism relatively easily (more on that in a bit).
3. Each chapter has digestible highlights AND strategic questions to help you evaluate where you are and help you plan for the future.
Furthermore, the six strategies are things you can actually do, no matter the size of your congregation. I’m not going to tell you more, because I want you (and your leadership team, RE committee, etc.) to read it!
The Not So Good
There are two tension points for me, and probably other Unitarian Universalists. The first is the chapter about empathizing with today’s young people has a subsection called “Sexual Experimentation” which overemphasizes virginity and uses statistics that feel out of date. My understanding is the rates of teen sexual activity andsubstance use are declining, so I’m wondering why old data was used. I was surprised to find out that one of the sources is a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, an organization that actively promotes birth control. My own experience working with youth and as an Our Whole Lives(UU) (UCC) facilitator has me less worried about virginity and more worried about how young people are learning about consent, communication, and safer practices. Overall, this minor critique is an invitation for you to empathize with today’s young folks without pearl-clutching and hand-wringing.
The second is less on Fuller Youth Institute and more on us as Unitarian Universalists. Quick show of hands, how many of you read “Taking Jesus’ Message Seriously” and were like “Well, this isn’t going to work for my congregation”? I invite you to translate it to “Taking Unitarian Universalism Seriously”, which is something folks of all ages in our faith need to do. Unitarian Universalism may sound like an easy proposition, but friends, it is not. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hard. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning is hard. Affirming and promoting the goal of world community with peace, justice, and liberty for all is hard. And our Sources are hard too. I bet if we encouraged each other to really live into our Principles and Sources and to take our theology seriously, we’d see more growth in our communities and have a larger impact in the world.
- There are three mental models that help you understand your role in the church: structural (CEO), relational (family), and symbolic (rituals, sermons, etc.) (p.69). Ask yourself, which one of these are you most comfortable in and challenge yourself to make space for and mentor younger leaders in that model (p.75.)
- Young people have three major questions they are struggling with that we all struggle with at various times in our lives: Who am I? Where do I fit? and What difference do I make? These are questions about identity, belonging, and purpose, respectively. (p.122)
- When we prioritize young folks, that means we have to also prioritize families. We know parents are their children’s primary theologians and that means we need to partner with them. This requires a congregational culture shift, not just good leaders, programs, or intentions. (p.231)
Overall, I give Growing Young 4.5 out of 5. It’s an incredibly useful tool and I can see it being especially effective when used in staff teams or with boards/committees that can handle the language. It’d be an interesting all-congregation read, but I’m not sure that would be successful for most of our congregations. Growing Young can also be a great tool to inform your work within your congregation, no matter what your role is. For leaders throughout a congregation, this should inspire you to start strategizing about ways that you can develop, support, and mentor young leaders in your life.