God worked miracles to revitalize our aging church in just four years, growing the number of young adults from fewer than 5 to more than 30.1 It radically transformed our congregation and community.
As more young adults began joining our church, one historically characterized by retirees, we encountered unexpected tension between the older and younger generations. As a result, organizational and cultural change needed to accompany our organic growth.
What could our church do to further catalyze, unify, and sustain our revitalization through empowering young adults in mission?
Representation in church leadership
Paul wrote to Timothy, the young leader overseeing the vibrant church mission in Ephesus, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12; emphasis added).2 How can young people “set an example” if they are not seen and heard where church decisions take place?
When I arrived at the church in 2016, the average age of the church-board members was 61.3 Curious how the church had grown old, I asked the clerk, who had served for decades, to do some research. Using old church nominating committee reports she had filed away, the clerk compiled the names and ages of all church-board members for each of the previous 10 years as well as one year from each of the past five decades. What we found was enlightening.
Up until 2008, the average age of the church board had been on an upward trajectory since 1978 when it was only 45 (see figure 1). I was surprised to recognize the names of several church-board leaders in 1978 as some of the most involved members in 2016. They had started leading the church when they were in their 20s and 30s! Since they did not empower new younger leaders to serve in their place, the church had grown old just as they did.
Most current board members were proud to have served for at least a decade. Leaders were automatically renominated every year. How could we, then, empower new young leaders without causing undue heartache and fallout?
We refreshed the nominating committee process, requiring at least three names to be nominated before voting on each position by secret ballot through a weighted average.4 We also added some church-approved new board positions. The names of young adults and others who were already leading groups and community ministry naturally rose to the top for the new board positions. Within three years, the average age on the board had dropped to 51 (see figure 2), the youngest it had been in 40 years.
We went from our youngest board member being in their mid-40s to having eight board members 35 and under (four of them as new elders).
Electing new young voices to the leadership table began changing the conversation. They often shared inspiring stories about ministry and courteously raised questions about how things were done. Older leaders grew to respect the young leaders because of their spiritual example.
Integration into church structures
As the New Testament church grew rapidly and organically, tension developed between two groups in the church. “The Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). What was the solution? “ ‘Choose seven men from among you. . . . We will turn this responsibility over to them’ ” (v. 3; emphasis added). The church realized it needed to integrate representatives of the new believers into its structures.
As the number of young adults in our church increased, so did the tension between generations. It was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going on or how to move forward. One year into our journey, our union sponsored us to participate in the Growing Young Cohort by the Fuller Youth Institute. Based on extensive research of Christian churches in North America, the book Growing Young discovered a critical link between young adults and church health. “Healthy churches reach young people, and young people make churches healthier. If your church is reaching 20-year-olds, your church will reach 60-year-olds.”5
Four intergenerational lay leaders and I participated in two in-person summits and monthly webinars for learning and strategic implementation over the course of one year. The cohort journey brought helpful focus to the young adult conversation in our church. Growing Young covers six essential strategies to help young people discover and love your church:
- Unlock keychain leadership
- Empathize with today’s young people
- Take Jesus’ message seriously
- Fuel a warm community
- Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere
- Be the best neighbors
We used the Growing Young Church Assessment Tool to reveal how we were doing in those six areas. More than 50 members filled out the 60-question assessment. We discovered that different generations had vastly different perceptions of our church. (See figure 3.)
Those 40 and above had a much more positive view of how the church was engaging and empowering young adults than the young adults themselves did. Young adults, ages 18–29, rated our church significantly lower.
A year and a half later, we used the Growing Young Church Assessment again. This time it indicated very little disparity between generations. (See figure 4.)
The highest scores actually came from young adults who were 18–29. What had changed?
Young adults were now being integrated into church structures. Half of the elders were under 35. One-third of the church-board leaders were under 35. The church elected a young-adult leader. They voted for a new $2,000 young-adult budget (up from $0 for the past 60-plus years). The church provided facility space to a newly formed young-adult Sabbath School group. Worship coordinators integrated youth and young adults into various platform roles every Sabbath (until then, nearly everyone up front was 65 or older). New young-adult praise teams joined the rotation. Youth and young-adult preachers were empowered. Young adults were elected to serve on the nominating committee and as delegates to the conference constituency session. In addition, young adults now led several of the church’s small groups.
A common question while forming committees or ministry teams now became, “How can this involve young adults?” While true culture change begins organically in the margins, it must ultimately be reflected organizationally through church structures for it to continue and have any true influence.
Meaningful intergenerational relationships
Older church members began intentionally seeking out young people for meaningful intergenerational relationships.
Chuck (in his mid-70s) pursued a relationship with Caleb and Virginia when the couple moved to town after graduating college. Learning that Caleb liked to work with his hands, Chuck invited him to help fix up an old pickup truck he had. When they finished, Caleb could have the truck. Caleb could not believe it! He got a new truck, new skills, and a new mentor. “Chuck is basically like family to me,” Caleb shared. When a need arose for a new youth Sabbath School teacher, Caleb volunteered. He was happy to pay forward the investment that Chuck had made in him.
As one of the most respected leaders in the church, Troy (early 70s) served as church-board chair and supervised facility improvements. He connected with Trei, a new young engineer. Trei was highly gifted with audiovisual skills and suggested upgrades for the church’s outdated equipment that would add quality video streaming capabilities. Troy encouraged Trei and used his influence to win over stakeholders to Trei’s plan. When Trei’s $80,000 proposal reached the business meeting, it was voted unanimously. The church had the money. They invested it not only in new equipment but also in a new young leader. Together, Trei and Troy spent countless hours installing the new equipment. Then Trei trained some of his young-adult friends from work to help run the new system.
The first stages of the upgrade were installed right before the COVID pandemic lockdown. God promises to pour out His Spirit in these last days: “ ‘Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions’ ” (Joel 2:28). Who could have predicted that God would give an emerging young leader a vision in advance that would carry the church through the looming crisis?
Mobilization for kingdom growth and multiplication
Mobility due to job and life transitions is one of the greatest challenges to revitalizing churches through empowering young adults. Local churches that maintain a strong focus on connecting with, involving, and empowering young adults as leaders will see growth and multiplication despite young-adult mobility. However, if a church loses its focus and key young adults move away, positive results can be quickly eroded.
When we embrace a kingdom mindset about the spiritual harvest, young adults who move away are not leaving but being sent out as missionaries to new cities and churches. Mobility is a tremendous opportunity for the kingdom.
When Jesus brought great healing to Capernaum, people “tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent’ ” (Luke 4:42, 43; emphasis added). Jesus cares about all towns, not just ours.
With a kingdom mindset, we trust Jesus to provide the gifts needed for His mission. We move forward as rapidly as possible with the young people He brings by giving them experiences that will grow them as missional spiritual leaders. If God calls them elsewhere, we want them to be ready to lead. In addition, we help them think about what they can do to make a difference for the kingdom there.
We loved hearing stories of young adults whom we had mentored going to other places, getting involved in other churches, and making a difference in mission.
After the opening night of our newly restarted young-adult home Bible-study group, I connected with Jed. He shared how he had recently purchased a dental practice and desired to use it as a way to minister to people. I told him a story about a dentist I knew who had planted a church out of his dental practice. “God could do that through you!” I encouraged.
Jed got really excited. It was the first time anyone had suggested church planting to him. The dream continued to grow.
He and a couple of friends gained valuable experiences in spiritual leadership with our church’s enthusiastic support. They spearheaded community health clinics and started a conference-wide young-adult retreat. In time, they became leaders and elders on the church board. They led a worship team that led to the formation of small groups that eventually brought people to baptism.
After a couple of years, Jed and his friends were ready to plant a new church near his dental practice in a nearby urban area. It was hard for many loving church members to see them go, but they understood the significance for the kingdom.
Our church sent a few young adults to become key leaders for the new church plant’s core team. They began the planting process during the pandemic and celebrated their grand opening at the beginning of 2022. From 2020 to 2022, Jed and others organized seven more free health clinics, celebrated more than a dozen baptisms (including patients and employees from Jed’s practice), and saw God grow the church plant to more than 50 people.
The Lord prepared those young adults for massive kingdom impact through an aging, small city local church that was intensely focused on empowering young adults in mission.
God can revitalize and multiply churches anywhere and everywhere through empowering young adults in mission. Ellen White writes, “With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Saviour might be carried to the whole world!”8
When we live with intense focus, prayer, and action, we can expect God to break through. It is His will. He will help us. As we identify, rally behind, and hold up our hands in prayer and support of our young leaders (Exod. 17:8–16), God will lead His people to the Promised Land.
- Virtually none of these 30-plus young adults transferred from other nearby Seventh-day Adventist churches. If you missed it, read “Empowering Young Adults in Mission: What Leaders Can Do” in the March 2023 Ministry issue (6–9), which discussed what leaders can do to revitalize their churches through empowering young adults in mission.
- Scripture is from the New International Version.
- Ages of the church-board members gathered by longtime Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church clerk Barbara Dietrich from the eAdventist Membership Database and Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church Nominating Committee Reports 1968, 1978, 1988, 1996 (closest data available to 1998), 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019; accessed October 4, 2018 and updated May 7, 2019.
- For more details on the nominating committee process (in harmony with the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual) we followed, see Dan Serns, “Nominating Committee: Ministry Models,” Elder’s Digest, July–September 2020, 4, 5, https://cdn.ministerialassociation.org
- Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016), 42.
- Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church Growing Young Church Assessment Report, January 11, 2018.
- Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church Growing Young Church Assessment Report, October 14, 2019.
- Ellen G. White, A Call to Stand Apart (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2002), 66.