By Clint Wilson
I would like to share with you the single most effective way I have encountered to develop mature, culturally-engaged, young adult Christian leaders, and the reason the church I serve has decided to launch the Louisville Bridge Fellows Program. But first, let us consider the nature of our predicament with young people.
It is no secret that churches are on the decline, especially among those of younger generations. The Episcopal Church has declined by 50 percent since 1970, and most other denominations in the West are in the same boat. Church growth experts have been shouting from the rooftops for decades now, yet the decline continues unabated.
This drop in worship (and discipleship) is not a uniquely Christian story, at least in the American context. From 1940 through 2000 the number of those who regularly attended any kind of house of worship hovered consistently around 70 percent. However, by 2020 America had dropped to 47 percent, a dramatic shift due mostly to falling attendance among millennials and those younger than them (see more here).
This is not news to anyone who has been paying attention. Young persons have left the church because of hypocrisy, disunity, abuse, and a vision of reconciliation that is far too small. While many leaders fret, and others shed ancient beliefs and practices in order to become “relevant,” there are encouraging and effective models emerging that not only holistically form young leaders to be committed to Christ in the face of secularism, but also keep them rooted in the local church, serving as a pipeline producing those who will lead for generations to come.
Let us return to the Louisville Bridge Fellows Program. In 1994 the very first Fellows program was started at an Episcopal parish in Falls Church, Virginia. This program flourished, and became a vital part of growing Falls Church Episcopal to the point that other churches began to take notice. Programs steadily opened in other denominations, with a strong concentration in Presbyterian circles.
The first time I encountered the Fellows program was through a parish I served in Tennessee that sponsored and helped launch a non-profit that offered my wife a job. After developing her skills in student leadership development, my wife came to lead the Nashville Fellows Program from 2015 to 2020. Five years of exposure to this mentoring model convinced me of its effectiveness for outreach, discipleship, and leadership development.
A 2018 Barna study determined the critical factors driving the decision of young adults to remain in the local church, and it turns out it really isn’t rocket science. So what makes the 25 percent of millennials who are active and engaged in local churches stay connected? Precisely the pillars of each and every Fellows program. The five most significant reasons millennials stay meaningfully connected to the local church correlate to the six essentials of every Fellows Program: a community that places an emphasis on relationships; teaching about cultural discernment; an emphasis on service to others; teaching about vocational discipleship; and facilitating meaningful connection to Jesus Christ as a person, and not a principle. Every Fellows program has these components baked into their communal rhythms.
More specifically, the Louisville Fellows Program is a nine-month intensive leadership development program for recent college graduates who desire to move to our great city and invest locally through leadership in the church, on the job, and in the community. Sponsored by St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church, this program exists to raise up young leaders who approach their lives and careers deliberately and thoughtfully, committed to excellence and integrity in all they do.
Remarkably, 70 percent of Fellows stay in their host city upon completing the program. Why? Because of the deep-rooted community Fellows experience with each other, in the church, and in the city as part of the program. The Louisville Fellows Program will recruit young adults graduating from universities around the country to move to our city and launch their careers. We will serve our business community, young leaders, and our parish through three primary avenues: professional development, spiritual growth, and church and community building. All Fellows will have a professional and spiritual mentor, live with a host family from our church, work in their field four days a week, take seminary-level classes one day a week, hear from local leaders impacting Louisville for the good, and spend weekly time cooking dinner for one another and hearing each other’s faith journey stories. Beyond this, we will have professional and spiritual development retreats for Fellows, helping them understand why their work matters for eternity. Because of the intentional self-development we do with Fellows, businesses are happy to employ Fellows, and many Fellows are offered a full-time position upon completion of the program. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, these young leaders serve as mentors in the church for youth and children during their time in the program, and they often stick around to become strong lay leaders, vestry members, Sunday school teachers, and more.
But Fellows programs require:
- a community that understands its commitment to raise up leaders
- a robust social network extending to civic, business, cultural, intellectual, and faith leaders
- financial resources to fund and fuel the program
- a parish willing to take risks and practice radical hospitality in order to form young adults deeply
- lay member engagement across all ages: volunteers to coach, mentor, teach, host, and challenge young persons
- intentional collaboration with marketplace leaders in your city
- a healthy “landing pad” — the fellows need to see a vision of growth and to sustain and pass on growth and health.
These commitments are a high bar for any church. But, with God’s help, we are determined to pursue this vision in Louisville at St. Francis in the Fields. A church in decline must take intentional and bold steps to grow among younger demographics. I have seen the Fellows program work across various denominations, and it is my hope more Episcopal churches will follow suit in launching similar ministries. If you would like to hear more, please reach out — I would love to chat!