In the hilarious 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny , there’s a scene where an old southern judge asks the fast-talking, heavily accented, “Yankee” attorney, “What’s a ‘yute’?” (youth) … The attorney’s accent, cultural, and generational differences create several comical lost-in-translation moments throughout the film.

In our movement of churches, many from the older generation – of which I’m now a member – have been asking “What’s a yute? And why are they so upset? Or so disengaged? Or so indifferent? Or so… whatever?” It has become obvious that we are experiencing a profound and increasing generational difference in culture, communication style, and expectation around church. This should not come as a complete surprise to us. Our movement was born out of similar generational differences.

My wife and I have worked with youth in our movement for the past 15 years. We’ve been campus ministers, camp directors, HOPE Youth Corps leaders, Campus Service Team Members, and Next Gen Task Force members. We love working with youth because they are inspiring and challenging and provide us the opportunity to have generational impact for the Kingdom of God. The young people in our churches are incredible. They are world-changers. They can also be – at times – confusing, temperamental, and frustrating. Can’t we all?!

In the past few years there have been more than a few grassroots, youth-led movements that have created some measure of controversy within our churches. Whether we agree with their message, tactics, content or whatever else – we would be wise to learn from their critiques.

In early 2021 my wife and I along with a few other “older” (a relative term, for sure) disciples began something called the ICOC Youth Led Research Initiative. I have a background in youth led research ( Malcolm, 2020).

The purpose of the group was to create a process for fact-based, unbiased (or at least less biased) engagement from the younger generation in issues that concern them. The youth researchers were selected through an unofficial word of mouth and recommendation process. My role in this study was to mentor them as they led the research process. I had two goals:

  1. Engage with passionate young people to help create a sense of agency and engagement within our churches
  2. Create a data-based report of the findings that would be helpful for church leaders and members alike.

The Youth Researchers selected the topic of Pathways for Youth Influence within the ICOC. We created a survey and distributed it online through word-of-mouth style sharing which is known as Convenience Sampling in the research world. This is not a random sample of the entire ICOC and is therefore not representative of our entire movement. Rather, the results are representative of the people who chose to participate by filling out the survey.

Instead of writing up a long research report, the youth researchers decided to present their data in graphic form to be easily digestible. We have included many of these graphs in this article. We hope that the survey results would act as a starting point for helpful conversations around youth engagement in our faith family. These results should never be used to bludgeon one another or disprove perspectives. We all hope, pray, and strive for generational impact in the world. Intergenerational faithful conversations are required. We all would do well to develop a level of Discomfort Resilience (resilience) as we embark down this journey.

Research and Discussion:

The ICOC Youth Researchers chose to study pathways for youth influence in our movement of churches. Elements of youth influence that they chose to examine were opportunities for youth voice and power dynamics between members and leaders. They developed the following research questions to guide their process:

  1. What are the current pathways for youth influence within the ICOC?
  2. How do power dynamics between leaders and members impact these pathways for youth influence?

The youth researchers chose to create a survey and sent it out via email and social media. There were close to 800 respondents from around the globe. Most of the respondents are current members of the ICOC while some identified themselves as former members. Almost exactly half of respondents are current leaders in the ICOC (Bible Talk, house church, intern, minister, church leader) while the other half do not identify themselves as leaders.

The researchers are also in an ongoing process of interviewing leaders and members of the various regional families of churches. This is a much longer process that will reveal a different type of data and perspective. Stay tuned for more on this…

Some of the most interesting findings from the survey are around perceptions of spiritual credibility and opportunities for youth voice.

To the item, “ There are structural avenues for youth voice in the ICOC fellowship of churches ” respondents were neutral, scoring 2.9 out of 5. Respondents felt that there was more opportunity for youth voice in their local fellowship, scoring 3.2 out of 5. As a church leader and having served on movement wide initiatives I would hope that this number would be much higher. Remember – this is peoples’ perception, how they feel about opportunities for youth voice.

To the statement, ” I feel listened to by my local leadership ” respondents were slightly above neutral, scoring 3.3 out of 5. Again, as a church leader I would hope that this number would be more like 4.5. This doesn’t mean that local leaders always must agree with everyone – but simply that people would feel listened to.

To the statement, ” I can express a differing opinion and feel considered without fear of consequence ” respondents were neutral, scoring 3.1 out of 5. Once again, as a church leader I would hope that this number would be much higher. Of course – there are biblical standards that must be upheld. This is non-negotiable. But are there areas that we can agree to disagree and still remain in righteous, encouraging fellowship with one another?

One of the most interesting questions was about “spiritual credibility.” The question was stated twice. The first was “ Which of the following factors influences someone’s spiritual credibility within the ICOC? ” The second time, the question was slightly changed to “ Which of the following factors SHOULD influence someone’s spiritual credibility? ” I believe we would all do well to spend time looking at the differences between the current and the ideal for spiritual credibility (see table below).

There were also questions about knowledge of and opportunity to participate in ICOC the decision-making process. You can see those results below as well.

There were many more findings that will be published in a different format in the near future. But for now, some of the interesting findings from this research are shared here: ICOC Youth Led Research Initiative.

The ICOC Youth Research Initiative Team: Linda Adeyemo, Arlene Amaya, Zaynab Atsegbua, Benjamin Ballah, Alex Cameron, Zhuan Frias, Reuben Hughes, Theophilia Koay, Shiva Murthy, Matt Suherlan, Santiago Rios and Meigan Whitcomb.

For questions or comments, the author can be reached at jamisonmalcolm@gmail.com.