The Church’s Doomed Pursuit of the Elusive Young Adult

The Church’s Doomed Pursuit of the Elusive Young Adult August 21, 2012

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It seems that everywhere you look today, “the church,” especially within historic traditions, is talking about reaching that ever-elusive young adult demographic.  Sometimes it feels like we are on some National Geographic safari trying to observe and conserve some rare creature, but all-in-all I think it’s a great endeavor and worth the effort. At the same time, I am also worried that in our excitement about new ministries, creative initiatives and renewed energy focused on young adults that we are doomed even before we begin.

As I reflect on my own stage of ministry, after 25 years of working in the church including 17 years or ordained ministry, I am keenly aware of my short-comings when it comes to reaching young adults. My Gen X worldview and ecclesiastic experience often cloud my judgement and my aversion to getting old can be a stumbling block to my own continued growth in ministry. I think the church as a living body is not much different in our current stage of life. Over the generations, what the church has done in the world has been amazing and powerful, but those resting on the laurels of those accomplishments often hampers our ability to see the church of the future; one that could have the same impact on the world. So before we journey too far down the path of our young adults expedition, I would offer three faulty assumptions that many of us make when thinking about young adults and the future of the church.

ASSUMPTION 1 –WE can build a ministry for Young Adults.
I find it interesting that most of the conversations about “reaching young adults” take place among people who are distinctly NOT young adults. I think it is a way that many of us try to prove that 40 really IS the new 20 and extend our youth for as long as we can. Sorry folks, but as we age, our roles and perspectives change. I for one do not regret this, rather I embrace and welcome the roles that I will hold in the future. If we are reach young adults with integrity, then young adults must to be at the table and part of the direction setting in significant ways. Much like we would never plant a Korean American church with a team that was 90% non-Korean, we must not try to create relevant young adults ministries by relying on the musings of even the best intentioned 40, 50 and 60 year-olds. For as hip of a 43-year-old as I fool myself into believing I am, I do not and will not experience the world through the eyes of a 20-year-old . . . and there is nothing I can do to change that. The best thing I can do is to acknowledge this reality and then find the best ways to empower, guide and support that 20-year-old as she/he discovers a place and role in the future of the church. This posture must be taken in all aspects of the journey: planning process, fiscal management, organizational development, etc. if we are to truly create and sustain ministry with and for young adults.

ASSUMPTION 2 -There is such a thing as A Young Adult. 
One of the glaring generational differences that seems to take over young adult conversations is the idea that there is “A Young Adult” that can be defined and targeted. Sure, there are ways that we can glean some common young adult characteristics, but unlike previous generations, these definitions are far more DEscriptive than PREscriptive. I can hear it now, “We Boomers are not all the same, how dare you, you disrepectful Gen X’er!” Fair enough, but on this we will have to agree to disagree. I am not saying that previous generations are soulless robots programmed to all like the same things, but I think it is fair to say that in previous generational times more people liked the same things whereas in our today’s niche culture, more people like more things. This diversity within a demographic throws our tried and true methodological approach to ministry all into a tizzy because it means that we will have to deal with diverse expressions of faith. How do we measure and assess these things? How do we fund them? What kind of leadership is needed? All important questions that can only be effectively addressed by taking seriously Assumption 1.

ASSUMPTION 3 -Young Adults will help the church I love to live on!
If we are honest, the main reason most of us are hopping on the Young Adult Train is because we think we need them to survive and sustain the church that we have been part of.  To some extent that is true and noble if we are thinking about “the church” as a way of being and not a style, ideology or program. However, if reaching young adults is only, even mostly, about self-preservation, we have already chosen a path of death without hope for resurrection. On the other hand, if we are about seeing the end of the particular manifestation of the church as a natural life stage and rhythm of life, then we can move into our death strengthened by the promise of resurrection and new life. Yes, some aspects of the church past are destined to continue in some fashion, but if our primary reason for reaching young adults is to preserve what has always been, then we have already stopped being a church worth preserving at all.

I realize that some will now accuse me of dismissing the importance and presence of older adults in the church. I can’t help if that is your initial and only reaction other than to encourage you to think about your role in helping to define the future of the church as an evolving role and not an abdication of presence. One can be young in spirit and energy until death, but to deny the wisdom that age and experience can offer the future is to deny the work of Christ that has been cultivated in all of us over time. Our role in defining the future will depend on context, but if the only role that you or I can see for ourselves is to be upfront determining the direction of the church, we will fail. To me, this is not an acceptable choice, so I must now learn how to gauge the right time and way to lift and support up young adults who can better and more naturally see the future of and God’s intentions for the Body of Christ. This is my shifting roll that I will live and be with all of the youthfulness and vibrancy that this creaky body muster . . . I can’t wait to see what happens.

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29 responses to “The Church’s Doomed Pursuit of the Elusive Young Adult”

  1. As I continue to think about it I think I am talking about structure more than language. When most people here the word “church” they think of building or institution or place. For you and me and those with a seminary training the word “church” has more nuance and meaning, but I don’t think that is the perception of others. So, when we talk about YA and church you and I may be speaking about a community and that “great cloud of witnesses” but others are thinking about getting YA in the doors of their buildings. What are we trying to connect young adults to?

  2. Perhaps this (working on Sunday) is a good reason to follow Reformed thinking and explore an added worship service on another day of the week, or evening…but ought we agree that worship on Sunday should be a very good way to recover from working other days?

    I remember years ago at a new elders’ meeting we went around the table sharing our experiences and nature of our relationship to the church. I was surprised how many of us lived in the country and small towns (vs large urban areas) and (by extension) in a setting where participation in church began at an early age.

    On the other hand, about a decade earlier than that meeting, the mainline Protestant Church began a steady decline in membership that has persisted almost continuously. The PC(USA) or example has shown an overall positive growth in only one year since the early 1970’s, in the year the Northern and Southern churches rejoined.

    Finally, Church history shows that the world-wide population of professed Christian believers has always held at about the mid-30% level. Yet certain geographic and denominational areas show dramatic positive growth.

    I wonder that perhaps the answer to the original musing about youth in the church lies in understanding how and why these “facts” arise, and what of its causes and our own practice we need to adopt or eschew?

  3. As I prepare to retire in four months after 40 years in ministry, I have to say that the church has been on a safari looking for young adults during my entire four decades. My guess is that the church was looking for young adults when John Calvin was in Geneva. I have no doubt that Jesus was looking for them all over Israel. So I don’t think this safari is new. However, it is crucial. In part, it keeps us from framing the Gospel soley through our generation’s eyes whatever generation that may be. For example, being next to a university, I post on my monitor the date that freshmen in college were born. The incoming class was born in 1994. If I am preaching using images about Vietnam, Watergate, etc. I am talking ancient history to these folks. My desire to reach young adults keeps me from seeing the world primarily through my own experience.
    There are young adults, of that I am certain! I feel blessed for the challenge they place before the church each and every generation.

  4. I just wish there had been a clearer route for me to join in with what the “adults” are doing. For example, our church has had women’s circles for years, but I have NO IDEA which circle I might fit in, except that I know it’s probably not the one that meets at the local retirement community. They don’t advertise anything except “Martha Circle meets Wednesdays at 7 at members’ homes.” That doesn’t feel welcoming to me.

    Another problem is that a lot of stuff happens to you between 18 and 30. Is a “young adult ministry” another word for a singles’ group? If it is, you’ve lost your young marrieds. But in many places there’s no place for young marrieds, either, until they have kids. And people with kids tend not to be in a place in life where it’s easy to hang out with people who have just graduated from college. I got invited to a “young people’s group” recently but I’m a good 7 years older than the average member age and I’m married with a baby. I guess they see me as a potential member because my husband and daughter are of a different religion so I go to church by myself, but I don’t think I would really fit. To be clear, this is a church I’ve been attending for my entire life. I just don’t know how to make the transition from “the X’s kid” to being my own person. I’ve thought about leaving to find someplace where nobody knows me to see if that would be any better.

    Which leads me to another place, ministering to people whose spouses are not of the same faith, but that’s another post.

  5. Bruce, Robin shared this with me, and your points are good. I do think, though, that if more young people had decent jobs and didn’t have to work (or recover from working) on Sundays, they could participate more in all kinds of shared groups. I won’t go too far with this, but I believe the stats now tell us the birthrate has decined for a third year– another thing that I still think links to getting involved with church. Retro? Or social analysis?

  6. Paul, I also think that depends on geography. As one who serves in San Francisco, we found it important to use some traditional language lest we be confused for one of the 100 other spiritual practices in our city. Church has been deconstructed in SF for generations, so we felt it was important to talk about church in ways that might feel off in other places.

  7. I think we need better language. While “church” may mean something to me I am pretty sure it does not mean the same thing to many/most young adults. I am not sure they are looking for what “church” has to offer. They are looking for something more – a sense of faith, connection, meaning, commitment which they do not connect with “church.” As long as the question we ask is, “How do we get young adults involved in church?” we will be frustrated because we are fundamentally asking the wrong question.

  8. Great post Bruce! I think you pretty much nailed it. I’m a 54 yr old seminary student and have been asking myself these questions for a while. My generation has grown up in a church that looks just like an American corporation. That model just isn’t working anymore. We are facing an adaptive challenge of a sort the church hasn’t seen in at least a couple hundred years—perhaps since Constantine. My generation has got to let go of the strings, and allow later ones to shape the church of the future. That is, we need to allow ourselves to be made a bit uncomfortable, and cease trying to keep a status quo that doesn’t challenge us.

    I would add, the only thing we have to offer is wisdom that comes from living. I still don’t think there is any substitute for years under your belt when it come to wisdom–assuming you are paying attention, of course. ; )


  9. One of the THE best programs int he PC(USA) is the Young Adult Volunteer Program which begins to hint at some of this. There is so much potential for individuals and communities if we were to think about creative ways to leverage resources, stage life and common hopes for ministry. Kudos to your sis!

  10. Agreed and good point. I would say that different people react to the position of being the “token” and after a while an organization can think that it’s enough to have a youth slot and no longer push further. But yes, I am right with you in what we do with it. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Caveat: I know that the language in this comment will seem patronizing and even offensive. If you know me, you’ll know I am not that, but I do feel limited by the language we have in place so am trying to speak from the perspective of what is in the hopes that what will be can be very different.

    What I often hear people focus on is the notion of tokenism. No one person or group of people like to be thought of as tokens of the thing they represent, nor should they be thought of in that way. Yet my experience as a woman in ministry teaches me that subversive, transformative things CAN happen when “tokens” are invited to the table – even when the motivation to invite is self-serving when when the very notion of invitation is itself patronizing. I see my role as clearing the way for more of those invitations to come to young adults and then mentoring/encouraging as they cope with the experience of being seen as an object lesson or a research project or an expert witness who must be tolerated for the sake of survival. Just because someone is viewed by others at token doesn’t mean we have to behave that way. I’m glad that there is a willingness in new generations to be relentless in the pursuit of real and inclusive community.

  12. My younger sister (10 years, and at least two generations, younger sister) just gave a year of her life to a cause she believed in for $12,500. Let me say that again: a cause my sister believed in offered her $12,500 to work on nothing but that cause (and still allowed her to simultaneously live her life outside that institution) – and she gladly did it. $12,500.

    While I realize there are many congregations in the PC(USA) for whom $12,500 is alot of money, there are many who spend that much on paper goods.

    Imagine an army of 4 motivated, excited, energetic 20-somethings working on your church staff for a year. Now imagine that this would cost you as little as $50,000.

    Tell me why we aren’t doing this?

  13. Our greatest success with this group is when we do ministry *with* them rather than *to* them. That goes back to Assumption #1. If anyone is interested, I have been blogging about this topic during my ministry with young adults over the last six years. There are lots of posts in here that are in line with what Bruce is saying here –

    Bruce, feel free to delete my link if you think that distracts from the conversation. Thanks for posting this.

  14. The research totally backs you up Andrew (See Souls in Transition). If relationships between generations are not built in the church context early in life, they are not likely to care about church in young adulthood and probably won’t be persuaded except by peer influence of those who had that experience. If we struggle with young adult ministry, we probably need to look at our childrens and youth ministry just as closely. Our segmented approaches are problemmatic.

  15. Another great endeavor would be reinvesting in ministries with children and youth which lay the groundwork before even getting to young adulthood. I believe we need a complete commitment to the first third of life. Children, Youth, and Young Adults. I don’t think targeting young adults alone is the answer. I’m excited for the greater focus being given to young adults but concerned that it’s not enough to only rally around part of the equation.

  16. How can generations that can’t have relationships within the family unit between Boomers, Xers and Millenials expect the church to somehow have those relationships? I see great opportunity IF our Xers and Boomers (myself included) will not just let young adults drive the car on a learner’s permit but if we will turn the keys over to them and let them be the church without our Monday morning quarterbacking when they do it. AT THE SAME TIME, if we do not start defining ourselves more as faith community and less as subset generations, we’ll always come across as patronizing or dismissive of one another. Cross-generational relationship remain the keys to authenticity which is increasingly the greatest value the younger generations look for.

  17. I’m curious as well. These are rubber hits the road kinds of questions that are so important. How DO we create a flexible and adaptive structure that does not become a free-for-all or a rigid organization. Fun stuff.

  18. Yes, true partnership is hard, especially for those who hold power. It’s as if asking for other voices somehow infers that the current ones are no longer good enough and everyone must get out of the way. There is no zero-sum gain on faithful leadership.

  19. Your thoughts reflect many of the insights and hopes I had during PCUSA’s Generals Assembly this year. Would that our young adults were listened to and followed as the leaders they are. Says this Gen X – 36-year-old – without a humble opinion on this matter.

  20. I second Jonathan’s observation — that we treat a single young adult in a group like some kind of ambassador from a foreign land. How many church meetings have I been to where someone turns to the lone 20-something and says, “so what do young people want?” Unfortunately, some of our young people have been treated that way for so long they start to believe they can speak for an entire generation.
    But we are talking about an age cohort that includes out lesbians and people who couldn’t wait to eat at Chik-fil-a August 1, and young people who think a Facebook notice is a great way to get the word out, while forgetting that some of their friends don’t have an account. There are young Christians who can’t get enough smells, bells, and organ music and those still singing the greatest contemporary worship hits of the 1990’s. We have young people raised in conservative Korean churches, the most progressive mainline churches, and everything inbetween and mostly perhaps, nothing at all.
    Tony’s right, we get that Mick Jagger and Newt Gingrich are the same age but different people — and forget that there are likely to be huge differences between 20 somethings as well.

  21. I’d be curious to know what the guidelines and success metrics are and who sets them. Butts in seats on Sunday morning is an increasingly poor measure of missional success among millennials, IMHO.

  22. As a young(ish) adult in the Church I find it weird sometimes being treated like a generational soothsayer who holds some magic answer for what will bring “my people” back. I think one of the underlying paradigm shifts going on in the western church is the realization that we are no longer ministering to lapsed Christians or adults who were raised in the church. Saying, “hey! we play your music now!” isn’t enough anymore. Younger adults not just Biblically illiterate, often we are religiously illiterate (suspicious of and doubtful about the role of organized church in our lives and world). Asking, “what do young people like?” might bring in a few curious seekers, but in the end is a big #fail.

    I’m finding myself increasingly attracted to questions like, “how is our church discipling young/old, new/mature Christians?” and “how are we being neighborly as a church?” I think these are questions that move us beyond young adult ministry being about music and ironic t-shirts and impressive beards and into questions about the spiritual health of our faith communities. I think you’re spot on: What is this community we are trying to save? What is this church thing about? And are we living lives of intentional community in a way that makes our neighbors, young and old, stop and say, “woah, I want some of that!”?

  23. I know some regions purposely stipend young adults to do young adult ministry, rather than investing in a singular staff person. Young adults are provided with a stipend, some guidelines, and a requirement to report back to the funding body. This way different programs are operating in different locations, opening accessibility.

  24. Yeah, I think there can be risks that do not “break the bank,” but offer huge possibilities. I think an important part of the process also has to be common expectations by all involved. Would love to hear about it if you do it.

  25. Your first assumption made me wonder about designating $5000 of the church budget each year to be used by anyone under X years for young adult ministry events/programs. Offer them the support and guidance of the church staff, structure and resources as well. But just put it out there and see what happens.