I distinctly remember that first Wednesday night. I had just arrived as the pastor of a small downtown congregation in a small rural city after having served for 11 years in a large midtown congregation as the youth pastor and other duties as assigned. That night a group of 45—mostly over the age of 65—gathered for the midweek fellowship meal and Bible study with their new pastor (me).
Having spent most of my ministry career with young people, I found myself in an unfamiliar setting.
Later that evening, I had a long conversation (or an argument) with God:
Why had God called me to this place?
What could I do to help this committed group of older Jesus-followers?
How would I help this church grow in impact?
I had lots of questions with no immediate answers. Thankfully, I waited to see how God would respond.
Young adults are not a problem to be solved
Many in my church hoped that the new “not-so-young” pastor could help them reach young adults who had disengaged from the church and those who were in the community. Unfortunately, many in the congregation saw them as a means to an end: young adults could potentially help keep the doors of the church open into the future.
Young adults are often seen as the church’s “holy grail.” Everybody wants them, but only a few know what to do with them if they actually show up.
While young adults (ages 20-35 years old) constitute 20% of the U.S. population, they make up only 10% of church attendance. And honestly, most of us would be thrilled to see young adults make up 10% of those sitting in our pews!
It’s easy for leaders in the church to view young adults (or the lack thereof) as a problem to be solved. I’ve heard leaders often ask questions like, “How can we attract more young adults to our church?” or “Why won’t they commit to our church?” We might feel like we’re in competition with the church down the road for young adult attendance because they’re a scarce commodity. We may even bemoan the flashy church in our community that feels like it’s siphoning them from us!
Yet the harder we try to hold on to the few, the quicker they seem to leave. We live in this interesting paradox.
Young adults need us to SEE and HEAR them
Life for today’s young adults is filled with twists and turns. Even though most have grown up with the idea that the ideal life is linear (first graduate from college, then find a sustainable job, get married, and start a family—in that order), most experience the traditional mile markers of adulthood later than previous generations as they try to navigate the multitude of options in front of them. In addition, most young adults in their twenties have less relational support from family and friends who can offer guidance and wisdom.
What young adults need from us, the church, is a safe place where they are seen and heard. They need older adults who can assure them that while life is difficult, God and the church will walk alongside them. Young adults need friendships with people of all generations who are willing to see them for who they are rather than what they can do for the church. The church has to really SEE the young adults and HEAR their desires for their lives to love and support them.
Young adults need connectors
Young adults don’t want or need another youth group experience. They aren’t looking to find opportunities just to spend time with only their age group. They’re trying to manage their lives while seeking answers to the questions of identity (Who am I?), belonging (Where do I fit?), and purpose (What difference can I make?). Young adults need people they can rely on to model what it means to be a Christ-follower in today’s culture. They need those who can help them navigate the complexities of work, relationships, and faith. They need connectors who can open doors of opportunity for them and help make meaning of the world they’re experiencing.
The good news is that in spite of all of their challenges, most young adults are optimistic about their future. They’re motivated and desire to transition well into the next life stage—which includes their spiritual lives. They just need people in the church to remind them that God is with them.
Take the next step
If you’re a ministry leader or simply care about young adults in your life, you can help by being the connector and helping young adults feel seen and heard. In the next few weeks, invite a couple of older adults and a few young adults over for dinner. This isn’t starting a new program at the church; it’s simply fellowship around the table for relational connection. Invite the older adults to share what it was like when they were in their 20s. Ask the young adults to share what life is like today in their 20s. Allow relationships to form naturally by providing the space and opportunity. A night like this can be simple, yet transformative!
It turned out that God knew exactly why I was called to that congregation. Over the next 4.5 years, we sought the Holy Spirit’s voice as we learned how to care for one another, develop relationships among all generations in the church, and focus on what needed to be done to become a place where young adults were welcomed and engaged well.
We started by connecting with the young adults who were on the fringes. We listened. We empathized. We made a place for them at the table. We communicated that we loved them and that we were there for them. Slowly, our young adults began to feel seen and heard. They felt loved for who they were rather than what they could do for the church.
In turn, they became a part of the fellowship. They engaged their faith. They took part in the life of the church. They took on leadership and served out of their giftedness and passion. They invited other young adults to join them on this journey.
Together, we experienced transformation. To God be the glory.
Young Adult Ministry Now
Tuesday, May 23, 2023 | 8:30am -1:00pm PT
Building on over a dozen years of research and working intensively with over 40 congregations, 80 ministry leaders, and 80 young adults—who’ve reached almost 2,000 young adults—we’re bringing fresh insights on ministry innovation together with landmark Growing Young concepts to give you training you can trust.
 “2021 Population Estimates: Age and Sex,” United States Census Bureau, accessed April 3, 2023, https://data.census.gov/table?q=age&tid=ACSST1Y2021.S0101
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