Two mantras for young adult ministry now

Steve Argue, PhD Image Steve Argue, PhD | May 10, 2023

Thanks to FYI’s research on emerging adults and young adult ministry, I often teach about young adults’ life experiences, faith journeys, and relationships with churches. In one recent event where I presented, I saw eager leaders nodding along, taking notes, and revealing knowing glances—all good signs of a successful seminar!

But when the seminar ended, that’s when the experience got interesting. Young adults themselves who had attended the seminar lined up to talk with me. They heard and felt what I was saying. And they were compelled to share their thoughts with me.

More than an hour after my one-hour seminar, I finally sat down to process all that had happened.

Maybe you’ve had experiences like this.

Some of you may long for one.

Most of you know they’re hit and miss; but when young adults do open up, we should pay attention.

Good research does this. Every researcher hopes to capture the stories and the feelings of those they seek to understand and support. In the work that I do, the greatest compliment (and honor) is to hear young adults say that they feel seen.

I believe young adults resonate with FYI’s findings because we’ve spent time with young adults who have shared their stories, and we’ve tried to share them with others, faithfully. This is more than good research; it’s good ministry that seeks out people before programs.

There are no codes to crack,
No models to follow,
No secret sauce.

Only listening, learning, sharing—repeat.

My ongoing work and reflections on supporting young adults have me repeating two mantras that guide my work, ministry, and relationships with my students, mentees, and kids. I believe they apply to every researcher, teacher, pastor, mentor, supervisor, parent, and grandparent. Lean in, and let me tell you.

Mantra 1: Don’t give them answers, receive their questions

Young adults aren’t simply looking for answers—they want adults to understand their questions. This can be hard for adults because we often think we know what young adults need and believe that the right information will fix them, change them, or save them.

To be honest, the easiest, safest move is to give answers. Offering advice feels good—like we’re helping.

It also often protects us from getting too involved.

What if showing up for them means resisting quick answers and stepping closer to their questions? What if we first need to feel their situation, encountering it with nothing to offer but our presence? Our intersections with young adults would shift to connecting with them on their terms, not ours.

We can’t pull rank, pretend we’ve been there, or give abstract advice. Instead, we must learn rather than tell, be patient rather than control, respond rather than influence, and embrace complexity rather than simplify.

To receive young adults' questions means to appreciate that they have to negotiate:

  • more choices (which is both exciting and terrifying)
  • more to prepare for (in order to make it in this competitive world)
  • more to decide (as they learn that a “yes” to one opportunity means “no” to another)
  • more to negotiate (as they define themselves and redefine how they relate to their communities)
  • more to lose (as the relational, vocational, and spiritual stakes grow higher)
  • more to hope for (which equates to being successful in society and protesting society's unjust norms)
  • more diversity (of friends, schedules, occupations, marital statuses, pretty much everything)
  • more pressure (to be perfect, exceptional, because to be average is to be invisible).

Spiritually, young adults want to know if God has anything to say about their expanding world and quests for meaning. They want to believe that Jesus can keep up and stay close. And they need us to believe with them.

How do we “go there” with young adults? You can check out Young Adult Ministry Now for great question starters. But perhaps the more important question is: how might we show up for young adults and share relational space?

  • Try to talk with a young adult and then try again next time. Be okay with your first attempts being awkward. Believe that your trying is noticed and appreciated.
  • Invite them to dinner and trust that the evening might give you time to find you have things in common.
  • Seek to understand by knowing and feeling their stories. Resist giving answers or offering advice unless asked. Hang in there with them.

Mantra 2: See young adults “right here” before searching for young adults “out there”

“Young adults” means little until you connect the phrase with a name and face. In fact, take this moment to remember a young adult you know right now.

Say their name out loud.

Picture them in your mind's eye.

Reflect on your connection with them.

Thank God for them and pray for them.

Keeping young adults’ names and faces in front of us becomes the antidote to meaningless stereotypes, unfair characterizations, and hurtful cliches. Naming and seeing young adults keep us close to them, no matter how far away they may seem.

Often I hear from leaders that, “we don’t have any young adults around.” I try to gently help them consider that they may just not be looking for young adults in the right places. And one of the most moving parts of my post-training conversations is to hear people of all ages see the young adults already in their relational orbit again.

  • Youth leaders who see that many of their volunteers are young adults who need help with their own faith journeys.
  • Senior leaders who see young adults on their staff and want to replace their dated assumptions with new curiosity.
  • Parents who see their young adult kids as an opportunity for a new relationship with them.
  • Grandparents who see their young adult grandkids at a distance but relationally still feel close, and never stop praying for them.
  • Students who see themselves as young adults and find new language to talk about their experiences.
  • Ministry leaders who are young adults themselves, and seek ways to serve their communities without losing their integrity—or their souls.

For churches, faith communities, families, and friends concerned about “young adults out there,” pause long enough to see young adults' names and faces “right here” in front of you.

Your young adult “right here” may be the one who brings you the most hope, pain, anxiety, frustration, or worry. But they're connected to you, and probably need you in some way. Take a deep breath and consider:

  • Asking for forgiveness over ways you’ve hurt them or let them down.
  • Being vulnerable by sharing your own hurt, pain, or worry that you’re working through.
  • Offering to try again, reset, or start over. It’s never too early and never too late.

For FYI, we’re discovering that “young adult ministry” permeates just about every personal, working, and ministry relationship. There are young adults everywhere.

They need you to be close enough for their questions before your answers.

They need you to see them as young adults with names, faces, and lives.

They need you to believe that you need them too.

For every adult, this is young adult ministry now.

Tweet this: Keeping young adults’ names and faces in front of us becomes the antidote to meaningless stereotypes, unfair characterizations, and hurtful cliches. Naming and seeing young adults keep us close to them, no matter how far away they may seem.

It’s time to take the mystery out of young adult ministry.

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Steve Argue, PhD Image
Steve Argue, PhD

Steven Argue, PhD (Michigan State University) is the Applied Research Strategist for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Associate Professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Steve researches, speaks, and writes on adolescent and emerging adult spirituality. He has served as a pastor on the Lead Team at Mars Hill Bible Church (Grand Rapids, MI), coaches and trains church leaders and volunteers, and has been invested in youth ministry conversation for over 20 years. Steve is the coauthor and contributor of a number of books, including Growing With, 18 Plus: Parenting Your Emerging Adult, and Joy: A Guide for Youth Ministry.

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