In my new ministry role, I’ve been tasked with building up young adult ministry in my region. (That consists of two districts encompassing 5 counties.) Of course, I’ve been charged with doing lots of other things, too, but this priority has caught more of my attention lately.
Those of us in mainline Protestant denominations, my United Methodist tribe included, know that the #1 missing age group in the local church is this block of people between the ages of 18-30, typically called “young adult”. The church began to wake up to this statistical nightmare 20 years ago. It began to address it in earnest about 10 years later.
The backdrop behind this whole conversation is the typical storyline. A kid grows up in the church, checks out after high school, and goes unseen and unheard for a number years or permanently. Actually, permanent absence is more the norm. And another reality we’re learning is that young people have mentally, emotionally and spiritually checked out of church long before they physically check out! That’s a whole other conversation for youth ministry- a topic for another day…
Or, there is an expanding number of folks like me who grew up with no significant exposure to the church who have yet to enter its doors. (I did when I was almost 18, but I’m a statistical oddball. I entered the church at precisely the age most of my peers were on their way out. Most are still out.)
So, in typical mainline church fashion, we began to look around, weep and wail over our numbers and statistics, and said to our aging selves, “We’ve got to do something to reverse this trend!” The solution: young adult ministry. Programs and trainings were launched. We rolled out rousing campaigns, videos, curriculum, and über cool stuff to catch the attention of young adults. Every level of the denomination from general to local church hired “young adult ministry coordinators” and put together “young adult councils” or committees to create ministry that would attract and bring back into the fold our prodigal young people.
But here was the problem. We began to shell out lots of money and human resources without truly understanding this age group. We still, by and large, have no idea how to be the church with young adults. Anecdotal success stories abound, but most local churches still find themselves in the same place they were two decades ago. People between the ages of 18-30 (or even 40) are still missing. They’ve now been made aware of the problem, but they still don’t know what to do about it except carry on as best as they know how.
Key to our recovery from failure is removing from our vocabulary the misnomer known as “young adult ministry”. I’m not clever enough right now to call it something different. Maybe we shouldn’t fuss at all over what to brand it! Short of ridding ourselves of the unhelpful terminology is to redefine what we mean by “young adult” and to understand why this term, or at least our understanding of it, is unhelpful. Then we’ll know how to think and do differently.
- It is impossible to lump everyone between the ages of 18-30 (or 35, or 40) together into one grouping. This is an age bracket and nothing more. Young adults are wildly diverse. Included in this bracket are college campus students, stay-at-home and living-on-their-own college students, working professionals and non-professionals, married, single, parents, non-parents, or some combination of the above, or maybe even none of the above. Key to our learning here is the reality that we cannot– I repeat, cannot!– create a catch-all “young adult ministry” and expect this thing, whatever it is, to be our statistical antidote.
- Ministry with the young adult age bracket is rarely, if ever, attractional. Often what we mean by the word “ministry” is something into which we invite people to participate. It’s a largely attractional-style approach. Case in point: ABC United Methodist Church decides they need to reach out to the missing college-aged students, so their newly formed “young adult ministry team” organizes and heavily promotes a big cook-out party shindig thing in their fellowship hall with hot dogs, potato salad, soda and the latest, greatest Michael W. Smith music blaring in the background. Two young adults, children of the coordinators, show up… and that’s it. What happened? It’s quite simple, really. Those who might have actually seen or heard the announcements and gave it a moment’s thought said to themselves, “Umm… I don’t know them” and went on their way. Or, as one young adult blogger recently pointed out, we don’t want to be the target of your church!
- Ministry with the young adult age bracket is highly relational. Young adults often see the church as distant, judgmental, irrelevant, hokey religious, “something for those churchgoing people, but not me.” The only way to change the perception in the mind and heart of a young person is to intentionally be in a relationship in which the churchgoer opens his life, heart, eyes, ears and mind to a young person, reveal the style and character of Jesus in action while seeing the activity of Jesus in young adults. Therefore, a lot of successful “young adult ministry” starts quietly, simply, and humbly. It’s a conversation over coffee, a meal in someone’s home, a community service project– something, anything, that brings everyday people together doing everyday stuff, not religious, “y’all come to my church event” stuff.
- Ministry with young adults is highly contextual. That’s a fancy way of saying that it takes the shape of who we already know and have connections to. I’ve seen some churches engage young adults through a softball league, or by getting to know young people by hanging out at a coffee shop, or counseling a young unwed mother who’s wondering about whether or not to get her baby baptized. It happens everyday through campus ministries, through PTA events, block parties, home dinners, hangouts. Whomever you know who happens to be within that young adult demographic is your young adult ministry. Go with it. Deepen your relationship(s), grow to truly love them, and look to see where the Holy Spirit takes you next.
The reality is that no one wants to be a demographic target. But everyone wants to be included and loved within a community. The non-religious, most especially non-religious young adults, aren’t waking up on Sunday mornings wondering about our churches. But they do have deeply spiritual yearnings and questions, like we all do. Young adults aren’t sitting around with wide-eyed anticipation at the opportunity to be ministered to or put into a group. But they are looking for purpose, authentic relationships, and meaningful ways to impact their world for the good of humanity.
So what would it look like for us mainline church folks to put aside our antsy need to do something about those wayward young adults? What if we slowed down, asking God to open our eyes to notice the young people who are already around us, learn from them, listen to them, and discern how to best love them and include them, where they are, as they are? That approach would totally change most of our conversations and hopefully discard the misnomer of “young adult ministry” from our churches.