Reframing the Young Adult Ministry Conversation

Are young adults really the problem, or are we simply not thinking proactively about how to reach them?

Excerpted From
Sustainable Young Adult Ministry
By Mark DeVries and Scott Pontier

Don’t get me wrong: Churches and ministry leaders are having lots of fine discussions about young adults. Typically, not a week goes by without a report somewhere about the topic of “Christianity and young adults,” the first generation raised from the technological cradle.

A longtime associate pastor at a large church offers this picture of how churches can easily spend many hours, sometimes years, in passionate conversation about young adults without doing much of anything:

“I remember sitting in a church staff meeting recently with 15 otherwise very intelligent people, eight of whom had master’s or doctorates. We spent 30 or so minutes, with five or six of them dissecting with articulate passion the question of why young adults don’t come to church and what ‘the church’ should do about it.

“The crazy thing is, no one at the table, no one, had any positional responsibility to actually do anything. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore.

“I asked, ‘I’m just wondering, is there anyone around the table who’s going to do anything about the problems we’ve been discussing? How about we answer that question, and if the answer is no, can we talk about something we’ll actually do something about?’

“If you’ve been around many church meetings, you know what happened next. I had just volunteered (happily by the way) to prepare a proposal for young adult ministry.”

Today’s “normal” in the church is talking about young adult ministry and trying harder at doing what hasn’t worked. Blogs, tweets, status updates, online videos and books all seem to have coalesced into a great ecclesial handwringing. Expert prognostication abounds for why young adults and the church aren’t getting along. Everyone seems to have a theory:

• Maybe it’s our worship style. We’re too boring.
• We’re just not deep enough.
• We’re failing at reaching them with their language—technology.

Arguments rage about whether we’re catering to young adults too much or not enough. Sound bites, statistics and talk-show blurbs all generate interesting conversation but not much else. Talking may be all that most churches are doing to reach young adults. And, like my friend in his staff meeting, I don’t find these discussions particularly helpful.

Though solid studies of young adult ministry are pretty hard to find, the available ones indicate that fewer than 10 percent of churches place significant emphasis on young adult ministry at all. In fact, when we contacted denominational offices about what they’re doing with young adults, it wasn’t uncommon to hear responses such as “We don’t have those stats right now. We’re working on mapping campus ministries and young adult ministries but are still in the process of collecting that data.”

Although most churches are avoiding young adults altogether, a few are working hard to crack the young adult code, and that’s good news. Sort of.

Unfortunately, like blind ferrets, these ministries are typified by reactive, frantic programming with little in the way of a proven plan. Desperate to win back this lagging generation, these churches throw money, staff, facilities, almost anything against the wall in hopes that something will stick—and quickly.

Better logos, social media strategies and a new service project or worship style are often desperate, disconnected reactions to the problem of young adults. Sadly, frantic and desperate is almost never the quickest route to the desired results.

Thinking beyond the local church for a second, we must acknowledge that a huge cost comes with our normal way of doing young adult ministry:

• We miss out on the largest generation in history.
• We miss out on a generation with the potential to breathe life and vitality into waning congregations.
• We pass up an unparalleled opportunity to work with this generation to demonstrate the kingdom of God.

Most conversations portray young adults as the harbinger of the church’s downfall, but I’m crazy enough to suggest instead that today’s young adults might be the harbinger of hope for the church.

Everywhere we look, young adults are thinking about and living into ways of bettering the world. Even the way they eat is better for the environment. Young Christians are eager to engage with Christ and community. And non-Christians in the young adult ranks are acutely interested in spiritual conversations and in partnering with communities that make the world a better place. This book is based on one bit of good news we’re absolutely convinced is true: Building a thriving, sustainable young adult ministry is completely possible, and it might just change the world.

But not if we choose to remain “normal.”

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Excerpted from Sustainable Young Adult Ministry by Mark DeVries and Scott Pontier. Copyright © 2019 by Mark DeVries and Scott Pontier. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com