Reaching and Keeping Young Adults

Excerpted FromNot Done YetBy Beth Seversen The small percent of young adults growing in their faith stand out in a culture of indifference and disillusionment. And this has led me to uncover a new script being written in certain churches scattered across North America. When researching my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, I discovered […]

Excerpted From
Not Done Yet
By Beth Seversen

The small percent of young adults growing in their faith stand out in a culture of indifference and disillusionment. And this has led me to uncover a new script being written in certain churches scattered across North America. When researching my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, I discovered a breathtaking phenomenon: there are churches that young adults really like. In these churches it’s normal to see emerging adults making new faith commitments to Christ, attending church regularly, growing in prayer and service, and prioritizing their relationship with Jesus. These churches aren’t common, but they exist. I call them bright-spot churches, because they stand out in a landscape where most young adults find religious faith anything but compelling.

Churches I researched for this project are writing a new narrative: emerging adults like Jesus and they also like church. That may surprise you, because lots of young adults do not like church. Many of them look at the church and feel disillusionment, hurt, or indifference.

Here’s some good news: we can learn a lot from these churches. Through interviews with young new Christians and their pastors across North America, I found that churches reaching and keeping unchurched emerging adults have attitudes and practices in common. Churches seeing faith develop among unchurched young adults share similar social and cultural patterns—patterns other churches can adopt and learn. Some churches are effectively making connections. Some are even connecting with emerging adults who have never set foot in a church building or have given up on the church.

Studying Bright-Spot Churches

The information in this book is based on original qualitative research on churches reaching and incorporating young adults, both the formerly unchurched or churchless—identified by George Barna and David Kinnaman in their book Churchless as those who in the past six months attended church only on special occasions like holidays and funerals— and the nones, those who self-identify on surveys as having no particular religious affiliation. I offer it to you as one denomination’s story to help us—the church—address our urgent need to research effective ways of evangelizing emerging adults in an increasingly post-Christian context so we can provide guidance to churches that long to become more fruitful among young adults in North America.

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This book focuses on bright-spot churches that stand out because of the number of new faith commitments they have retained among emerging adults aged 18 to 33. To qualify for this study, churches had to see not only a minimum of eight new faith commitments among their emerging-adult population in the past twelve months but also had eight new converts become active in the church in some way. So churches in this study were unusually successful at connecting to, evangelizing, and incorporating emerging adults into the church.

How these churches connect with and nurture unchurched young adults into the faith is the crux of my research. As the data is from a small qualitative study, the research is suggestive, not prescriptive. Yet it adds to our understanding of how effective churches reach and retain emerging adults in our contemporary cultural context.

Telescoping the Findings: The Five Practices

Effective churches connecting to, reaching, and incorporating emerging adults engage in five distinct practices that set them apart. These practices, discovered in my research, are helpful in reaching and retaining emerging adults and work well both for individuals immersed in post-Christian culture and for those coming from church-saturated backgrounds. This is partly because almost all emerging adults explore the meaning of their own identity. The application of the “five I’s” in a church culture of enthusiasm for participation—for believers and not-yet-believers alike—also helps explain the success of churches that prioritize invitation. They set high expectations for active participation in Christian community and service among both committed disciples and non-Christian newcomers. Let’s call the five practices invitational because the church culture of bright-spot churches is welcoming, hospitable and accepting of unchurched people. Unchurched folks are on churched people’s radars.

Let’s call these practices missional because these bright-spot churches focus discipleship not only inwardly on becoming rooted in Christ but also outwardly on engaging God’s mission of loving our unchurched neighbors and restoring broken people and communities. For simplicity, I will refer to them as the five practices or the five invitational practices.

These five practices will be further explained, but for now, here’s an overview:

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1. Initiating. Initiate relationships and live missionally with unchurched people where you work, live and recreate.
2. Inviting. Enthusiastically extend invitations to church activities and events where people are warmly welcomed.
3. Including. Radically include unchurched people into compelling Christian community and small groups.
4. Involving. Encourage young adults to contribute, serve, lead and grow in ways they believe make a difference. Do this even before their faith commitments are intact and fully developed.
5. Investing. Church leaders and congregation members invest in unchurched visitors through mentoring, care and leadership development.

Here’s some insider information, the nonpublic backdrop behind the success of bright-spot churches and what gives them the advantage in reaching young adults: they don’t let any time pass before they engage newcomers to their church in the five invitational practices.

These five practices are not necessarily sequential, and part of their effectiveness is due to these churches intentionally and immediately connecting to emerging adults through each of the practices to draw them into the life of the church and without much time passing between each practice.

Consequently churches engaged in the five practices grow in attractiveness to young adults. The more emerging adults are recipients of the practices, the more attractive their churches become, and the more they invite their unchurched friends and family to connect to their new churches. As a result, churches implementing the five practices are growing through new faith commitments that stick.

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Excerpted from Not Done Yet by Beth Seversen. Copyright © 2020 by Elizabeth Donigan Seversen. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.