Tag Archives: young adults

Young Adult Ministry: A Serious Misnomer

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.
Young-AdultsThose 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.
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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.

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Lessons Learned While Staying Home from Church

It had never happened to me before: Blairlee and kids heading over to church while I stayed home. That may not seem so out of place for some of you, but considering I’m the pastor of the church, believe me, I felt way out of place. Granted, recovering from surgery is an excellent excuse to take a Sunday off. And I had no worries, either. An awesome guest preacher and a well-abled group of laity lead things along just fine without me.

But I’m glad an oddball couple of couple hours on a Sunday morning didn’t go to waste. In fact, they opened up an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially if I was simply away on vacation. My friend Bill came over for a while. Before he came, Bill asked me, “Hey, you’re not going to drag me over to church are you?” I told him not to worry. After all, the pastor’s on medical leave.

I’ve known Bill for almost four years now. He’s in his 20’s, a maverick, extremely intelligent with an entrepreneurial streak, and a natural ability to affably connect with people of all kinds. I’ve always deeply enjoyed our conversations. His keen insights and quick mind never fail to keep me on my toes. And I think more than most any person, Bill has taught me well about the gifts and perils of  today’s church.

Bill was raised Roman Catholic and after getting completely fed up with the church sometime in his teen years, he quit going and became fiercely agnostic. Then, when Bill was 17 or 18, a youth-young adult pastor from a local church befriended him, loved and accepted him, and over time led him to Christ. Bill’s passion, talents, keen mind, and people skills quickly led him into ministry opportunities. He became an effective youth and young adult leader, teacher, and mentor.

When I met Bill while working in my extension office (Starbucks), he was discipling well over a dozen guys in his house, guys who were either Christian, marginally Christian, or just curiously spiritual. Few of them had any kind of church affiliation, but they loved and trusted Bill. If there was anyone who could befriend and engage young guys like these and disciple them to follow Jesus, it was Bill. I always marveled that God was using this guy to reach and disciple people I’d never even have a slim shot of reaching.
But Bill’s keen insight and maverick streak never let him sit too comfortably in church. If there’s even a shadow of inauthenticity or insincerity, Bill will sniff it out, then resist it or leave it. In that way, he resembles most young adults in today’s post-Christendom culture. Turned off by self-perpetuating, non-Christlike attitudes and ways of the church and church people, they’ve either abandoned Christianity altogether or are being disciples of Jesus on their own, often in alternative modes like informal small groups or house churches (without calling it “church”).
As Sunday School and worship carried on as usual at my church, Bill and I sat together in my home talking about faith and church. He’s struggling right now, and I try as best as I can to be in the struggle with him.

On the one hand, Bill has discovered and still rigorously embraces the biblical message of Jesus Christ. He loves philosophy and the historic thinking and writing of great Christian thinkers, particularly in the Reformed tradition. Bill even believes in the Holy Spirit-ordained and created collection of Christ’s disciples called “the Church.”

Yet Bill is completely disgusted with just about all the current manifestations of congregational-style church and wider church culture (such as Christian marketing, retail/publishing/media industries, and a lot of parachurch organizations). To put it another way, he rejects the concept of an “organized religion” church most people think of: a church building, a structure of leadership headed by a pastor, and the kinds of values, goals, and approaches programmed into the DNA of most such congregations. This is true whether these congregations call themselves traditional or contemporary, old-style or modern, denominational or non-denominational, established or newly planted.

More often than he probably knows, when I think of my church’s ministries, aspirations, methods, and attitudes, Bill’s face and voice come to my mind. I ask myself, “How would Bill react to this? Would he dismiss it as just more-of-the-same churchiness or would he find something authentically Christ-centered?” Now let me say, I love my church, passionately so. I dearly love our people. Our church does a lot of incredibly valuable work that impacts and changes lives, both inside and outside its walls and membership rolls. Yet conversations with Bill continually remind me how far we have yet to go. That reality doesn’t discourage or embitter me so much as keeps my senses sharp and my heart tender to never forget the struggles and challenges of non-believers, young Christians turned off by church, or even my own pre-Christian, unchurched roots.

Following up with Sunday’s visit, I asked Bill to think of three things that would help churches be less churchy and more like Christ. Here’s what he said, raw and unedited:

1. Consistency/Authenticity/Empathy. No matter how hard Christians try to pretend they’re accepting and open, there’s always hot button issues that make Christians turn their nose up, as though they don’t have their own vices or doubts. In a coffee shop, over a private discussion, most Christians are a lot more down to earth. But on a Sunday morning, it’s like a brooding pool of self-righteousness. It’s not always the words that are used (e.g., We’re all sinners… etc.), but more the attitude. Christians need to understand that even their best attempts to be welcoming turn sour because the skeptic or the non-beleiver can feel right away that under the facade, the congregation looks down on their unbelief. Christians have to have empathy for the unbeliever, and remember that not believing is a reasonable position. It doesn’t make them stupid or delusional.

2. Substance. It’s very un-church like to deliver messages tackling, or at least attempting to tackle, challenging issues. But that’s what I want, that’s what my generation wants. Substance.

3. Showmanship. The whole process of church is a production. In the landscape of our culture, church almost always looks like a wonky, low-fi version of a preachy high-school play. How are people in attendance supposed to respond with honesty to something that looks, feels and sounds like entertainment. I’m talking about everything, from the size of the congregation and their seating arrangements, to the posture of the preacher, to the stage, to the lights, to the sound-system, down to the fact that people are seated in an audience, looking foreword at other people ‘leading’ something that is supposed to be for God, but to any objective eye looks more like a show. Why aren’t all these things out of sight? If ‘church’ is all about Jesus, then it should really, really be all about Jesus. Include only those things that support that end. And no, watching someone on stage ‘worship’ is not a viable excuse. It’s a crutch. (e.g., perhaps painting helps me worship, but where is the worship if I need to paint to do so?)

So, I stayed home, but I think Bill and I had Church together in a way I don’t often get to enjoy. It was brutally honest, painfully sincere, and truly all about Christ and one another. I can’t speak for Bill, but I certainly parted with him closer to God and encouraged. So, thank you, Bill, for bringing Church to me while opening my eyes a little wider to the pitfalls and potentials of being the Church of Jesus Christ in 2011.

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Trends, The United Methodist Church