Lessons from Churches that Reach Young Adults
Lovett Weems examines the findings of a new report on engaging young adults and shares clues for improving ministry with younger people. He notes that churches that assume they can engage young adults in the same manner as anyone else virtually always fail. To have young adults involved beyond a token level, there must be a specific strategy to reach them.
The longstanding challenge of engaging young adults in church is far more difficult today. Fewer persons overall participate in church. In young adult culture, church is even less a factor. The young are disproportionately represented among those who choose “none” for their religious affiliation. The aging of membership in many congregations does not help.
The first question for any congregation is, “Do we really care deeply about reaching young adults — so much so that we will do what it takes for that to happen?”
A major new report, Engaging Young Adults, studies the practices of a cross-section of American congregations that reach young adults as well as those that fail to reach younger people. Author Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi has done a splendid job of organizing and interpreting data collected in the American Congregations 2015 survey by the Faith Communities Today project. She provides many clues for improving ministry with young adults.
The good news is that young adults are far from missing in most congregations. There may only be one young adult participant, but the young are not totally absent. The question for congregations is not whether an 18 to 34 year old participates in their congregation, but whether there will be more than token engagement.
The first question for any congregation is, “Do we really care deeply about reaching young adults — so much so that we will do what it takes for that to happen?” This is a question of the heart, not of programs or tactics. This report confirms what previous research has documented: Many congregations say they want to reach younger people, but most are unwilling to change their worship or priorities to make it happen. Paradoxically, while many church members bemoan that the young lack interest in the church, they themselves show little interest in reaching emerging generations. And, when church members’ engagement with the young is minimal, they are more prone to negative assumptions and stereotypes about younger people. When there is little openness to change, reaching young adults is unlikely.
Some churches seek the engagement of young adults in the same way they do for anyone else. That strategy virtually always fails. Young adult participation in churches that assume what they are already doing is sufficient is only 3.5 percent! To have young adults involved beyond a token level, there must be a specific strategy to reach them. Ninety percent of churches with thriving young adult ministries have such a strategy.
Is there someone in your church responsible for engaging young adults? Only one-third of churches have such a person; yet two-thirds of thriving young adult ministry churches have at least one designated leader. And churches declining in young adults typically have no designated leader. Most of these leaders are young adults themselves, especially in churches with thriving young adult ministries. But, whatever the age of the leader, the presence of a designated person, paid or unpaid, responsible to lead young adult engagement is crucial. The majority of young adult ministry leaders are unpaid volunteers. Even larger churches with paid staff make all the more use of volunteers.
While having a young adult as the leader helps, there is another even more important factor: how many hours this leader devotes to the task. The more hours spent, the more likely there will be a growing young adult ministry. Churches with thriving young adult ministries report that a leader spends on average 20 hours per week. While having financial resources to apply to such ministry helps, calling upon volunteers and unpaid staff has been shown to be effective, especially if they are young adults themselves.
“We can no longer expect that young adults will come through the doors of congregations on their own. Instead, we must make it a priority to go beyond our walls in order to engage this generation….” This is the challenge laid out in this important report. Creating a future for our congregations in which all generations are appropriately represented is a task well worth the effort to accomplish.