A Church for Young Adults
“But what do young adults want?” I get asked this question a lot, and so do my campus ministry colleagues. Those of us in campus ministry see more people under 30 on a weekly basis than many of our congregations do in a month (or in some cases, a year). I think everyone agrees this needs to change. But how?
I’ve fielded multiple calls from really amazing priests who want to “pick my brain” or “run an idea past” me for a new ministry they want to try to attract young adults. After listening to their questions or their plans, my first question is always: “Well, have you asked any young adults what they want/need? (or if they are interested in this program/worship service/ministry?)” And inevitably the answer is: uh, no. I mean, the point is they don’t have any young adults, and so they are trying to envision what young adults would want, and they think I can just answer that for them. So, I suggest they find some young adults and ask them what they want, what their interests are, and find out what are their needs. This is what campus ministers do every day. We sit on campus and talk to students – those who are interested in our ministries and those who are not. But we’re constantly listening to them and finding where we can meet their needs and challenge them to grow spiritually. It’s not hard to do, but takes a different kind of effort. Ok I’ll say it: it’s evangelism. It’s totally do-able and is a lot more successful than just starting an “alternative” service on Saturday night for young adults, while praying that they’ll magically come even if no one knows whether or not they want it.
[BTW: I think one of the best kept secrets of ministry with young adults is that – in the communities I've been connected to anyway – not many of them are interested in 'alternative' worship, and very few want praise music, power point, or any of the things people (especially clergy) assume they want in worship. My colleagues often echo the same findings, but definitely not all, which is why it's so important to just ask what they want…]
Part of the gift of campus ministry is it can provide a less formal entry point for young adults. They’re with their friends, and it’s not a “church” per se, but may have many of the trappings of one. My unchurched students have told me as curious as they may be about Christianity, they would never have gone to a ‘regular church’ – at first. It’s too intimidating to them. Which is a big part of why campus ministry is so important: it provides that entry point for seeker college students. But I think it also has to do with relationships. They get to know me, the Pastor, oftentimes before stepping foot in worship. So there is trust there. They know they can ask questions and take their time in figuring it all out. And that really is the key here. And this could be employed by ministers and ministries beyond campuses as well.
Now, hypothetically, let’s say a young adult were to wander into a church on a Sunday morning. What is she likely to find? I’m not a millennial – I’m a mid-30s GenXer (which my students love to remind me, is OLD!) – but apparently I look much younger than I am. So I can pass for a 20-something, especially in congregations. Ever since my first day in my field work parish, the kinds of comments I have routinely received from people in the churches are things like: “Wow – you look like you’re 12! (Or 18, or 20)” “Are you old enough to be our priest?” “You look too young to be a priest!” and the general: “But you’re so young!” The worst comment I’ve ever gotten came last fall at a church where I was supplying (filling in for the usual priest). A woman saw me vested for the procession and exclaimed, “Who is this little girl who is our priest?” Ouch!
But hey, I’m not without a sense of humor, and I don’t think I’m necessarily that easily offended. But come on! I mean, I’m a priest and all, so I smile and try to love them anyway. Not necessarily the case for our hypothetical young adult. Point being: none of these comments make me feel welcomed or like this is a community I want to belong to. They make me feel separate, different, too young (and foolish?), and like I wouldn’t really fit in there. And if this is the response I get while wearing a collar, what do those who appear to be young, but don’t have a collar on, hear?
According to my students, often silence. Often nothing. Often no one will talk to them, or those that do apologize that there aren’t any other ‘young people’ there. Even when those apologies are couched in an effort at humor: “We’re glad you’re here! You bring our average age down by at least 30 years!” – it’s just not helpful.
So what do young adults want? ASK THEM! Seriously! They’ll gladly tell you. Don’t assume they’re too young, or you’re too old. Like anyone else, young adults want COMMUNITY. They want to be in a place where people know them and care about them. Questions like, “Where are you from? What are you studying?” Or “what do you do? Or, what do you want to do?” are great. These are the same questions you’d ask a visiting 40 or 50 or 60 year old. And then listen. If they’ve walked into a parish on a Sunday morning, they are probably interested in worship. And maybe fellowship. Or (this is a biggie for a lot of millennials) outreach projects. They don’t usually want to be told how young they are, or ignored.
I really believe we need to shift our thinking about young adult ministry away from ‘we want young adults in our church because our population is aging and if we don’t bring in young people eventually everything will go away’ to: ‘we want young adults in our church because they are children of God, and if they are not here right now then we are called to go out, find them, and minister to and with them.‘ This is a very different approach. The first way yields the ‘here-is-my-idea-for-young-adult-ministry-even-if-no-one-wants-it-but-at-least-then-we-can-say-we-tried’ result. The second way is harder and more labor intensive. But it is the approach that will most likely work. Ask any campus minister. I could plan an entire school year full of programs and if the students aren’t interested in it, they won’t come. The same is true in the world outside of the college environment.
Evangelizing young adults will and will not save our churches. Packing our pews with 20-somethings will not solve our financial crises or ensure that people will populate our buildings for years to come. But they will bring new energy, ideas, and a hunger for God and ministry to our church, and that is what is needed – by us and them.
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