Young people in the church?

Ask a Pastor
07/01/2013

Young people in the church?

How can congregations get people between the ages of 18-23 to become active members? — Jennifer Brandt, a young adult member of Bethel Lutheran Church, Rochester, Minn. 

Monica: Dear Jennifer, this is the billion-dollar question the whole church is asking! Thanks for raising it here. As a clergy person under 30, perhaps the best wisdom I can offer is my own journey. Eighteen- to 23-year-olds are at a transitional phase in life. Many are contemplating deep life questions (school, work, marriage, life, etc.) and, at the same time, moving into new independence (perhaps a new location). Faith may both be rejected and strengthened as life questions and experiences create new lenses for viewing the world, church and faith.

My college years were formative for my life and faith. I entered into seminary not because of any particular Sunday school or worship life experience. My home congregation genuinely cared about ME. I stayed in the church because my home congregation cared about my passions, giving me opportunities to explore and lead. Numerous adults would engage me in conversation asking about my bowling or band or my experiences as staff at Camp Amnicon. Every weekend I would come home from college. I attended church mostly to be with a group of people who gave a rip about me. And in doing so, I experienced Jesus in them. To this day, this is one of the most profound expressions of the gospel that I know.

Mostly, what young people crave is genuine relationship that is connected to the global world and a faith that is willing to be challenged. But don’t take my word for it. Ask young adults in your community about their life and faith.

At the festival of preaching, William Wilimon preached a sermon on the 33-year-old young adult who was a bit radical in challenging the status quo socially, politically and religiously. This man whom we call Jesus, we also call God. How might young adults help us all experience God in new ways? The tomb is empty, after all. 

Brian: To tell you the truth, Jennifer, I don’t know if we can — or if we should — try to get 18- to 23-year-olds to be “active church members.” I’m almost 50. When I was 20, being an “active church member” usually included things like membership classes, membership certificates, financial pledges, committee service and other trappings similar to membership in a club, organization or institution. I believe today’s young adults are much more inspired to be participants in a movement and members of a community — and are very disinterested in most things institutional. I also believe that the more we renew our congregations and ministries to focus on faith formation, discipleship and community, the clearer the New Testament’s call to follow Jesus will be, and the more interested and engaged young adults — and most of the rest of us — will be.

The much more important question, Jennifer, is, “How do you think we can invite you and your peers into deeper relationship with Christ and the community that bears his name?” So long as people like me are more interested in answering your questions than in seeking your wisdom and contributions, we’re all missing out on real opportunities. 

Ron: Dear Jennifer, WOW! I mean you are asking the big question. My quick response is, “I don’t know.” But upon reflection it would seem to me that as we focus on faith formation from baptism to the tomb, we treat and care for all baptized members with respect and affirmation. It seems to me that when I ask people in that particular age group about church attendance the responses are fairly typical. But I do know that 18- to 23-year-olds have a desire and passion for things that are authentic, true and liberating. Perhaps instead of changing 18- to 23-year-olds we need to change our behavior and attitudes as leaders in church. One book that I love is “Borderland Churches” by Gary V. Nelson. He invites us (regularly church-going folks) to move from a “come and see” mentality to a more “go and tell” attitude and set of behaviors. He states that the “borderlands” are that place and space where “faith and unfaith” meet. I think he’s onto something; what do you think? 

David: Jennifer, there are lots of people looking for the answer to that question. If you figure it out, let us know!

In all seriousness, we have a number of factors to look at, and none of them are easy. I think campus ministries and outdoor ministries are vital to helping that age range stay connected to their faith during those years of transition.

But more to the point, the absence of young adults in our congregations should cause us to re-evaluate the educational ministries in our church — Sunday school, family ministry, youth ministry, etc. The goal of such programs ought to be to send young adults out into the world with a strong faith. Are we achieving that? And there are also questions of welcome — do we make young adults feel like valued members of our community?

I honestly have more questions than answers. But they are good questions for us to ask together — and sometimes just the act of asking them and talking about the questions together can set us on the right path.


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You might also want to read:
Young Adult Ministry 101
The Millennial generation and religion
Worship: what and why?

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