Three young adults show why traditional, typical approaches to reaching them may not always work.
Ben Metzger grew up in a small town where his family was active in a tight-knit, Bible-believing church. Before he even moved into his college dorm room, his congregation’s youth leaders connected him with a campus ministry where he developed close friendships and studied the Word of God intently.
As a part of the campus ministry, he went on mission trips and led small groups that helped younger students face the spiritual and intellectual battles of the university experience. Ben enjoyed the “college-age” classes at local congregations on weekends, and grew in his faith during those years. But then he graduated.
Once upon a time in America, adolescent faith development fit some predictable patterns. High schoolers asked a lot of questions and often played around with the temptations of this world. If someone stayed home and got a job after graduating, he or she likely married soon and subsequently “went back” to church. If the wedding didn’t prompt such a move, the birth of children motivated young parents to renew their involvement with the church so their offspring would grow up with good values and good friends. Generally, by one’s early 20s, the childhood believer was back in the fold, active in the “young marrieds” class, and playing on the church softball team.
The other option was college, where students’ teenage skepticism and hedonism were fed and their wandering was extended. Those who went to college tended to marry later—sometimes not until after graduation—and thus spent more time “away from God.”
But like their stay-at-home friends, by the time babies joined the home, the college kids returned to church. Usually by age 25, they were back in the pews and on the path to church leadership.
Today these patterns have changed dramatically. Personal journeys of self-discovery and extended periods of time for higher education are common. Different presuppositions about when someone should get married and “settle down” have changed the picture, and now the average age of marriage is 28.
These days, young people who go away to college may become involved in campus ministries, and remain more faithful between the ages of 18 and 22 than their peers who do not go to college. After college, however, these folks often have trouble finding a spiritual home.
As a campus minister of three decades, I’m seeing many more young adults going through lengthier periods of spiritual wandering today. In a few cases, I know of individuals who grew up in church and have spent up to 15 years in what some call spiritual adolescence (physically developed, yet spiritually immature). Even if we believe many of these young people will return to practicing faith (there is evidence pointing in both directions), that is a long time away from godly influences and practices.
Clint Embree joined the Army right out of high school. He completed basic and advanced individual training. Then he was sent to Iraq—twice. After his active duty, he became an educational services adviser with the National Guard.
With his new job, he moved from his hometown, where he had attended the same congregation his entire life. Embree wanted to plug into a good church where he could be fed and serve, but he soon found that as a single person in his early 20s, he didn’t fit into the usual categories at most of the congregations he visited.
Many local churches have active youth programs; these churches recognize that most people who become Jesus followers do so while they are young. We have energetic and often sophisticated programming designed to keep teens excited about Jesus. Never in the history of the church have there been so many options to bolster teens’ faith.
But then what? We certainly need to do more to prepare our young people for college, and to support their spiritual growth while they are in college. Local congregations working hand-in-hand with campus ministries make a great team. Together we can produce college graduates who know their ways around classrooms, courtrooms, emergency rooms, and more importantly, know their way around the kingdom of God.
Post-college, single twentysomethings are a vital part of our spiritual family. These high-energy folks have some of the best opportunities to impact the world for the gospel. However, they don’t fit into the youth group and they really don’t like being shoved into the “young marrieds” class. What are we going to offer them? “Singles” groups? Not interested.
Monique Hernandez became a devoted follower of Jesus during college. She plugged into a campus ministry, where she studied Scripture, learned to serve, and started discipling younger students. She grew tremendously as part of a close-knit community of faith honoring and serving Christ in the middle of a sometimes hostile state university environment. But when she graduated, things dramatically changed.
Twentysomethings tend to be mobile and inconsistent, and though they hate to admit it, sometimes flaky. They hunger for guidance about their careers and relationships and lifestyle choices. They want to serve. This dynamic group of people deserves our creative and persistent attention as we develop new ministries within the church.
Many congregations are doing well to add college-age ministers, but it would be better also to provide edifying opportunities for post-college singles. During these most fruitful years of their lives, twentysomethings can make a huge impact for the kingdom.
When he graduated, Ben Metzger went to a small church plant where he was the only one his age—and then the tiny congregation folded. One of his campus ministry friends invited him to try a large congregation, which Ben resisted at first. But his friend’s persistence paid off.
Ben initially thought the worship a bit showy, but was intrigued that after worship each Sunday, a group of people about his age went out to lunch together and talked about how the morning’s sermon applied to their jobs and lives. He’s become a member of that congregation and is still a part of that ever-changing small group.
When Clint Embree checked out a congregation in his new hometown, he looked around and didn’t see anyone his age, but he liked the preacher, so he went back. He and the preacher spent time getting to know one another.
Soon the preacher invited Clint to work with an after-school program for elementary school kids. Clint loved the program, and the kids loved him. He began helping with Vacation Bible School and church camp, along the way getting deeply connected with many church members of other generations.
These days, because of all of those friendships, Clint seldom notices there are few people quite like him in the congregation.
Monique Hernandez attended a local congregation while in college, but as her friends graduated and moved off, she stayed in town and felt increasingly alone in her walk with Jesus. She and some friends tried to start a monthly twentysomething gathering, but it never really got off the ground.
As she was trying to get that group together, she found herself consulting with older people in her congregation, and realized how much they could edify her life. Monique realized she had been focused on “Why isn’t there anything here specifically for me?” and not so much on “How can I serve here?” She started meeting with a woman who was about 20 years older, and began to see the benefits of being connected with generations both older and younger.
Today, she loves her church and feels like a part of a multigenerational community.
So what do twentysomethings want and need? Though much church programming tends to be stratified by age, twentysomethings stress that they want and need multigenerational connections. People in their 20s long for relationships with older believers who can tell them what the road ahead looks like, and they treasure opportunities to invest in younger people. This is not to say they don’t value time with others who understand their humor and enjoy the same types of social media—so it’s not “either/or,” but “both/and.”
Since this generation doesn’t like to get up very early, the peer side of things may be better served by a late-night small group than by a Sunday school class, but churches should make every effort to invite them to help reroof a widow’s house or take the junior church kids to an amusement park.
Times change, but God’s call to lifetime faithfulness remains consistent throughout the ages. We cannot program for life patterns that no longer exist. Let’s listen and share and innovate so that these younger, unmarried brothers and sisters can show up at church and quickly recognize, This is a congregation where I can grow personally and serve others sacrifically!
Dave Embree, a campus minister since 1978, serves with Christian Campus House in Springfield, Missouri, on the campus of Missouri State University. He also serves as an instructor in MSU’s Department of Religious Studies.