I am currently a seminary student at Wesley Theological Seminary, and I have the honor of being on staff at Fishing Creek Salem United Methodist Church working with young adults.
In May I participated in a local high school baccalaureate service. As I stood up to share my thoughts with the up-and-coming high school graduates, I had this deep fear rise up in me — the fear and the realization that for the very first time, the majority of those high school graduates will never walk into a church again. A bold claim, but a realistic one.
As Director of Young Adult Ministries for the past eighteen months, the plethora of conversations I have had with young adults has revealed that there is a deep disconnect between young adults and faith communities.
A survey of any of our congregations in the Susquehanna Conference will show that there is a lack of young adult presence.
Many of us have asked the questions, “Why are young adults not engaging with the church?” and “How do we get more young adults in our church?”
What I have realized over the last eighteen months is that this question cannot be answered with a simple response or through a mere blog post of the top new ways to reach young adults, because the problem is deeper and more nuanced.
There are currently fifty million young adults (ages 18-35) in the United States, which make up about 15 percent of our population.
I recently surveyed some young adults, asking them how they would identify their age group, and I got three responses: the first one was, “It’s a time period.” The second one was, “It’s a season of life.” The third response was, “I think it’s just a lifestyle.” The reality is that this age group is diverse.
This group of people consists of college students and young adults who are working full-time or seeking to work full-time. They’re married. They’re single. They’re dating. They may be parents, they may be single parents. They may be divorced, or they may already be widows or widowers.
So as I share with you some statistics about this diverse generation, I want you to keep two things in mind: The first is that there are different kinds of [church] drop-outs, as well as faithful young adults who never drop out at all. We need to be careful not to lump an entire generation together, because each story of disconnection is different. I think this is why program language is no longer effective. Number two: I believe that the drop-out problem at its core is a faith-development problem, or to use church language, a “disciple-making” problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.
So young adults are known as a missing generation in the church. David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me. Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church ... and Rethinking Faith, shared these statistics:
- 61 percent of young adult Protestants (18-29) have dropped out of attending church after going regularly. What this means is that 61 percent of our youth groups won’t be part of the church once they graduate high school.
- 57 percent of all young adult Christians (age 18-29) say that they are less active in the church compared to at age fifteen. Once they reach fifteen, their level of involvement is significantly reduced.
And the last statistic that I think is the most staggering:
- 75 percent of young adults are currently not attending church on a frequent basis.
- Because of this, young adults are often known as the “black hole” in faith communities/church attendance.
The reality is that the universal church — all churches, including churches in our annual conference — is struggling with this issue. We’re struggling to be in relationship with young adults effectively.
Here are the United Methodist clergy statistics:
- In the General United Methodist Church there were 16,290 elders in 2013. Only 932 were under age 35, or 5.91 percent.
- In the Northeastern Jurisdiction there were 3,042 elders in 2013. Only 126 of them were under age 35, or 4.14 percent — even lower.
- In the Susquehanna Conference, there were 529 elders, deacons, and local pastors combined in 2013, of which 41 were under age 35, which gives us a higher than average percentage of 7.75 percent.
As a result of my research and reading there are two categories I want to share with you about why young adults are disconnected and why they are not participating in the churches.
We have friends who are not committed to Christ.
If 75 percent of my generation is not engaged in the church, then you would expect my peers and me to have friends who aren’t Christian. And that becomes a personal hindrance for us to be in the church.
Disappointment with ecclesiastical machinery.
I think there is some sort of distrust that we have formed with the church and the hierarchy that is established with it.
There’s either inconsistency in the mentor’s personal life, or mentors who aren’t truly invested in a relationship, so they aren’t consistent with it.
Unresolved doubts and personal fragmentation.
In the midst of our young adult years our identity is formed — who we are and what we believe. In the midst of that we have doubts. We are an over-educated society that learns about anything and everything by going to the internet; establishing many doubts and fragments in what we believe.
Poor personal choices with ongoing impact .
The reality is that young adults make mistakes. We aren’t perfect. Because of that we keep away from the church because we have felt judged. Not that the church has judged us, but we perceive that we may be judged because of our lifestyle or because of the things that are on our bodies.
You can use whatever verbage you want to use, but I think that there is an effort out there that keeps an already disengaged generation further away from the church.
Six church disconnections (from "You Lost Me")
Young adults are feeling disconnected from the church because it feels:
- Overprotective. Young adults sense that the church does not value their creativity or cultural engagement, which is very crucial to their lifestyle. Their creativity would produce something new and would presumably be different than traditions.
- Shallow. Some young adults find the church to be boring and superficial.
- Anti-science. With medical advances, personal technology, travel, and care of the natural world, young adults feel that the church has not helped them interact with science in a positive way. A clear example of this is the battle between the [theory of] evolution and creation.
- Repressive. Religious rules, particularly sexual moors, feel stifling to the individual mindset of young adults.
- Exclusive. Young adults are being shaped by a culture that esteems open mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance. So, thus, Christianity’s claim to be exclusive is a hard sell.
- Doubtless. Young adults find that church is not a place to openly share and express their doubts.
All of these things, both the personal and the church corporate ones, are relational barricades, and this is so crucial, because millions of young adult lives are at stake.
Millennials are the largest generation in American history. They are also a generation that are disconnecting from church and faith in larger numbers than we’ve seen in generations. The consequences of not paying attention to our disconnected relationships with this generation will have a significant impact on the church.
But more than that, I think it’s personal for you and me.
My heart breaks when I think about a few of my peers from high school — Gabe, Ariana, and Josh — who have not been able to find the church to be a healthy place for them to be, to openly wrestle with faith, and wrestle with God. And they’re not finding the church to be [relevant] to their lives.
For some of you, it’s not your peers, it’s your children, your grandchildren, or your great-grandchildren.
And in the midst of my own wrestling, in my own battling with the statistics, I am always drawn to prayer. I am drawn to prayer because that is where I need to find my hope, and I think that’s where we find our hope as a church body.
We need to pray and ask God for wisdom; wisdom in building relationships of re-connection that will allow all of us to participate in seeing God’s faithfulness extended to a new generation.
I want you to think of two young adults: one from your church, or a grandchild, or a child, who may have lost the faith. Also think of a young adult still in the church, still engaged with faith, still engaged with discipleship, and rejoice — be thankful for that life. Let us pray with urgency. God is calling us to have an urgency with this generation. There is something powerful in all of us praying for all of those young adults that came to mind.
Please pray with me.
God, we are drawn to you for hope. God, we come to you because you have first loved us. You have called each of us by name and have given each of us an abundant and full life. You, God, love and care for your entire creation, for all of your people. We are mindful today of [young adults], for a generation who is lost and falling further away from you. For this, O God, we mourn. So God, we pray to you; grant us peace, grant us grace, and grant us urgency to be in relationship with a new generation. God, give us the minds to understand, the words to affirm, and attitudes to love, because you, O God, are the ultimate source of hope in this life. God, we pray for every young adult that comes to our mind – may each of them come to know you in a deeper and more holistic way. God, we lift this up in your holy, amazing name, Amen.
Read part 1 here: http://susquehannalink.blogspot.com/2014/06/engaging-young-adults-in-ministry.html
The video of this presentation can be found at new.livestream.com/accounts/846459/AC14 (“Young Adult Presentation”) and the full, unedited transcript can be found at tinyurl.com/susumcAC2014.