by Dianha Ortega-Ehreth
Young adults in their 20’s and 30’s are the most under-represented age group of people in most Protestant churches. So why should the church be intentional about reaching out to young adults?
This is not a new question. James F. Halliday in his book Robbing Youth of Its Religion wrote “hosts of young people, by virtue of being robbed, have found their way to a stronger and more serviceable faith; hosts of others have sunk into skepticism or indifference.” His book was published in 1929! So what makes the claims of young adults straying away from the church unique today?
Because we can no longer take for granted that they will come back when they have families of their own. And if the church wishes to be vibrant or has an aspiration to grow, young adults need to be part of the equation.
So this then begs the next question, how do we get them to stay or come back?
There is no cookie cutter book on how to get young adults to stay or come back to the church, and frankly, if you’re looking for one, get ready to be disappointed. The only “magic formula” that I am convinced works is making space, and there is nothing complicated about that.
Making space for young adults in your church is more than moving over to the end of the pew to make space for a couple in their 30’s to sit during worship. It’s being intentional in inviting people in their 20’s and 30’s into your church. It’s making space in your church bulletin, where the opportunities for service and personal growth in your spiritual community are represented and announced.
A strong presence of young adult activities in your church communicates an understanding of people in their 20’s and 30’s and their need to relate to each other. This group communicates and operates from within a generational culture. There is a myriad of excellent books about “Generation X” (which is now, by the way, in its mid to late thirties), almost to the point where it is treated as a strange anthropological science. Inviting this generation as they are to be who they are together in your community is an affirmation of them as people of God and a recognition of all the gifts and ideas they bring.
On top of young adult activities in your church, representation of this generation is just as important (some would argue more important) in your decision-making bodies. Lutherans are very good at creating these kinds of spaces. There are hosts of councils, committees, boards, special task forces – you name it, we got it! While each of these kinds of groups is committed to a higher end, what matters most is how they get there. Inviting young adults (notice the plural here, versus the one token young adult position) into the process might get the church someplace unexpected in 10 years – that’s scary for some. But because young people are part of the journey and because the Holy Spirit can be trusted, the church will be relevant and it will have leaders.
Of course, having young adult activities in your church and a number of positions for young adults in your decision-making bodies is all fine and good, but it isn’t very effective if no one knows about them. Be creative about sharing these opportunities with young adults. Most likely you do have a few young adults in your church – ask them what they would like to do, let them do it, and let them invite their friends. For every one young adult like me – a young adult who never strayed from the church and in fact, works for the church – there are dozens of friends who do not have a church relationship. Have patience. Few people take up the first invitation.
Young adults are the key to keeping the church vital and relevant in the world. Their voices and gifts speak to their dedication to change the inconsistencies between what people say and do. Their search for spirituality is genuine. Their unprecedented number of opportunities in life has generated sophisticated and savvy ways of testing, experimenting with careers, selecting relationships and more. Intentionally creating space for young adults in your church will help keep the church part of the equation for the future.
Disorganized Religion: The Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults by Sheryl A. Kujawa, editor, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998
The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry by John C Cusick and Katherine F. DeVries, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2001
SoulTsunami: Sink or Swin in New Millenium Culture by Leonard Sweet, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.
God Works: outh/Young Adult Ministry Models … Evangelism at Work with Young People by Thomas Chu, Sherul A Kujawa, and Anne Rowthorn, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1997
Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spritiual Quest of Generation X by Tom Beaudoin, Josey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1998
Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind “Generation X” by Geoffrey T. Holtz, St. Martin’s Griffin,New York, 1995
Big Questions, Worthy Dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks, Josey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 2000.
Dianha Ortega-Ehreth is the Associate Director for Youth Leadership and Spiritual Formation at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America churchwide offices in Chicago, Illinois. A young adult herself, Dianha has been a lay leader in young adult ministry for over seven years and enjoys creating spaces and announcing opportunities for young adults to serve in the ELCA.