We don’t see many of them in our church pews. We don’t see many of them serve on our church boards and committees. We don’t see many of them giving endless hours of volunteer time on their own. Where are they? Where did they go? Why? And when are they coming back?
They are the 20-somethings of our world. And I am one of them.
It’s a great place in life to be. Some are single, some are married. Some have kids, some aren’t even thinking about kids. Some are working professionals living in downtown lofts, some work at the same high school job and live with mom and dad. Some want to be older; some never want to grow up. But one thing is certain: not all of them know Jesus Christ as their Savior, and therefore, we have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to share Christ in a meaningful and significant way. That seems obvious enough…so where’s the problem?
Many churches have great children’s ministry. Many churches have a great youth group. Many churches have great adult Bible study opportunities. Many churches have meaningful social opportunities and growth opportunities for older adults. But unfortunately, many churches don’t engage the 20-somethings, and then expect them to show up again when their first child needs to be baptized. Many churches don’t miss the 20-somethings because they’re not in positions of leadership in the church (or contribute financially). Many churches do not see the opportunity and need to reach out in mission to the 20-somethings of their community. It is a mission. It’s about reaching outside of the church walls, and doing whatever it takes, literally–whatever it takes, to see 20-somethings connecting to each other and to Christ.
Have you heard the statistics? The Barna Group notes that “only three out of ten 20-somethings attend church…” and that “just one-third of 20-somethings claim to be absolutely committed to Christianity…” While statistics can only say so much, I hope they alarm you. Every number is more than a number–it is a soul who is missing the greatest joy in life, a soul who is missing The Life.
Now what? Let me share some thoughts based on my experience serving and leading 20-somethings, and more importantly, being one myself. First, I never thought I would lead a ministry focused on reaching 20-somethings. It never even crossed my radar. But the Lord had other plans. After moving to St. Louis in the summer of 2003 to attend Concordia Seminary, I was told about this job at St. John – Ellisville that involved leading “Dive54.” What was that? I later found out that was the name of their ministry to 20-somethings. 20-somethings? I had never even heard of the term. I had no idea what God was calling me to. Suddenly, I became the coordinator of Dive54. That was two years ago. Today, I no longer lead that ministry, but I work at St. John in another role and am active in Dive54’s mission to those outside the kingdom.
thESource asked for a Top 10 list of “traits of young adult programs that work.” I am not sure if I know “what works,” but I have some ideas on what doesn’t. Anyways, here are those random thoughts from a morning at the St. Louis Bread Company (a common home of many 20-somethings!). As you will see, I do not rate them from one to ten. Why? We 20-somethings don’t want everything to be black and white, crystal clear, a list of do’s and don’t’s.
The Bottom Line: It’s not about building a program, it’s about creating environments.
I believe most churches think they are doing a service and reaching out to 20-somethings by offering a more sophisticated version of youth programming and activities, only a few years later. The old Field of Dreams motto, “If you build it, they will come” is simply not true for my age range. A Sunday morning “Bible study for young adults” is probably not going to be the most successful endeavor you have undertaken. The next nine items are about creating environments where the lives of 20-somethings can be transformed.
- Let them lead! 20-somethings think they can change the world; let them! Involving them and letting them lead is a necessity! I have spent countless hours in coffee shops and bars looking fellow 20-somethings in the eye and saying “I know you are a leader. And I want to give you the chance to lead.
- Don’t expect them to fill roles prescribed by the Church. Ask them to bake cookies for special events and they’ll look at you like you are crazy. Ask them to help you create awesome environments, and they’ll sign up. They want to influence church life, not just be a part of church life.
- By 20-somethings, for 20-somethings. It shocks me when 20-something ministries are driven by a 47-year-old mother of three high school students. Remember? They want to lead! Let them lead! For your setting, this may involve identifying 24- and 25-year-olds who demonstrate the potential to reach a group you may not have as much success in reaching.
- Small groups, small groups, small groups. It’s not just about getting people together once a week to read the Bible and apply it to their lives. It’s about giving the opportunity and sharing the importance of doing life together. I often say to 20-somethings: “You were not intended to live life alone. Live it along with us.” It’s not about adding another thing to the schedule. It’s about living life in community with others. 20-somethings crave community. They crave significant relationships. They want to be real and be relaxed. They desire more than the “Hi, how are you?” “Good and you?” dialogue that pervades our culture.
- Spheres of influence–they know the people you do not! This idea supports our approach towards small groups. When some people think of small groups, they think of Bible banging, closed door, holy huddles that take place in basements of Christian people. We need to be okay with each group looking a little different; in fact, I think that in order to be mission-minded and outward-focused, we must allow each leader to choose a way that they think will best reach those in their sphere of influence.
- Go where the 20-somethings go! A coffee house, a sushi bar, or the BAR? Go where 20-somethings normally go on a Friday night–to the bar. In March 2004, another Dive54 leader and I (both of us enjoy a cold one once in awhile!) imagined a bar full of 20-somethings who would have the opportunity to interact with Christians and non-Christians alike, maybe while discussing a “hot topic” in society. What if someone could go to Hot Topic Night and hear about other opportunities to meet and connect with 20-somethings? What if someone at the bar overheard what we were talking about and wanted to find out more? What if we could create an environment where 20-somethings can entertain a current issue and feel free to bring friends into this comfortable atmosphere? I agree with Dan Kimball in saying that “evangelism is less of an invitation to an event and more of an invitation to enter into community” (Emerging Church, 284).
- What did you say about going to the bars? Hot Topic Nights (HTNs) happen on the first Friday of every month. We held our first one in April 2004, and have done one every month since. Topics have ranged from homosexuality to politics to supernatural phenomena to abortion to Saturday morning cartoons to many other things. Our format has changed from very formal, round-table discussions of the topic to a more laid-back, relaxed, informal approach to the topic.
- Let the created environment speak for itself. We do not force anyone to talk about the topic if they don’t want to talk about it. We want Hot Topic Nights to look like the bar on Friday night–groups of people interacting, connecting, sipping a beer, shooting pool, playing darts, talking, laughing. After about 2 hours of this type of interaction, we make a few general announcements, always emphasizing that “if you enjoyed tonight, check out our website at dive54.com and find out more. We also provide other environments for connection and have groups throughout the week. Check it out on the website, and take a HTN flyer for next month. Hope to see you there.”
- A Heart for Those on the Outside. It needs to start here. Where are the 20-somethings? Everywhere! The less time spent lamenting the fact that “they’re not in the church” and the more time spent developing significant relationships is a first step. Developing a 10-week Sunday morning bible study on Habakkuk and expecting them to just show up is probably not your best first step. Jesus came to seek and to save the lostwhy? To give Life. Be willing to share The Life.
Just a few thoughts from the St. Louis Bread Company. Even as I write, 20-somethings are invading this place located in Mid-County St. Louis. Remember the Field of Dreams motto and ignore it. Go to them!