Who has my best interest at heart? Our safety and security depend on us knowing the people and organizations that are looking out for our well-being. How we answer this question impacts not just on personal relationships but on all life choices. As we look at Generation Z and Millennials, our two youngest generations, we have seen a shift in how they perceive and trust larger organizations which dominate society. This shift can have implications for the church as well.

Generation Z and Millennials have grown up seeing institutions like major banks, higher education, and the justice system fail and falter. From the 2008 economic crisis to sexual scandals, young people have a vastly different perception of how trustworthy these organizations are than previous generations. The institutional Church has even taken blows, from the mishandling of child abuse by the Catholic church to mega-church pastors who leave their pulpits amid scandal. Sin is ever present in our world, and no institution or organization built by man is immune from its effects.

In the LCMS Youth Ministry 2017 Young Adult Survey we asked young adults who had grown up LCMS if the church has their best interest at heart. We found:

  • 57% of Active LCMS young adults agreed
  • About 40% of those who had left for other Christian denominations agreed
  • 18% of those who had totally left the church agreed

We can celebrate that a majority of active LCMS young adults feel the church has their best interest at heart. While these numbers are solid, they are far from encouraging. They align with other research that shows young people today are increasingly skeptical of institutions. Barna found that overall, Millennials believe universities are looking out for their best interest more than churches.[1] We live in a sinful, unsteady, and unpredictable world. If we want to meet young people where they are with the Gospel, we must understand their learned cynicism of institutions.

The good news is that the church is not just an institution. God’s church is a gift to us. It is a community centered around Word and Sacrament. It is where young children are welcomed into God’s family through the waters of Baptism, where we share Communion together. It is where we study the Bible and where we confess and receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name. The church is a place for authentic, grace-filled relationships where we can encourage a deeper understanding of who God is and what He has done. When structures and institutions fail, God never does. Even in our sinfulness, God uses His church to share the Gospel.

In a skeptical world, where do we begin to show young people that God’s church loves them and wants only the eternal best for them? Through the Holy Spirit, there are incredibly practical ways we can reach out.

See and recognize young people in your congregation. No young person should enter or leave a worship service without someone taking notice. Ask them questions, build up relationships, or simply smile and wave. Young people should feel that the church values them just as God values them. Good attendance tracking can also help point out young people on the fringe who may need an extra connection. While an institution may see them as just a number or a dollar sign, the church knows its young people are God’s children.

When young people leave for college, military service, or work, we must keep a relational connection with them until we hand them off to a new congregation. Institutions only find value in someone who is consistently present and contributing. The church’s care extends even as young people transition to a new place. Don’t leave young people on their own to find a new church home or believe their transitions don’t matter since they will come back on their own someday. If the church really has their best interests at heart, it continues to connect and care.

When young people experience crisis, the church needs to be a source of support and encouragement. When they struggle with identity, pressure, broken families and more, the church can uniquely bring grace, forgiveness, and care. Rather than shy away from the intense crises that can mark young adults’ lives, the church brings God’s law and Gospel, compassion and grace. The church, unlike institutions, walks through difficult and messy times with its members.

Does the church have young adults’ best interest at heart? I believe most churches do. We know that the institutional church isn’t perfect. Yet, God has redeemed even our broken places. The Holy Spirit can work to ensure young people do not see the church as just any other institution, just out for its own gain. Instead, they can be pointed to God who has the best interest of the entire world at heart. He proved that by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. God desires only the best for His creation, and that includes the church. May our young people know this, even in our broken world.

[1] 20 and Something by Barna Group