Oh I’m Sure They’ll Come Back

What is the Church, any church, doing for and with young adults, the post-high school, late teen and twenty-somethings?  The answer is, not much.  The reason for this all comes down to an attitude that has been pervasive in the church since the 40’s and 50’s.

For years, the church has put a reasonable amount of energy into youth ministry.  It provides for teenagers while they are in junior high and high school.  Congregations and district and national offices have excellent resources, events, programs and opportunities for teens to do all kinds of things – Bible study, servant events, gatherings, fellowship and more.  Then the teens graduate from high school and go off to college, and what happens?

The unspoken, unwritten assumption seems to be that when youth go off to college or enter the armed forces or start a career, they are most likely to simply drop out of church.  It’s a seemingly logical assumption that the young adult will spend a few years sowing a few wild oats and not making any strong connections with church.

But it has always been the assumption that the young adult will come back.  The thinking goes that once a young adult has graduated from college they will want to get married; I’ve actually heard a pastor say, “Oh, I’m sure they will come back when they marry.”  Then, they will start having kids and they will want those kids baptized. Right?

This kind of thinking may have worked in the 50’s and 60’s, maybe even into the 70’s.  But it doesn’t work anymore.  Back then, young adults were absent from church maybe 3 or 4 years, then came marriage and kids and reconnecting.  But today, young adults aren’t marrying – at least they aren’t marrying as early as they once did.  While they may live together, they don’t see themselves as necessarily establishing a permanent relationship, and they aren’t going to go back to a church that may want to correct their lifestyle.  When and if a young adult marries these days, he may be in his middle 30’s.  Then the couple may not have a child until their late 30’s or early 40’s. By that time, it may be as many as 20 years since they last stepped into a church.  It’s just not logical that, after an absence of that length, they will simply show up in church one day.  They haven’t had much of a connection to church. They are living fairly successful lives without church. They are doing okay for themselves. God hasn’t been much of a factor for them.

They may have questions, struggles, life challenges, issues. Twenty-somethings need the Gospel and far, far too many don’t know it.  Additionally, far too many churches are the reason those young adults are in that position.  It’s time we recognize our responsibility to care for young adults, to look for ways we can support and encourage them, to look for opportunities to minister to them and with them.  They have amazing talents, skills, insights and energies just waiting to be tapped. And we can make no assumptions about their future.

I wish we had an easy answer to keeping and getting young adults in church.  At least we’re asking the question about what ministry to and with young adults can be.  Pray God gives the Church a vision for young adult ministry.

Published August 2004

Published August 1, 2004

About the author

As the Director of LCMS Youth Ministry, Terry Dittmer seeks to advocate for young people and to empower young people to be God’s people in the world and to empower people to “confess” their faith in celebratory and expressive ways. Terry and his wife, Cherie, have five adult children.
View more from Terry

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