Defining the phrase “young adult ministry” can be like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree.
I hear a lot of discussion about engaging the faith lives of young adults, because we know they are disconnecting from the church at a rapid rate. A study by Barna found that nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15. Pew Research says that a third of adults under 30 claim no religious affiliation. Our hearts are broken over the rapid loss of young people from our churches. We desperately want to grow with them in God’s Word and help them become active members of the Body of Christ. But often there is a fundamental question that keeps us stuck.
Who exactly are we talking about when we say “young adults”? Maybe the label of young adult is a specific age range, but what range? 18-25? 17-22? 22-30? Typically we start using this label with those who are legally adults, but it’s possible the label is more akin to those in their 20s or those working and living on their own. Creating a top age limit can be tricky as well. The more we open up the age range, the more life stages and maturity levels we need to span. Ministry becomes difficult when some want to start at 9 p.m. and others put children to bed at 7 p.m.. The needs of an 18 year old in their first year of college can be vastly different than a 26 year old who is married with two children.
Perhaps it is better to talk about those who have or have not yet met specific milestones like marriage or children or full-time employment. In the days of Walther League, as I understand it, you were considered a part of the youth ministry until you were married. Now, it seems more common to see ministry for young adults reach until their hand-off to family ministry after having children. Yet even these markers are not absolute. Millennials are getting married and having children later in life, often leaving them feeling too old to be a young adult, but not yet a family. How do we transition those who meet these milestones early or those who never meet them at all?
So is young adult simply a state of mind? Do we throw it out there without definition and let everyone decide for themselves if they fit? In some places, this may work but often it leads to confusion and difficulty engaging exactly who we intend. There is no one gold standard for defining young adults or young adult ministry. Each person, church and community will identify a slightly different group every time you use the phrase. It requires ongoing evaluation and relationship to get the label just right.
Like I said, nailing Jell-o to a tree.
However, after years of using that phrase to talk about nearly impossible tasks that simply defy logic and ability, I actually saw a video of someone successfully nailing Jell-o to a tree. And it was incredibly simple. They nailed the Jell-o to the tree by leaving the Jell-o inside of its single serve cup. They set it against the tree, nailed and bam! Task completed.
So perhaps there is a simple solution. When things get messy and confusing, create some definition and work with it. “Young adult” becomes the group that fits into whatever Jell-o container you choose, in whatever way seems most appropriate to your community. Then get going. Too many churches have been held back from engaging this group because they get caught in the quagmire of trying to define it. If you don’t have college students in your area, identify young professionals and gather them around Scripture, service and fellowship. If you have a nearby college, find connections between the campus and your congregation. Only have a handful in each category and find ways to deliberately incorporate each of them into the life of the church.
Ultimately, our task is the share the story of Christ crucified, to connect people of any age to God’s Word and Sacraments. Perhaps we have worried too much about defining the labels on each ministry. Young adult ministry can be any way we actively engage young adults in God’s Word, vocation and the life of the church. If we want to begin to stem the tide of young people leaving the church, spend more time listening and building relationships with “young adults” (however you define that), we will find the ways to share and grow in the Gospel together.