the methodist church can’t afford to succeed in reaching young adults

Some of this is tongue-in-cheek, but even I’m at a loss to figure out which parts.

Years and years of vibrant/relevant/fruitful/vital/+your buzzword youth ministry have only seemed to shine a spotlight on the growing “missing generation” of young adults that are for the most part simply not coming to church anymore. Healthy youth ministries are failing to to engage their exiting participants, who may or may not return when they settle down and have kids of their own. Much has been made of the “why” of the growing absence of young adults. People are marrying later, settling down later. Extended adolescence pushes the average age of completion of education and realization of adulthood into the 30s. So we work super hard to figure out what it is that these young adults want in a church experience and smack our existing models of worship and discipleship into something that looks more like that. And it sort of works, sometimes. And the more we pound on the clay of the institution with the mallets of appeal, the better we’ll probably get at it–if only in degrees at first.

But I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about this: what if we accidentally succeed?

Seriously. Say your contemporary service stumbles over the just-right combination of sounds-like-Christian radio + safe hipster appeal and the late 20s-30s-somethings come flooding in. Hurray, we did it; we need more space, we’ll build a bigger building, we’ll add staff. It’s so exciting to be growing again! Oh, but wait a moment. We’d collapse under our own weight, faster than we already are.

Know your demographic. These people don’t pay for anything.

Exaggerating to make a point, but think about it. I’m in that demo–we had Napster, we stream and torrent, we borrow before we buy, we sneak into the second movie. Sometimes the first. Even those of us that don’t steal know that genuinely high quality content is always available for free somewhere. Facebook is free. Google is free. Twitter. FourSquare. Even Hulu offers free TV if you’re willing to wait a day.

So what does free content have to do with a demographic that has come to be defined by what it consumes have to do with worship? Everything, if worship has become content to be consumed. If we’re focused so hard on creating content that we’re tweaking our light & sound and advertising in the right neighborhoods and restaurants we’ll have lost the thing that made us matter in the first place. What was it? I’ve forgotten. Something about disciples; something about the transformation of the world. And even if we get them in the door, I just don’t see young adults rallying around a mortgage and staff. Remember, good content is free somewhere if you just know where to look. Like smaller, more intimate gatherings. Less teaching, more dialogue. Less top-down, more groundswell.

So what happens? They didn’t all die; they’re out there somewhere. Living in community. Worshiping in homes or small, rented spaces where necessary. How do we get them back? Can we afford to? What must change?

Perhaps more important to our immediate conversation: how do we best equip our youth for their future relationship with the church? Should we acknowledge current trends and stop presuming that their spiritual development will continue within the local church as we’ve known it? How do we prepare them for life beyond our walls? Or is it time to dig in?




  1. Nce article! I can’t speak to all the specifics that UMC might be experiencing, but I’m a youth pastor at a small church and our youth group is growing, not because we have awesome programs (belive me, I put them together, they are not awesome at all), but because we place the emphasis on seeking deeper, intimate, and authentic relationship with Christ.

    I think it’s a problem that is being largely over-analyzed.



  2. Kevin, I loved this article. There are several difficulties I’ve seen in this problem I believe we’ve created in regards to the 20s-30s generation. For one, due to sexual ethics policies and such, we create a hard break at the end of the youth ministry years where we kick those students out of the nest and don’t want to see them around our youth program until they’ve grown a full set of wings…lest the 20 yr old boys use youth meetings as a singles club to pick up 17 yr old girls. I agree we need these policies, but for the kid who is leaving the youth group and not moving off to college, I rarely ever see decent transition classes in most churches, especially small-medium sized ones. there’s always a small handful of people in this class and some are young families with one or two infants and mom is in college, and then there’s a couple of single college kids with an entirely different set of needs from a Sunday School class. Their lives are way to different for the same Sunday School class, but without each other, there aren’t enough people to have a class in the first place.

    Then reaching this demographic becomes a catch-22…a chicken or egg situation where we can’t see developing classes, programs, or worship services to draw in these folks without having some of those Gen Y people in the first place. And so we often just hope that our college kids will go find a church in a college town and get involved there. I do agree though, that churches who go aggressively pursue this demographic will not be able to handle the “free-loading” nature of the generation. I think it falls on us as youth workers to make sure that our lessons and programs are interwoven to the fabric of the church as a whole, not approached in an isolationist fashion where we have youth worship services during the regular service and all of our events are “just for us.” These types of youth programs feed into that “the world is just for you” mentality that requires very little of the believer, because their whole faith system has been constructed around them…until they graduate high school.

    Great article.

  3. Hey, I think your writing style is pretty good; it was an enjoyable read for one who doesn’t enjoy most blogs I browse through.

    Maybe the trend of not paying for things is redeemable. I’m 23 and I’ve mostly fit the stereotype you described, but I’ve been taught the importance of giving my money and I view it as a positive change in my faith. Perhaps being selfish in financial donations should be thought of as sinful that can be changed.

    Another issue that I’ve found is that most people in their 20s or 30s use electronic transactions, which many churches don’t support in their offering/tithing system.

  4. While “tongue on cheek” you may be. There could also be the reason of “reason”. Young people are able to read more independently, are being asked to be more critical thinking about there own studies and school work, more self aware, etc etc

    What does that mean? Well, it means that when you offer a religious solution to issues you need to be credible. The young ones are applying those critical assessment skills and finding your images/words/programs to be wanting. In other words, the prevalence of atheism is growing.

    In other words, the young are realising that life is something we live today. There isn’t a second chance and there is no after-life/reward. Morals are part of who we are and not prescribed to us. Growing and reproducing is a natural part of our species (same as other species) and not something to be ashamed of and described in abhorrent terms.

    So, live life now!

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