“I am looking for more than just free pizza.”
As I sat across the table talking to this college freshman, listening to his experiences and lessons from his first semester at college, our conversation landed on the topic of church. When I asked him if he had found a church home in his college town, he explained the difficulties he had encountered. “Everywhere I’ve visited, I felt like the object of a church’s ministry to me. As much as I love free food, I am looking for more than just pizza and fun events. I want to be a part of a church where I can participate in ministry with others.”
This young man’s comments succinctly sum up numerous other conversations I’ve had with young adults about their relationship with the church. For those who have not walked away from Christianity, many still find it hard to locate their place in the life of a local congregation. And many churches find it difficult to figure out how to get young adults to be part of the church. Young adult ministry is not simple. But the future of the church depends on us passing on our Christian faith and incorporating emerging generations into the ongoing mission of God.
Earlier this year, Nazarene church leaders from across the U.S. and Canada gathered online for a special two days with the NYI Leadership Conference. This conference included several workshops where church leaders interested and involved in young adult ministry gathered to discuss effective ways to engage emerging adults into the life of the church. Throughout our conversations in these workshops, a few questions arose that encompassed the obstacles many churches currently face in young adult ministry. Two of those questions were:
1. How do we start or restart a young adult ministry?
2. How do we develop a young adult ministry when young adults are a demographic comprising a wide variety of life stages and situations?
For many churches, the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted our young adult ministries (along with everything else, right?), and has left us reevaluating the core principles of young adult ministry. Perhaps the most pivotal element to young adult ministry is highlighted in the comments of my friend who was looking for participation over pizza. Young adult ministry must be a ministry of “with-ness.” Our local churches must focus on engaging in God’s mission with young adults rather than doing ministry to young adults.
The difference is an invitation to work with each other as well as creating space for young adults to step into meaningful roles within the life of a local congregation. And while there is no magic formula for successful and effective young adult ministry, there are overarching concepts that can be contextualized into your specific ministry location. Here are three ways a local church can engage in ministry with young adults.
1. Share an invitation to participate in what is.
2. Share an invitation to invest in what could be.
3. Venture together on the journey between what is and what could be.
1. What Is
As we engage in ministry with young adults, we need not always create new things. Although new things are good and necessary in the right time and place, we can also invite young adults into what the church is already doing to engage the mission of God in our community and world. A concept I have adopted is what I call the W+2 focus. W+2 is shorthand for the goal of connecting an individual with the life of a church in three ways. The “W” stands for “worship,” and the “+2” represents two other points of contact and involvement. Within young adult ministry, my W+2 focuses on connecting every young adult into a worship gathering, some form of discipleship, and an area of service.
Leaving the categories open-ended allows me to customize my approach with each young adult based on individual life circumstances. These three areas of church connection will look different for a college freshman as compared to a twenty-seven-year old who is married and has a child. Although the specifics vary, the goal is the same: to connect each individual with worship, discipleship, and service in ways that are meaningful to their walk with Jesus. This approach can move our focus beyond viewing metrics and attendance as our primary markers of success instead of centering our ministry on growing spiritual maturity. And that truly is the goal, isn’t it? That appears to be the example of discipleship modeled for us in the life and ministry of Jesus. Seek maturity over metrics.
Although the specifics vary, the goal is the same: to connect each individual with worship, discipleship, and service in ways that are meaningful to their walk with Jesus.
An invitation into what is can also look like inviting young adults into leadership positions with specific ministries (children, youth, missions), as well as allowing young adults to meaningfully use their skills and passions. Several churches experienced this in a new way over the last year when young adults stepped up (some for the first time) to help their churches go online during the pandemic. Using their knowledge of technology and videography, tons of these “tech natives” helped churches effectively pivot their ministry work.
2. What Could Be
In addition to connecting young adults with what is already happening in and through local churches, we can also invite young adults to lead the church into new areas of ministry. We can initiate this process by asking young adults in our local context (friends, those in our church, those in our community) what they are interested in and want. And then—listen.
These conversations may lead to an invitation for a young adult—or team of young adults—to pursue a dream the church has not yet attempted. It could also lead to making space for young adults to pursue a dream they personally have that is connected to the mission of God. When we bring together the wisdom of the elders and the energy of the young for the work of God, God will do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine.
One example of engaging in this step is to set aside a specific amount of money for a “ministry experimentation grant” for young adults. Young adults could apply for a small grant to help them jump-start a ministry dream they have within their church. In receiving the grant, these young leaders can then submit update reports throughout the year and receive support and mentorship from other church leaders as well. Committing to this project for a set period of time (six months, one year, eighteen months) can allow a church to try something new and invest in emerging leaders.
The ministry experimentation grant also connects with a key leadership virtue, which is that leaders who empower others delegate responsibility rather than tasks. Delegating tasks requires no buy-in and does not share the accountability of the success or failure of a project. Delegating responsibility, however, calls someone to a higher standard and, by allowing the possibility of failure, creates the opportunity to fully take ownership of the successes of an initiative. Delegate responsibility and create space for innovation.
3. The Journey Between
Just as important as engaging in existing and future ministry work, how we go about engaging in that work is equally important. We as humans, especially as Christ followers, are built to journey together. As a West African friend of mine explained during my family’s time serving in Senegal, “Our lives are all intertwined. Your success is my success, and your sadness is my sadness. We share the highs and lows together. We help each other because we need each other. Nous sommes ensemble. ‘We are together.’”
In the context of young adult ministry, we can nurture this togetherness by creating intergenerational opportunities. One great example is for a church to provide meals and events for young adults that are hosted by an existing Sunday school class, small group, or other established ministry. The key is to intermingle people from both groups to provide opportunity for new friendships (for example, if the event is large enough and calls for a seating arrangement of some sort, divide participants by birthday month).
We can also invite different members of our church to come and share their testimony once a month with a young adult small group, the goal again being to create new relationships that will bring together the wisdom of older generations and the passion of emerging adults. In doing so, we become a more faithful expression of the bride of Christ.
In young adult ministry, churches should create space for young adults to engage in what is, create what could be, and journey together with the whole church congregation in the space between. These are important elements to our witness as Christians in the twenty-first century—the witness of our with-ness.
The Foundry Publishing has a young adult ministry curriclum, and other resources that could assist you in this ministry include the Streetlights Audio Bible, the YouVersion Bible group reading plan, and the Bible Project.