People sometimes ask me for advice on how to get more young adults to come to church. Frequently, their church is warm and friendly, but is made of up older and/or elderly adults. They sometimes speak passionately about their desire to see their church not die off as members age. These conversations usually occur with church leaders in parts of the world where the church attendance is in decline, particularly in the West.
When I ask them what sort of things they have tried, they tell me they are thinking of putting ads in the newspaper. Or they hung signs up outside inviting people to come to church. Or they held an event and they hung up fliers in places like the post office. They seem disappointed that the response to these has been poor.
At this point, I try to steer the conversation away from these passive, impersonal efforts at “outreach.” None of these require a great deal of time of true investment in people. Effective ministry takes work, a great deal of hard work. It takes an investment of time, of love, and of self-abasing service. While no single formula provides a simple solution to increasing the spiritual involvement of young adults, I will offer a few principles for fruitful ministry.
Pray: This seems so basic, but it cannot be overstated. Pray for God to open your eyes to those you are to serve. Remember that prayer not only changes the one who is the subject of your prayer, but it changes the one who offers the prayer. Pray that God will set your heart right to minister to others.
Check your motives: Simply wanting young adults to come to church merely because it will keep your particular congregation alive is disingenuous and unbiblical. People will see right through it and be turned off. Rather, the gospel calls us to share the love of Jesus because it changes lives, transforms relationships, sets free those enslaved to sin, and heals the broken hearted. If that is your focus, the church will grow as a natural result. If you seek maintenance of an “institution” without prioritizing mission, you will get neither.
Seek community: Research continues to show that today’s younger adults are looking for an authentic community that will help them discover the meaning and purpose of their lives. There is no better place than the community of vibrant Christians faithfully living out the gospel to aid in that discovery. However, true community looks much different than the institutional nature of many churches, and young adults, generally speaking, do not trust institutions. They have grown up watching banks “too big to fail,” fail. They do not trust government because they see political acrimony everywhere they turn. They see the institutional church racked by scandal again and again. Hence, they will not give blind loyalty to an institution, as maybe the previous generations have done. In order to help them see the good news of the gospel, authentic relationships in a dynamic community of Christians dedicated to scriptural holiness must be developed to provide a healthy picture of the church.
Prioritize belonging: Too many times the church has told people that they must behave and believe before they can belong. However, this is not the pattern Jesus models. In Luke 19, Jesus is passing through Jericho. When he sees Zacchaeus, Jesus publicly invites Zacchaeus into the community of faith. Picture it: Jesus offers a notorious cheat and swindler a place in the community of people of faith. The members of the religious establishment immediately disapproved. But notice that the result is Zacchaeus’s confession and repentance. Offering community where people are free to belong and can honestly share their doubts, struggles, and questions about faith, and answered with the transforming love of the gospel is a powerful agent of change.
Celebrate multi-generational ministry: In many parts of the world, young adult Christians are a minority in their peer group. Anecdotal evidence and academic research alike show that young adults want relationships with Christians of older generations to help them navigate life. This does not mean that the older adults need to have all the right answers every time. Rather, young adults tend to seek someone who will say, “I’ve have been walking this road a bit longer. I don’t have it all figured it, but I will walk this road with you.” I know I am thankful for the mentors who came alongside my wife and me to help us learn how to be parents, buy our first home, or take on new community projects. We received invaluable friendship and wisdom from people of several generations.
Be authentic: Young adults value genuine relationships that demonstrate sustained authenticity. Putting on a false front or a fake persona will only hurt ministry. It is not necessary to dazzle them with fancy lights, sound, smoke machines, and mirrors. Do not prioritize another slick event to get people in the door. Leave these things to the entertainment industry. Similarly, do not rely on the latest, trendy program to solve everything. Share your struggles and successes alongside one another, just as the NT churches did. Live in community, devoting yourselves to the apostle’s teaching, sharing meals with one another, and sharing as any has need (Acts 2). When a church operates this way people, communities, and the world are radically transformed!