Some churches do very well at integrating young adults into the life of their church through the main services and gatherings. Other churches don’t. They may do better at providing a separate gathering for young adults. Others may choose to take more of a campus based approach, while others take a more decentralized approach, spreading out around the community in small groups or even house churches.
Whichever approach you take, these seven transferable principles ring true for ministry with young adults in any context.
1 Healthy Friendships
Young adults are hungry for good, healthy friendships with others, especially with other young adults. You must cultivate a culture within your church or ministry of warmly welcoming everyone, including young adults. The people of your church or ministry must approach every encounter and conversation in a nonjudgmental way that is more interested in a relationship with them than they are being right about a particular theological or moral issue.
You must provide opportunities for young adults to meet and make friends with lot’s of social time, fun activities, food, mixers, small groups, discussions, etc. Remember, in young adult ministry, you’re in the business of building friendships.
2 Helpful Preaching
Whatever preaching or teaching to which you are primarily drawing young adults must…
A) Be helpful for their everyday lives in pragmatic and concrete ways. Whether this is on Sundays or during some separate young adult service or bible study, the preacher, teacher, or bible study leader must work hard at knowing and connecting with young adults in relationship so that he/she can ensure their preaching is connecting with them in real and personal ways. While young adults are are thinking abstractly like older adults, many of them still live very concretely. They need the nuts and bolts of the Christian life. They need to know how it works out in very specific ways.
As they transition from adolescence to adulthood, the stress and emotional toll it takes on them is very real. Often times, preaching that is biblically-based inspiration and even spiritually therapeutic is very helpful. And, as my friend Albin says, help them understand the “why” behind God’s intentions and biblical principles, not just the “what.” Then help them understand “how” to live it out.
B) Be helpful with real world issues. Our nation and our culture is wrestling with so many difficult conversations like gender and sexuality, pornography, the relationship between science and faith, gun violence, race relations, etc. Young adults long to hear the church articulate its biblical voice in those conversations.
3 Open Dialogue
Create a culture of open conversation where young adults feel safe to ask questions, especially “why?” and “how?” and can discuss what they’re experiencing or wondering without judgment. They have so many questions and issues that they’re wondering about that they need a safe place to explore them. They may even make a statement or voice a conclusion that may or may not accurately reflect what they really believe or even one that may change after a while. We as leaders must be confident enough in our own skin to be able to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue with those of differing views than us without judgement or condemnation. Young adults need to feel safe to explore their ideas and try out different conclusions.
4 Lots of Fun
Fun and laughter provides reprieve from the seriousness and emotional weight of our lives. As much as you deal with and talk about the serious stuff, you have to find ways to be light-hearted and sometimes even a bit silly. Don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t have a little fun. Because fun helps people make better connections with each other, social and racial bridges can be built. A fun environment is more likely to have more open dialogue and healthy friendships. Use humor during your service, do mixers or even stage games, go bowling, have game nights. In other words, if you want to reach young adults get serious about fun.
5 Significance in Serving
Young adults are searching for their place in the world; their niche. We need to help them find ways to use their talents, strengths, and giftedness in ministry and in the community. Give them opportunities to serve and take ownership of the young adult ministry or church. As Kara Powell and Brad Griffen say in their book, “Growing Young,” give them “the keys to the church.” But it’s important to make most of these opportunities achievable and bite-sized ways to volunteer without getting overwhelmed.
If you’re developing a separate ministry with young adults within your church, give them opportunities to serve, lead, and make decisions in their own ministry. Examples might be small group leaders, musicians, welcomers, ushers, event planners, speakers, leadership team, etc. If you’re taking a more integrative approach, get them into these same roles alongside other adults.
At the same time though, you can give them significant opportunities to lead. I recently met the young adults pastor of Cornerstone Church in Boston. They have 500 people in their church. 400 of them are young adults between the ages of 18 and 30. That’s amazing. Furthermore, their entire leadership team are young adults under the age of 30. While most young adults would prefer achievable, easy to manage roles as volunteers, there are many who are very capable of so much more and just need the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
They also need opportunities to be adventurous and to try big things like mission trips, outreach initiatives, street ministry, and evangelistic or disciple making opportunities. Do whatever you can to build them up and send them out.
6 Show you Care
Many churches have no problem jumping at the opportunity to get young adults involved in ministry in their churches…if only they’d show up. However, we need to make sure we’re doing more than just using them for how they can help us. We need to genuinely care for them. They need our compassion, interest, assistance, guidance, etc. Recruit and designate some adults (age 30 or older) to really invest time and energy into caring for them––people who can invite young adults into their homes, take them shopping, get coffee together, pray together, show up at the hospital or auto shop when needed. Try to form small groups or bible studies of 6-10 people with caring leaders so they can really form a sense of deeper community. Get the pastor to see them as regular congregants and show just as much interest and care for them as they do older people. Whatever you do and however you do it, young adults need you to just BE PRESENT.
7 Provide Stability
Over the years, I’ve watched ministries rise and fall on both college campuses and in churches. The most common denominator in these roller coaster dynamics were the age of the primary leaders––they’re usually young adults themselves. I have seen one exception where a campus ministry maintained momentum and growth over the span of about 4 years under the leadership of a very committed, passionate, and charismatic college student. But, other than that, the only other examples of ministry growth and stability over multiple years comes from ministries that are led by dedicated adults who are older than 30 and are deeply rooted in the community itself. If you want to have a strong ministry with young adults, you must provide consistent adult presence, pastoral availability, stability in leadership, and maturity in guidance.
In closing, I just want say that I long for the day that every church either has a strong contingency of young adults in their congregation or their congregation has a strong presence somewhere in the young adult community.
Church, we must do better. Young adults need the church and the church needs young adults.