One of the most common questions I hear from church leaders is, “What are you doing for 20-somethings in your church?” You can ask a similar question, “What are you doing for teenagers in your church?” and the question just sounds different. The difference, is that first, youth ministry has a plethora of resources and expressions that youth leaders can tap into. Second, ministry to “20-somethings” lacks definition and churches often end up defaulting to familiar youth ministry models and metrics that miss this age period and bring leaders back to that common question again.
Questions often digress to blame. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t hear or read about “young people leaving the church” or how “youth ministry has messed up our young people,” or how “liberal colleges,” “gay agendas,” absent parents, the internet, lazy Millennials, or the iPhone has made them “spiritual but not religious.” Blame even leads to abandonment where churches are giving up on the Millennial generation and setting their sights on Generation Z, as a better bet on the future.
A way forward with “20-somethings” isn’t ignorance, nor blame, and definitely not skipping over them. I believe that if we are going to take people ages 18-29 seriously, faith communities must begin with defining the relationship–a DTR.
At one time or another, you’ve probably had to do this. It’s that moment in a significant relationship when you take a moment and ask, “Who are we, together?” “How shall we relate to each other?” “What can I expect of you, and you of me?” and “Where is this thing going?” Relationships that don’t have one (or more) DTRs live in ambiguity and eventually dissolve because no one is clear as how to relate, act, or anticipate. Ambiguous relationship = break-up.
Faith communities need to have a DTR with their 20-somethings before more blame is launched or another program is created. We can spend more time reflecting on this in my YS seminars in Sacramento and Atlanta. In this brief post, I offer three things to ponder:
Let’s call those in their twenties Emerging Adults,
Realize that the ambiguity of this label isn’t a reflection of them, but the church’s lack of understanding them. I call them Emerging Adults (cf. Arnett, 2004), because it is a name of movement, grace, and purpose. Those in their twenties are emerging–still trying to figure out love, work, and belief in a world more complex than when others were their age. We can serve them by recognizing this as a significant formational time, not limbo. They are also emerging adults–there is a telos, a goal, called adulthood. Churches having a DTR with Emerging Adults means to recognize them for who they are and for the support they need as they practice becoming adults.
Is the church willing to have this kind of relationship with them? It’s the difference between good news and bad news.
Let’s commit to supporting Emerging Adults’
formation forward, not backward.
If we take time to DTR, we may recognize that much of our programming for Emerging Adults is nothing more than older-person youth group with the same music, messages and activities that have graduated from PG13 to R. When we look at this through a relational lens, however, we realize that these kind of programs fail to establish a new kind of vision for how Emerging Adults relate to their faith communities. If your Emerging Adult ministry looks like youth group, you are reinforcing the kind of relationship you want with them–adult to adolescent, which is a regressive relationship and “formation backward. Formation forward vision gives Emerging Adults opportunities to grow a self-authoring faith and contribute to and through their faith communities.
Let’s embrace all of Emerging Adults,
not just the parts we desire.
In any relationship, you can’t choose what part of a person you get. Still, it often feels like churches want Emerging Adults’ butts in the Sunday morning seats but not their hearts, their minds, their lives. The reality is this–faith communities that truly want Emerging Adults, will also want their questions that challenge the community’s assumptions, their ideas that make others uncomfortable, and their gifts that bring new light on tradition. Churches must DTR by saying to Emerging Adults, “We want you, all of you.” Anything less communicates, “We really don’t want you at all.”
It’s time to DTR with our Emerging Adults. Let’s recognize their journey to adulthood. Let’s support their formation forward. Let’s accept all of who they are.
Steven Argue is a pastor and theologian in residence, serving on the Ministry Leadership Team at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He teaches youth ministry at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and serves on the Advisory Council for the Fuller Youth Institute. He loves running, eats vegetarian, and tweets #RunningThoughts. You can hear Steven speak at both NYWC Sacramento and NYWC Atlanta.