Reaching out to young adults will screw up your church

I have a theory about young adults and the church. Here it goes. Let me know what you think.

While many churches say “we want young people” they don’t really. If young adults actually showed up and joined their church for good, the change they’d naturally bring with them would be stark, even off-putting. In fact, making a congregation welcoming for young adults necessarily means it will become less comfortable for the current members.

It’s just a theory, but here’s why I’m suggesting it. A few stories…

First story: the ministry I lead hosts a book group that meets in a back room at a local coffee shop. We read books related to religion in a very open-minded atmosphere. Few of our book group members attend church. Some don’t believe in God. Most are highly suspicious of organized religion. Well, at a book group discussion recently conversation turned to why people don’t go to church and one of the members exclaimed, “Wait a second…this, this book group — it’s sort of like church! I mean, I’d never go to church, but this community reminds me a lot of one. Wow.” He was floored.

As many have noted about young adults today, we tend to seek belonging first; believing comes later. To welcome young adults churches need to make places where we can belong and then believe. Belonging takes time and often happens best outside the church’s walls. For churches to do this means, for many of them, major change in where, how, and for whom they program.

Second story (or stories, really). Several of my young adult pastor friends tell about a time when one of them is hanging out around town, meeting new people, just being his cool/nerdy self when someone finds out he’s a pastor. And this person thinks the pastor is pretty hip so she asks, “Hey, can I come to your church.” The pastor sighs and says, “Yes, but you’ve got to know: I’m really different at church.”

These pastor friends, to survive in their parishes, have taken the edge off their preaching, their politics, their big ideas, even their theology. Though the pastors know young adults are drawn to their edgy honest selves, they also know their more established members — with the power and the checkbooks — have other ideas. A lot would need to change for the pastor to be able to respond to his friend saying, “Yes! Please, come to my church. You’d love it!” And, if that gal at the bar would truly love it, what would the church’s choir members think?

Third story. I was once at a church-related event where young adults were going around the table introducing themselves to the group. One person shared his name and then said, “And, I want to be upfront: I’m an atheist.” For a second, I held my breath to see what would happen next. Quickly, someone said, “Great!” And another smiled and said, “So glad you’re here.” There were smiles all the way around the table.

I can’t help but wonder how many congregations would welcome that young atheist with a genuine smile rather than a leeriness that he might infect the confirmation class with dastardly atheism-laced questions. Welcoming young adults that fit the perfect church visitor mold is easy. You know the type church members long for: some magical newcomer who was raised in a perfect household, is married (not divorced), has a few kids, enjoys his well-paying job, and, of course, has orthodox unquestioning beliefs. Fewer and fewer young adults fit this image (if anyone ever did). To welcome young adults these days churches need to welcome the atheist, the single mom, the tattooed, the unemployed, and yes (of course!) even the same-sex couple.

Those are my stories. And that’s my theory: for most congregations to truly become welcoming for young adults they will necessarily need to unsettle current members. Discuss.

Originally posted at A Wee Blether

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Experiencing this place now...

This article could not be closer to the truth for me and our church. It is sad but while the membership says in one sentence that we need to improve our relationships with younger members- the very next statement is that they are not going to change things. Christians are just like anyone else and they fall into the rut of comfortable and this is scary. Growth is about change and considering new opportunities and 'different'. I am afraid we have no chance. I have never seen such hard, set in their ways, determined people to make a church fail. It seems like self-sabotage and if we don't change our course I see our church closing down on becoming part of a multiple charge church where a pastor is spread thin between several congregations which tends to make this situation even worse. Help!....

This could hardly be more wrong.

Is this a serious opinion?

"If young adults actually showed up and joined their church for good," 

Last time I checked, it's God's church. I don't remember Jesus telling us anything about not welcoming young people to His church.

"the change they’d naturally bring with them would be stark, even off-putting. In fact, making a congregation welcoming for young adults necessarily means it will become less comfortable for the current members."

So you're saying that the influence of young adults on a church is stronger than God's? 

Who thinks it's not a good idea to reach out to young adults or anyone else seeking Christ??? 

"And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea." Mark 9:42

Missing the point...

I don't think that young adults have more influence over the church nor do I think that this is what the author was saying. I think that he was saying that there is a divide in the church. This divide is between those that have been in the church for years and are comfortable and those that haven't been attending a church- the younger adults. Of course we should reach out to the young adults. This isn't the real problem. The problem is changing the mindset of those that are already going. This is hard to do and even though it is hard it is possible. I also think that it is very sad that we often miss our real goal and mission as Christians. We often hurt ourselves more than any other force. We know what we should do, we just don't do it.

Reaching out to young adults.

Wow!...To consider that reaching out to young adults is not an option is so disturbing...As a parent of young adults looking to make their way thru life I see and feel the importance of a place for them to grow and connect with individuals their own age. As a sunday school teacher I see not only the importance of growning them in Christ...but the importance of them being able to continue to grow as adults...I see in our own church the failure of no place for our young adults. What has been offered is more of a click gathering at an individuals house, not comfortable for all our young adults. We end up losing these young people with hopes that when they growup, marry and have families they'll come back...Not a very Good plan! Common ground is important. Open those doors maybe once, twice a week AT church to give them a gathering place. Help them to meet and praise on equal ground young people who believe...We've lost a chance!


Does the pastor (or the church) always have to be cool?

Great blog post!  It was very thought provoking and challenging.  Imagine a scenario in a coffee shop, not unlike the one that you suggest .  A young pastor is out with other church friends on a Friday night enjoying a local live musician.  The pastor is introduced to a mutual friend of another friend.  They talk for a while and enjoy each others company.  When the conversation turns to what the pastor does for a living, the pastor says, "I'm Pastor of X traditional church."  The pastor doesn't invite them to church.  He simply says he is the pastor and they keep talking and hanging out.  Later, the same person suggests that she might come visit the church.  The pastor responds, "Anytime.  Let me know you are coming, and I'll try to break away from my official responsibilities to say hello.  We are a church that values traditional worship. Our goal is to set aside our ordinary cares and conversations to experience the wonder and mystery of eternity.  It's really a unique experience and the people who attend our church are gracious people."  Will that kind of Pastor still be cool when this young person visits on Sunday and the congregation is singing Hear Our Prayer, O Lord instead of a cover of Blowin' in the Wind?  Is that pastor not just as cool and authentic when he or she takes the pulpit with a humility, reverence and dignity that is distinct from the way he or she might enjoy a cup of coffee and lively conversation?   I know more than one pastor who is just that cool and authentic without feeling conflicted or unnecessarily apologetic about their professional role or religious identity.  For a few other thoughts on this post, see


Why invite young adults into church @2

Unfortunately I omitted a crucial phrase.  The primary purpose of a church is to worship God. 

Why invite young adults into church

As I read the article and comments I wondered if the reason young adults aren't interested in your churches is you do not have a clear reason for their being there.  Is your church a social club?  A discussion club? A tell us what you want and we'll try to give it to you church?  Do young adults have an understanding about what your church is all about?  As I understand the New Testament a church is a group of believers in Jesus Christ who come together to learn, to support one another, to tell others about the difference Christ can make in their lives and to reach out to those in need.  I live in a community of about 5000 and  attend a local church where over one third of the 1100 members are young adults (many drive 15 miles from a larger community). No one asks "Are you a Christian?"  and I don't believe many would be shocked if someone says "I'm not a believer in God."  They would say, however, "Let me tell you about him."  You see, they know the reason they are part of this particular church.

Eliminate the YA Category

Since my youth, everything that has made want to stop going to church and that drove my friends away was presented as somethings that would bring the "young people" in. The folk liturgies. The hand-holding. The smarmy, smiling clergy. The disappearance of any reference to doctrine. The assumption that we were all good people, that God loved us just as we were and would be happy if we chose to stay that way, and that we were together for a good time. It all made me want to puke, and people with brains and weaker stomachs couldn't handle it after the age of 20. Try dividing people into two groups: children, who can learn Bible songs in the crying room, and adults who can hear the truth about both their desperate, sinful situation and the means of salvation. Leave the "young adult" pabluum to the marketers.

Unfortunately, it's all about the money

I think the reason why many pastors are "different at church" is because of money. The generation gap between young adults and the older (often much older) church goers is enormous, and the money is with the old folks. Most young adults are products of a much more inclusive, "liberal" upbringing that doesn't mesh well with the conservative older crowd. Pre-marital cohabitation, marriage equality, the "occupy" movement don't seem to have a place in most churches. Providing a place for these ideas drives the "traditional" members (and thier money) away. Sad that it seems to come down to this.

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