Dr. Emily Peck-McClain, Wesley’s assistant professor of Christian formation and young adult ministry, spends her time teaching in the seminary classroom and working as the theological educator for the Wesley Innovation Hub, part of a Lilly Endowment Initiative grant for ministries with young adults in the Capital Region. She believes strongly in the formative power of community, especially when inspired and supported by the Holy Spirit. See below for four tips for churches seeking to engage with young adults.
- Be clear about why you are seeking to increase the number of young adults in your church. So, your church wants more young adults! Many churches say this. Older members remember how important the church was to them when they were in their 20s. The presence of young adults means there may soon be babies and children, which many people see as proof that the church isn’t dying. Young adults want to be wanted in the church because they are integral to the ministry of the church, not because of nostalgia for the past or fear of the future. They want a church that needs them, not for institutional preservation, but because their gifts are needed by the church. These gifts vary depending on the young adult, but can include all the spiritual gifts you can think of, plus a unique perspective and passion for putting them to use in the world.
- Prepare the “old guard” theologically and practically for young adults. The church isn’t dying; the church is changing. Those who are happy with church “the way it has always been” need to accept this change not begrudgingly but joyfully. God is active in the world in new ways, and that is a wonderful thing! Young adults are adults. They are fully capable of being leaders in active ministry in churches. This means that those who are used to being the leaders might need to take a deep breath and give some of that power away. There are theological reasons for sharing power and making space for new ideas and new people. There are also practical ones. If young adults are not given real responsibility and real opportunity to use their gifts, they will know they are not needed or wanted. If your church doesn’t currently have young adults in leadership positions, it’s time to prayerfully discern with those who are in those positions how to answer God’s call to empower young adults by possibly stepping aside.
- Pay attention to spirituality and action as partners, for everyone in the church. Young adults do not keep their faith confined to an hour on Sunday. They are looking for ways to connect their whole lives together; they are critical of hypocrisy and don’t want to live it themselves. An active faith is one that inspires and challenges how we live day to day, the causes we get involved in, and the relationships we seek. Research shows that young adults are looking for churches where spirituality can be deepened and where it can be given the power to inspire their lives. But they don’t want to be on this adventure all on their own. Young adults want to be part of communities where this challenge is being accepted and met across the generations.
- Check your congregations’ preconceived notions about young adults. Millennials are selfish. Millennials are on devices too much. Millennials are shallow. Millennials are afraid of commitment. Millennials are fill-in-the-blank. If you’ve heard it, so have Millennials. If you’ve heard it in your church, so have Millennials who are in your church (and any that may come in the future will, too). Every generation has a reputation and a caricature. Though there may be some truth in all stereotypes, often it is exaggerated, insulting, and does not value the individuals who identify with any particular generation. Millennials seem to be a target for mockery right now, and they know it. Listen carefully to what is said out loud and in whispers about young adults, find a way to address it with and educate those who hold those views.
Wesley Theological Seminary website, Washington, DC
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