Pastor Rick Dunn leads Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Of the church of 5,000, 65 percent of adults are under the age of 35. Though fresh in style, the church doesn't embody the uber-trendy vibe many think you need to attract the younger set. Rather, it's Dunn's commitment to empowering and discipling emerging adults that has made them such a vital part of the congregation. He understands the longings of young people, and the specific spiritual challenges (and assets) of emerging adults.
Dunn co-wrote Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults (IVP, 2012) with professor and church leader Jana Sundene. It's filled with practical strategies for empowering Millennials to use their gifts, addressing their skittishness and cynicism, and communicating a vision for their discipleship to older believers. Leadership Journal's Paul Pastor sat down with Dunn to discuss his approach to discipling the younger generation.
Millennials have been skewered in the media. Why are you excited about working with them?
"With" is the important word here. To be effective with emerging adults, pastors need to think of ministry as work with, not work at or work for. This generation is deeply drawn to places of passion and authenticity. They want to be part of something that's meaningful, that is more than what they experience in other places.
They have tremendous energy and vision to ask hard questions and move the church forward. I don't think we've seen the 21st-century church yet, because we haven't let the emerging generation really come into its own.
I have a friend who left a very prominent position to work at a non-profit. He's almost 50 and the CEO of the nonprofit is a 29-year-old woman. When I heard it I said, "Wow, if I was going to work in a non-profit, I'd want to work for a 29-year-old! They're going to figure it out a lot better than I would."
We need to have wisdom from older generations, and bring our experience, and our understanding of life, but the form of the 21st-century church will be realized as today's emerging adults come into their own. The 15- to 25-year-olds out there are going to do it, and because of their energy, vision, and creativity, it will be something special. All I want to do is make sure it's rooted in authentic gospel, authentic community, authentic transformation and mission. They need our guidance, but we need their creativity and their freedom from existing forms.
How does the church get Millennial ministry wrong?
Too often the church treats emerging adults the way that overindulgent Americans treat their kids. We try to show our love by giving them things, and doing things for them, and making sure they have everything they could possibly want. We think, We need young adults in our church. We have to attract them. This is wrong. We don't have to attract them. We have to care about them, believe in them, and communicate a vision and mission for their lives.
They are marketed to literally all the time. They're bombarded with information in our consumer culture. But with all this noise, they feel the need for something authentic and passionate. They want something to touch their souls.
They're looking for a place where they belong and where they can make a difference. The way you show someone you love them is to have vision for their lives, to invest in them, to call them out when they're wrong. To give them resources and encouragement, but also to believe that they have something valuable to offer the world.