In part because of Pew Research findings about “the rise of the nones” and what is happening as many western nations move into a pluralistic and post-Christian era, it is easy for people to begin thinking there is little they can do to turn the tide. For many, there is a sense that we are losing the next generation of young adults because of forces beyond our control—and that there is hardly anything we do which will make a real difference.
However, in my dissertation research I examined what was helping and hindering twenty-somethings from staying engaged spiritually and finding their places in faith communities after graduating from college. Through that research, I realized there are key actions people who care about the next generation can take that will make a significant difference. What follows are a few of those ideas. I have also made the dissertation available for free online for anyone who wants to delve into the research more deeply.
First, intentionally focus on their next transition.
Most churches in the United States have Junior High and High School ministries. While resources for the next stage of life are not as prolific, if young people attend university, then there are thousands of campus workers from groups like InterVarsity, Cru, Navigators, etc., along with a wide array of denominational ministries that focus on helping them grow in their faith. There are also Christian colleges and universities across the country to help them develop as well.
While many people doing ministry in those settings often feel like resources are lacking to adequately address the needs of students in their contexts, what struck me in the research was the profound dearth of resources and focus on the next leg of their journey.
Many twenty-somethings in my sample commented on how people regularly cared and noticed whether or not they were growing when they were a college student, but after graduation no one seemed to notice or care.
Frequently, there seemed to be little or no attention given to their entire demographic. For example, they would go into larger congregations that had groups for every other type of person and find nothing for people like themselves who were no longer in college and were not yet married with children.
That void sent the loud implicit message, “You do not matter to us and we do not expect you to be here.”
Sociologists of religion note that most churches are set up for couples with children. However, trends reveal young adults are waiting much longer to marry and have children. Today, most important life decisions are made after a person graduates from university, when scarce resources are available to help twenty-somethings or early thirty-somethings navigate the profound challenges and decisions they are facing.
Second, measure success differently.
If we truly care about the next generation, we have to start measuring success differently. We can no longer focus merely on what happens within our own ministry silos at the campus level.
While it is important to pay attention to how many people attend campus ministry events or discipleship programs, if we genuinely care about the well-being of emerging and young adults, we have to focus attention and resources towards helping them to transition well. If they fall away from God because they are not able to connect with a faith community in the next leg of their journey, it puts at risk earlier ministry investments in their lives.
Churches also need a longer view when measuring success. Some congregations start ministries for twenty-somethings and later close them because people they seek to help do not stay long-term in their congregations due to job changes or getting married.
However, if these young adults were discipled, they will likely be a blessing to the next congregation. I was struck in my research how tragic it is if many churches take the short view, because inevitably without support, emerging and young adults will not have mentors as they make their biggest life decisions.
Then if they do by chance begin attending a church later in life, it is likely that there will be far more pastoral care issues because key life decisions were not navigated well.
Third, move to experiential assignments.
We often think if students are attending church during university that they will attend after graduation, but this is not a given. When they attend during college, they often have many friends with them.
A helpful way to prepare them for the jarring realities they will likely face after graduation is to give them assignments to attend churches during their holiday breaks and over the summer when many of their closest friends cannot accompany them.
When they return to campus, spend your first time together debriefing their church experiences. Did they attend church over the break? Why or why not? What was good about the experience? What was hard or unpleasant about the experience? What can they learn that will help them to navigate this better the next time?
If they have many opportunities to practice navigating this on their own before they graduate, they will be better equipped to navigate it well after they graduate.
Fourth, invest five percent of your time helping them transition.
After doing the research I kept thinking, How different would this story with young adults be if everyone who worked with college students spent five percent of their time investing in the critical transition they will experience after they graduate?
If a person works 40 hours a week, that would mean investing two hours a week helping to create a less jarring transition. How might that time be spent?
Perhaps it could be using your unique gifts in a local church in a wide variety of ways through music, book clubs, hobbies, sports, etc., to reach out and integrate twenty and thirty-somethings into your congregation. Or you could equip and train pastors and key gatekeepers to better understand how to welcome them.
You might open your home for meals with twenty or thirty-somethings who are struggling with important questions and decisions. Or you could work collaboratively with others to create new and innovative solutions that address issues they are facing at a congregational, denominational, city, regional, or national level.
You Can Make A Difference
We are not powerless regarding what is happening with the next generation. If we ask God how to strategically invest even small amounts of time in ways that will encourage their spiritual journeys, he will give us wisdom and guide our steps.
However, to even take that first action we have to first realize the situation is not hopeless. Often what is necessary to change a broad societal trend is for ordinary people to pray and be willing to address common issues they know are hindering others in their journeys.
May history show that we took note of what was needed, and we cared enough to adapt and make space for young adults to grow, lead and flourish in our midst. We need them and they need us.
Dr. Mary Lederleitner serves as Managing Director of the Church Evangelism Institute and the Research Institute at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.