Ed: “Authenticity” seems to be a recurring theme throughout your book. Based on your research, how would you define the “authenticity” that emerging adults are seeking, as you assert in your book? How does this authenticity cross generational boundaries?
Beth: Young adults need to know that we’re for real. Believe it or not my research shows us they are on the outside looking in at us through our virtual windows checking our churches out. No matter the reason that draws them, they are peeking in at our webpages, watching our online services, and critiquing our message—both our silent and our spoken messages. They are evaluating if our Christian faith is real and if our Christian community—the church—is good. Just the fact that we’re a part of an institution for some causes their goodness radar to go off.
Young adults have moral compasses. They may not be set on the same “true north” as yours or mine, but they are skeptical of people who: suggest everyone vote the same way, or reject people based on their sexual identities, are trying to sell something, or who are immersed in consumerism, and say they’re not antiracist but are blind to their own racial bias. Some young adults go so far as to reject Christianity for being immoral for lots of good reasons.
By becoming friends with young adults across generational borders, myths and stereotypes can be deconstructed and what is true and real can be experienced through genuine Christian community, transparency, and authenticity.
Ed: In your book, you mention a psychological phenomenon called “identity procrastination,” in which isolation leads to delayed identity formation in young adults. How can the Church assist in identity formation without becoming overbearing?
Beth: A unique characteristic of these bright spot churches is that they are not pressuring or judging of young adults. Although, pressure and judgment are often what a young adult expects to experience from a church. Emerging adults experience a lot of pressure and stress in their lives as they try to stand on their own. Adding on more pressure is off putting to many young adults who’ve tried out church, “been there and done that” and found church disappointing, or thought the church was disappointed in them. Bright spot churches that invite emerging adults to jump on in and connect and contribute send a message that young people are welcome to roll up their sleeves and help. And, that young adults and their contributions are valued. When emerging adults experience the difference between the church “wanting something from me” (often their perspective) versus the church is “here for me” that barrier of fearing pressure and judgment is removed.
By inviting unchurched young adults into an inclusive compelling community and offering them space to participate in contributing to the mission of God in their church context, churches exceptional at connecting to “dones—church dropouts” and “nones—religiously unaffiliated” foster identity formation.
Giving emerging adults experiences where they can practice agency; see their aspirations become realities; shed their false assumptions and cultural stereotypes of Christianity; and rebuild a positive perception of Christian faith, these churches help young adults drawer near to God. When young adults receive positive affirmation, answers to their questions, and healthy mentoring from mentors, the mentoring faith community, new friends, and role models assist identity formation.
The church that creates places and spaces for young adults to explore and experiment with identity through developing healthy relationships, volunteering, serving, interning, and even leading, gives young people a place to hang around the Christian community long enough to facilitate identity exploration and eventually identity formation, and a positive, strong, cohesive identity.
Think of this in terms of everyday metaphors. I believe the church gives young adults a chance to “try on” Christianity to see if it fits. Or to put it another way, church gives unchurched young adults opportunities to “try out” Christian identity to see if they like it or not. This invitation reminds me of the Samaritan woman who after meeting Jesus runs to her community, the villagers of Sychar, and calls out “come and see…” Churches exceptional at reaching and keeping unchurched young adults invite those young adults to “come and see” to find out if Christian faith “is for real” by “kicking the tires” and “tinkering” with it. Providing places for unchurched young adults to get involved gives them time for exploration.
Places of invitation in the church also allow young people a pathway for the journey toward Christ as well as shine a light on that pathway pointing the way forward in the company of the faith community as they invest in, encourage, prays for and walk alongside emerging adults journeying toward faith in Christ.
Most of all, young adults receive opportunities to encounter the presence of God and to pause to listen and read the Scriptures, pray and be prayed for, and enter into worship experiencing God’s healing love—many for the first time or in a long time.
Ed: COVID-19 has drastically impacted our world, and it’s especially impacted the crucial developmental years of our young people. In light of all the changes brought by COVID-19, what should churches be prepared to do in order to reach and keep young adults?
Beth: Encouraging groups to continue to meet at outdoor parks and outdoor social venues can assist with keeping community alive.
Provide outdoor places for community whenever possible at the same time sticking to the social distancing and masking practices the CDC recommends for safe interaction.
Community groups and small groups can gather around outdoor firepits and under heat lamps. For instance, we have a group of young adults that gather weekly or more at our home to connect. A few of them went in together and purchased a relatively inexpensive projector to project movies on the garage. They mask and sit at least six feet apart. When I can I place a blanket or quilt on camp chairs, feed them warm soup and offer mugs of hot cider to make the chilly fall nights enjoyable.
Providing opportunities to safely engage and care for the needs of faith community and the broader community will appeal to young adults. For example, providing food for people facing food insecurity. Canvasing neighborhoods to see what the needs are and then working with the community to provide for the needs identified.
My own church has a large young adult population. Making time online after e-church services for singles and families with children to connect and say hi to each other and hear how life’s going has been a significant part of the ministry of my church. Young people need time to linger with each other to build community and reconnect.
Invite and include young adults on every level of church ministry teams. These teams continue to meet virtually and the ideas of young adults serve to help shape the effectiveness of ministry to young adults.
Ed: Social media and technology seem to be hallmarks of this generation of young adults. Should the Church leverage these tools, or would that be seen as pandering? If the answer is yes, what guidance would you give to churches looking to engage with young people in the digital space?
Beth: Absolutely, I believe the church should learn to speak the language of the culture within which they are embedded in order to understand that culture better and to care for the real needs of the wider culture.
Naturally, understanding the broader cultural context will help the church better translate the gospel and God’s mission to heal and restore all that’s broken in the world through Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation inaugurating the reality of the kingdom of God on earth.
- Supervise and mentor young adults.
- Give them opportunities to serve in pairs with an older wiser believer.
- Don’t leave young adults alone to navigate church or ministry.
- Unchurched young adults need to be steered away from having spiritual influence over others.
- Always do thorough background checks on volunteers.
- Pray for and with young adults often.
- Meet regularly if not weekly with young adults for debrief and training.
- Be prepared for moral failures and how you will help young adults repent, repair and be restored.
- Remember our hopes for young adults are the same as our hopes for our own children that grow up in the church. We hope they will fully come to faith in Christ receiving him and believing in him to become children of God and that they mature in Christ and become lifelong disciples and are kept from evil and temptation.
Ed: What do the churches that are engaging emerging adults successfully, or “bright spots” as you call them, have in common? How do churches of varying sizes learn from these examples?
Beth: Churches in my study were from 175 attendees to midsize, large, mega, and super mega churches in size. Half the participating churches were urban, and half were suburban. Participating churches were multiethnic, mixed Asian American, monocultural and all were multigenerational. Still, despite their differences, all have in common the five invitational practices that came to light in my research on churches making a difference in the lives of former “nones” and “dones.”
The five practices I identify in the book, those of initiating, inviting, including, involving, and investing, give them that opportunity and time to explore and experiment with faith and identity in a welcoming and accepting Christian context.
I unpack these invitational practices in Not Done Yet and share the stories of young adults and the stories of the churches and the church leadership of churches where young adults came to trust and follow Jesus and incorporate into the life of the church. At the end of each chapter you’ll find reflection questions for individuals and small groups and action steps to help your faith community become more appealing to young adults in ways that fit with your church culture. By making a few small changes, churches can have a greater influence in the lives of unchurched people, especially unchurched young adults. Young adults need the opportunity to try out Christian faith.