Three years ago a blog article published by Adam Copeland titled “Reaching out to young adults will screw up your church” created as much Internet buzz as a philosophy of ministry blog can. His point was well-stated and simple: Reaching young adults will require your church to change, and your church doesn’t want to change.
I tucked this article into the back of my mind for several years, occasionally holding it up against the churches I encounter on a regular basis. I focus my ministry on the future of the church in general, and on young adults in particular, so I have regular opportunities to test Adam’s theory. After three years of doing this, I’ve constructed a response, however late to the party I may be.
It’s no secret that well-established churches are typically slow, even reluctant, to change. They contain more moving parts than a young church, often with more staff, larger facilities and greater complexity. But just because it’s difficult to turn the big ship doesn’t mean the big ship won’t turn.
I believe what looks like obstinacy in established churches (i.e., “We don’t want to change”) is actually something more akin to ignorance (“We don’t know how to change”). What if churches simply don’t know how to reach young adults? If David Kinnaman of the Barna Group is right in saying the millenial generation is “discontinuously different” from previous generations, it will require a Herculean effort for established churches to bridge these generational differences. To give it a word: it’s hard. It’s essentially a cross-cultural mission encounter within one’s own church – but compounded because the church belongs to both cultures.
Let’s not mistake ignorance toward young adults for obstinacy against young adults. Otherwise we make curmudgeons out of a people who genuinely want the best for the church – even if it means change – but just don’t know what to do. To be fair, Adam did not push his argument this far, but cynicism against older generations does little to create a way forward.
So in the spirit of educating people for whom young adults are a different species, here is a rudimentary introduction to reaching young adults in established churches. Certainly more could be added to the list below, but I have tried not to repeat ideas that many other writers have already stated.
- View young adults more as a marginalized people group and less as younger versions of older adults. The former perspective permits discontinuity; the latter expects continuity. If young adults are simply older adults who haven’t grown up yet, there will be little by way of accommodation. But since a marginalized group is expected to be markedly different, a church attempting to welcome such a group will do more to create space for those differences.
- Pay special attention to church facilities. We can inadvertently create obstacles for outsiders with our facilities, particularly for those who are not familiar with the trappings of church. Are shared spaces actually “shared,” or do they look remarkably like grandmother’s living room? Are there religious symbols throughout the church that require interpretation? Can the purpose of the church be deduced from signage and markings or is there an expectation that worshippers know this implicitly? Consider bringing in a group of un-churched/de-churched young adults to help see your facilities differently.
- Think harder about worship styles. We must come to terms with the elements of church history we should preserve and those we just happen to preserve. Should new churches install organs? Should we sing in Baroque-style harmony? Can the average young adult read music? There isn’t a singular style that every church should adopt. But if our music style is nothing like the rest of the music young adults love, should it change?
- Make less out of being Presbyterian. This is not advocating we cut ties with our Reformed heritage. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that denominations have become, in many peoples’ eyes, synonymous with infighting and self-interests. A loud denominational affiliation can appear factious and narrow. We can still be Presbyterian in every way, but must we reinforce our uniqueness over against other denominations? If there’s any room for boasting, let us boast in Jesus Christ, not in our particular denominational flavor.
- Be more focused on communicating ethos rather than information. Churches are often guilty of using print-era strategies in a digital-era world. Churches need to understand that because of its ease of access, information is less important to broadcast. Finding the date/location/contact for a church event is just a click away. What is not so easily accessed is its ethos. With what spirit do we make announcements in church, or ads in the newspaper, or on our church website? Can people see our love for God in what we’re communicating, or do they just see information?
These are just the tip of the iceberg and will translate into different practices for different contexts. I also acknowledge the superficiality of the ideas given above. These are only about rearranging furniture in the house, not about the foundation of the house.
I welcome more voices to this conversation. If it’s true that established churches simply lack good information in order to change, then let us continue contributing to this effort!
BRANDON GAIDE serves as associate pastor of next generation ministries at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston. Brandon loves the church and clings to the audacious belief that a church committed to Christ is the hope of the world.