Who are “young adults,” anyway?

As mainline congregations grapple with the “graying” of their ranks — average age pushing into the mid-60s — many recognize they need to serve “young adults” more effectively.

But who are these “young adults”?

Like any age cohort, young adults come in many forms. In planning ministry to them, one size won’t fit all.

In the Church Wellness Project, we recommend looking at ages 22 to 30 as one primary segment. In general terms, this is the time after college, when careers are starting, relationships are changing, long-term romance is blossoming, and the ways we are “wired” to settle down start to kick in. This is a time when mobility is high, work seems paramount, social life focuses on fun, and rootlessness starts to feel awkward. It’s a transition time. Some say we change more between ages 18 and 25 than at any other time in our lives; it is, therefore, often a confusing time. Also a lonely time. Even if marriage or lifetime partnering comes after age 30, many start to think of it, even yearn for it, during their 20s.

Congregations know how to respond to families with children, but these “twenty-somethings” can be perplexing. Their schedules are erratic, their follow-through inconsistent, and, especially now with the Internet age coming on full force, their ways of doing anything, from dating to banking, quite different from older generations.

The best way to plan ministry to this age cohort is to plan “with them,” not “for them.” Listen to their needs and questions, respect their skills, be patient with their schedules, allow them to lead you in new directions, and celebrate what they can do, rather than bristle at what you wish they would do.

Results could seem strange: wine-tastings rather than weekend retreats; social networking rather than small groups; church party on Tuesday, not competing with weekends; expressions of idealism, but not much interest in the usual church issues; E-mail and IM connections but long stretches of absence from Sunday worship.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.