Five obstacles to overcome in reaching young adults 


Sunday morning is a non-starter for most young singles and young families. So how about Wednesday evening?

I asked my 36-year-old son and his wife for their opinion. Both were raised Episcopalian in active churchgoing families.  Their romance began at the young adults group of the Manhattan church where her parents had met. But with two demanding jobs and now a 2-year-old son, Sunday morning church is simply off their radar.

“Wednesday?” my daughter-in-law said. “I’d love to go to church on Wednesday evening. It would be perfect for our family.”

My son agreed. Dinner, children’s activity, grown-ups’ activity, a way to meet other young parents – bring it on.

It seems so obvious, and many churches are moving in this direction. Why not all? I see five reasons, or obstacles to overcome.

First, the Sunday morning mindset has to be let go. It works for some people, mostly older adults, and needs to continue. But as a day in the week once set aside for churches, Sunday has changed. Sunday is when families get a slow start. It is a time for kid sports and family outings. Some parents and young adults working six days a week consider Sunday their only relaxation day.

Second, the worship mindset has to be let go. Many pastors are convinced that worship is the heart of all we do. In fact, God is the heart, not corporate worship, and connections and relationships are what people seek. That is challenging for pastors whose main reason for pursuing ordination was to officiate at worship.

Third, diversity must be embraced. Sunday worship works for some people; it doesn’t work for others. That isn’t a failing on anyone’s part. It’s just diversity. Churches need to do more than one thing if they want to serve people.

Fourth, Sunday worship isn’t a growth strategy. No matter how perfect we make it, visitors aren’t entering our doors on Sunday in sufficient numbers to keep up with attrition. If anything, Sunday is a turnoff: too much focus on facilities, on obscure rituals, on looking at books and not at each other, too much concern for quiet and too many unfriendly people.

Fifth, insiders must learn to imagine other people’s needs. Many longtime members find it offensive to think of people not valuing what they value. “If they can’t adapt to us, why should they bother to come?” That is precisely the attitude that kills churches.

How potent are those five obstacles? In the town where my son lives, the local Episcopal congregation focuses on Sunday worship, plus an expensive day school. Their two weekday services happen at 9:00 a.m. – when young adults are taking the commuter train to work. Programming for young families clearly takes a backseat to Sunday worship.

This is how it goes in the churches I see. They want to have a lively future. They want to reach young adults. They just can’t imagine doing anything differently to get there.

TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York.