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Maybe we just haven’t failed enough: Why the church needs laboratories for young adult ministry

“We are all failures — at least the best of us are.” — J.M. Barrie

“Everything stinks till it’s finished.” — Dr. Seuss

Who really cares?

Maybe you saw the extended commercial.

For five straight minutes, a multilayered story unfolds, with young adults digging wells in Africa, adopting orphans from South America, rescuing polar bears in the Arctic.

This wasn’t a commercial for a church, a mission organization or a nonprofit. The ad ended with the tagline, “Hard Rock cares.”

It’s time for the church to face a sobering possibility: Restaurants and retail businesses may be doing more to help young adults live into their calling and to make a real difference in the world than the church is. In a season when young adults are passionately seeking to do the kind of good that is deeply aligned with the life of discipleship, most churches are stuck throwing pizza parties and wondering why young adults are staying away in droves.

We can, of course, keep trying harder at the things we know how to do, things that have long since stopped working. We can keep creating programs. We can “let” young adults serve on committees. We can start more contemporary worship services. But these solutions are all variations on a tired theme: getting young adults to come to our meetings.

Or we can imagine an entirely different approach, one that starts from a strange and unfamiliar space. Instead of approaching young adult ministry as if we are the experts that they need to learn from, what if we created platforms for young people to discern and live into their own callings?

When asked about the future of the American church, Princeton University professor Robert Wuthnow answered, “My view is that congregations can survive, but only if religious leaders roll up their sleeves and pay considerably more attention to young adults than they have been.”

Yes, Dr. Wuthnow, but what kind of attention?

Too much of our ministry with youth and young adults has focused on “paying attention” to them and cultivating them as satisfied consumers of our religious services. The pattern of placing the focus on young adults as the recipients of ministry is, I believe, deeply misguided and one of the biggest reasons why today’s young adults are staying away from the church in record numbers.

But what if we could see young adults as partners in our common mission, a mission that is deeply informed and enlivened by the passions of young adults themselves? I heard a young adult say recently, “If we’re not trying to change the world, then what’s the point?”

Any church hoping to build a long-lasting ministry with the next generation must give up recruiting young adults to church, give up trying so hard to assimilate them into our congregations. We must first invest in their desire to change the world, a key intersection (some might say the key intersection) of their world and their faith.

Make no mistake about it. Providing a platform for young adults to live into the missions they care about may upset the equilibrium of our current approaches to ministry. Though we don’t have to bet the farm on every young adult idea, what if every church had a space, a laboratory, in which the missional impulses of the next generation could be incubated?

A laboratory is, of course, the place where experiments happen — which, by definition, means that not every experiment will work. When it comes to ministry with young adults, if at first you don’t succeed, you’re probably doing it right.

Why a missional laboratory?

I was a young adult. But I was never their age.

Consider this: An astounding 62% of millennials define themselves as innovative people. When asked about their career and life goals, 70% of them say they want to launch their own organizations. This generation is much less interested in just serving in an existing organization, especially those known for moving at the glacially slow pace of the church.

Young adults are highly motivated to run with dreams of their own. And in the corporate world, they aren’t waiting around and paying their dues until someone gives them a voice at the table. They already have a voice. They have little patience for the grinding complexity of church decision-making. Often, as a result, they choose to expend their missional energies elsewhere.

You’ve probably seen young Robby Novak on YouTube. You may never have learned his name, but you (and eight million others) know him as Kid President, the pint-sized motivational speaker who challenges viewers to “make the world more awesome.”

Raking leaves for the elderly this month and working at the soup kitchen next month are fine. But by themselves, they just don’t tap into young adults’ deep longing to make an impact. What if churches became laboratory spaces for young adults, and what if those young adults were invited to experiment with ways to “make the world more awesome” and, ultimately, “invent” the church of the future?

For many millennials, this is exactly the kind of challenge they want to sink their teeth into. For those in (and for many outside) the church, banding together with a community of people to contribute to a cause bigger than themselves strikes a resonant chord.

Though examples of this primal entrepreneurial urge among young adults are legion, here are a few reminders:

  • The nonprofit Food Recovery Network (founded and run by millennials) has created a self-sustaining system for college students, universities and businesses to work together to save otherwise-wasted food to feed the hungry.
  • Boyan Slat was only in high school when he proposed a machine with movable arms to collect plastic trash in the ocean. Now, with support from the government and a report detailing the project’s feasibility, the Dutch inventor has raised more than $2 million to make The Ocean Cleanup a reality. Slat says it can help remove half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (roughly the size of Texas) in a decade.
  • Billions of people around the world suffer from tooth decay because dental care isn’t affordable. Five University of Pennsylvania undergraduates developed a tasty solution: Sweet Bites. The FDA-approved chewing gum contains xylitol, a natural sugar substitute that can reverse and prevent tooth decay, and launched recently in Bangalore, India.

Young adults are not only proving their desire to make an impact, they are backing up their aspirations with profound innovations (some of which actually work!). The sad truth is that the church is the last place most of them think of when they’re looking for support, mentoring and opportunities to do something catalytic, innovative and world changing.

In the economic marketplace, companies are valued, at least in part, by how much they spend on research and development, or R&D. Companies that invest in dreaming up entirely new offerings or in innovative methods to improve existing products and services are simply more valuable than companies that don’t.

If we’re honest, we have to admit that the church’s R&D department has been virtually nonexistent.

What if young adult ministry were to become the R&D department of every thriving church in America? What if, when young adults – inside or outside the church – dreamed of changing the world, their first thought would be, “I have to find a church to help me with this!”?

When young adults discover that a church is serious about helping them change the world, they just might pay attention. When they’re given agency to make an impact rather than just “help out” as volunteers, real engagement begins.

As long as our first focus is on getting young adults into our buildings to attend our programs as spectators, we reduce the church to one more institution competing for their time and attention, just one more place trying to persuade them to consume.

This work is too important to limit our aspirations to what we’re comfortable doing. It’s too important for us not to be willing to fail. We don’t need young adults to help us create a young adult ministry. We need young adults to reawaken the church to its urgent call to live out the mandates of the way of Jesus. Perhaps the most overlooked opportunity for young adults in the church is helping them invent and catalyze ministry that isn’t primarily for them.

A modest laboratory example

For the past four years, I have had the privilege of working with Woodland Presbyterian Church, a small, 163-year-old church in East Nashville. We have begun experimenting with a model we have come to call the East Nashville Training Hub.

Knowing that the church would no longer be able to afford a full-time, installed pastor, the session embraced the decision to hire up to 10 young adults to give leadership to the various aspects of the church’s ministry. Each young adult works five hours a week or so for a small stipend. Some are seminarians, some are college students, others young professionals in the business world or in ministry or nonprofit work.

These are not just “helpers.” They provide much of the preaching and almost all of the program development, management and leadership, as well as promotion and facility management. All this happens in an ethos in which their experimental ideas can quickly be translated into new initiatives.

Do all of their ideas work? Absolutely not! But through this process, I have come to embrace this proverb: It doesn’t have to work for it to work. Even when the experiments didn’t “work” as anticipated, the church’s mission was being carried out as young adults sought to live out God’s call on their lives alongside each other.

Over 20 young adults have come through the program over the past four years. For some it was a holding place for them as they discerned their next call. Some have stayed almost the entire time. But all of them have gotten to experience being a part of a missional community with other young adults whose ideas were taken seriously and whose focus was not on creating programs for themselves but on blessing all the other generations in the church.

What the hack?

While rank-and-file church leaders bemoan the stampede of young adults leaving the church, few have taken the time to see the undeniable opportunity buried just beneath the presenting challenge:

  • Young adults are drawn to the process of innovating, beta-testing and connecting the dots to make the world better.
  • Almost no faith communities are providing a space where young adults can develop something new.
  • The church – of every generation, but particularly this one – desperately needs fresh expressions of what church can be, with new operating systems and applications.
  • Young adults aren’t just enthusiastic; they actually have the skills to help the church discover new ways of experiencing life and mission together.

Let me state the obvious: Very few of us, especially the younger among us, get passionate about being on a committee whose primary function is maintaining the status quo. Having a voice (or even a vote) isn’t enough.

As we begin talking through the practicalities of creating a laboratory for innovation in your congregation, I want to introduce you to a term I learned just a few years ago: hacking. Though easily confused for the kind of work done by nefarious cybercriminals, hacking is an increasingly popular approach to solving society’s problems.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Cities are sponsoring “hackathons” to solve local problems or improve city services.
  • A group of venture capitalists sponsored a competition for hackers to solve challenges as far-flung as organizing pet medical records, creating a social platform to connect cooperative farmers and their customers and reducing the duplication of social services in the city.

What would happen if, instead of trying to polish up our websites to attract young adults to more events, churches identified a big need in their communities and allowed young adults to identify ways to address that need in ways that align with the calling of the church?

And what if we provide collaborative coaches from a variety of generations and disciplines and put a young adult or two in charge? Could this approach fail? Very likely.

But it also just might create a new kind of energy and engagement that comes when people battle side by side to solve a vexing challenge.

Don’t miss this: Not only is hacking in the DNA of young adults, it’s also a fundamental impulse of the Christian church, called to be a missional community on the move. In God’s hilarious economy, young “hackers” may be exactly what the declining church of today needs.

More and more Christian young adults are cooking up all kinds of outside-the-box ideas: hymn sings at breweries, businesses that employ the unemployed and more incarnations of coffee houses than I can count. Ministry Incubators (ministryincubators.com) has begun sponsoring “Hatchathon” events to generate ideas and solutions, in which young adults are disproportionately represented. What is surprising is how often the missional innovations, incubated at a Hatchathon, actually work!

Failure is inherent to any successful laboratory. But the process of creation and innovation itself – including the rhythm of experimentation, failure, prototype, failure, pivot, failure – can become a catalyst for rich community and a magnetic doorway into young adult discipleship.

As we reimagine young adult ministry, what if we spent less time trying to get them back into our pews and more time inviting them to join in God’s mission? What if we took the focus off of “young adult ministry” and put it on a mission in which we can engage side by side with them? Before we redouble our frantic efforts to get young adults “in here,” let’s be open to the possibility that young adults may just make us more faithful followers of Jesus out there.

Mark DeVries is the founder of Ministry Architects, the co-founder of Ministry Incubators and the co-author of “Sustainable Young Adult Ministry,” on which parts of this article have been based. Mark and his wife Susan live in Nashville, Tennessee.

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