Every congregation in the country is trying to figure out how to engage young adults through their ministry. You probably know all the scary statistics about the number of people under 35 who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition. Even if you don’t, it’s hard not to notice their absence on a Sunday morning.

I’d like to tell you that there is a simple solution to the age disparity within ELCA congregations. But the truth is, I don’t have one. In fact, no one does. We have lots of theories about why young adults are less likely than previous generations to be part of a congregation, but the biggest challenge most congregations have is actually very simple—we don’t know why we want young adults to belong in the first place.

Think about it for a minute. Why does your congregation want more young adults to be part of the flock? Is it because you’re afraid that the church is going to die if you don’t start replacing the older generation? Do you want to inject some vitality into your congregation? Or, are you a young adult who desperately wants some company?

All of these motivations are understandable, but they share a common flaw. They begin with our needs rather than with God’s. A better question to ask is: What is God doing in the lives of young adults and how can we partner with God in this work?

Here are five things that any congregation that wants to reach young adults should think about. This is based on my own ministry with young adults, which continues to teach me that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do.

1. Start with God.

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget this. There seem to be so many urgent needs in the church that we can fall into the trap of thinking that it all depends on us. Fortunately, that is not true. God is at work in the lives of all people, whether or not they are in church on Sunday morning. It’s not up to any of us to “save” the church, particularly young adults. This is God’s church and God will provide.

2. Young adults are not objects, they are people.

When we begin with God, we have to spend some time understanding who God is and how God relates to the world. As Christians, we believe that God is triune: Father, Son and Spirit. Look more closely at the Trinity and you begin to see a pattern of relationship. The three do not relate to one another in a hierarchical fashion; they give one another freedom because of their love for each other. They never treat one another as objects; their relationship is one of reciprocity.

Likewise, it is important that congregations don’t treat young adults as prized objects to be acquired. That’s not the way that God operates, and it shouldn’t be the way we do. There are very few things I can say for certain about young adults, but the fact that they don’t want to be objectified is one. (Actually, I think that applies to people of any age.)

3. Listen without judgment.

Young adults often get a bad rap for not behaving in the ways that other generations expect. We need to get over that. If you really want to support young adults, then make an effort to listen to them rather than give advice. They’ve gotten enough lectures about how they aren’t “good enough.” Just listen.

4. Empathize.

If we take the time to listen to young adults with open minds, we will discover that their lives are a lot more complicated than we realize. Like every generation, they are trying to figure out who they are, but they are doing that in a very different context than those of us from earlier generations understand.

Young adults today face many of the same challenges as previous generations, but they have so many more options. Having a lot of options is normally considered a good thing, but having too many choices can also be paralyzing. The lives of young adults are also much less certain because the world is changing so rapidly. The average young person is going to have five careers in their lifetime and about 14 jobs. That’s a lot of transition. It also means that, even if young adults join your congregation, they probably won’t be lifetime members.

5. Accompany them on their journey.

The church’s job isn’t to figure out how to get young adults onto committees (by the way, stop asking them to be on a committee if they show up more than once), it’s to accompany people of all ages on their life journeys. This goes back to the whole not treating people as objects thing. If we really care about young adults, we can’t have hidden agendas or “plans” for them. Let the Spirit do the leading.

I honestly believe that one of the best things congregations can do is to simply accompany and support young adults whether or not they ever darken the door of our congregations. As they make their transition to “adulting,” they can use support and encouragement. If your congregation really wants to serve young adults, find ways to walk with them as they discern their callings in life.

And above all, when you engage with young adults, do so in a way that reflects the unconditional love of Christ. It’s a message that young adults (and all of us) need to hear.

Brian A.F. Beckstrom
Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College, an ELCA college in Waverly, Iowa.

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