Reaching Young Adults
Second of two parts.
Emerging adults trend watcher Tim Elmore says the average young person unengaged in religious activity believes the Church is a negative, judgmental place — even if that reputation is undeserved. While no one from the pulpit may declare gay or transgender people as evil, many young people believe such moral pronouncements are paramount on the minds of church leaders.
Elmore, who is 57, says perceptions have changed since his early adult years, when he served as an Assemblies of God pastor for four years. Then, young people thought — and church leaders stressed — they needed to get their act together before they could participate in church.
“Kids today want to belong before they believe,” says Elmore, founder of Growing Leaders. “They want to feel accepted and loved. Once they feel they belong, then they align their beliefs.”
Some young adult millennials and Homelanders (those born since the turn of the century) are jaded, having lived under the moral teachings of a pastor later removed for adultery, or parents who took them to church every week and then unexpectedly divorced.
AG National Women’s Department leadership development specialist Jourdan Lunsford, who is 24, says many of her Christian peers now question the authority of Scripture. Young adults who have witnessed a cultural transformation in liberalized sexual attitudes wonder if the apostle Paul really meant homosexuality could be wrong in today’s context.
Some young people who have searched the Scriptures see Jesus focused on compassion and justice, not repeatedly addressing topics such as tithing and premarital purity.
“The message preached in some churches is no longer attractive because it’s a message Jesus never preached,” says AG National Youth Ministries Senior Director Heath Adamson, author of the forthcoming book, Until All Know, to be released in August.
Because young people can ask Echo’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri anything, adults have lost their role as dispensers of information. But adults are needed for interpretation, especially of biblical principles.
MAKING CHURCH INVITING
J.R. Rodriguez, superintendent of the Assemblies of God Texas-Louisiana Hispanic District, says congregational leaders need to understand the challenges of adjusting to young adults in their midst. For instance, first-generation Latino pastors usually want to preach in Spanish, but young people crave teachings in English.
“Many Hispanic churches are dying because they don’t want to accept that you have to make changes for millennials,” says Rodriguez, who has pastored Upper Room Assembly (Templo Aposento Alto) in Houston for 24 years. The church draws a weekly average attendance of 1,200, with the bilingual second-generation Mexican Rodriguez at the helm.
“Millennials are very spontaneous in many ways,” says Rodriguez, 55. “My generation was very principled, but millennials say, let’s just do it as we go, maybe without training. We want to instruct them, but they say they don’t have time to be instructed.”
Older adults trying to appear trendy by wearing skinny jeans, dyeing their hair, and getting tattoos really aren’t making an impression with younger people, Elmore says. As a college student recently told Elmore, the only thing worse than being uncool is being unreal.
Teens and young adults are craving grown-up mentors who are well-adjusted and authentic, Elmore says.
The tricky task for leaders is to operate a church that appears organized, yet genuine. That may require churches to be countercultural, as far as technology is concerned.
Elmore says a growing constituency of later millennials and Gen Zers (Homelanders) want to unplug at church from the high-tech world that is so much a part of the daily fabric of their lives. Many are ready to relinquish the cacophony of multitasking in exchange for focusing on one objective.
“God wired us to monotask,” Elmore says. “It can be liberating to untether from the smartphone.”
Lunsford, a graduate of James River Leadership College in Ozark, Missouri, and Evangel University in Springfield, agrees that disconnected young adults want mentors. She urges pastors and lay leaders to be willing to invest in a relationship with young leaders. When mature adults fail to spend enough time with their protégés, it can result in overlooking behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, and watching graphic movies.
“I am not pointing to these behaviors as the litmus test for spirituality or a relationship with the Lord, but as a result of a lack of understanding, younger people haven’t been taught through relationship and deeper teaching that they really want,” Lunsford says. “If we don’t have a close enough relationship with young leaders to see what they are going through, and continue to promote them when they are dealing with so much on their own, they start to feel disconnected and strive with good intentions but ultimately crack, because they didn’t feel like they had anyone they could be vulnerable with about their questions or problems.”
Young people are seeking more than pat answers on difficult topics such as homosexuality, Lunsford says. She believes they want conversations, not merely admonitions to obey what the Bible says.
“Churches must find a way to connect on their level,” Lunsford says. “We must put aside churchy rhetoric. It’s almost become white noise.”
Adamson, who has a bachelor’s degree in youth ministries from North Central University in Minneapolis and a master’s degree in leadership from Evangel University, concurs. He notes that young people view culture through a different grid than their elders. For instance, a church that promotes itself as pro-family needs to understand that today’s society features dozens of nontraditional households considered family. Some young people won’t listen to an obese preacher railing against the evils of drinking alcohol because they figure overeating is just as wrong, if not more so. Sermons on the importance of stewardship — that is tithing to the church — are met with resistance from young people anxious about stewardship of the environment.
The 39-year-old Adamson says his contemporaries were trained in homiletics and hermeneutics classes to preach in series and on topics as a way to be more relational to church members and more inviting to visitors. But today’s young people aren’t drawn by backpack or turkey giveaways as a prelude to conversion, he says.
“People want to know who the historical Jesus is,” Adamson says. “If there has ever been a time to consider strongly preaching the Word in an expository fashion, it’s now.”