The Assemblies of God is doing a better job than most denominations at retaining young adults in church services. Around one of every four adherents in the Fellowship is under the age of 25. And the AG is bucking a trend in that the number of millennials attending has increased 10 percent in the past decade.
But are those in their late teens and early 20s fully engaged?
In many darkened sanctuaries on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, illuminations emanate from every few seats.
They are the flickering screens from smartphones. Some young people are checking social media or playing games on their mobile devices, rather than worshipping or listening to a sermon. This challenge for ministry leaders will only increase as youth who have never lived without the web come of age.
The trend is apparent for both millennials (also called Generation Y), those generally considered born from the early 1980s through the end of the century, as well as Generation Z, also referred to as Homelanders — kids born since the 2001 terrorist attacks, kids who never remember a day without social media.
Tim Elmore, founder of Growing Leaders, which helps equip ministry leaders to reach the emerging generation, says at least 70 percent of churchgoing teens stop attending once they go off to college.
But the rebellion starts before high school graduation. More so than previous generations, Elmore says today’s young people resist pressure to conform to societal religious ritual expectations, such as attending funerals.
Of course measuring spiritual engagement is a tricky task. Various research indicates that while young people of this era aren’t attending church as much as their predecessors, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost their faith.
“We assume the next generation has their face against the church’s glass windows saying, please let me out,” says Heath Adamson, senior director of Assemblies of God National Youth Ministries since 2012. “It’s more accurate to say that the next generation is standing on the outside begging to be let in.”
In reality, there is an uptick of spirituality among emerging adults, according to Adamson. Young millennials and upcoming Homelanders aren’t necessarily saying no to the gospel, but rather the way the gospel is presented, he says.
“Are younger people really not interested in God, or are they just not finding a place in our community?” asks Adamson, who has been involved in youth ministry for two decades. “Let’s not assume they’re not interested in the dialogue. Maybe they are not interested in the monologue, and they are not finding a place to lend their voice to the conversation.”
“There is a deep spiritual hunger in Generation Z,” says Elmore, based in Atlanta. “They know their soul needs something that superficial social media doesn’t provide, but they don’t necessarily see church as the place for answers.”
A lack of real relationships at church has contributed to young people questioning authority, according to Jourdan Lunsford, leadership development specialist with the AG National Women’s Department. Subsequently, while they are generous with causes they believe in, many won’t contribute financially to the church they attend because they don’t trust how the funds will be spent.
Today in numerous churches, particularly large ones, multimedia presentations preside in an effort to be relevant to young people who have become accustomed to technology overload in daily life. Congregants face multiple jumbo screens; cameras cut from musicians to singers and back again with precision; the fervent worship experience resembles attending a rock concert.
But is clamorous and flamboyant the best approach?
“What I have heard from both the younger millennials and Gen Z is that very often they think the Church is overproduced and over-programmed,” says Elmore, author of books such as Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenge of Becoming Authentic Adults and Generation iY: Secrets to Connecting with Today’s Teens & Young Adults in the Digital Age. “They want authentic and real, and the Church doesn’t come across that way to the young person.”
Nevertheless, interacting with electronic devices has become the default of younger millennials. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest have documented their lives.
“We go to the phone even without a reason,” Lunsford says. “People feel disconnected because they don’t feel like anything that is happening is directed toward them. Our generation feels like we have something to contribute, and if we aren’t feeling like we’re connecting, we just tune out immediately.”
“Their normal, natural habitat is to be on their phone, scrolling through social media,” Elmore says. “But they’re missing part of the experience when they’re not fully engaged.”
Smartphones are nearly ubiquitous among younger adults, with 98 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds owning one, according to Nielsen. Gallup in 2015 reported that 73 percent of people ages 18 to 29 check their smartphones several times an hour.
Instead of being hypercritical of an addiction to technology, Adamson suggests pastors try to engage young people. For instance, a pastor who notices young people glued to their mobile devices might suggest they text an encouraging word to someone, then put their phone away.
“When Jesus sat down with the woman at the well, he didn’t communicate in a didactic way,” says Adamson, who emerged from a teenage life steeped in substance abuse and occultism, recounted in his book, The Bush Always Burns. “How can we harness and redeem technology without demonizing it?”