By Rev. Dr. Emily A. Peck-McClain
Being with people when they encounter an ah-ha moment is one of my favorite experiences (it’s only second best to having my own ah-ha moment). You can feel the excitement, maybe even the Spirit, as a light bulb goes on in someone’s head. Their eyes light up, and they cannot contain themselves. Then, if you’re really lucky, they share what they have just understood with you. One of my favorite of these moments happened in a large conference room with teams from 14 different and diverse churches in the Washington D.C. area. This was the second cohort of churches working with the Wesley Innovation Hub, all learning about doing innovative ministry with young adults. An older woman raised her hand, and then actually her whole body as she stood and exclaimed, “I get it!”
What this woman “got” was a new way to think about young adult ministry.
When it comes to doing ministry with young adults, here are some things we’ve discovered through our work and research:
- Churches need to feel called to do young adult ministry.
- Ministry must be with young adults.
- Young adults may be wary of your church.
Churches Need to Feel Called to do Young Adult Ministry
When we ask ourselves why we want to do young adult ministry, the answer cannot be “because we want someone to save our church” or “because otherwise the young adults are going to go to that church down the street and not here.” The only right answer to that question is some version of “because young adults are important members of the Body of Christ and we are called to be in ministry with them.”
If a church cannot say that, then maybe they are being called to focus their ministries in other directions.
The truth is that we need to be authentically who we are and live into the call that God is placing on our communities at this particular time. That call might change! The context surely always is as neighborhoods change and the context of broader local and global challenges shift. Asking ourselves, “What is the call of my congregation?” is an excellent place to start. If your congregation sees that they are missing the young adult part of the Body of Christ and feels the Spirit pulling at them to respond to that awareness, then it is your next faithful step to do so! And if you’re not hearing that call right now, then come back to this blog post in another 6 months or year to ask the question again and see if the call is there then.
Ministry Must be With Young Adults
The key part of this learning is the word with.
Churches are used to having a group of people meet together (a committee, a task force, you probably know the name of it in your congregation). Then, that group comes up with a great idea and puts it into practice. Sometimes those are wonderful ideas that really take off, but what we have found is that ministry with includes a whole lot more listening and a whole lot more collaboration. Young adults by and large have lots of ideas and interests and passions. They may already be working on advocacy issues or community service or fellowship or faith and could really use some conversation and action partners. Young adult ministries that are based on conversations with actual young adults before any decisions are made about what kind of a program or event might be meaningful are much better.
Young adults are looking for partners, not more ways to be consumers.
This is where adaptive change comes in. Doing church the way we’ve always done church will not lead to new ministries or new people engaging with them. We have to listen deeply to where young adults are, what their needs are, what their hopes and dreams are, and how God is calling us to partner with them to help shape our world together to be more like the vision of the kin-dom of God that Jesus shares with us in the gospels. The truth is that God is just as present with young adults who are not a part of the church as God is present with those of us who worship with a congregation every Sunday.
Young Adults May be Wary of Your Church
This is a tough one. Our churches are places of meaning and community. Many of us have found family within congregations and support during the toughest times of our lives. It is wise to remember that not everyone has such good associations with church, maybe even especially those who are Millennial or Generation Z. Many young adults can name specific church hurts that they carry around with them, often from congregations in which they were raised but with whom they disagree about the role of women in the church, systemic racism, differences in views of people who identify as LGBTQ+, and differences in social and political convictions.
This is actually where the previously mentioned older woman’s ah-ha moment came from. She heard and in a brand new way understood that innovative young adult ministry was not going to be about inviting young adults to worship or putting up more attractive advertisements about worship in places where young adults are likely to see them.
Ministry with young adults might mean ministry completely outside of the church with people who will never come into the church. This idea was a lot more shocking before we all spent over a year worshipping on Zoom, but we have to realize that going “back to how we did it before the pandemic” might just keep inviting young adults out of our faith communities.
One More Thing
All of the churches who worked with us were committed to taking risks and trying something new in order to minister with young adults. All of the churches learned a whole lot about themselves and about young adults. One thing each church could agree on is that making change in church and being part of a team leading change in a church is hard work. And it’s worth it.
Want to Get Started?
If you are interested in starting to think about how to do a new thing with young adult ministry through your church, I recommend beginning with these two steps:
- Find a team in your church who wants to work on this together and commit to it. Make sure your team includes at least one strong church leader who knows all the ins and outs of the church and its power dynamics and personalities.
- Get out of your church and into your community and have real, meaningful conversations with the young adults you find there. Which reminds me, make sure you have at least one strong extrovert on your team who isn’t too shy about starting up conversations with strangers.
Listen to young adults and listen to the Spirit of God and see what partnerships might emerge. It might surprise you. It will be risky. It will also be worth it.
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. Emily A. Peck-McClain is Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She has been working with the Lilly Endowment’s Young Adult Initiative through the Wesley Innovation Hub for the past four years. Emily is also the author of Arm in Arm with Adolescent Girls: Educating Into the New Creation and a contributing editor to We Pray With Her: Encouragement for All Women Who Lead and Speaking Truth: Women Raising Their Voices in Prayer.
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