Young adult ministry: let the baby-sitting cease
Young adult ministry. Not only is ministering to this group we call young adults a challenge, but just trying to define them is a conundrum. A friend of mine, the youth pastor of a large church in northern California, recently told me that there are three young adult groups in his church. The group called "young adults" generally includes 30- to 40-year-olds. The 25- to 30-year-olds have their own group called "young singles"--and includes both singles and marrieds. Recently a third group, the "collegiate" group, formed to include those of college age, even though not all of its members are attending college.
Why be concerned with this group? Monte Sahlin recently reported in the Adventist Review that nearly 50 percent of the dropouts from the Seventh-day Adventist Church are 20 to 35 years of age. 1 The Kettering Seventh-day Adventist Church has hired an associate pastor to minister specifically to young adults. Several doctoral projects are focusing on finding ways to stem the tide of young adults exiting the church.
Who are the "young adults"? And why a special ministry to them? In her book The Critical Years, Sharon Parks suggests that young adulthood is that time in a person's life when one senses the need for spirituality, but not necessarily religion; for community, but not necessarily church; for faith, but not necessarily belief; for God, but not necessarily Yahweh. In terms of faith development, she suggests that there is another stage between Fowler's stages of "individuating-reflexive faith" and "conjunctive faith." 2 This stage consists of a time when a person moves from a questioning relativism that is counterdependent on external authority, to a commitment within questioning as one moves to an inner dependent and an internal authority. Young adult faith is that time of transition between adolescent faith and adult faith, a time, if you please, of truly finding one's faith. V. Bailey Gillespie calls this "reordered faith" and describes it:
"This involves a reinterpretation of one's faith. On a cognitive level there is new theological reflection and the desire for dialogue. Experientially faith focuses on relationships, lifestyle, and the future. Professional development may overshadow one's faith, possibly placing faith on moratorium until a crisis arises. For some, family interests, especially children, rekindle the spark for faith development/reordering." 3
As a pastor I have watched people struggle through this transition. And it does not always take place during what we usually call the "young adult years" of about 20 to 30. Many people continue in adolescent faith until a crisis forces them to reconsider their faith. All too often, this crisis causes them to abandon their faith.
Have you looked around your church lately for young adults? Are they there? If your church is like most, you will have a few. You will have some who are there because they are still in their adolescent faith; whatever the church, the pastor, or some other authority tells them to do, they do. There will be a few who have made it through the young adult struggle and are attending because they choose to. Somehow they have been able to come to grips with the fact that all their questions will not be answered, that all the paradoxes of their faith will not be resolved, and that they will just have to live with them. But the majority of your young adults just are not there!
I currently pastor two small churches in southwestern Michigan. Our records show that one church has 95 members; the other, 75. About a year and a half ago I did a census of young adults, particularly young single adults, in these two churches. When I told the church boards that between the two churches we had more than 20 young single adults who were members, they were astonished! "Who are they?" the boards cried. Who are they indeed! Church board members, seeing only four or five coming regularly to worship, assumed that they were all the young adults we had. The others, still members according to church records, were "out of sight, out of mind."
My wife and I had no formal training in young adult ministry, but we had a deep interest in young people. We talked over the situation and decided we would offer to sponsor a young single adult group in our home. Shortly after this decision, a young lady who had recently returned to the church asked if something could be done for young adults. I shared with her what my wife and I had been discussing, and that was the beginning of our young single adult support group.
Our group meets twice a month at our house, 6:00 Sabbath evening. Though following no formal structure, we generally plan for an hour of study, prayer, and fellowship. Almost without exception the meeting lasts longer than planned. Sometimes we decide in advance what we are going to discuss during the next meeting, but most of the time we just start discussing whatever seems to be the hot topic of the day. Our discussions range from personal needs and problems, to what we can do to help the church, to what we can do to help in the community. Last year some of our group helped provide Christmas presents for children living with parents who were in a shelter for abused spouses.
Most of the time we have popcorn and juice after the meeting. Occasion ally we fix or order pizza, or eat ice cream, or do all of the above. We have had special times like a New Year's Eve party, vespers on the beach by Lake Michigan, or an all-day fun day.
We found that even this was not enough. We were not reaching all of our young adult singles. In fact, the majority of them were not coming to the Sabbath afternoon meetings, nor were they coming to church. We tried a different tactic with them. Last summer our local Ministerial Association sponsored a church softball league. The two churches I pastor went together to field a team. What happened was great. Many of those who were not attending church came out for the softball games. The neat thing was that we then had active church members and inactive (at least in terms of church involvement) young adults coming together each week to play ball. And the games were usually followed by pizza at the local Pizza Hut for anyone who wanted to come.
Now some of these young adults are beginning to come back to the fellow ship of the church. My part in this process has consisted of just being there, playing, and getting acquainted with them in nonthreatening situations.
Other young adults in these two congregations still need to receive ministry. A couple of them come to me individually, and we are developing a relation ship. They are not quite ready to commit to the church, but somehow they feel comfortable around me and let me share in their struggle to find meaning and faith.
I relate these experiences to help other pastors see that young adult ministry cannot be packaged or programmed. These people are not little kids who need baby-sitting. They are not adolescents who need chaperoning. They are adults searching for an adult faith. Their search may take them along different paths. Our young adult group is in a state of almost constant flux, not given to long-term commitment.
Young adults quickly change careers, jobs, special friends, and even churches (or from church to no church). Effective young adult minis try is one that provides a place of stability in the midst of chaos. That is what my wife and I have tried to do for the young adults in our churches. We are not their parents or even the official leaders of the young adult group. In a real sense, I am not actually their pastor. My wife and I have become mentors for many of them. Not authority figures, but older friends with whom they can discuss career, love life, family, school, whatever and not feel threatened, judged, or condemned. If asked, we share our views with them openly and honestly. If not, we listen with receptive minds and hearts. In short, we are there for them.
And we've watched them grow. Several have recommitted their lives to Christ. A few have made decisions to further their careers or to go back to school, and have moved away. That is painful, but it is a realistic part of young adult ministry. They leave ... we grieve. Yet in our grieving we realize that our ministry has been effective; that somehow God has been able to use us to help them in their faith development; that whatever they do in the future, we are a part of their lives forever, and they are a part of ours.
Young adult ministry. Confusing yet rewarding. Time-consuming yet fulfilling. Frustrating yet satisfying. And desperately needed!
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1 Monte Sahlin, "Where Are Our Missing
Members?" Adventist Review, May 4, 1989, p.
2 James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San
Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), pp. 174-198.
3 Adapted from V. Bailey Gillespie, The
Experience of Faith (Birmingham: Religious Educa
tion Press, 1988), pp. 176-190.