Ministry and young adults

Ministry opportunities for vision-filled young adults

Paul Haffner is an associate pastor of the Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Portland, Oregon.

I am a young adult. lam a Seventh-day Adventist. And I am frustrated. lam not alone in this. There are others like me. I wish we could be understood, but instead we are often misjudged and placed in categories that we feel trapped in.

Let me explain.

I have grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist bubble, enjoying all its luxuries and dealing with its very few disadvantages. Be cause of my youth, I was labeled as part of the "new generation" the rebels. I have never felt like a rebel, not until now. 1 am now "out of the system" and am experiencing life under new rules.

The funny thing is, the standards I have chosen are closer to "old-time church standards" than my elder church members suspect. So it appears that they think I and others like me are worse off than we really are. We do take care of our bodies. We do want to help the community and world around us be a better place. We are not trying to be corrupt. We are taking our relationships with Christ seriously. We want to know God.

Unfortunately we sometimes get bogged down in the muck of church politics with our elders. The truth: we would like to be free of all the busyness, and actually get busy. We are tired of sitting and not doing. We are willing to work, but often our hands are tied because of unnecessary church traditions such as "sit ting and talking and voting before doing" We want to work. We are ready. Please ask us to get busy, but don't ask us to be busy being busy.

I believe Christ was busy doing God's work. He didn't "jump through the hoops" or "go through the red tape" He just got busy touching people's lives. Many considered Him some kind of rebel.

I want to be the kind of person He was.

-- Lisa, age 24

I have known Lisa since she was 14 when I taught her Bible in academy. Now she is a businessperson and has just moved into the area I pastor.

One day I discussed with her her attitudes toward the church. She spoke passionately. It was clear she loved the church, but was frustrated. Suddenly she stopped, turned to her computer, and wrote out the above statement (somewhat edited). Evidently she had been poring over her thoughts for some time. Her attitude showed no malice. Her concern was authentic.

How many would agree with her conclusions about the church? Follow me in my journey through young adult ministry and consider my observations. Focus on the idealism that Lisa reflects, as well as the respect, integrity, and involvement she wants so much from her church.


Lisa's little essay reflects her idealism. She simply states that if indeed we are more interested in knowing God and touching people's lives, then we would cut through the red tape that demands so much of our energy. In essence, she is calling the church to be honest about its intent. Her idealism reflects the need for a vision-driven organization. While she is not an anarchist, she holds our feet to the fire in asking us to follow through in producing an organization that is more interested in God and people and less in maintaining a corporate structure.

The young adults with whom I've worked cannot understand why most of our vitality is used up in maintaining process rather than creating product. Church work, in their view, has more to do with running committees and less to do with actually leading a friend to a saving relationship with Christ. Many young adults become discouraged because their idealistic proposals for the church get bogged down in committees.

Young adults reason that we put our time into the things that are important to us. When they see many, even in church leadership, putting the lion's share of their time into processes, with little significant energy being spent on real ministry, they conclude that we care more about the organizational maintenance of the church than bringing our neighbors to Jesus.

The implications of this for pastors and other leaders are clear. We must focus the purpose of our churches in a worthwhile mission statement or rallying cry and then stick with it until it actually comes to life.

Because our young adults breathe idealism, we must give them reason to know that their church is doing all it can to meet the ultimate, underlying objectives that really matter. It may be difficult to accept, but we must embrace the idealism of our young adults allowing it to inspire and motivate us to action.

In my church, we have welcomed and encouraged the idealism of our young adults, trying to give it power to influence our trajectory. Over the past three years I have been responsible for our seeker ministry.* This ministry is an evangelistic out reach to our friends. We hold a weekly church service in which everything we say or do is targeted toward a person who doesn't know anything about church or God. The whole success of the ministry is based on people inviting their friends to church. We anticipated that the baby boomers would be the main supporters, but we were wrong. Interestingly enough, it has been the baby busters who have caught the vision. They have the courage to invite their friends to church because it is a church meeting their ideals reaching out rather than just doing the drill.

If we're interested in reaching our young adults, we'll buy into their idealism. Their vision will take our churches into ministries that otherwise we would never think of.


Respect is a core value for young adults. Lisa clearly articulates the feelings she gets from some of the "elder church members." She feels she has been tagged as being rebellious by virtue of her youth, when in fact she considers herself to be quite in agreement with the church's doctrines and standards. The condescending spirit that tends to go with this sometimes unconscious categorizing saps the interest of many young adults and discourages them from being a part of things in the church.

In our church the practical way to encourage our young adults has been to show respect through engendering their involvement. We have intentionally empowered the young adults to have real positions in the church, not just token ones. From our twenty-something treasurer who has more than $2 million a year go through her hands to the drama ministry directors who are the key part of every Saturday night seeker service, many young adults are given respect by virtue of the positions they have been given.

When our young adults have proved themselves to be trustworthy in positions of responsibility and power, traditional condescending attitudes have changed significantly. The challenge is to encourage our church not to require the young adults to prove themselves before they can be respected. We must start by assuming they are trustworthy, and giving them a chance to show it.

In my situation I have noticed that young adults process truth relationally. The credibility of our doctrine is suspect if they are not given respect. As I observe the young adults on our church board, I've noticed that the actual viewpoints of other generations do not concern the young adults as much as their attitudes do. In other words, if they observe church members respecting them and others, they can deal with that. If the truth is spoken in disrespectful terms, they want to bail out.


Part of Lisa's concern is that we are not actually doing what we say or profess to do. This is a question of integrity, and it creates a certain dissonance among us. If we really mean what we say and believe what we pro fess, then we will be people of integrity, evaluating everything on the basis of the principles that underlie integrity.

In my church we have experimented with some nontraditional ministries. Not surprisingly, they have raised a certain amount of controversy, with integrity being a key issue. I shall mention one case.

In the city I pastor, coffee is a major part of the social culture. One cannot drive a mile without passing several espresso stands and shops. People collect at these places to drink and chat. So did some of the members of our church.

Several months ago some of our church members noticed this and decided to do something about it. They set up a refreshment bar in the unused basement of the church and leased a machine to serve "kosher" specialty drinks. Since then many friendships have been built around this ministry, with significant spiritual and personal interaction taking place at the refreshment bar.

But concern has arisen in the congregation surrounding the refreshment bar and among other things its relationship to the Adventist stand against caffeinated drinks. Although the drinks served in the basement are decaffeinated, some of the concern has remained. In the light of this a number of the young adults have felt that targeting the refreshment ministry, which hardly violates a health principle, while at the same time encouraging other church activities that definitively violate the same principle (such as serving larger portions of caffeine in hot chocolate at church fellowship dinners), comes across to them as being inconsistent and short on integrity.

Of course, the purpose of referring to this instance is not to discuss health reform issues, but to emphasize that young adults long for integrity, and it is crucial that we base decision-making in the church on principles of integrity rather than on tradition ally acceptable church comfort zones.


When I served as youth pastor here, a young man joined the youth group. He was a tremendous leader with a high aptitude for drama. When he graduated from college, he went to Russia for two years. Having learned the language, he came home to further his education with the intent of going back. But he came home with a deeper passion to become involved in the mission of the church. While in Russia he assumed leadership in a local congregation. Now that he is in the United States, he has a passion for his local mission field. He attends a local university and has made many friends most of whom come from a secular, humanistic background. He shares with me the numerous conversations he has with his friends, and I am amazed at his courage as he shares his faith.

The one thing that motivates him is that he has a connection with a community to which he can feel free to invite his interested friends. He unabashedly shares with them what Christ means in his life and then invites some of them to church. Not coincidentally he has been a strong leader in developing the drama and other programming ministries for our outreach emphasis. The principle is clear: People support what they create.

So let young adults create new ministries. Take a risk. Encourage involvement even if the new ministry is unconventional. Invite the young adults to reach for the sky, be cause involvement combined with their unbridled idealism will light a fire for the entire church.

The need for involvement runs through out Lisa's words. She craves to be a part of a meaningful mission. If it's not real and if the invitation to get involved is not serious, chances are she will not become involved. If we're serious about letting young adults like Lisa become involved, and willing to deal with the concerns that we'll hear, they'll be right there! They want to be a part of the church.

The truth is that since Lisa wrote her thoughts, she has become involved in our seeker ministry. Her many talents and deep commitment have been a source of encouragement to everyone involved.

I've described one thing young adults have and three things they need. We need to give them the respect that tells them they are valuable. We need to provide a community tenacious about integrity. Then we must let them become involved and own the ministry to which God is calling them.

* Modeled after aspects of the
Willowcreek church ministry near Chicago,

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Paul Haffner is an associate pastor of the Sunnyside Seventh-day Adventist Church in Portland, Oregon.

March 1997

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