If we build it, will they come? If they come, will they stay? If they stay, will we run them off? Adventists are preparing to launch another evangelistic thrust via satellite downlink, our greatest such project in history.
NET '98 will be similar in many ways to evangelistic meetings you may have conducted or observed in the past. It will take place in a local church. A pastor, rather than visiting evangelist, will preach. Members of the local congregation will attend and invite their friends. Good news from God's Word will be proclaimed and, by the Spirit's power, people will become disciples of Jesus Christ.
In other ways, however, NET '98 will be far from typical. For starters, thou sands of congregations and hundreds of thousands of people on six continents will participate in NET '98, translated into some forty languages.
Generation X is the target
The defining characteristic the thing that will most set it apart from past evangelistic endeavors is that NET '98 will intentionally target young adults, ages 18-33, referred to as Generation X (GenX).
"What we share together is going to be life-changing for all ages," host Pastor Dwight Nelson assures us. "We are going to be user-friendly for the young." 1 Thus, it is no accident that NET '98 will originate from a campus congregation surrounded by some three thousand young adults.2 Nelson's purpose is clearly articulated in his recent Adventist Review interview: "NET '98 is going to reach GenXers."3
If young adults accounted for more than one in eight of the baptisms attributed to NET '96, an event attended mainly by people over fifty years of age, we have good reason to believe that many more young GenXers will respond to the messages presented in NET '98. It has been developed with them specifically in mind.
The challenge, of course, is that GenXers are quite different from the older generations who, historically, have been the greatest supporters of evangelistic projects.
Recently, I asked a number of colleagues to help me answer the big question: How do you make young people feel welcome in your congregation when you are not sure you even like them?4
The crucial question
Therefore, the urgent question for Adventist congregations around the world is: "How will we keep those we reap through NET '98?" Recent statistics indicate that we have plenty of room to grow in assimilating any members, but especially young adult members. How can we close the "back doors" of our churches through which too many depart?
Congregations that will respond best to the challenge of keeping GenXers in the church are those that exhibit a readiness to learn, grow, and change.
Characteristics of Generation X
Learning what makes GenX tick can be an exciting adventure for pastors and congregations and provide a basis for integrating these young people into our congregations. Current research tells us that:
- There are lots of them. Forty-six million people were born in the United States between 1965 and 1980.
- They are a diverse group with characteristics in common with several billion of their peers worldwide.
- They don't like labels. When we refer to them as Generation X, Baby Busters, or twentysomethings, they view such terms as an older generation's attempts to impose a label or put them in a box. "I am not a target market," protests a young adult in Douglas Coupland's novel, Generation X. "Why can't I just be a person?... And why can't we relate together as people?"5
- They often feel alone, abandoned, and alienated. Aloneness occurs in the midst of people when a young adult feels unable to connect with others in deeply fulfilling ways. Nearly half of young adults are children of divorce. Many wrestle with abandonment issues. It's hard to get close because they don't want you to hurt them the same way their families have hurt them. They feel alienated and have a deep need to experience reconciliation with others.
- Relationships are important. Many young adults exhibit a deep hunger for community. They feel most alive when they are with their friends and find fulfillment in relationships more than in the traditional accompaniments of success. They may change careers as many as six times during adulthood, often for relational reasons.
- They like to do things in groups. Dating, recreation, and shopping are frequently group activities. "The era of individual has ended. A new era of team and community has arrived."6
- There are no absolutes. As the first generation to grow up entirely in the postmodern era, GenXers have been educated by a secularized public school system to believe that all truth is relative and personal. For them, truth is relational rather than propositional.
- They do not trust institutions. The church as an institution holds little interest for them, even though church in a relational sense may be very attractive.
- Their quest is for meaning and purpose, though they no longer have faith in traditional modes of religious expression or in the previous generation's fascination with "scientific objectivity."
- They are sometimes pessimistic. Those whose pilgrimages toward meaning and understanding are less than fulfilling often veer toward despair. "The suicide rate for teens has doubled since 1968, and the number of children using drugs by the sixth grade has tripled since 1975."7
- They are open to God, not always to religion. It sounds arrogant to young adults to suggest that your truth is better than someone else's or that you have "the truth." They highly value authenticity and personal integrity. More impressive than a coherent philosophical system is the transparent life of a Christian who is genuine and open.
- They are not easy to categorize or understand. Postmodern young adults have an amazing capacity to live with paradoxes, both in their lives and in their worldviews. To contradictions that distress older generations, they often respond with a favorite expression: "Whatever."
Keeping young adults in the church
Growth in understanding and responding to the needs of young adults will characterize congregations that retain those who join their ranks from this target generation. Such churches seek ways to:
- Develop community in small groups. Church members have a marvelous opportunity to live out their faith through small groups where deep and lasting friendships with God and with each other are formed.
- Provide a sense of ownership. Young adults want to lead their own groups, meetings, and projects. Giving them a sense of ownership means stepping aside and entrusting young adults with responsibilities based on their talents and interests.
- Be practical. Young adults prefer action to talk. They favor projects with local relevance where tangible results can be seen. Hands-on involvement in ministry such as serving meals in a homeless shelter, building and restoring homes for people in need, and mentoring children and teens through "big sibling" relationships allow them to translate faith into action.
- Be friendly. Beyond relationships with peers, young adults are looking for authentic, mutual relationships with older adults. Opportunities for the development of intergenerational friendships can help keep young adults in the church.
- Help them find their niche. Rather than plugging young adults into predefined roles, churches that are serious about retaining their young adults will assess the gifts, temperaments, and spiritual passions of members and seek to involve them in challenging areas for which they feel most suited e.g., video production, computer graphics, contemporary music, and arts.
- Continue to learn and grow. Form a focus group or advisory council of young adults to guide the church in discipling young members.
- Create new worship experiences where young adults encounter God. Services must be interactive, employ story and drama, and give young adults room to search and form their own conclusions. Music must be joyous, creative, and in a familiar idiom. Excellence must be pursued throughout.
- Present a message of good news and hope. There has never been a generation more ready to hear and respond to Christ's invitation to belong to Him, to be a friend to God, and to live in authentic fellowship in a community of faith than today's young adults.
Revealing God's character of love
"The last rays of merciful light, the last message of mercy to be given to the world is a revelation of [God's] character of love." 8
Pastor Nelson suggests two practical things pastors and churches can do right now to prepare.
"First, we have got to start building bridges with [people of all backgrounds] now. You cannot wait until opening night and drag them in and say, 'Here's Dwight.' You've got to go out and love people. Second, along with the loving there must be an intensive praying.... Forward on our knees that's the only way we can go."9
Finally, begin planning now for creative ways to welcome GenXers into your congregation and to retain for discipleship those who respond to the Holy Spirit's invitation.
1 "NET '98: Getting Relational." An interview with Dwight Nelson by Andy Nash. Adventist Review, April 1998,13.
2. The host congregation is the Pioneer Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church on the campus of Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
3. Adventist Review, April 1998,12, 13.
4. I am indebted to several young adult ministry specialists for insights presented in this column: Don Keele, Jr. is a creative youth and young adults pastor in Oregon; A. Allan Martin, a pastor and church consultant in California, and Andy Nash, an assistant editor of the Adventist Review, are both GenXers and write extensively about young adult ministries and issues; Ron Preast is a pastor, evangelist, and academy Bible teacher in Washington State and his wife, Jeanene, is an academy chaplain; my brother, John Cress, is chaplain of Walla Walla College, as well as the father of two GenXers.
5. Quoted in Tim Celek and Dieter Zander, Inside the Soul of a New Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 22.
6. Ibid., 35.
7. Ibid., 50.
8. Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900), 415.
9. Adventist Review, April 1998,12,13.