If our church doesn’t get more young people soon, we’re going to die,” blurted the head deaconess during my pastoral interview. The dedicated church leaders were in their sixties and seventies. The church averaged 90 attendees on Sabbaths.1 Fewer than five were 18 to 35 years old, counting my wife, Caitlin, and me. Our church was in a small city of about 15,000, next to a larger city of 40,000 in a secular area with a significant Navy presence.2 What could we do to see a change?
Jesus works miracles. In four years, our church grew to 140 in attendance,3 with over 30 young adults attending on any given Sabbath.4 Here is what we learned in the process.
Why young people
Throughout Scripture, God seems to have a bias toward raising up young adults (ages 18–35) as missional leaders for His people: Joseph, Joshua, Samuel, David, Josiah, Daniel, Esther, John the Baptist, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples, Timothy, John Mark, and so many others. In the mid-1800s, God raised up young people, primarily in their teens and twenties, to found the Seventh-day Adventist movement.5 Should we not expect God to do the same today?
Jesus said, “ ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’ ” (Luke 10:2).6 Jesus wanted to bring young adults into our church so that they could become heroes in His mission. Our job is to pray for, empower, and rally behind them.
Most young people want to change the world but do not realize that the church is the best platform for that. Jesus portrayed His church storming the gates of hell, ripping people from the devil’s grasp, and bringing them into the hope and wholeness of the kingdom of God (Matt. 16:18). A vision for impact is the most powerful thing the church can offer young adults. When they see how they can use their passions to bless the community and see Jesus change lives, they grow, and the church does too.
When our church became focused on evangelism (in all of its stages) and activating young adults in the mission, God started working miracles we had not seen before. We went from baptizing 4 people per year for the past 15 years to celebrating 15–19 baptisms per year, with half of them being millennials and Gen Zers.7
Commit to connect
When praying for God to bring us young adults, I needed to be ready for God to answer. I made a commitment: I will never let someone aged 18–35 enter my church building without personally connecting with them, learning something about them, getting their contact info, and following up. I asked the greeters to help me. Sometimes I had to dash past older members so I could catch a young adult in the parking lot.
My follow-up goal was to invite new young adults to share a meal at a restaurant or home. Over the meal, I would listen to their stories and seek to discover their passions. I asked, “What would you love to see God do through you?” In the last few minutes of our conversation, I would tell a story of how God was changing lives through our local church and invite them to be a part of the journey. Whenever possible, I would seek to help them get a “win” at using their passions for God within the next month. I also invited them to join a weekly group.
God’s first answer to prayer came sooner than I expected. On my second Sabbath at the church, in walked Nik and Shayla with their four-month-old son. It was Nik’s first time in an Adventist church in 13 years (half his lifetime) and Shayla’s first time ever. We connected with them and invited them to go to the park with us the next Sabbath. Caitlin and I started a Bible-study group in our apartment. We invited all the young adults we knew: Nik and Shayla, one young adult from church and her husband, and a couple of neighbors. Of the six young adults participating, only one was a baptized Seventh-day Adventist. Within a few months, three more had been baptized and became involved in our church.
Create community environments
Jesus’ strategy for developing young adults as missional leaders was to recruit them into a small group. “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14, 15). With this group of 12, Jesus provided a healthy community environment where the disciples could grow spiritually, relationally, and missionally. They were given opportunities to lead and make a difference for the kingdom while they received ongoing vision, coaching, and support from Jesus.
After a year of connecting with every young- adult guest to our church, I surprisingly had a contact list with over 40 names (many of whom I had seen only once). My wife felt convicted that we needed to start a new midweek young-adult Bible-study group in our home. We set a date.
The Sabbath before the group was going to start, I was sitting at a potluck when my head greeter interrupted: “Come over and meet a couple of young-adult guests.” I dropped everything to connect with them.
During the conversation, Xander asked, “What do you have for young adults here at this church?”
If he had asked a month earlier, I would have said, “Nothing.” But God sent them at the perfect time. We were ready for them.
“We are starting a young-adult Bible study at my house this Wednesday!” I excitedly responded.
“Great! Cheiryl and I will be there. And I’ll invite my friend Jed.”
These three health professionals in their early thirties had been church-hopping or spending Sabbaths in nature for a while.
Over the next several weeks, 8–20 young adults met weekly in our home. We watched their spiritual growth as deep friendships formed and they embraced a vision for transformational impact. It changed the course of their lives and the course of our church.
Empower young leaders
Remember Joshua, the courageous young leader of the people of God? How was he activated for God’s cause? Joshua’s debut in Scripture comes from an insightful story in Exodus 17. The Amalekites attacked, so Moses recruited Joshua, a young adult, to lead the charge. Moses rallied the people of God behind Joshua. Then Moses stood on a hilltop and raised his hands in prayer for the success of his new young leader. “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning. . . . So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword” (Exod. 17:11, 13). As long as we hold up our hands in prayer and support of our young leaders, God will give victories. As we empower and rally behind them, battles will be won for God’s mission. God will bring His people into the Promised Land!
Through the course of the young adult group, I recognized the potential of half a dozen young adults to become key leaders and began deeply investing in them. I spent significant time with them and did whatever I could to dump fuel on their fire for Jesus and His mission. One Sabbath we had them over for a brainstorming session. “What would you love to see God do through you?” I asked the group. The young health professionals wanted to organize a free health clinic for the community. They were excited to bring the kingdom of God to their city through the church.
Jed, a 31-year-old dentist who owned his own practice, put together a proposal and presented it to the church board. The board slashed it apart.
“Why would we spend so much money on people we don’t even know from the community?”
“Do you really think you can pull this off?”
“This won’t work.”
I wondered whether this was the end of our young- adult ministry and the beginning of the death of our church.
Just before the plan was rejected, a respected elder spoke up, “Can we at least vote on the concept and let them keep working on getting more details?”
The board approved. The young adults kept moving forward. God blessed. Within a few short months, the young adults had brought together a team, found a partner organization, secured a local venue, raised over $20,000, and recruited more than 150 volunteers. We sent out 28,000 postcards inviting the community to the weekend health clinic. The church was excited!
Two weeks before the event, the venue notified us that there had been a miscommunication. We were allowed access to only one-third of the space that we needed. We were stunned.
A couple of church leaders called me and said, “See, this is what happens when young adults are in charge.”
We came together as a church and prayed for God to open a door. As we knelt in a circle, I caught a glimpse of the church that I had been dreaming of: people of all generations coming together to ask God to do great things through them in their community.
The next week we looked everywhere for a new venue. Finally, we got in touch with Tom, the executive director of facilities and operations for the public school district.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Tom said. He got us into an elementary school only a mile down the street from our original venue.
We provided over 350 free dental, vision, medical, and physical therapy services. Every patient received prayer. A community leader later told us our health clinic was the most significant nonprofit service in our entire county.
Tom came by the health clinic to see what he had helped accomplish.
“We host a lot of groups here at the school district,” he said, “but I have never seen anyone as clean, kind, and organized as you Seventh-day Adventists. I used to think you were a weird cult, but that belief is changing by the minute.” We started talking about his spiritual journey and how he had been drifting in recent years. “But I might come by your church sometime,”
“Can you come this Saturday? We want to thank you for everything you have done to partner with us to bring hope and wholeness to our community,” I offered.
“Sure. My wife and I will be there this Saturday.”
Tom and Barbara came that Sabbath and never stopped coming. They connected with a Bible-study group and a Sabbath School group. They made decisions for baptism at the follow-up evangelistic series a couple of months later.
Our church was never the same after that experience. We were all amazed at the miracles God had done to bring victories in His mission when we rallied behind a handful of emerging, passionate young leaders.
The older members came to the young adults and asked, “Can we do another health clinic together next year?”
And we did.
We do not have to look far to see challenges in our churches with engaging and empowering young people. But Jesus is still passionately working to activate young people in His mission. He invites us to join Him. “ ‘Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out [young] workers into his harvest field’ ” (Luke 10:2; word added for emphasis).
As we desperately pray and prepare for God to answer, we can expect Him to break through. The Lord of the harvest will give us opportunities to selflessly and intentionally come alongside young adults in our church and community to see their passions unleashed for the kingdom of God.
- Port Orchard, Washington, Seventh-day Adventist Church attendance records, accessed May 23, 2022.
- “Port Orchard, Washington Population 2022,” World Population Review 2022, accessed May 23, 2022, https://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/port-orchard-wa-population; Steven Gardner, “Survey Finds Kitsap the Seventh Least Religious Area in the Nation,” Kitsap Sun, April 13, 2013, https://archive.kitsapsun.com/news/local/survey-finds-kitsap-the-seventh-least-religious-area-in-the-nation-ep-416449869-356169571.html/.
- Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church attendance records.
- Almost none of these 30-plus young adults transferred from other nearby Seventh-day Adventist churches.
- “The Seventh-day Adventist Church began like a Silicon Valley start-up—led by young people with vision and passion for a cause. People such as Ellen White, John Loughborough, J. N. Andrews, Uriah Smith and John Harvey Kellogg made a significant impact on the developing Seventh-day Adventist Church while still teenagers and young adults.” “Youth,” Seventh-day Adventist Church, accessed May 23, 2022, https://www.adventist.org/marriage-and-the-family/youth/. See also Lynette Frantzen, “Young Adventist Pioneers,” Adventist Review, May 27, 2004, as cited in A. Allan Martin, “Reaching Out: Making a Difference With Young Adults,” Ministry, July 2008, note 29.
- Scripture is from the New International Version.
- Number includes baptisms, rebaptisms, and professions of faith. Washington Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Membership Records (2000-2018): Port Orchard Seventh-day Adventist Church,” accessed January 23, 2018.