Filip Milosavljevic, DMin, is the young adult pastor at Loma Linda University Church, Loma Linda, California, United States.

The prophetic word of Malachi envisions when “the hearts of fathers . . . and the hearts of children” will turn back to each other in a day of reconciliation between generations, a vision I hold dear for the relationship between young people and the church (Mal. 4:5, 6, ESV). However, a significant challenge faces this hopeful future: while many congregations value young adults, sadly, some do not.

This demographic, encompassing ages 18–35, has gained greater attention in the past few decades in both academic circles and church discussions. Ironically, young adults spearheaded the early Adventist movement. This age group played a pivotal role in shaping the Adventist Church into what it is today. Yet, in some congregations, it seems to have become an overlooked category, one falling into a gap between youth and fully recognized adult membership. “Why is this such a big deal?” you may ask. Let me explain.

Recognizing the need

Often, young adults are increasingly absent from church life. In North America, for example, they constitute a mere 18 percent of church members, compared to nearly half globally.1 David Trim, director of the Archives, Statistics, and Research Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, reports a staggering 50–70 percent disengagement rate of post-high school individuals in the Global North.2

As a 36-year-old young adult pastor, I see this problem as critical. While many churches and church members work to reach the young, unfortunately, some members have not yet fully recognized the need. The disconnect between perception and reality is starkly evident in the latest research on Adventist young adults in the Growing Young Adventists study I just completed for my doctorate in ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this study, I reviewed the survey of more than 6,500 Adventist members and found that while older members believe the church is effectively engaging young adults, the young adults themselves, particularly those aged 18–29, strongly disagree. They feel the church has failed to understand their needs and minister to them effectively.

The Barna Group’s survey of Adventist young adults makes a pivotal point: the church does well in providing opportunities for children and youth but does not always offer a seamless transition into young adulthood. As one college student in the study observed, “If you aren’t a child and don’t have a child, there’s nothing for you.”3 Many young adults find themselves without a clear role or place within the church, leading to a feeling of alienation.

While it is important to recognize the positives happening in Christian denominations regarding young people, we should be cautious before celebrating. For instance, national studies like Barna’s “The Open Generation” report a high openness among young people to Jesus and Christianity. However, those same studies often focus on teenagers, a group distinct from young adults in terms of autonomy, life experience, and challenges.4 The enthusiasm seen in high school students often diminishes after graduation, leading to disengagement from church life.

Adventist researcher Roger Dudley’s work with teens came to a similar conclusion, spotting their enthusiasm for Jesus and Adventism while in their first few years of high school. But once they graduated, he found that they were either nonexistent or inactive in their congregations.5

How can we do better?

Such a phenomenon poses a crucial question: how do we view and respond to this challenge? One perspective sees it as a total loss, with young adults drifting away in all respects. A more hopeful view, however, suggests that while young adults may often become disengaged, they have not completely abandoned their faith or relationship with God. They are navigating a new spiritual landscape, one marked by autonomy and exploration. It calls for a renewed approach in how we engage with and understand them, aligning with the biblical counsel of Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not turn from it” (NOG). The journey of faith for such young adults is not over—it is still evolving.

A significant number of young adults who have stepped away from regular worship services have not necessarily lost their faith. Instead, they are defining and experiencing their faith in their own unique ways, a process described as “faithing” by scholars Steven Argue and Kara Powell.6 These individuals carry with them the teachings and experiences from their upbringing but are now exploring faith in a world that is more nuanced than the black-and-white perspectives of their youth, church, and home.

We cannot let such young people slip through our fingers. Scott Cormode, a professor of church leadership, asserts that innovation in Christian congregations is not just an option but a necessity for survival in the modern world. The church must adapt and innovate, especially at the local congregational level, to engage young adults effectively.7 Start young, when they are youths, to engage them, and then continue that through to young adulthood while evaluating how best they can use their maturing God-given gifts in the church. The Adventist Church Manual encourages that “youth should be integrated into responsible leadership and in all lines of church work.”8 Many Adventist congregations have adopted the Growing Young model that focuses on the six commitments of thriving and, as a result, have seen significant revitalization in their engagement with young adults.9

What steps are needed?

Responding to the disengagement of young adults requires a threefold approach: understanding who they are today, finding ways to stay connected with them, and revising our ministry methods.

Understanding today’s young adults is crucial as the first step for every leader. “Very much has been lost to the cause of truth by a lack of attention to the spiritual needs of the young. Ministers of the gospel should form a happy acquaintance with the youth of their congregations. Many are reluctant to do this, but their neglect is a sin in the sight of Heaven.”10

We live in a drastically different world than a generation ago. The emergence of young adulthood as a distinct life stage has resulted from changes in Western society during the past 50–70 years. Society has evolved with advancements in technology, shifts in sexual norms, educational opportunities, and the emergence of new careers. The world is more interconnected than ever, presenting young adults with challenges and experiences that inform and expand their understanding of life, God, and themselves.

The path to adulthood has become a complex journey, often extending the process of becoming an adult by almost a decade. Young adults now face a period of identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and feeling in-between while also grappling with the possibilities and optimism of their futures. The new landscape of young adulthood often requires a different approach from the church, one that empathizes with their unique experiences and challenges.

Secondly, staying connected to young adults through prayer and ongoing communication is essential. Such spiritual connection is critical in understanding and responding to their life journeys and needs. Praying for young adults, especially those who have drifted or chosen to leave the church, is crucial. It is about asking for God’s guidance and closeness in their lives and reminding ourselves of Jesus’ enduring love and commitment to them. Keeping the lines of communication open, even in small ways, can provide peace and readiness for deeper conversations when they are ready to engage in them.

Lastly, effective ministry to young adults requires a new approach to ministry to directly address their deepest questions and needs. If the church fails to do so, young adults may feel the church is irrelevant to their adulting process, leading to further separation. During a wedding I was performing, I experienced a recent example involving some youth I had lost connection with after high school. We had a wonderful conversation at dinner, but I soon realized that each person at the table had drifted from church. Struggling to find meaning in their minimum-paying jobs, each had lost their vision of possible future careers and lacked a sense of belonging in the world. The church can play a crucial role in filling this gap, as demonstrated by the apostle Paul’s mentorship of young Timothy in Ephesus. Targeted support and ministry can yield significant results (e.g., congregations that send care packages to college students or stay in touch with birthday cards and phone calls or dinners out).

The church must help

Renewing and expanding our approach to ministry with young adults is imperative. Many congregations continue using youth ministry methods or expect young adults to assimilate into adult church life without acknowledging their unique present stage of life. Young adults differ from their younger counterparts in many psychological, social, and spiritual aspects. They have different core needs and life experiences. The church must help them navigate their identity, providing spaces for belonging and discovering life’s purpose.

Recognizing the need to revise our ministry methods is a crucial first step. The church must pivot its approach to effectively engage today’s young adults in a rapidly changing world. The statistics of young people leaving the church, especially in North America and Europe, mandate adaptation, yet some congregations and leaders seem reluctant to change their methods. Do not be one of them.

Where do we go from here?

Here are practical steps church leaders can take:

  1. Educate church boards and leaders on young adult ministry using books such as Growing Young and Young Adult Ministry Now.
  2. Start or renew your young adult ministries. Begin with listening sessions with any young adults connected to your congregation.11
  3. Collaborate with church conferences to create training experiences for effective young adult ministry like the Growing Young cohort conducted in the North Pacific Union Conference.12
  4. Engage young adults in church ministries and church leadership, especially by valuing and implementing their ideas. Direct feedback and partnership with young adults are essential for effective ministry.
  5. Include a significant church budget allocation for young adult ministry. If your church is serious about taking care of young adults, it must be seen in the budget, programs, and their participation in leadership. Show them that you care and are investing not only time and energy but finances in keeping them in the church.

God has so much in store for our Adventist denomination, and I believe He can empower the Adventist community to support young people’s spiritual journeys so that we can see that prophetic reconciliation occur in our lifetime. Further, the Adventist Church has proved through its history that it genuinely loves young people. So, despite these trying times, it is my strong belief that it can once again become a community of innovation and support, as well as a home in which young adults can thrive and be empowered to lead the next generation of believers in faithfulness until Jesus comes again.

  1. Starkly different worldwide, in some countries between 70 and 80 percent are youth and young adult members. In the North American Division (NAD), only 18.54 percent are below age 40. Also, the median age is 51 in the NAD while worldwide, the Adventist median age is 32. “Vitality: Youth” (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, n.d.), https://www.adventist.org/en/vitality/youth/ (newer online edition no longer has this statistic listed). Cf. Robert Holbrook, ed., The AY Story: The Story of Youth Ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, updated ed. (Silver Spring, MD: The General Conference Youth Ministries Department, 2005), 24.
  2. David Trim, “ ‘Why Do They Walk Away?’ The Heart Cry of Adventist Parents: The Data Is Clear. The Remnant Is an Endangered Species,” Adventist Review, January 22, 2022, https://adventistreview.org/commentary/why-do-they-walk-away-the-heart-cry-of-adventist-parents/. Further, Roger Dudley’s extensive ten-year study in Adventist academies published in 2000 from research conducted five years prior revealed 40 to 50 percent of recent high school graduates had disengaged from their local Adventist church.
  3. Barna Group, “Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Young Adult Study” (Ventura, CA, 2013).
  4. David Kinnaman, “Is Christianity Fading Away? Teens’ Thoughts About Jesus Give Us Hope and a Challenge,” USA Today, November 6, 2022, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2022/11/06/does-jesus-christianity-matter-teens/10651657002/. For Barna’s work on “The Open Generation,” see the Barna website at https://www.barna.com/the-open-generation/. Also, look at Adventist pastor Alan Parker, who correctly considers the statistical divide between teen and young adult perceptions of the church at the NAD eHuddle in 2022, “The Tale of Two Generations,” August 31, 2023, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2022/11/06/does-jesus-christianity-matter-teens/10651657002/.
  5. See Roger L. Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories from a 10-Year Study (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000).
  6. Kara Powell and Steven Argue, Growing With: Every Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019), 135–198.
  7. Scott Cormode, The Innovative Church: How Leaders and Their Congregations Can Adapt in an Ever-Changing World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 1–3.
  8. Church Manual (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Secretariat, 2022), 111.
  9. My upcoming book will highlight more from this study on Adventists and thriving with young adults, but for more on the six commitments that were in the original Growing Young study from Fuller Youth Institute, see the following three books: Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016); Powell and Argue, Growing With; Steven C. Argue, Young Adult Ministry Now: A Growing Young Guide (Pasadena, CA: Fuller Youth Institute, 2022).
  10. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1915), 207.
  11. For pointers on where to start, watch Adventist pastor Ben Lundquist’s video on YouTube, “How to Launch a Young Adult Ministry,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrArYtqIRz0. Another resource is the “We Are Listening” guide produced by the NAD Youth and Young Adult Department, which is available from Advent Source at https://www.adventsource.org/store/young-adults/new-leaders/we-are-listening-38974.
  12. For more ideas, check out the NPUC Growing Together website and contact their young adult director, Benjamin Lundquist, for more details at http://growingtogethercohort.com.

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Filip Milosavljevic, DMin, is the young adult pastor at Loma Linda University Church, Loma Linda, California, United States.

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