I vividly remember what it was like to serve on a summer camp staff the summer after I was married. On a team of about 20 young adults, there were only two married couples. My wife and I had been married around six months when our summer started; the other couple was maybe three or four months further along their marital journey than we were. In all honesty, I didn’t mind the juxtaposition all that much. I loved my wife and looked forward to sharing my life with her, much more so than going to sleep every night in a room with a bunch of messy guys. I didn’t even see myself as all that different from the non-married guys. My job was the same as everyone else’s, and my day looked exactly like my teammates’, except for when “lights out” hit. But the perception from my team toward us? That was very unexpected. People were nice enough and made efforts to connect with us, but the idea that married people could be the same as everyone else was kind of lost on our team of mostly singles. The perception that I was so different just because I was married nagged at me for a while. There was a definite separation that I didn’t understand … until much later.
Working with young adults from all kinds of backgrounds—married, divorced, single, looking, patiently expecting—you learn a lot about how they want to fit into the life of a church. I am thrilled that more and more research is being done to help churches figure out the best ways to minister to young adults, married and single, no longer relegating them to second class citizenship in the life of the church (not yet parents, not old enough to support the church financially, not quite ready to sit on committees except to serve as the token young adult “voice,” not yet, not quite … ).
In my experience, young adults of all kinds of backgrounds are attracted to a church and want to stay there when the following criteria are met:
- An environment for intentional relationships is fostered. People matter to God, and they should be of supreme importance to the church, too. If young adults can see this immediately, they will be attracted to your church.
- There are significant opportunities provided for sustained spiritual growth. Biblical exploration and a striving toward biblical depth is important to young adults in the church. Places to connect should be ample.
- Life care is provided to people as they need it, and attenders are not left to feel like a number in a vast swarm of people. A cookie-cutter approach to “congregational care” will likely not be attractive to someone in need, even though it is provided with the very best of intentions. An environment where people can shine when they’re at their best and lean on someone when they’re experiencing their worst is appealing.
- Chances to integrate fully into the life of the church and to make meaningful connections with people of all ages are readily available. As much as young adults like spending time in settings with people who are similar to them, they also really enjoy the chance to connect with people who are very different from them. There are opportunities to learn what it’s like to navigate career changes, family development, and the stuff of life that can only come from people in a different stage of life than other young adults.
- Others-centricity is modeled from the top down. Today’s young adults, who are naturally inclined to look outward toward others, are given options of serving and pouring their lives into others, whether in service within the church or in some place around the world. The plight of others is not lost on this socially-conscious generation.
So the question of the day remains: How do you meld effective young adult ministry and effective young married ministry together without completely alienating the other? If you’re anything like my summer camp team, you don’t! You leave the elephant smack in the middle of the room and work around it. But we all know that’s not the best answer. In today’s church, acknowledging the obvious is crucial. Young adults want a real, honest sense of “what is” rather than a half-hearted effort toward “what kind of is.” When you separate ministries and programs between marrieds and not marrieds, you begin to define people by their marital status, when in reality that’s the last way they want to be defined. At the same time, it’s important to remember that there may be times when it’s beneficial to separate out into life stage groups, and attention to these facts should not be ignored. You must understand your context and your ministry purpose to succeed here.
Here are a few suggestions to make your ministry cohesive:
- Understand the two groups don’t always have to go together. Sometimes young marrieds need marital enrichment and need to experience the five things mentioned earlier in this article with other young marrieds. They just do. Sometimes, young single adults don’t want to talk about married life. There are rich opportunities for growth and connection between both groups, but they do have distinct needs that need to be met. Retreats are great opportunities for individualized attention at strategic intervals in the development of your ministry.
- Don’t force separation. It naturally happens, whether you want it to or not. It’s worth your time to understand individual needs of the groups within your young adult ministry, but all your people benefit from each other, no matter what their place in life. Know your people well enough to determine when to be separate and when to be together.
- If you put a twist on one, put a twist on the other. The easiest way to program would be to take a foundational idea and twist it to fit the “other” population group. For example, everyone needs Bible study opportunities; you decide to provide an additional one for married couples, and always talk about biblical marriage. This is important for young married couples, but some of the lessons you’re teaching your couples should really be taught to singles, too, no matter their personal stance on marriage. How could you design a similar class on marriage for all your singles?
Contextualizing your situation and applying effective ministry practices will help you minister well to all your young adults, married or single. And don’t be afraid of developing a team specifically tasked with bridging the gap between these groups. The more help the merrier, right?