There is a great deal of interest in reaching young adults and engaging them in church. Additionally, churches are wrestling with the twenty-something generation dropping out of church. Lots of different things are being done to retain them, bring them back to active church involvement, or just reach them for the first time. There are no easy answers here or they would have already been discovered. Understanding a little of what is going on is beneficial to addressing any problem area.
Here are some thoughts for understanding:
First, it’s important to remind ourselves of this truth: At the crux of all young adult issues and decisions are relationships. This is the be all and do all of young adult function. It is complicated by the fact that with so many tech gadgets that more easily connect us, this generation is increasingly struggling with doing personal relationships. Instead of meeting the person who sits beside them in class, they will text with someone who is far away. Many college students cannot name the person who sits beside them in class every week. Yet, they hunger for meaningful personal relationships and connection.
Second, young adults are navigating challenging life changes—how they adjust to these transition times makes all the difference. The most common times for young adults who have been active in church to walk away are two key transition periods: moving from high school to college and then moving from college to the work world.
The first is the transition from high school to college. The majority of those active in church their senior year in high school do not make a connection to church in their college city. Most do not make this decision intentionally, but rather they do not make church a priority, so it gets lost in the transition to the new. Some struggle with going from a small church to a larger church in college. Many have grown up in “Cousin Churches” where their families were active and many extended family members were part of it. So, a larger church full of strangers is intimidating.
A second key transition is college to the work world. College students who have been active in church sometimes disappear during this time. Many have been in ministries geared strictly to them. Now, they are going to church for everybody. There is the feeling they do not fit. If they are single, it is easy to feel that church is all about married folks. Or, a newly married couple may feel that everyone has children but them. It seems all the discussions are about babies, play dates, etc.
Many young adults are going through what we might compare to a grief period. They have lost the church they knew. No church they visit is like the one from which they came. No church they visit is perfect. No pastor is like the one they loved growing up.
So, what do we do? First, understanding how crucial these transition periods are is huge. Teaching young people about the value and why of church is important. Let’s not just assume it. Working with parents in preparation for these transition periods is helpful and needed. But, most of all, we must teach young people that living out faith is not done apart from the church body. We must help them understand and be intentional about making decisions about faith connections in these key transition periods.
When students leave our churches to go to college, we can let people of faith at their new destination know they are coming (If there is a Baptist Campus Minister there, that person is your friend!). Or, we may identify a church in that area that cares about students and let them know. When parents visit a young adult at college or in the new work home, the question may be, “Where are we going to go to church Sunday; let’s figure out a good option for us.”
Working through grief is a process. Going from thinking as a child about church to thinking as an adult is a process. No two people make progress the same way or at the same speed. But, having someone with them who cares and is involved always makes the process easier and helps to ensure there is a process!
Arliss Dickerson served as Baptist Campus Minister at Arkansas State University for 32 years and currently serves as Leadership Development Consultant for the Collegiate Ministry Office at LifeWay. He is a husband, father, grandfather, growing believer, and poor but improving golfer. He loves collegiate ministers!