As you can imagine, the magnitude of ministry to young adults—the most disengaged generation in modern history—comes with lots of challenges. If you’ve worked in ministry to 18- to 30-year-olds for any time, I’m sure you’ve experienced many challenges.
Before I unpack some of the challenges I’ve experienced, it’s important to note that the context of your young adult ministry will have significant impact on the types of and degrees of challenges you face. If your church is primarily an older demographic, there’s a unique set of challenges you face. The same will apply if your church is much younger. If your church has never had a young adult ministry and you are in beginning stages of developing this targeted effort, there are unique challenges associated that would be much different than if you are taking the next steps in a young adult ministry that’s been around for two decades.
Here are four specific challenges I’ve faced in young adult ministry:
For those who are ministering to college-aged young adults, the transition out of a student ministry into an adult ministry can be a very challenging change. It’s not at all uncommon that 18- and 19-year-olds will wonder where the mid-week programming has gone, where the calendar of events is, and even where the camp experience is. This challenge is typically best corrected when a young adult or college minister steps into the student ministry and begins the introduction to what is coming next in the lives of these budding adults. When students graduate high school with misplaced expectations that the church will continue to create a crutch of sorts that allows them to participate in an isolated ministry and avoid larger church integration, we set them up to fail. The greatest way to address this issue is to begin setting up high school students to see the purpose of young adult ministry. Even if your young adults did not come through the student ministry in your church, it is important to set expectations early.
One of the tags that 20-somethings have attached to them is low commitment. Now, I would argue that young adults don’t have low commitment, they are just very calculated in what they commit to. But, all the while, many churches feel the struggle that young adults are not willing to commit to the church. In order for young adults to be “all in” with the church, there must be some crucially important elements in play.
Young adults must begin to see this as a lifelong journey with God’s people rather than a season of participation in some activities. Young adults need to see that there is opportunity for meaningful participation in the local church rather than just babysitting and low-level support for a couple of ministries. And, young adults respond best to a grand vision for why they need other generations to follow the biblical pattern of how people grow in the church. I believe that the commitment issue begins to be resolved when young adults see the opportunity and biblical mandate for committed participation in the local church.
An additional challenge for those ministering to young adults relates especially to those serving college-aged young adults. This challenge is found in the rising amount of commuter students and those holding out on college courses in order to work or for reasons of cost. This decrease in on-campus students, full-time working students, and those not carrying the status of “student” at all has implications for those seeking to reach, develop, and deploy those in this demographic. Access is more challenging, central gathering places are harder to find, and engagement of those outside the church seems nearly impossible. This is a real struggle for those serving this portion of the young adult community.
A final challenge is related to generational trends and church engagement. Church engagement among young adults is low, maybe lower than it’s ever been in modern American history. With this being the case, the church can no longer rely on the patterns of young adults to include church engagement or re-engagement.
The church must overcome this challenge by coming to grips with the cultural norms and ministering to young adults in a way that considers this reality. This means that young adult ministries will face challenges of engaging new people, answering questions of those young adults who have been hurt by the church in their past, and communicating with young adults who have no biblical context for the church, Bible study, or corporate worship. The language of the church must be empathetic to this growing group of young adults who are totally unchurched or at the very least de-churched.
The challenges of ministry to young adults are many. But, not one of them is impossible to overcome. As you consider the birth of a young adult ministry or the continued progress of such a ministry in your church, know that your faithfulness is the ultimate desire of the Lord. And, the challenges you face won’t be isolated to your context. So, be encouraged, recognize the challenges, and make a plan to grow through those challenges rather than be paralyzed by them.
Steven Ackley, his wife Emily, and their four kids live out their love for anything sports and Cookout milkshakes in Murfreesboro, TN where Steven serves as the NextGen and College Pastor at LifePoint Church. Steven holds a D.Min. and an MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can connect with him on Twitter.