Some young adult ministry best practices from Commonplace 2014
Some young adult ministry best practices from Commonplace 2014

Erin at Commonplace

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending (and serving as videographer for) Commonplace 2014, a regional gathering of young adults in the Episcopal Church. Besides learning a whole lot about shooting and editing video (perhaps I’ll save those lessons for a later post), I came away with what sounded like some best practices in young adult ministry. Let me share some of them here.

Organize around new relationships

Episcopal Church missioner for young adult and campus ministries Mike Angell gave a short workshop on leadership, partnership, and programming. Both of the vibrant ministry profiles he shared came from church plants with a disciplined focus on community partnership that makes it easier for young adults to invite their friends or make new ones.

Thad’s in Santa Monica believes that “people are the new program” and gathers each month for a transformative service ministry called Laundry Love. Southside Abbey embraces “sacred chaos” and meets for dinner in a neighborhood art gallery.

“Do you have plans for dinner Friday?” and “Can you come help us serve people in need?” are easier questions than “Do you want to come to church with me?” And art galleries and laundry mats are likelier places to meet new young adults than a church building at 9:45 on Sunday morning.

Make ministry more intentional

Diocese of Washington young adult missioner Jason Evans reported on what works in young adult ministry, based on a summer 2014 parish survey. The most significant result shouldn’t surprise us: the parishes with the highest percentage of young adults were prepared for them to come and were prepared to welcome them in an intentional way.

Jason advocated a cyclical process of planning, execution, and assessment with the young adults who are already present. Avoid the question, “What do you want?” (a consumer question) in favor of “What can we build together?” (a empowering, relational question).

If we don’t plan for young adults, we’re unlikely to tap into their passions and deep longings, which is how most churches will break through their busyness and make a personal connection. What we definitely know is that business as usual isn’t working.

Invest in leaders

Several people discussed the challenges that young adult transience poses to congregations. It’s hard to want to put time into relationships that will likely end with a move out of town. That’s especially true here in Metro Washington.

But we have to invest in leaders, both for the church’s present and its future. Mike pointed out that it’s great leaders—and not great programs—that can put twenty people in a room. So if we nurture young adult leaders, we ease some of the pressure on our programmatic outreach.

Area priest Becky Zartman explained her congregation’s attitude toward young adult leadership development: they consider themselves a school for future senior wardens—in any congregation. If these leaders happen to stay long enough to serve in that capacity at St. Thomas’s, great. But in young urban congregations, that can’t be the only goal.

Don’t build young adult ministry silos

A final lesson cuts to the core of what we were up to on Saturday. Pretty much everyone in the room was between the ages of 20 and 40. We  all agreed that we share common needs and struggles and want to connect with others our age. But we also realized that age-based silos can be a problem.

One reason to avoid building silos is the large amount of diversity within this age group. The most obvious distinction is between parents and non-parents, who tend to have very different needs and priorities from one another. So being clear about the distinctiveness not just of age but of life transitions is really important for developing ministries that speak to specific young adults.

Another reason to avoid silos is that young adults need relationships outside of their age group. Seminarian Broderick Greer likened a healthy church to an intergenerational family, one that knows its history and passes on wisdom—and faith.

If you participated in Commonplace, what lessons did you take away? If you didn’t, what others would you want to share?

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching. He’s passionate about using technology to extend the reach of gathered faith learning.

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