Young Adults: Engaging the critical mass problem
Young Adults: Engaging the critical mass problem

Tumbleweed blowing in desert

This post by Kyle Oliver is part of a series inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and issue of Lifelong Faith Journal. You can read the whole issue here.

To say that young adults are at the demographic margins is, in one sense, absurd. Millennials are the largest generational cohort in American history (or the second largest cohort depending on how you determine the years of the Baby Boom Generation).

Much of our cultural attention is given over to studying them, reaching them, influencing them. We basically worship young adulthood. In fashion, in music, in television and movies, and in advertising, young adults are everywhere.

The exception, of course, is in church. And this is the sense of the demographic margins that I’m getting at.

Pew Research reports the following percentages of each generational cohort who say they attend religious services “nearly every week” or more as of the late ‘00s:

  • Greatests: 56%
  • Silents: 44%
  • Boomers: 32%
  • Xers: 27%
  • Millennials: 18%

We have seen speculation that the uptick in religiosity over time may be both a generational and a developmental effect. Religion may well become more important to the Millennials as they age.

Indeed, the attendance rate for Gen Xers has gone up six percentage points (that is, increased by almost a third) in the past decade. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this uptick corresponds to their main parenting years.

But slight upward trends over the lifespan do not change the experience of church for the young adults who are currently attending. Especially in churches with a focus on age-based faith formation and socialization, the young adult experience can be one of isolation and alienation.

It is often difficult to form a “critical mass” for young adult fellowship or programs, especially given the divergent needs of young parents at the older end of the spectrum and of college-age emergent adults at the other.

Regional collaboration

An increasingly common way to address the critical mass problem is for a number of faith groups to band together to find a workable quorum for young adult fellowship and other gathered ministry. Just as judicatories and larger regions have long employed youth coordinators to resource congregations and to organize larger gatherings, so now many are hiring young adult ministers with a similar mission.

There’s a related trend happening in college ministry. Once, campus “chaplaincies” functioned like university student organizations for particular denominations. Increasingly today we see

  1. multiple denominations sponsoring unified ecumenical ministries (probably the oldest of these trends);
  2. campus missioners tasked with bringing students from multiple colleges together for regional student fellowship, and
  3. dissolving distinctions between young adult ministry and campus ministry, especially as congregations step in to fill the gap when standalone campus ministries lose their funding or where a standalone ministry never existed.

Examples of this first trend are probably only as far away as your nearest major college campus. A significant effort emblematic of the second and third trends is a network coordinated in part by the Episcopal campus chaplain at New York University. Her article about the group’s evolution included a number of best practices that I have seen put to good use in many other contexts.

These include “start[ing] with relationships”—a lesson churches everywhere are (re)learning with help from community organizers after years in the program-based wilderness—and letting go of competitive worries. She notes that “a multi-parish peer group is not a threat to the church home where an individual worships.”

I have been part of a similar network in the mid-Atlantic. Commonplace is a yearly young adult gathering for prayer, fellowship, and leadership development. It started in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and has grown to become a regional event with participants from up to five hours south, west, and north.

Our denomination is looking to sponsor similar events in other regions. I will discuss some of the lessons of this particular gathering in a later article.

Post-denominational approach

But speaking of denominations, let me say a little more about the trend toward post-denominational ministry as related to the problem of critical mass.

I do not mean that ministries with strong denominational ties necessarily need to downplay this aspect of their heritage in order to grow. We are taking the wrong lessons from what we’ve learned about young adults if we turn toward the generic. Indeed, I argue below that authenticity is a key virtue of young adult ministry.

For example, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, makes no bones about her strongly Lutheran theology. Frankly, it surprises me how many young adults are so excited about liberal Christianity grounded in a “low anthropology” (i.e., a theologically pessimistic view of human nature). But Bolz-Weber preaches from her historically Lutheran perspective with passion, hope, and gratitude, and it should be no surprise that that authenticity is connecting with people.

So let me be clear when I say Lutherans should try to be the best Lutherans they can be. Ditto Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc. As former National Council of Churches general secretary Michael Kinnamon is fond of putting it, our areas of denominational distinctiveness are “gifts we hold in trust for one another.”

What no denomination can afford to continue is our habit of trading on denominational loyalty alone. In the Episcopal Church, we have watched campus ministries flounder when they take the approach of “We’ll be a home for all the Episcopalians on campus.” The truth is that many of the Episcopalians aren’t looking for such a home, and many more don’t particularly care if the Episcopal Shield happens to be on the sign out front.

Lovett Weems of Wesley Theological Seminary summarizes the current research on the impacts of denominational identity like this:

[V]irtually everyone agrees that if the primary attribute that the church leads with is “we are a [name of denomination] church,” people will not tend to find that church compelling. The spirit and direction of the church must be much more focused on basic Christian beliefs and meeting the needs of people to appeal to new members.

On the other hand, growing churches are finding that the many people who come to them from other denominations or as new Christians (key characteristics of growing churches) are more than willing to learn the denominational heritage and theology represented by the church.

So a post-denominational approach doesn’t silence the tradition. It just acknowledges that the broader Christian tradition is much more important than the way denominations slice and dice that tradition.

Our denominational identities are a factor in how we reach and serve young adults, but mostly because they help us form distinctive, authentic Christian communities that don’t assume a membership model of the past (“everyone who grew up Methodist will join our group”), nor require a degree in the history of the Reformation in order to keep up with community worship and prayer practices.

This is good news for faith formation leaders. We’ve long known that the message of the gospel, the power of personal relationships, and the freedom to explore the rich diversity of the Christian way are all much more important factors than denominational brand identity in the forming of a mature and lively faith.

That this reality seems to be sinking in with denominational powers-that-be is an exciting development indeed.

This post is part of a series inspired by the Seasons of Adult Faith Formation book, symposium, and issue of Lifelong Faith Journal. You can read the whole thing here.

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