Wanted: Young People (Some Restrictions Apply)

Going through some files, I came upon a folder of interview notes from the UM Seeker Study I conducted almost a decade ago.  There is a wondrous and troubling paradox in the old UMC these days when it comes to young people: we say we want to reach young people and bring them into the church.  We say we need to listen to them to find out how to reach them.  But when we hear what they say, we argue with them and criticize them for not accepting us just as we are.  Which raises the question: do we really want to reach young people or do we only want to reach young people who are exactly like we are?  And who, exactly, are these “young people” we are so keen on?

Last question first.  When we look at young people, ages 18-34, we’re looking at three distributions: education, economics, and values.  About 58% will finish college, about 21% will get some college, and about 21% will have no college.  About 55% will make between $30,000 and $70,000, with about 15% making more and 30% making less.  About 50% will hold moderate values spiritually and politically, 30% conservative, and 20% liberal/progressive.  Young people who are less educated, conservative-to-moderate, and making less income are five times as likely to go to church as their counterparts.  This group is most attracted to larger, newer, independent churches with the widest variety of programs and services.  Across the board, young people are not joiners, and 18-34 year olds are unlikely to step into leadership positions in traditional structures — they are more interested in doing ministry than talking about doing ministry.  Those with a higher education will hold the church to a different set of expectations.  Of the 21% who do not go onto college, the basic expectations are: a simple story, clearly told, with very clear instructions on right and wrong, good and evil, salvation and sin.  This group will not “over-think” the gospel story, nor will they be attracted to deep theological reflection or the complexity of reconciling belief with behavior.  Of the 21% with some college, the expectations shift to include a deeper understanding of the Bible and the Christian story.  The hunger for “answers” shifts to a deep desire for “meaning.”  The moderately higher-educated will be less interested in knowing “the truth,” than understanding how to live a life pleasing to God.  This group will wrestle more with inconsistencies and will seek ways to resolve the inner conflicts that their faith brings to bear on complex social issues.  This will be a questioning group, unwilling to take most anything at face value.  (In The United Methodist Church, we’re not really sure we want people who will come asking a lot of questions — especially when we don’t know the answers…)

The great challenge before us today is the last segment — the 58% that will have a college education and beyond.  A few comparative studies indicate that of all the people who have left the church (or never even started in it), those with a college education lead the way.  There are many factors that impact this, but looking at a few basic expectations of this group — both those who attend church and those who do not — is illuminating.  This group, for the most part, has been taught to read, think, and critically analyze.  They take virtually nothing at face value.  “Why?” is a driving question.  This group wants evidence and multiple-sources — they are not satisfied with one person’s interpretation or opinion.  Information is a tool with this segment of the young adult population — the only good information is that which can be used to accomplish something.  The story of the resurrection may be fascinating, but it is in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that we learn HOW to live the Christian life.  Virgin birth?  Not an issue for discussion or interest.  Sermon on the Mount?  Now we’re talking!  Practical, though difficult.  Relevant, though rare.  Specific, though daunting.  The Sermon on the Mount instructs.  For this reason, the teacher Jesus is of greater attraction than the abstraction of “the Christ” for many younger adults.  Equally important, the church is a means to an end and not an end in itself.  Younger adults are not looking for a church “to join,” they are looking for a congregation that can offer them two things: 1) a place for personal spiritual growth and development, and 2) a place to get their hands dirty through on-the-job training.  Contrary to much current hype, they are NOT looking for community or relationships (that’s a Baby Boomer value that we try to impose on everyone else…), but a place that offers them help and assistance in growing in their relationship with Jesus.  If they find a robust environment for spiritual formation and a wide variety of opportunities to engage in ministry one of two things will follow: they will either forge new relationships as a fringe benefit or they will bring others with them with whom they are already in relationship.  Our fastest growing “young adult” congregations are not growing because of worship or program, but because spiritual seekers who find what they are looking for are among our very best evangelists.  Visiting one Florida church that has literally hundreds of young adults, I discovered that two young women were responsible for getting over 70 other young adults involved.  Key connectors.  And they got involved because they found a congregation that offered seminary-level spiritual formation and faith development groups and required everyone to connect with some form of hands-on ministry.

What makes this last group scary to existing churches is that it is highly motivated to DO.  Highly motivated young adults invite immediate power-struggles — they have been trained and equipped to be leaders in various disciplines and fields and they bring that vision of themselves to church.  For long-time, complacent church leaders the arrival of highly motivated young adults resembles the arrival of the Barbarian hordes at the gates — it feels like a coup d’état.  The invaders are more than willing to play nice with others, but they will not hang around trying to “earn” their way into leadership.  This is one of the reasons why young adults don’t stick around too long in our long-established churches.  They find resistance and they look elsewhere for a place to fit in.  Established churches often “want” a stylized, idealized type of young adult — one that is acquiescent, appreciative, quiet and accommodating, who will produce well-behaved children, will attend worship weekly (weakly?), and will make a regular (sacrificial) gift to the church — somewhat like what we had in the 1950s.  Well, guess what?  That ain’t gonna happen no more.

College-aged students, young singles fresh out of high school, young couples, and groups of young singles post-college now outnumber young couples with children.  Many couples are waiting to have kids until after they “graduate” the young adult label.  This makes hash out of almost any definition of “young adult ministry.”  Too many of our churches still want to provide ministries “for” young adults, or be in ministry “to” young adults instead of seeking ways to be in ministry “with” young adults, or create opportunities for young adults to “be in ministry with” each other.  Another factor is that people in the 18-34 age category tend to only stay connected with a church for about two years.  any hope of building a long-term ministry based on the leadership of a particular group of young adults is pretty much doomed before it begins.  Our best efforts to help form young people as Christian disciples means we are creating effective leaders for other churches.  Yet one more cause for concern to long-established congregations is the growing segment of spiritual hybrids.  It is not unusual to find a younger person today that attends worship on a rotating basis in a number of churches (of different denominations and theologies), is part of a small discussion group at another church, works at the food pantry of a different church, who meditates twice a week at the Hindu temple, and goes on mission trips with a variety of other churches.  This individual is not a “member” anywhere, but is “active” everywhere.  To some long-time members, this appears to be a lack of commitment, while to the spiritual seeker it feels like the very highest level of commitment.

So what?  Is the only way we are going to reach young adults to do it on their terms?  Yes and no (wasn’t that helpful?).  Young individual seekers have the same level of control that everyone else has — no one makes us go to church once we reach a certain age (or maturity level).  We go where we feel connection.  We go where we feel fed and nurtured.  We go where we grow.  We go where we are equipped to live our faith in the world.  If we don’t get something of value, we don’t go.  That hasn’t changed.  We, as the church, are not in the business of changing people to suit us.  We can’t change young people into cookie cutter clones of our ideal young Christian church-goers (shudder…).  What we can do is prepare the soil of our own congregational fields in a few key ways:

  1. make it okay to ask questions, even in worship
  2. put as much attention and focus on spiritual formation and Christian service as on worship
  3. share power — let new comers have ideas, responsibility and authority (this does NOT mean put them on a committee!!!)
  4. understand that the “radical hospitality” that 35 and olders enjoy is not the same as the under 35 crowd; be friendly, authentic, and respect boundaries — most under 30s are not coming to church to make friends (yet); they are scoping out the lay of the land to see what the church believes, what it teaches, what it expects, and what it can do to help the individual grow.  Impress newcomers with your integrity and impact, not smiles and cookies.
  5. know thyself!  Young adults are very interested in what the congregations knows and believes.  Anything that sounds canned or rehearsed will be viewed with suspicion.  Any question that can’t be answered will cause raised eyebrows.  A young woman asked a person sitting next to her what position The United Methodist Church holds on the death penalty and the woman stammered “An eye for an eye, I guess.”  I leaned over and told the visitor about our Social Principles and that we are opposed to the death penalty.  The long-time Methodist looked at me and said, “Social Principles?  I’ve never heard of those.  Who made those up?!”  These kinds of situations are a real turn-off to newcomers of all ages, but especially to younger seekers who highly value understanding what a church believes and how it behaves.

There is so much more to say, yet I really should not be the one to say it.  Most of what is being taught and talked about concerning 18-34 year-olds is coming from 50+ year olds like me.  The most we can share is what we have heard and observed talking with the 18-34 year old segment.  And perhaps nothing more can be offered than this:  we simply need to listen — non-defensively, non-judgmentally, non-threateningly, and will a deep desire to understand and grow.  The church we have is not necessarily the church for everyone.  Unless we are willing to adapt and change, we will never be transformed.  And so much of the energy and spirit we need rests with the people who most challenge us to do church differently.  Let’s not make it any harder than it already is for young people to find a spiritual home with us.

30 replies

  1. Dan,

    I turned 40 in 2004– so I’m just a tick older than the group you were interviewing beginning in 2000.

    But I do share one value you identify with them.

    I want to see the data.

    Yes, I also want the stories, but I want to know things like the size of the sample set, the questions asked, any variances in conditions of asking questions that might bear on outcomes, the p value for any correlations drawn (where applicable), and the percentages of the samples answering particular ways.

    There’s something in my brain that kicks in and causes me not to take statements based solely on qualitative data and anecdotal evidence at face value.

    I don’t need ONLY the quantitative data, though. I need the qualitative stuff, too. The alarms go off even more if all I get is numbers and no qualitative ways to assess their value or meaning. And they go off, too, if it appears the quantitative data lacks sufficient analytic rigor– like being able to demonstrate the distinction between dependent and independent variables, and clearly delineating between degree of correlation and claims of causation.

    You’ve done a fantastic job here reporting the qualitative stuff.

    But I find I quickly get lost in the qualitative stuff when I don’t have a strong quantitative map in front of me, too.

    So if that kind of data is still accessible to you, I’d be very interested in seeing you write that up here.

    Maybe I’m one of the few stats geeks in the denomination… but I do own that I am one.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards
    (Son of a scientist, and father of two more)

    • The first phase looked at approximately 2,400, 21-40 year-olds and was handled in conjunction with UMComs Buntin/Barna research for Igniting Ministries. This led to the Seeker Study, where I shifted the sample to 18-34 year olds. The total sample size was 3,853 — 1,171 connected to a church; 1,794 self-labeled “Christian,” “spiritual,” “believers in God,” etc., 888 non-religious, agnostic, atheist. From an initial survey of 52 questions (raw data I left behind that I recently found out has all been trashed…), I set up interviews with 414 from the first category, 703 from the second category, 91 from the third category. I had seven volunteer assistants across the country with research backgrounds help with the interviews. I then cross-referenced each of these three categories with 1) in college, under 25, 2) in college, over 25, 3) single, in work-force, some college, under 25, 4) single, in work-force, some college, over 25 — etc., blending different ethnographs and demographs — married without children, married with children, race, ethnicity, economic level, urban/suburban/rural… I used a ratings process to allow for statistical regressions to be performed to reduce bias and to provide comparative data and information. I worked with two professors and a grad student from Owens School of Management at Vanderbilt to crunch numbers and process data. Heartbreakingly, this is the work that got trashed so what is left is the anecdotal, qualitative information in my notes and files. As with all research, no matter how thorough, it should be taken with a large grain of salt. A sample is just that — no matter how large. Young people I worked with living on the streets of the Bronx were very different in 1,001 ways from the same age/race/ethnicity/economics/education young people in Iowa and Oregon. It’s one of the reasons I dislike generational theory so much — it turns each age demographic into a gray paste, lacking texture or integrity. So, be sceptical, but be consistently sceptical. I found that most of the “research” being done in and for our church is pedestrian at best, flawed and biased at worst — no matter how many statistics they provide. I tend to highlight what is being left out of other people’s research by refocusing on other aspects of the story. The Igniting Ministry research helped UMCom focus on the “unchurched”, but what it led me to was the large and growing segment of our population who are actively engaged in Christian spiritual growth and development apart from organized religion. At the time, no one else was looking at this group, and they revealed a whole lot of helpful information on why mainline churches have such limited appeal. (See all my other posts on young adults and spiritual seekers.)

    • Try Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith w/ Patricia Snell. Lots of data to pore over, plus stories of specific interviewees that they’ve kept track up since Soul Search (on teenagers).

      I’m in the YA set, and I wrote an article very much like this one, Dan, so you’re on track. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this, Dan… and for the rigor and integrity of the work you did. And still do!

    It pains me deeply to learn your raw data and statistical analysis work were all trashed. This is a major loss.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the gray paste effect of generational theory– and I’d add, the sort of tyrannical ways in which its alleged findings have sometimes been used. Sampling and surveys are valuable for point-in-time opinion data and aggregate correlations, but they really cannot accurately identify what makes us tick in real time in our actual contexts. Even conversations can at best give us a blurred view of such interactions– the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle still applies here– but at least they give us a better sense of motion and direction and a bit of depth that point in time surveys can’t hope to provide. Taken together, we might get at least something like a “Magic Eye” effect… even if large parts of the 3D image that emerges when we nearly cross our eyes remain unidentifiable.

  3. You may be 50+, but you are more accurately reporting on my age group than anyone else I have read. I am in my second year of seminary, am 25 years old, have been active in the church since I was 12 and have been very frustrated for years that no one really listens to me and even worse no one understands me or really seems to want to. I am going into ministry to change things, not to keep old things going. I want to be in ministry where I am actually helping people do the work of Jesus Christ. I have no interest in holding lots of meetings and pretending that bake sales and building campaigns are why we exist. I am determined not to dumb down everything I learn at seminary to keep people happy in their ignorance. I want a church that expects something of me, and I plan to lead a church that expects something of others. Thank you for listening, and thank you for providing an honest voice in the midst of our “Rethink Church” obsessed denomination.

    • Amen, Anna. I am also 25 years old and pursuing ministry in the United Church of Canada. I would echo your comments exactly. I’m interested

      Thanks so much for this stuff, Dan. I’ve never heard this named so clearly, except perhaps in Kenda Creasy Dean’s latest book. I’ve already forwarded this to everyone I know who’d be interested! And even some who wouldn’t! 😉

      • Thanks, Ryan. It’s good for someone in the older camp to know they aren’t speaking out of turn. I am trying to report what I have heard, but I know I may bias things through my “boomer” lenses.

  4. Anna,

    Let me suggest you consider pursuing church planting, if you are not doing so already. The vast majority of our existing congregations are unlikely to respond well to the kind of vision and leadership you seek to provide– not out of the box, at least. Alan Roxburgh, in Missional Mapmaking, describes this process with an existing congregation as taking 6-12 years, with a whole lot of handholding and bake sales during that time to gain the trust to develop a different kind of culture within the existing one. If that’s not something you think you can do– or don’t think you’re likely to be appointed long enough in the same place to be able to pull off– and if pastoral ministry is indeed your calling, it seems to me church planting may be a better option.

  5. One of the major flaws in discussions of this 18-34 cohort is that most of them are NOT college graduates. When you look at actual survey and Census data, the majority of young people are NOT in college.

    Also, from Pew and others, we see that consistently through the generations, the young are involved in church the least. Generations Y and Z are even less involved. But, in each generation, as they age the bigger questions start to take hold and a desire to get some answers is acted upon.

    That doesn’t say that “young people” should be ignored but we do need to realize that individual young people are only “young” for a short time. Targeting for the most fickle audience is not a winning strategy. Part of television’s problem is that it tries to target an ever more fickle audience and continues to wonder why viewership declines.

  6. What if we treated young people like an ethnic minority. with mission churches side-by-side with established churches? No one doubts that they have a separate culture. The established culture, though, believes young people SHOULD have cultural attributes of the establishment. The established culture also believe that they BELONG in (to) the establishment church because they were born into it. The established churches would complain that the mission church was “stealing” members. “How can we sustain our churches when you don’t make the young people come to us?”

    • Obviously, we can’t “make” anyone come to us. And the way we engage young people is through our witness and reputation, not our programs and campaigns — or making them a “target audience.” Young people have never been the backbone upon which the body of Christ has hung. In the late 1800s there was great concern over a growing number of young people attending “normal institutes” (colleges) who drifted from the church. It wasn’t considered a crisis, because the majority of American children were still marrying at 15 or 16 and having children before they hit twenty. That kept a significant number in church. Having children has always been the best “recruitment” for church growth. We old, established mainliners aren’t having as many kids, and we aren’t having them until later anyway, so fewer proto-Methodists in the pipeline, so to speak. No, today we stand at a new threshold — one where the older Boomer through the younger Buster generations (1946-1982) contain one of the largest “unchurched” populations, and mainline churches that are strategizing ways to connect with these folks will be more effective than those seeking ways to reach Ys and Zs (Millennials/Mosaics/Mesopotamians and beyond). Youth culture and young adult spirituality will continue to evolve and — I believe — morph away from institutional, organized religion for the next generation or so until the cycle starts over and we enter a new empire building phase for the organized Protestant church.

      • Aren’t at least two primary reasons for the failure of the church to draw in young people and Boomers/Busters the same? Insistence on conformity and denial of leadership? I would add refusal to engage the world, as well. Different culture; separate missions; same approach.

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