Reaching Young Adults

In 1994, a commission convened by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, with Joseph A. Califano, Jr. as chair, issued a rather alarmist report, “Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America’s Campuses.” The report invented the phrase “binge drinking.” It noted that one in three college students drinks primarily to get drunk. In a curious perversion of the Women’s Movement, the number of women who reported drinking to get drunk more than tripled between 1977 and 1993, a rate now equal to that of men. The Califano report noted that college students spend 5.5 billion dollars a year on alcohol, more than on all other beverages and their books combined. The average student spends $446 per student on alcohol per year, far exceeding the per capita expenditure for the college library. Not surprisingly, the beer industry targets young adults as its best hope for increasing sales. These trends have continued unabated. Thus NCAA basketball is brought to us by Anheuser Busch.

For youth off campus, the picture is equally disturbing. The rate of violent crimes by youth in the United States rose by 25 percent over the past decade. The teen-age suicide rate has tripled over the past three decades. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of 15-to-19-year-olds. The image of our nation’s best and brightest, mindlessly consuming large amounts of alcohol, is not an attractive one, yet it is an image which accurately portrays an important aspect of today’s young adults.

I have sometimes called today’s Twenty-Something crowd “The Abandoned Generation”. Today’s young adults have the dubious distinction of being our nation’s most aborted generation. After scores of interviews with them, Susan Litwin called them “The Postponed Generation,” those children of the children of the Sixties who were raised by parents so uncertain of their own values that they dared not attempt to pass on values to their young.

Here is the way in which Yale’s Allan Bloom put the problem:

… the souls of young people are in a condition like that of the first men in
the state of nature — spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no
inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be
anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be
anything in particular.

We have therefore made “reaching a new generation of Christians” one of our Conference priorities. The good news is that many of these young people are willing to listen, amazingly willing to sit still and to focus if we are bold enough to speak. For what could a preacher ask but that? My student generation of the Sixties was unable to hear words spoken by anyone over Thirty. Our parents lied to us about Vietnam; they failed to be straight with us about Civil Rights.

I have found that today’s “Abandoned Generation” brings a new curiosity and openness to the gospel as well as a willingness to hear what their elders have to say, if we will speak directly to them. Therefore leaders of the church need to revise some of our conventional wisdom about the imperviousness of young adult hearts to the gospel. Thomas G. Long, who led this year’s Bishop’s Convocation, says it well:

…There is a growing recognition that it is not enough for the community of
faith to wait around for the “boomers” to drift back. ….Conventional wisdom
holds that there are three broad phases in religious commitment: There is
childhood, a pliable and receptive age religious instruction can and should be
given; there is mature adulthood, when people, given the right incentives, can
be persuaded to take on the responsibilities of institutional church life. In
between childhood and adulthood, there is the vast wasteland of adolescence and
young adulthood, a time when most people wander, or run away from their
religious roots. The most that a community of faith can do in this middle period
is to wait patiently, to leave people alone in their season of rebellion,
smiling with the knowledge that, by the time these rebels arrive at their
thirties, they will probably be back in the pews and may well be heading up the
Christian education committee.

This conventional wisdom is wrong….

Long feels that the contemporary church must take the religious wanderings of young adults with new seriousness, that the time is ripe for new strategies of evangelization and Christian education of a generation who, having been left to their own devices, religiously speaking, now needs to be addressed by the church.

Can we see the needs and problems of this generation of young adults as an invitation to proclaim the gospel with boldness, to beckon them toward a new world named the Kingdom of God? If we can, we shall discover this generation as a marvelous opportunity for gospel proclamation.

William H. Willimon

14 thoughts on “Reaching Young Adults

  1. I myself would fall in the category of young adult though I am an oddity in that I have never left the church. I appreciated what you wrote. This one sentence in particular stood out to me: “Can we see the needs and problems of this generation of young adults as an invitation to proclaim the gospel with boldness, to beckon them toward a new world named the Kingdom of God?” This might be the first time I’ve ever heard someone talk about reaching out to young people that hasn’t been motivated by, “we need to reach out to young people so that we can survive.” So thank you. My question for you is: how wide spread is your motivation? I listen to people and I read the State of the Church that the Methodist Church put out and all I hear and read seems to be motivated by “we need to reach out to young people so that we can survive.” Can you give me hope that your motivation is prevalent in the Church? Can you give me hope that there exists a focus on God and the Gospel when the Methodist Church as a whole talks about reaching out to young people? I’d really like to have that hope.


  2. William – Thanks for your thoughts in this post. Like Julie, I am in the demographic that you are addressing in this post. I would like to make an addition to your comment – “The good news is that many of these young people are willing to listen…”My hope is that the listening goes in both directions. I know that I have a great deal to learn from those generations that have come before mine. However, I also hope that I and others in my generation have something to offer older generations as well.Julie – I think that you have a great question. I think that the hopes of the denomination come from the hopes and actions of individuals and local congregations. As local congregations hope in the future through ministry with all ages, the denomination also moves in that direction.


  3. As I read your blog and then the two comments, one prevailing thought is left in my mind and heart…There will be no success in reaching out to young adults until the focus is really and trully about what the church and we as individuals can do for them. The conversation has got to shift from what an impact reaching them would have on the church. As long as our concern is for the health and success of the Church any effort to involve young adults will be a failure. The question that we must ask is, Am I trying to reach out to young adults to grow the Church or am I doing it to grow the individual? Our focus most be lives not chruches…Now, the guestion is as Andrew stated, will you listen to a 24-year-old or just keep doing business as usual?


  4. Thank you for bringing this up.Like the previous comments I am also in that generation. I am also a minister who spends a lot of time with people between 18-39.This group is so open to new things. They do not have the sense of brand loyalty as their parents did. Combine those two things and you have a generation that doesn’t feel they have to go to the most mainline churches. Instead they are looking for a place they can first serve/be involved. Second they are looking for a place with vibrant worship. Third they are looking for a place that is theologically informed (although they wouldn’t word it that way!). The theological correctness is not as important to them as the experience. They have been burned by churches/Christians that put head knowledge above a heart that is close to God’s with the result, in their eyes, of an empty and experienceless religion. They are more spiritual than religious.The previous comments mentioned the need for the older generation to listen to the younger. What we don’t need is a pooling of ignorance. The most healthy thing that could happen in the church at large is that the older people learn from the younger generation’s desire for relationship over religion and that they younger people learn from the theological depth of their elders. When the two groups learn from the strength of the other great things are going to happen.


  5. It all sounds very intellectual, even spiritual, but really you’ve said nothing. There are now people from several different generations who are suspicious of Christianity, and others from those same generations who would be willing to listen if we could all manage to say the same thing. But, because the message has become garbled, infused with personal opinions and the glitter of self-seeking charlatons, only the desparate make any serious inquiry into the faith. To say we need to evangelize one group, or another, goes without saying. The question is, how? Certainly the estranged messages coming from Methodist pulpits aren’t attrac-tive to the honest “seeker.” The lack of commitment to the author- ity of scripture is proving to be a shipwreck for Methodism, as it should be.


  6. I’d like to ask the same question as gvillamor–how? I, too, am in the lost demographic. Though, where I serve, the missing generation(s) spans at least an extra decade (we go from high school age to 40-45, with very little in between). And while I agree wholeheartedly with your post and appreciate the insights, I’m still left with the practical question of ‘how?’ Sure, there are no one-size-fits-all answers, but suggestions as to how we might do this reaching out would be helpful to me.


  7. I think the country, and in some cases, the church is becoming more and more secularized, and I feel that it’s the age group that you are referring to that the effect of secularization is most noticeable. The world is changing so fast in so many ways and as it does, it presents great problems for the church in keeping up. This is not the first time throughout history that the church has found itself at this crossroad. I think that it’s time to quit with all the distractions, (too many to list ) roll up our sleeves, and rediscover what the gospel of Jesus Christ really is and what the mission of the church should be. And then present it in a clear and precise way so that the world can at least evaluate it and then choose whether or not it’s something that they are willing to either accept or reject.


  8. In order to help this group grow you need a couple of things.1 – Bible study. They are searching for answers and need someone who is honest with the Bible to give them a foundation for their faith.2 – Service projects – Once they have their foundation set they want to do something (sometimes even before they know the Bible). Feeding the homeless, Habitat for humanity, helping needy church members around the house, serving the elderly with yard work projects, etc.3 – Entertainment. We have periodic get togethers to do nothing but have fun.This needs to be consistent and with an understood purpose. Using this has helped our group grow numerically and spiritually.


  9. Excellent post!I agree with whomever said we need to avoid the one-size-fits-all mentality. I am sometimes annoyed on hearing that “young people want” and “young people are looking for” (especially when those things aren’t what I, as a 20-something, want/am looking for). But there are some generational trends (or so I hear) that we should pay attention to.I am personally very intrigued by what some folks are doing in integrating the ancient with the contemporary (in terms of worship style or theological content). I’m very intrigued by the ancient liturgy of the Church — but that doesn’t mean every 20-something will be. There has been alot of talk about building community as a way of reaching young people. I know I personally am much more interested in attending a church where there are other young people – but I should hope that churches are attempting to build authentic community because they are churches. Because the Holy Spirit has gotten ahold of their identities and is making them “new creation.” Jesus is relevant yesterday, today, and forever – we don’t need to “make him relevant” for younger generations – but to present him in a way that is clear to everyone, in all their diversities/different ways of hearing.


  10. It’s interesting to me that everyone is looking for some “outline” or “checklist” by which to reach young adults. This is the problem. These things do not exsist except in our warped idea of evangelism. People are looking and seeking the Truth with or without us. The problem is we aren’t offering the Truth, but a picture of it that is to our liking or what we think will be to their liking. No one that is honestly seeking the Truth will be content with our programs or conferences or “worship services”, no matter how hip and relevant we try to make them. The Truth is relevant to those that are looking for it. To be effective all we must do is BE the Truth that we profess to believe.”This is our condemnation: that light has come into the world and we love darkness rather than light.”


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