An Emerging Generation for the Church

That the North Alabama Conference made reaching a new generation of Christian leaders a Conference Priority was prescient, according to recent reading that I’ve been doing on young adults.

Robert Wuthnow, a noted sociologist of religion at Princeton, has just done a thorough study of the twenty to thirty something. Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers (Princeton University Press, 2007) is a challenging read for those of us who are entrusted with the future of the church. Unfortunately, much of his data suggest that the future of the church is being shaped more by the absence of younger adults than by their presence. With few exceptions, the church has failed to respond to the changing life patterns and social trends that characterize contemporary young adulthood, says Wuthnow.

For one thing, young adulthood is getting longer. While those in their forties were once considered to be middle-aged, Wuthnow contends that young adulthood today extends to age 45. This is due, in part, to increases in life expectancy that make age 49 the midpoint of adult life. And while young adults age 20-44 still make up 50.7% of the population—roughly the same percentage as 30 years ago, they are a much smaller percentage of the constituency of most major faith traditions. Since the early seventies, the percentage of young adults that say they attend religious services weekly has fallen from 19% to 14%; and the percentage that never attend has increased from 14% to 20%. We Mainline Protestants have been hit hardest by these trends. The proportion of young adults 21-45 among mainline church adherents has declined by five percentage points since the early seventies, and the proportion in their twenties has fallen by seven points.

The most pronounced social trend defining the life patterns of this generation is delayed marriage. In 1970, 62% of people in their twenties were married; whereas now only 28% are married. Among those in their thirties, the percentage married fell from 83% to 52%. “Being married or unmarried,” says Wuthnow, “has a stronger effect on church attendance than anything else.” Almost all the decline in religious attendance among 21-45-year-olds has taken place among unmarried younger adults. Increasingly, when our churches manage to attract young adults, we are attracting an unrepresentative cross-section of young adults—those that are married with children.

“Many congregations have gotten spoiled,” says Wuthnow, “thinking they can serve young adults by sponsoring a lively high school group and then catering to young married couples with children.” Unfortunately, this approach leaves out three-quarters of today’s young adults. His research identified several characteristics of youthful congregations (those where more than 35% of participants are under age 35). For instance: 1) newer congregations seem to have an advantage in attracting young adults—30% of congregations successful at attracting young people had been founded since 1970, compared with only 16% of less youthful congregations; 2) youthful congregations tend to be located in metropolitan areas where many young adults live; and 3) youthful congregations are more racially and ethnically mixed.

I want to stress that reaching young adults is more than a matter of institutional survival. Of the most important decisions that we’ll make in life, most of those decisions are made during young adulthood. The church ought to be there. Also, Jesus is doing some amazing things within this generation. We ought to be working with Him.

If your congregation has launched some new, fruitful ministries with Emerging Adults, share what you have done with Robert Mercer, who coordinates and encourages our Conference Student and Young Adult Ministry. Let’s share those practices that God is using to get us back in touch with this generation of Christians.

William H. Willimon

9 thoughts on “An Emerging Generation for the Church

  1. Thank you for this post and I appreciate your efforts in your conference to bring in more young adults into the church. I pray that you will succeed and give us, who are in other conferences, a model/example to follow.


  2. Thanks for the interesting information.Are not points 2 and 3 related to each other? Youthful congregations are in cities where the young people are and they are more diverse, reflecting the fact that they are in cities where the diversity is.My only point: I’m trying sort out the difference between description and explanation.


  3. as a young adult and former methodist (now presbyterian – but still methodist at heart) i fell into this category. while unmarried – my boyfriend and i did not attend church on a regular basis – but when we got married and started our family – i felt the need to begin again. my childhood church was not an option for us – so we looked around, talked to friends and joined. so far – it’s great – but what i am lacking is a sense of belonging (perhaps due to my long break from church). classes are huge, it’s hard to see the same people twice and niches are already formed. i have a strong faith and background in the scriptures – my husband is new to Christianity and is struggling to “fit in.” this is absolutely an issue and i am excited that you’re addressing it. there’ also a missed niche – the older first time parents (like me) who are 30-40 years old with their first baby. in a sunday school environment – the 20-30 year class is where the other babies parents go – and the 30-40 class is coaching soft ball/soccer and running to piano lessons. this presents a social challenge for people like me.


  4. John,It seems that more young people are flocking to the cities and so this is much more of an urban/suburban emphasis; however, it does translate into important youth and young adult ministry in all areas as well. The ministry of the church should seek to engage persons of all ages.


  5. Psalm 104, if everything were in Jesus’ hands why are there commandments and expectations. The body of Christ must both jump to action and also be expectant for God to work in the church for the world.


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