The Church and the Conversion of Emerging Adults

One of our Conference priorities is to reach a new generation of Christians. Our focus is upon the 18-30 age group, those who are being called “emerging adults.” If we are to reach this age group—the age group that we have sadly neglected and therefore find absence from our churches—we are going to have to understand them. Fortunately, a number of new books are helpful in that regard.

A major defining characteristic of this age group is their postponement of marriage. In just a couple of decades the average age for women to marry moved from 20-25 years old, and then the average age rose from 22 to 27 years old. Interestingly, this change in marriage began in 1970—about the same year that our church started losing membership and we began losing touch with the next generation.

Studies of the emerging generation seem to agree that the ages of 18-30, that is the threshold of adulthood, has become more complex, disjointed and confusing than in past decades. In his book Emerging Adulthood, Jeffrey J. Arnett (Oxford University Press, 2004) notes that young adults today put a high premium on finding their identity in an uncertain world. They are impressed with economic and political instability and live their lives accordingly. They focus much more on the self and less upon groups, and they tend to be overwhelmed by their sense of possibilities.

This summer I also read James L. Heft’s Passing on the Faith: Transforming Traditions for the Next Generation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims (Fordam University Press, 2006). Adults, who grew up in the church retain very little of what the church taught them, says Heft. Our churches have not passed on the faith to our children. (The chances that someone who grew up in the United Methodist Church will still be United Methodist by age 30 are something like 1-6. For Episcopalians, Presbyterians and many others, the rate of attrition is even worse.) Jeffrey Arnett agrees with Heft’s gloomy analysis of those who happen to have grown up in the church. Arnett says, “The most interesting and surprising feature of emerging adults’ religious beliefs is how little relationship there is between the religious training they received throughout childhood and the religious beliefs they hold at the time they reach emerging adulthood….” A recent survey showed that today’s young adults attend church less, pray less, are less lik ely to believe in authority of the Bible, more likely to identify themselves as non-religious, and tend to be extremely suspicious of institutions and organized religion.

Not too long ago the church could count on a return to church by young adults when they had their first children. That appears not to be a pattern for today’s young adults. Because they are postponing marriage, the church can expect at least a 20 year gap between young adults leaving the church and returning. In her book, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young American’s are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled, and More Miserable than Ever Before, Janet Twenge(Free Press, 2006) depicts this generation of young adults as extraordinarily self-absorbed and narcissistic. Twenge thinks that we parents made a mistake in fostering in our children an aura of self-esteem, but did not give them realistic assessments of how challenging the adult world would be.

Today’s young adults are documented as having a great love of God, but less commitment to a particular religious tradition. When it comes to religion many of them are “dabblers and deferrers.” I believe that this is not only one of the most important challenges facing the church with this age group, but also one of our most difficult challenges as United Methodists.

Fortunately, we Wesleyans believe in conversion. We need to know more about what young adults need to be converted from and to. We also must set higher priorities on reaching today’s young adults. Young Christians are not a priority for us until every pastor spends as much time with this generation as with older generations, until each congregation shows in its staff, its budget, and its energies that it is really taking seriously our mandate to reach this generation for Christ. With God’s help, we can.

William H. Willimon

8 thoughts on “The Church and the Conversion of Emerging Adults

  1. Thanks for these suggestions. A couple of other works that might be valuable in this regard are Phyllis Tickle’s new book The Great Emergence (very good on explaining what the emerging generation is like) and Kinnaman and Lyons’ UnChristian, a book every Christian should read, on the negative perceptions the majority in the emerging generation have toward Christianity.


  2. The machine has outgrown the message. The issue was the same in the religious world that Jesus arrived in. Did He rely on books, polls, studies and trends to change things? IMO no, He relyed on truth.


  3. You make some excellent points. I think part of the issues is what my senior pastor calls, “extended adolescence.” As teens move into college and beyond they still have a heavy reliance upon their parents. Many of the guys I graduated with still take direction and money from their parents even though they have entered the workforce. Instead of foraging their way and owning their convictions in college, this continued reliance upon parents retards this process and I believe that is why so many young adults are taking longer to come back to the church. Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging words. Your arguements call us to focus even more on childrenand for that I thank you.


  4. Thank you for your research & insight into this subject. After many years in ministry, my opinion is that most churches DRIVE OUT their young people by refusing to change with the times. They then blame/wring their hands/and lament the younger generation. We speak a good game about wanting young people, but then we insist they must adapt to OUR culture instead of adapting our culture to theirs.Your kids will NOT like the worship style you like… it simply won't speak to them. Music, architecture, sermonic vocabulary, pace, volume, etc… all missionaries know what our American church leaders fail to grasp: every culture must be evangelized and allowed to worship on its own [biblical] terms.It comes down to a self-centered and entitled ADULT congregation that refuses to give deference to a seeking younger generation.I say this respectfully, in love, though I worry that the American church will quickly evaporate, as the European church has done.Bill Giovannetti


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