Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors. The mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The core beliefs of the United Methodist Church suggest a desire to be welcoming and engaging, to bring people into our church buildings and thereby into our faith.
How do we go about this? How do we invite people to walk through our doors? How do we motivate them to stay and contribute to the life of the church?
What is the focus of this guide?
One group that is especially vulnerable to being neglected by the church is that of Young Adults (age 18 - 35). Neglect not by intentional exclusion, but by failing to make it known that churches can be a socially and spiritually engaging homes specifically for Young Adults.
The following is a guide for churches that wish to welcome in and better serve Young Adults. Included within are suggested approaches, input from Young Adults, and additional resources.
Why Young Adults?
“The truth is, every church needs young people. Their passion enriches the soil around them. The curiosity they bring to Scripture and the authenticity they bring to relationships keep your church’s teaching fresh and fellowship fruitful. Young people also need a thriving church. A thriving church both grounds them in community and sends them out to serve.”
-Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church
“There is a space for the children and a space for the older generation but it is harder to find a comfortable, open space for young adults. I think the first step in creating that space is not having one set idea of what a young adult group in the church should be but allowing for that space to be molded into what young adults need and are looking for in the church.”
- Age 21, Kansas
While many churches have excellent programs for high school youth and young families, they often miss opportunities to connect with people who fall between those categories. And these Young Adults are often the ones most in need of a nourishing church community.
Who is this guide for?
Anyone hoping to make their church a more engaging community for Young Adults. Our hope is for this to be accessible to pastors, lay leaders, parents, and Young Adults. We know that every church is different, so we have tried to provide an array of perspectives and suggestions.
Here is the framework. Please make it work for you.
Quick Tips for Engaging Young Adults
1. Be Welcoming
2. Form Relationships
- Make the church’s web presence clear and inviting to visitors.
- Have the words “Young Adults” somewhere on the church’s website. Tell them they are welcome in the Adult Sunday School classes or fellowship times.
- Personally invite a Young Adult you know to attend worship or another event. Tell them you care about them being there.
3. Develop Faith
- Young Adults seek connection, show you are willing to connect with them in warm, authentic ways.
- You may not agree on everything, but you absolutely can learn from each other. Offer mentorship, listen to what they have to say, and set aside judgment.
- Young Adults are not afraid of talking about Jesus. In fact, they may be ready to dig deeper into developing and defining their faith.
- Show them what your church believes. Have an engaging, thoughtful theology. Don’t be threatened when they ask questions.
- If your church doesn’t currently have a specific group for Young Adults, invite them into existing classes or partner with area churches to create an event just for them.
4. Take Action
5. Be Flexible
- Young Adults want to live their faith and engage with communities around the church.
- Show that your church actively supports outreach ministries and cares about social justice issues. Have activities that Young Adults can join in on.
- Be open to outreach. This could help your church’s vitality.
6. Create Leadership
- Young Adults are in busy, transitional stages. They may have limited time or move every couple of years, but they still want to be involved in the life of the church.
- Schedule evening events. Rotate days of the week. Help with transportation. Host events in locations outside of the church. Provide as many opportunities as possible for Young Adults to be involved.
- Have somewhere Young Adults can plug in. After they’re through the doors, welcome them into the Praise Team, Outreach Committee, Vacation Bible School volunteers, or somewhere else they can take an active role.
- Be open to what Young Adults create. Invite them to read the Bible passage during worship. Help them get trained as a Certified Lay Speaker. Provide space and resources to start a Young Adult fellowship night.
If you want Young Adults to join in and contribute to the life of your church, make it clear that your church is a home where they can form connection, be sustained, and take action.
1. Be Welcoming
“It is really about relationships. Creating an environment where people reach out to you on a personal level. Knowing that you aren't a number walking through the door but a person who is valued and who has value is what people want to feel no matter their age.”
- Age 35, Kansas
“Sometimes it takes a while for someone to decide to act, and sometimes people are too shy to ask about something, so just keep reminding them that it's there.”
- Age 31, Nebraska
- Church websites
- Attract Young Adults who have moved to a new town, lost touch with old friends, separated themselves from family, or otherwise may lose track of their old support structures. Show how your church can fill in those gaps.
- Provide clear directions and worship times, give descriptions of the worship styles, offer a variety of small groups and fellowship opportunities, and make it clear that all ages are welcome.
- In a study of Great Plains Conference churches, very few mentioned Young Adults on their website. If churches don’t show they’re thinking of Young Adults, why should Young Adults be interested in church?
- Personal asks
- Offer a one-on-one invitation to attend worship, to come to an event, to join a club or ministry, or to otherwise be involved.
- Provide tools for church members to extend these invitations: business cards with worship times and contact information, training for members who want to talk with Young Adults but are unsure where to start.
- If you knew nothing about your church, how would you judge the website? Lincoln St. Mark’s has an exceptional Young Adult section on their website. While every church may not have the same resources, they can be just as clear in the welcoming of Young Adults. See their example at: http://www.stmarks.org/
- Do you know a Young Adult whom you could invite to your church’s next worship service or pot luck? Someone who used to attend your church but has drifted away? A family friend? A neighbor? A member of another club or organization you belong to?
- Does your church offer any resources for talking to visitors and new members? If not, could you work with a Young Adult to develop helpful tools for your congregation?
2. Form Relationships
“Young people are not pushed away by slow hymns and older pastors, although this may play a role. They are pushed away by ignorance, no communication, and lacking resources. Give young people the opportunity to give their time, they will reward you with their presence on Sunday morning.”
- Age 20, Iowa
- First impressions
- Walk through the doors of your church and imagine how that might look to a Young Adult visiting for the first time.
- Take note of everything from bulletin boards advertising small groups, to greeters who can make personal contact, to signs giving directions to the worship space.
- Spruce up your space, if needed. This doesn’t need to be anything high-tech or extravagant, but try to display the unique opportunities your church has to offer.
- Intergenerational connections
- Create opportunities for Young Adults and older generations to connect.
- Remember that a mentoring relationship goes both ways. While the Young Adult may be seeking guidance on life experiences, they can also provide perspective on current events, politics, and culture.
- Provide resources such as texts on mentorship, networking opportunities based on shared interests or hobbies, or spaces like a Sunday School or small group specifically designed to combine different perspectives.
- Set aside judgment. While Young Adults may be looking for guidance, they also do not want to be talked down to or judged for their opinions.
- Recognize that while Young Adults may bring change, this will revitalise, not threaten your church home.
- As soon as a visitor walks through the doors of your church, what do they see? Is there someone at the door to greet them? Do church members introduce themselves or stay in their own, established social groups? Is it easy to find the sanctuary? Are there signs making it clear they are welcome?
- How can you help welcome and connect to Young Adults at your church? Can you catch them before or after worship? Can you sit with them at the next church meal? Often the first step to building a mentoring relationship is just to listen.
- What assumptions do you make about Young Adults? How might these ideas interfere with your ability to relate to them? Is there a Young Adult you could begin having open conversations with in order to start forming stronger connections?
3. Develop Faith
“The church could advertise that their bible studies that are for adults also welcome young adults. I think even just mentioning that on the website or bulletin would make it more inviting. It is not always necessary to start a whole new young adult group, but just make the existing groups feel more open and inviting toward young adults.”
- Age 20, Kansas
“I'm attracted to small groups...where I feel like we can discuss real world topics in a setting where I feel comfortable sharing my positions”
- Age 24, Kansas
- Engaging theology
- Show how faith values are integrated into the lifestyle of your church. Whether it be an extensive prayer chain, dynamic sermons, or thoughtful Bible studies.
- Talk to Young Adults about Jesus, about salvations, about the lessons of our faith. Young Adults may have grown up in the church, or they may be seeking a new relationship with Jesus. Either way, conversations will help them grow.
- Offer resources for Young Adults who may be wrestling with tough questions.
- Conversation spaces
- Welcome Young Adults into existing small groups (Bible studies, Sunday school classes, United Methodist Women, casual donut hour, etc.).
- Host a specific activity such as an evening of networking with other area churches or open hours at the local coffee shop for caffeine and conversation.
- Ensure that the atmosphere is welcoming and free of judgment. If Young Adults are integrated into an existing activity, do not treat them like outsiders. Listen to what they have to contribute.
- Do you know your church’s mission statement? What causes or tenets of theology are close to the heart of your church? For those seeking spiritual fulfillment, is it clear that your church has nourishment to offer?
- What existing programs does your church offer that could serve as conversation spaces for Young Adults? Sunday School classes, book studies, relaxed fellowship times?
- If your church does not currently offer programs for digging deeper into theology, how could you get one started? Is there a Young Adult you could invite to lead a new class? Could you contact a nearby church to begin a partnership?
4. Take Action
“The church should have a strong missions focus, striving to help meet the needs of the community, and the world at large. Make sure that people know about these missions and try to invite them to join.”
- Age 31, Nebraska
“I would like to see the church be in engaged in service activities as well as everyday activities. I want a church or small group that has a focus on serving others and being the church”
- Age 21, Kansas
- Community engagement
- Connect with the community around your church. While some churches have remained closely tied to their neighborhoods, others have not. Either way, people right outside the church doors could probably use some care and connection.
- Build relationships with community centers, schools, and other churches (including different denominations and faiths). Networking will make your work more effective and will draw in Young Adults who want to feel like they belong.
- Mission & Outreach programs
- Show what outreach ministries and social justice issues your church supports. This can be a wide range of issues or a few that you are most passionate for. Use the church website, bulletins, and notices around the church.
- Remember that support is not limited to money. Young Adults want to engage, which means serving, teaching, and understanding people who are in need.
- Allow Young Adults to bring new issues and ideas for action to your attention. Engaging in outreach and showing Young Adults you care, can only help the vitality of your church.
- Look at the community around your church. What are its needs? Do the sidewalks need maintained? Is there a grocery store accessible by walking or public transportation? Are there safe public spaces in which children can play? Are there places for community gatherings where all are welcome?
- What is your church doing to help fill the needs of your community? Where and how do you go beyond monetary support? How can you improve these programs?
- Are there other needs or activities you have not considered? Find a Young Adult in your church, and ask them what causes they are passionate about. Can you help them, and the church, to act on those concerns?
5. Be Flexible
“Don't just meet at church. What about coffee shops? Or restaurants? Or the lake? If there aren't many young adults at your church, join with a few other area churches. Have meetings at times when people who work 8 to 5 can attend...Don’t be afraid to be unconventional.”
- Age 22, Kansas
- Practical considerations
- Consider if and how Young Adults are going to get to church events. Offer them a ride, or connect them to another Young Adult with whom they can attend.
- Remember Young Adults may be still in college, work a full time job, or are involved in other activities. When it comes to scheduling events consider evening times or rotating days of the week so they can find a time that works.
- Find a location outside the church walls that could also serve as a fellowship and conversation space. Young Adults may not have a large enough home to host events. Public spaces like coffee shops and parks can feel less intimidating and can be more visible, thereby attracting other new people.
- Transitional life stages
- Reach out to Young Adults who are new to your community. Network with college campus ministries. Use websites and social media to make your church visible.
- Understand that Young Adults currently at your church may move in a couple years. While they may not be able to serve in a leadership position indefinitely, they can absolutely bring passion and inspiration while they are there.
- Keep reaching out. If a Young Adult drifts away or quits attending for a while, other concerns may be distracting them. Offer support and patience. Connect them with resources like counseling. Keep inviting them back.
- What small group and fellowship opportunities does your church currently offer? How many of them could be attended by someone with a full-time work schedule? Could your United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, or other group start offering an evening activity along with their other programs?
- What locations in your community could work well for a Young Adult gathering? Are they easy to get to? Are they low cost? Would they be conducive to fellowship, conversation, and fun?
- How can you make it clear to Young Adults that you are happy to have them as long as they are available? As you work on developing activities for Young Adults, or invite them into existing programs, how can you distribute responsibility?
6. Create Leadership
“As I have gotten older, I have been glad to have leadership roles both where I am able to lead groups on my own. The conversations I've had with so many different people make my heart happy.”
- Age 22, Nebraska
“Anything geared toward young professionals - I'm no longer a high school youth and don't have a family, so I don't really feel like there's a place for me.”
- Age 28, Nebraska
- Somewhere to plug in
- Showcase the areas that make up the life of your church. As soon as Young Adults look at your website or walk through your doors, they should notice spaces into which they could be integrated.
- Make it clear that Young Adults can be involved as soon as they are comfortable. Invite them to join in, but understand if they need time to adjust first.
- Welcome Young Adults as a Praise Team singer or instrumentalist, a member of the Outreach Committee, a volunteer for Vacation Bible School, or another area.
- Something to create
- Do not disregard the ideas of Young Adults simply because of their youth. Young Adults want to be listened to and taken seriously. While they may need help developing their ideas, they first need someone to show genuine interest.
- Trust what Young Adults have to offer. While they may need flexibility, that does not mean they cannot commit to program development and leadership.
- Help Young Adults to develop their skills and to be a visible part of the church. Invite them to read the Bible passage during worship. Help them get trained as a Certified Lay Speaker. Send them as a delegate to Annual Conference. Provide space and resources for them to start a Young Adult fellowship night.
- What programs do you have that would be welcoming to Young Adult involvement? Is it clear to a Young Adult that these programs are available to them?
- Has your church given Young Adults the opportunity to express their concerns and ideas? Can you have a conversation with a Young Adult and ask them about where they would like to be involved or what they would like to change? Can you invite them to a committee meeting where they could offer suggestions?
- How can you weave Young Adults into the fabric of your church? How can you respect their unique needs without patronizing or excluding them? How can you show them that their contributions are welcome?
Survey of Young Adults
A survey was sent to as many Great Plains Young Adults as could be reached, primarily to those who had previously been involved in leadership opportunities such as Annual Conference Representatives and Summer Interns. Quotes referenced in this material are pulled from survey responses. Responses were primarily given by 25 young adults, ranging in age from 20 to 35, and located across the Midwest.
Great Plains Conference Churches
To get a sense of how Great Plains Conference churches currently present themselves, websites from churches in each of the 17 districts were perused. This exploration looked for information that is often sought by young visitors, as informed by the results of the Young Adult survey. Churches may want to be mindful of the following criteria:
- Mention of Young Adults
- Activities specifically designed for Young Adults
- Offering of a variety of small groups and fellowship times
- Involvement in social justice or mission activities
- Mission or belief statement showing the values of the church
- Times of worship and description of worship style
- Online availability of sermons
- Up to date information
For a broader scope, we consulted the book Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church
, by Kara powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. These authors conducted surveys and interviews across the United States, in order to explore the relationship between Young Adults and churches. This book and the associated websites are highly recommended for anyone seeking additional data and strategies. Further information can be found at:
Research conducted and packet assembled by Amy Kenyon, age 24, Nebraska