Young adults and church: Does life get in the way?

by Tiffany C. Chaney


I remember when I was the only or one of few young adults at the table in the congregations where I was a member. I remember sometimes struggling to feel connected in communities of believers where I had very few peers in my age group and life situation. I remember hearing conversations where people pondered where young adults might be because they weren’t in church. However, what I do not remember is an effort to engage young adults, like me, in conversations to hear our perspective.


 Conversations about young adults

Lately there has been a lot of conversation in social media about young adults and church. What are young adults looking for in church? Is it a contemporary worship style with a praise band or are they craving a more traditional liturgy? Are young adults really leaving church or are they coming back?

Young adults are a mystery for people in congregations. The age group from 18 to mid-30s is very small or may even be non-existent in many faith communities. Members in congregations where this age group is missing often say they would like more young people in their community. Frequently others try to hypothesize about why young adults are absent from faith communities. Sometimes people believe that certain life factors cause young adults to not make it to church on Sundays–things like children, jobs, finances, etc. But what do young adults have to say?

Recently I created a survey to answer this question. Some 164 people between ages 18 and 39 living in 34 states across the country participated in an online survey to share their thoughts about church. About half of the participants are currently active in a congregation, while the other half are either members of a congregation but not active, or are looking for a new congregation, or not interested in participating in a congregation at this time. When asked if there are any life commitments that keep these young adults from participating in church, several factors emerged.

The challenge of time

Time is at a premium. Many young adults indicated working long hours, often on the weekends, prevent them from attending church on Sunday. Some young adults are going to college and balancing work on the weekend. Other young adults who do not work on the weekend indicated they do not make it to church on Sunday morning because they are tired from the week and Sunday is their only day to rest.

Early worship service times are a barrier for some young adults with children. Many cite difficulty in getting kids ready for church. For some, commitments with children may prevent them from participating in mid-week church activities or regular attendance on Sunday. These young adults prefer to be in a faith community where people do not judge them negatively if they cannot participate in church activities multiple times per week or every week.

The right fit

Several young adults indicated they struggle with finding a church that is right for their family. For some, what is “right” is a congregation that is kid-friendly, where their children can grow and learn in an environment where they are genuinely welcomed, even when their children are noisy. Others are looking for a church that is a good fit theologically and for their spouse/significant other of a different denomination or faith tradition. Still others are looking for a church where they do not feel isolated as a young single person with no children.

Young adults are balancing a variety of life factors, which can make it difficult to become active in the life of a faith community. While these issues may make church participation difficult, they do not make it impossible.

Although life commitments that get in the way of church were noted by some, many others indicated there were no life factors that get in the way of church or that life factors are present but can be overcome. One survey respondent noted, “Work, job changes, relocation, financial reasons all apply, yes. But humans are persistent creatures; they will go to church if they want.”

Interestingly, many of the people who indicated there were not life factors that prevented them from attending church were also people who indicated they are not involved in church and are not looking to be in church right now. So, if life factors are not keeping them away from church, why do they choose not to be a part of a faith community? What might interest them in a faith community?

Authentic leaders

Based on their responses, young adults are looking for authentic leaders, theologically solid preachers and teachers whose teachings are rooted in love, who are open to dialogue about faith, and who are not afraid to discuss difficult topics. They want to be accepted, even if they have doubts about faith.

Young adults say they are seeking a faith community that is welcoming to new people, particularly to those their age. They want to be a part of a congregation that is not just internally focused but is actively caring for the needs of the community. Young adults are looking to build new relationships in a non-judgmental environment that is accepting of a diverse group of people. They do not want to be in an environment where they feel shamed if they do not have money or time to give. They want to acclimate to the community at their own pace and not be judged if they are not able to make a regular commitment right away.

Life factors– work, family, social commitments–sometimes affect young adults’ ability to engage in a faith community. But, in addition to a focus on balancing life, many young adults are also seeking a faith community that is welcoming to all, one that teaches and lives God’s love, one that is open to real faith conversations, relevant to their life experiences. If congregations are looking to engage young adults, the place to meet them is in the middle of their busy lives, wherever they are, ready to share the love of Jesus in an authentic and relevant way.

I have given some thought to what kept me present in a faith community where people my age were few and far between. I realize it was a belief that God was active in my life – as hectic as it may have been with work, community, and social commitments – and a belief that there is value in being in fellowship with other believers. What also kept me present was an understanding that in order to have a part in creating a welcoming faith community for other young adults, I needed to have a seat at the table, to be present, working from the inside to help create an environment where all people feel welcomed and feel comfortable having conversations about how God is active in our lives today.

For young adults who may be at the table in congregations alone or with only a few peers, I hope you will stay at the table, taking part in creating faith communities where all are welcome. We need your voice.

Discussion questions

1. As a young adult, what do you wish more people knew about you and your faith in God? Who can you talk to and start the conversation?

2. Are there life challenges that make involvement in a faith community difficult for you? How do you nourish your faith in the midst of all that life brings?

3. Are you a young adult who is one of very few young adults in your congregation? What keeps you connected to your congregation? What are some ways you might be able to lead outreach to other young adults in your community?

Closing prayer

O Lord, in the middle of all that life brings, help us find rest in you. Nourish our faith, strengthen our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits so that we might join together with other believers and live your love in the world. Amen.

The Rev. Tiffany C. Chaney is pastor/mission developer of The Intersection, a congregation under development of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, located in Dorchester, Mass.


Rachel says:
Sep 10, 2013

I’m a young adult in a large church with a relatively healthy young adult population. I’m very involved with my church. I serve on the Congregational Council, am joining a WELCA circle, volunteer with youth activities, and attend periodic Bible studies/Sunday adult learning classes.
My church recently started a 20’s/30’s group. We have three types of events/activities: social, Bible study, and service. Attendance varies a lot, but the group is growing and relationships are forming. I think people are starting to feel more connected to the church as well. Hopefully, this group is the start to get people of my generation involved in more church activities.

Tiffany Chaney says:
Sep 10, 2013

Rachel, thanks for sharing! Sounds like you are engaged in a vibrant community for young adults!

Jo says:
Sep 10, 2013

I’ve always been one of the few young ones at the churches I’ve attended and a lot of my friends have made comments about how older church members just aren’t accepting of young adults. That hasn’t been my experience at all–I’ve had so many woman comment on how exciting it is to see a woman in her 30s be present. Now I’m marrying a pastor and moving to a church with absolutely no other young people besides the two of us so this is a subject I’ve been thinking a lot more about lately!

Amy Viets says:
Sep 11, 2013

I have two perspecitves on this topic; as a staff member of a large and thriving ELCA congreagation bursting at the seams with young singles and young families, and as a parent. I see very clearly that when young adults stay away from church, it is the fault of the church. Too many congregations live in the past, mired in tradition that is meaningless theologically. Too many congregatons want young adults to change and be just like them, rather than opening up to the value of a newer perspective. It’s a selfish and inwardly-focused mode of operation. My daughter, just off to grad school on the east coast, is now choosing to stay home on Sunday mornings (after having been the president of her previous university congregation). Churches near her – who ostensibly want to be a place of worship for college students – have absolutely no interest in relevance for young people whose experience of the world bears no resemblence to the ELW Setting Two, women’s circles, and musty pews. It’s a sad story that is repeated almost everywhere you look.

Kim Carr says:
Sep 23, 2013

I personally find this topic timely. My daughter who moved back home from college and is attending her childhood congregation. Has said repeatedly that the older members still think of her as a child because she is not married with children. She became a counsel member of outreach. After having avttening a Churchwide event with Pastor Ruban Durand, a region 6 workshop with Kay Ward bible study writer for the Gather magazine, and verious synod events where she interacted with Bishop Eaton. She felt her opinion was valued and asked for. Then returning to our local church she just feels defeated. As a mother this is hard to watch. Sometimes I think God might be calling her to different place. I see she wants to step out and take on a bigger role in the life of the community of believers. This was my interverted teenager.

Ellen says:
Nov 03, 2013

I used to go to a Lutheran church as a teenager until my early twenties. They did have a youth group which I participated in. However, there was a lot missing in that youth group. Living the Gospel, relevant relationships and trust were missing from that group. They had the weekly activities, and the youth adviser pretty much expected us to be there with bells on regardless of any other interests we might have had. In spite of spending a lot of time with my peers in that church group, there were no relevant relationships, we only saw each other in church, not outside the church. The youth group was so into gossiping about and judging other people that they never really took the time to get to know me from me.

I ended up leaving that church while I went to college, in town. I left this church because it wasn’t doing anything for me, it was only draining me in many ways. In my thirties I converted to the Catholic Church because I grew to liking the church while I was still going to the Lutheran church and after I left it. It is fine in the Catholic church, there are pretty much no pressures to make any heavy commitments to activities or serving in the church every week. It is optional. The thing that is missing in the Catholic churches are adult groups for different age groups. A few parishes in my area of town started a group, however the age group is 18 to 35, and I am 45. They should have other groups with different age variances so that age groups between 25-50 have a sense of belonging. I would like to start something, but it also a matter of finding maybe two other people to work with forming a desirable ministry for such folks. This might sound a bit whimsical but I like spending time with people whom I have common interests with, but I don’t like for these groups to be over done. I don’t want to be in a group that is an obligation, but for the wrong reasons. I think that if churches would listen to interests and concerns, and allow people to be honest about what they are looking for, there may be a getter chance of people getting involved and staying with their church. Also. church and group leaders should always respect that members of their churches have lives outside church whether it be a job, volunteering, school, or other friends to spend time with. If a church respects outside obligations, maybe people would have a greater desire to spend some extra time in church from time to time.

Katie says:
Nov 03, 2014

I am the new Director of Religious Education at my catholic church. I’m 27 and married with two kids. I look around the pews every Sunday and see maybe two other young families. At this rate, we won’t have a church left in 20 or 30 years. I have been researching young adult involvement and am trying everything in my power to make our church a welcoming place for young adults. I have been met with negativity, hostility, and stubborn-minded people who, I feel, are nothing more than consumers. It’s sad to see this happen and it breaks my heart, but I don’t think I have tough enough skin to deal with all this negativity. At this point, I don’t know where to go or what to do. I have a job and can’t even do it because of the people who are already “parishoners”. These “parishoners” care only about what they want and want no changes to the way things are currently done.

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