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?
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.
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?
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.