By Maggie Walsh
The Alabama Baptist
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
This common saying is true of many things — remodeling a house, networking with other professionals, running an actual marathon. It’s also the mindset that Daniel Woodcock, pastor of The Cornerstone Church, Gadsden, has when it comes to ministering to young adults, or millennials.
“I believe there has to be intentionality with churches in reaching young adults (and) millennials and failure to do so not only hurts the Church, but hurts the future of the Church,” he said.
According to “Engaging Young Adults,” a 2015 study that involved 4,436 congregations and was conducted by Faith Communities Today, in the United States young adults make up about 23 percent of the total population, yet only 1 in 10 congregations reflects this level of representation. Nearly 1 in 5 congregations reported no young adult presence in their congregations.
Why is that?
Kam Pugh serves as pastor of Iron City Church, Birmingham, a downtown church plant where approximately 220 of its 250 regulars are between the ages of 18 and 35.
“I have found that many who grew up in the Church were given ‘fluff’ with Jesus attached to it. They were mainly entertained and taught morality in the name of Jesus, but there was no real gospel or theological substance offered,” he said.
And for some young adults, the fade away from church is simply a matter of transitions, said Dewain Clemons, who works with Frontline, the young adult ministry of Central Baptist Church, Decatur.
“After graduation we assume ‘adulting’ will begin and former youth members will assimilate into the ‘normal’ congregation,” Clemons said. “This is where a lot of young adults get lost. … They simply don’t know what to do next.”
Whatever the reason for their slipping away, young adults have become a missions field that must be reached with the gospel. To do that, according to the study, “strategy (a plan) and prioritization (taking steps to act on that plan) are both necessary to create thriving young adult ministries.”
Social media is one way to enact any strategy and it is a “primary means of building relationships,” the study found.
“We are heavy into social media and interaction with our social media imprint. We encourage people to ‘check in’ via Facebook on their phones and in doing so they are helping our good causes, like [in October] we partnered with Compassion International and every ‘check in’ mattered in providing care for those kids in need,” he said.
Service is another area that’s important to young adults, according to the study.
Clemons agreed that “young adults have a passion to serve Christ” and added that Frontline helps to direct that passion with the help of a “transition coach.”
“The purpose of a transition coach is to answer questions, provide support and facilitate young adults into developing and implementing ministry that is relevant to reach people like them,” he said, adding that this person can be either paid or a volunteer.
Pugh also said service is very important to the young adults at Iron City, as are theologically conservative messages that are thought-provoking, which was another key finding of the survey.
“We have found that young people crave theological substance and want to be challenged to think deeply and serve broadly,” he said.
And while large churches naturally have a leg-up on ministering to this group simply because of greater resources and more people, small churches — congregations with less than 250 members — can be very attractive to millennials seeking a church, according to Eddie Hammett, president of Transforming Solutions in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
“[Smaller churches] have a great future because millennials want community” which is often a given in smaller congregations, Hammett said.
Before they can reach this elusive generation, congregations regardless of their size must put away any “underlying assumptions regarding young adults,” the study said.
Of the churches surveyed that do not have 15 percent of attendees who are young adults, 67.4 percent said there has to be more interest on the part of the young adults and 65.7 percent said they needed a greater passion to reach this group.
“Stereotypes of young adults as lazy, inattentive, materialistic and not interested in spiritual matters might contribute to a congregation’s overall lack of desire to engage this population,” according to the study.
Reaching millennials takes time
Churches need to prepare for significant changes if they are to garner the interest of young adults, according to the “Engaging Young Adults” study conducted by Faith Communities Today.
“If there is little openness to change or a lack of willingness to meet new challenges, then attracting young adults will be an uphill battle,” the study stated.
The Cornerstone Church, Gadsden, understood this early on and structured itself accordingly.
“Our church decided from its inception that if we were going to reach the unchurched and millennials, [we] would have to give up a lot of preferences to do so and we have. … We operate on a simple church mentality that less is more and we strive to do everything with excellence,” said Pastor Daniel Woodcock.
“We’re Sunday morning service only, small groups, one-on-one discipleship and missions. That’s all we do, but we strive to do all of them well. We don’t bog people down with time commitments; we want to make the most of their time.”
Trial and error
“I tell our people all the time we’re going to try stuff that they may not like or things they’re not used to and it may fail. If it fails we’ll just try something else, but if it’s successful we’ll tweak it to make it even better. They are very used to this now and know that we have to do things that no one else is doing to reach people no one else is reaching.
“It’s very exciting, but hard work. The pay off is worth it, but it’s definitely a battle of remembering that reaching and engaging the next generation is a marathon, not a sprint.” (TAB)
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