The "Young Adult Problem": Why You Can't Solve It

Posted on July 19th, 2012

I think many in the church will agree that, by and large, we have a “young adult problem.” What’s the problem, you ask? Well, young adults are not coming to our churches.

There are all sorts of methods out there to get young people into coming to church. Many church leaders have made strides in adding to a body of work on attracting young people. Some of the material is really good — material that recognizes the world of 2012 is vastly different than the world of 1952 or even 1982. Other material is just plain bad — material that tries to bait-and-switch young people into church by selling a notion of volunteerism or bland utopian community while conveniently forgetting to mention the name of Jesus because it doesn’t play well for focus groups. While there’s no real clear answer on how to get young people into church, I think we can all agree on this simple fact: We’ve got a major deficit of young people actively involved in our local churches.

What are we church folks to do about this young adult problem?

Let me cut to the chase and say what we should NOT try to do: If you want to “solve” the problem of young people not active in church, you’re going to fail from the outset. This is not a problem you can solve. So if you’ve bought the latest material on how to magically attract young people after following 5 easy steps, take it back right now. You’re not going to find a recipe to attract young people. You can’t order a prescription from the local Christian resource center that will make young people beat your doors down. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some problems can’t simply be solved.

Instead of solving our problems, let’s try to look at them in new ways — maybe even as opportunities to learn.

Translation is Key

What we need are for local churches to become places of translation — not just interpretation. What’s the difference? Interpretation simply means that a church tells you what to believe and how to behave. But churches who take the work of translation seriously will also create ways to live out those beliefs and morals in community. When this happens, the church becomes less rigidly judgmental of others and more serious about the need we all have for redeeming and sustaining grace.

Let me offer a story to illustrate:

I heard another heart-breaking story last week from a young adult who refuses to go to church. It seems that she was marginally involved in a local church — some months were better than others for attendance. But she volunteered in the nursery some and helped with Vacation Bible School because if she didn’t really know what to think about church attendance yet, she knew it was important for her daughter. She started dating a young man who was a member of the church soon after she started attending.

But a few months into her tenure in the church it started. It seems a few of the members — some younger a some old enough to be her mother — caught wind of her “past life.” They began spreading stories around the church about her and her new relationship — much of which was nowhere near to being true. But truth is relative when perception shapes so much of how we think. It wasn’t long before a whole section of the church had heard these stories and it got back to the young woman and her new boyfriend.

Needless to say, they refuse to go back to that church and I fear they’re done with church altogether after that incident.

One of the reasons we in the church won’t ever solve our issue with young adults is that we think it’s really their problem. They want to come to church and be with us, they just don’t know it yet. So we need to invest in all sorts of attractional methods to help them realize this deep longing. Churches are not perfect — nor should we ever think they will be — but as long as church people do mean things to people who are a little different, don’t be surprised when no young people want to attend your church. This girl bears the burden of not wholeheartedly investing in the church. But that’s a process for many people, old and young alike. However she’s not at fault for the fact that some people decided her past was too risque for their taste and decided to spread rumors about it. This is the kind of caricature account Flannery O’Connor would write about. Instead, I’m afraid it’s a reality more common that we church folks would care to admit.

A community who takes the work of translation — living out the gospel, putting hands and feet on the love of God, etc. — might not have been so quick to judge someone who was a little different. A community of translators knows how hard it is actually live the morals and beliefs they profess.

What’s Wrong with Wanting to Solve?

What if the compulsion to solve our problems was a part of something that’s wrong with us — even sinful at times?

I recently heard a podcast with Dr. J. Kameron Carter where he had some striking comments about solving our problems. Dr. Carter suggests that “the impulse to solve is a part of a wider impulse to master.” In the church we see this very clearly in the collective impulse church leaders and strategists have to solve the issue of young adults not coming to church. What actually happens is we define our idea of young people based off of what we see around us and not a missional view guided by the Holy Spirit. Those in the church want young adults, but the truth is we really want young adults that look, talk, act, and see the world like us. We’re on a mission for prototypes of those already in the church — younger versions who care about the things good church folk care about and want to live by the same standards. Maybe this is just the residue of the missional attitude that helped colonize and conquer others as a means of spreading the gospel? Whatever it is, it’s a desire undergirded by the preservation of power and not guided by humility and love.

Why are young people not in church? I have no idea. I’m a young adult myself and I’m forced to live in the tension between a vocation in the church and relationships with my peers who either don’t see it as compelling enough, or worse yet, have been hurt so badly by well-meaning people who don’t understand them they’ll never grace the doors of a church again. It’s a tough place for a young pastor sometimes. However, I do hope the next time we say we want to “solve our young adult problem” we stand back and see the implications of that statement: Do we really want all young people in our churches? Or, do we really mean we want to preserve our values in a younger generation of prototypical images of ourself? And are we willing to make the gospel compelling enough by trying to actually live it?

If you want young people in your church, go where they are. Learn what they do. Strike up a relationship and trust the Holy Spirit enough to let you know when it’s time to invite them to church. In the meantime, make sure your church is a place that worries about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). After all, that’s all disciples can hope to do.

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