Stop worrying about the 18-30yos

Pastors take a long view of young adult outreach

lonesomeFull disclosure: I am uncomfortable with targeted church growth conversations. So any impersonal language or poor word choices in this article probably reflect my discomfort. Feel free to point them out, but please don’t dwell on them.

I’ve had three exchanges with large-church pastors in the past few months that really bother me when it comes to the way the UMC seeks church growth in the 18-30 demographic. These are anecdotal but are from large-church pastors, speaking inside-the-ballpark to other clergy (an important note).

  1. One pastor recounted that when the pastor was 20 in the 1960s with tattoos and listening to Led Zepplin, everyone said that age group would never be in the church. They were rebels, they saw church as irrelevant, they didn’t attend. And yet, now, the Baby Boomers are the biggest demographic in the church and possibly the last generation to heavily support the church (proportionately). The Busters and Gen-X are trickling back too. The pastors’ take? “Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they will come back when they get older.”
  2. A second pastor said in a staff meeting that even though this particular church was next to a college, the church shouldn’t focus on college students. Instead, they ought to focus on the 30s-40s demographic, as they are more likely have children (potential for growth) and more likely to have money (potential for ministry support). The pastor’s take? “Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they can’t support the church ministries yet.”
  3. Finally, we see across annual conferences that ministry budgets of campus ministries are being cut. Ministries that used to have full elders now get part-time local pastors or student pastors (who are undoubtedly gifted but the lack of support for a full elder indicates a lack of funds/initiative). And while large churches in proximity to colleges can have college ministries, they are rarely as effective as on-site ministry that can fit into the rhythm and flow of college life. The church’s assumed take? “Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they don’t have time to attend church anyway.”

Now for the surprising fact: None of those churches lack in outreach to 18-30s. All have great numbers in that demographic, but all three indicate that focusing on “success” in that demographic is setting oneself up for failure. And yet at every charge conference the churches are judged at their outreach to that age group (as they should be).

So on one hand we promote this outreach to this group, but on the other hand we wish away the problem by saying “they’ll come back later in life.” It may be true, but it’s not addressing the problem. It’s almost like the approach is “give them good memories so when they realize the hole in their lives they will come back to church.” Is this effective? I don’t know. Is it right? Not to my gut.

I’ve been wrestling with how I feel about this “realist” take on outreach to 18-30s. I think at the moment, I’ve taken two lessons from this:

  1. 18-30s is the demographic where you will fail in quantity and succeed in quality. This demographic may not come in the numbers of the other demographics. But the ones who do come likely will be on fire and enthusiastic members of your church. And where do you think the young clergy (under 35yo) come from? This demographic, of course. So the clergy and dedicated laity you get from this demographic might be lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, avenues of leadership and empowerment are highly important in this age group.
  2. 18-30s is the demographic where churches will spend more resources than they take in. By the nature of their age, their tithes and offerings will not be numerically high enough to put mission and ministry and dedicated staff above the redline. Dan Dick explores this further. And that’s okay. They are a mission field, and any sensible church should realize that the money going out won’t come back in. That’s, of course, not a primary reason for cutting back on 18-30 ministries, but I’m sure there are some pastors who take into account cost-benefit ratios, to their shame. Thus, commitment by the finance team of a church to spend more than you take in is highly important in this age group.
Your turn:
  • How does this “realist” (not saying their conclusions are correct, just they are born of their experience) take on 18-30s ministries strike you?
  • If you are 18-30, how does this conversation relate to your own church experience?
  • If you are older than 18-30, does the first pastor’s account accurately reflect your faith journey? Did you come back?


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  1. Sonja Tobey says

    This is interesting considering your own church experience. I would say for me in my journey it is pretty close to accurate. I was heavily involved in church when I was in high school. Felt rejected (for a multitude of reasons) and left. I joined the UMC when I was 21, but I didn’t really connect with a church until I was 31. It would have been nice to have had a connection to church in my 20s, but I don’t know how receptive I would have been anyway. That all being said about me. Now that I have children in their 20s, I really want them to be connected to a church.

    I also know, much like the first pastor in your responses, that much of the wandering around we do theologically, ideologically, and personally in our 20s, is wrestling with things such as belief, God, identity, etc. I think it is helpful for churches to be able to provide a safe place for that wrestling and searching to happen, and is a necessary ministry area. However, with the divergent culture especially of that age group, it is much more important that we keep contact with them (via facebook, email, etc.) and lines of communication open where they are willing to talk to us about these wrestlings, than to worry about if they are in church every Sunday. Let them know they are important and that you care about them and offer guidance in their faith journeys and they and God will come up with the rest. It isn’t about us as much as we would like to think it is.

  2. says

    Good thoughts, Jeremy.

    I think you’re on the right path…how do we measure success with this demographic? (How do we measure success at all?) Is it purely numbers? (Numbers of the 18-30 yo in the seats, their financial support?) I’m not sure those are useful metrics for measuring true success in the church at all.

    Quality is it. We have a congregation of 275 on paper, with realistically 175 active members, and a little over 100 in attendance on most Sundays. By the pure numbers, we’re comparatively not as successful as a larger church. But context matters, and quality of the spiritual experience matters. And althought my 18-30 year old demographic is small, those from that group who do come are exactly as you describe: active, committed, on committees, in church, with their kids. And they’re growing as a group. Their model for ‘doing church’ is different than their parents; they don’t do committee meetings, but most things can be decided and discussed with this group electronically. They’re the ones driving the desire for the electronic newsletter, the FB page, the electronic giving possibility, the evolution of the worship service (remarkably, more liturgically!).

    I’m not so much worried about them, as I am encouraged by them.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  3. says

    I’ve been working with youth and this age group in my church for several years, now, and to call this subject important to me is a massive understatement. I’ve written about my frustrations several times on my own blog and what you’ve said here is so on the money it’s scary. First, I want to address the 3 exchanges with other pastors.
    1)“Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they will come back when they get older.” I think this is the default setting in most churches. Mostly because (I believe) this age group makes the adults uncomfortable.
    2) 18-30s is the demographic where churches will spend more resources than they take in. What an asinine statement! Since when did we start applying cost benefit analysis to ministry? Thank God, Jesus didn’t do this or we’d all be screwed.
    3)“Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they don’t have time to attend church anyway.” Yet another ridiculous statement. I hate to keep throwing the “J” word around, but Jesus didn’t base his ministry on where it would be most effective. He went where he was needed.

    It drives me crazy to watch churches ignore an entire group that is desperately seeking what we have to offer because we don’t understand them, they make us uncomfortable, or any other stupid reason. Watching my own church piously speak to the young children about a “church family” and then see them all but ignore people 18-30 who grew up in that same church, hearing those same words spoken to them every Sunday is especially disheartening. The problem with this ministry doesn’t lie with those being (or not being) ministered to, it lies with us.
    I realize I didn’t really answer the questions you posed at the end of the post, but I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut on this subject. Thanks for putting it out there and allowing me the space to vent.

  4. says

    The churches that reached me in college (and nurtured my calling into ministry) were churches that made clear effort to reach folks my age. They had full time staff exclusively dedicated to reaching young adults (whether that was an on campus ministry or a college based ministry) and they had scheduled most activities at night.

    I tried attending churches and ministries of my own denomination, but they largely seemed (at least in action) to be indifferent to my involvement. In my public university town there were literally dozens of UM churches and none had a robust college ministry. (The one nearest the university had a dozen or so college folks and an associate that had reaching college students as part of his job description; otherwise I saw no direct ministry by UM’s in town.)

    Theology, brought me back into the United Methodist Church, but it was largely SBC churches and ministries that nurtured my faith and kept me going in those first couple of years.

  5. says

    As a young adult and future clergy, this is an issue close to my heart. I think focusing on “outreach” is the wrong tact. Young adults who want to go to church will. Those who want to sleep in on Sunday will just sleep in. That being said, there are still a sizable amount of young adults who want to attend church.

    For me, the real issue, at least in the churches I have attended and served, is what are the opportunities for young adults in the church? It seems that young adults just float around in the church with no sort of trajectory. Most churches have little to no young adult events, singles events (instead focusing on young married couples), etc. Young adults need not be a drain on the finances. Just providing space and opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth is a good start. We are thrifty and creative!

  6. says

    If this is the group where more energy and expense is likely to be used than any other, it provides a key in developing growth.
    I have been told over and over that the churches that are growing are spending increasing amounts of money on missions. Here is a very direct and easy correlation – seek out the 18-30s, it is a vital mission for the entire church, enlivening the congregation to be open to other areas, particularly as this demographic fits into the culture, and challenges culture in so many different avenues. In order to meet the needs of the 18-30s, the work is required, to find out the needs, to expend energy and dollars, and develop deeper connections.
    Thanks for the fodder for thought and engagement.

  7. Carolyn says

    I go to a church that is on the campus of one university (Harvard) and close to many others (MIT, Leslie U, Long School of Music, Cambridge College, BU). Harvard-Epworth UMC understands that investment in young adults will not bring in the dough. But its members go out of their way to harmonize church life to the semester schedule. We pray for students weekly in corporate and personal prayer. Its members are practiced at empowering and encouraging college students to meet the challenge of correlating academic learning and a life of faith. H-EUMC takes on 1-3 seminary interns yearly, which cost a few thousand dollars a year. Members are used to clunky first-time sermons and make a special effort to support and form seminarians into ministers. Our church knows how it’s done (though that doesn’t mean we can’t become more excellent)!

    I wish that young adult ministers and other pastors should come visit our church to get a feel for this type of ministry. I would point out how our faith veterans support young people during coffee hour, and how the young people themselves run the Young Adult Group.

    I feel that H-EUMC is my family, and I have formed relationships with people of all ages in church. The riches of advice, help, support and camaraderie I experience here is a testament to how the Christian church ought to be everywhere. It CAN be done!

  8. Lance Houghtling says

    I’ve had one experience with a church growth guy and his “wisdom”. Never again. My age group was relegated to the “pay and pray” sector, and any other contribution was “irrelevant” or “out of touch” (even though the guru was older than I. . . .go figure) So, I will admit it’s hard for me to see worth in ignoring anybody, especially since leadership proceeded to ignore both the old and the young to go after the preferred demographic. Sigh.

  9. Creed Pogue says

    The current paradigm seems to be that bringing in young seekers will “save” The UMC. Why would they come? Contorting our message to appeal to people who don’t know what they believe and feel that institutions need to cater to them is a recipe for failure to bring in the “new” people and failure to retain the ones we have.


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