Pick 5 evangelical churches at random across America and I’m sure, for the most part, their children’s ministries will all look similar, same with their youth, and their Sunday morning service. Sure there might be a few differences but for the most part there’s a universal look and feel almost everyone has adopted. That’s not the case with young adult ministry AT ALL. You’ll find 5 totally different approaches. There’s no consensus. We’re still trying to figure that one out.
What is the church supposed to do with the 20somethings?!
In the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, there’s a great piece of footage where Rogers is thinking through his philosophy and purpose behind his TV show. He’s sitting at a piano talking about modulations in music (a fancy word for key changes). Some are easier than others. Some times you’re transitioning from F major to F# and that can be a pretty difficult. He draws a parallel to life and the difficult transitions we go through in childhood. He says he sees his calling is to be an adult that children can trust to help them though those modulations.
Being a young adult is all about facing an avalanche of new and terrifying transitions (modulations). In When Your 20s Are Darker Than You Expected Paul Maxwell points out that your 20s can be so stressful because for the first time ever you are completely in charge of yourself. You don’t have parents or school or any other outside authority governing your decisions. It’s suddenly all on you. You’re in charge of yourself, wholly and completely.
Where do you want to live? Who do you want to be? What do you want to do? How will you spend your money? Who will you surround yourself with?
Just like Mister Rogers, I think a church’s young adult ministry should be designed around the modulation.
It shouldn’t just be “more youth” for those who’ve aged out.
It shouldn’t be “cool church for young people” either. You run the risk of building up a strong ministry that accidentally isolates 20somethings from the rest of the church. They don’t feel the need to attend Sunday services or get plugged in outside of their young adult service because it basically acts like a self sustained church, separate from everything else.
Design the ministry around modulations.
I think there are four main areas a young adult ministry should focus on in order to equip every 20something with what they need to brave these upcoming transitions.
FOUR PILLARS OF
YOUNG ADULT MINISTRY
Viktor Frankl says the greatest thing man is searching for in life is meaning. Once you find meaning, you will have a light to guide you through even the darkest seasons. In Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl consistently points to Nietzsche’s phrase “he who has a why to live for can put up with almost any how.”
Frankl’s life speaks to the validity of this statement. In the 1940s Frankl suffered through several years in Nazi concentration camps. He said that those who felt like they had a clear purpose in their life were the ones who were more likely to survive.
In your 20s you’re desperate for meaning. Everyone’s asking what you want to be when you grow up or what you’re going to do when you graduate. If you don’t have all those things figured out it can really send you spiraling into a miserable headspace.
Frankl wants you to find meaning but not necessarily the Meaning of Life, that grand purpose for your whole existence. Instead he thinks you should look for the meaning placed right in front of you in this specific moment in life.
I think that shift in thinking can be a relief, especially for young adults. It’s easy to feel like you’re just spending those years waiting around for real life to begin. You think things will really start happening when you’re out of college, with a career, or when you’re married. But what’s in front of you right now? You can find meaning and purpose in this season of life too.
From Man’s Search for Meaning (a book I read this year that legit changed my life)
“It did not really matter what we expected from life but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those being questioned by life—daily and hourly.”
What purpose can you find in life right now? What purpose can you fulfill in your church body? Where can you get plugged in? What ministry can you make an impact in? How can you serve and love the people in your life today? What is life asking of you? A young adult ministry can help 20somethings discover a meaningful “why” in the here and now.
Every relationship you have in your 20s is in desperate need of honesty if it’s going to be healthy. You need to learn to be honest in your relationship with yourself, with God, your parents, your friends, and the person you’re dating.
The apostle Paul uses the metaphor of a race to describe our life as a Christian. We’re to run the race well (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Imagine starting a marathon right after getting a splinter in the bottom of your foot. At first it might not hurt that bad. It stings a little but you can keep going. I’m sure after the third mile (this is speculation because I’ve never ran more than three miles in my life and I’m sure I’d explode if I tired) that pain from the splinter is going to be a lot worse. By mile ten I bet it’s insane how much it hurts. At the start it didn’t seem like that big of a deal but as the race continues it’ll affect you more and more.
One time I was invited to speak to college students about my experience in ministry and this was what I talked about. The morale of the story is DEAL WITH THE SPLINTER NOW. At the start of the race. It might not feel that bad but if you don’t address it, it’ll get so much worse. This is true for jealousy, anger, porn addiction, unforgiveness, insecurities, infidelity, abusive behavior, or mental health issues. And you can’t deal with the splinter unless you’re willing to admit that it’s there.
Honesty can be terrifying.
A young adult ministry can encourage and challenge you to bravely pursue honesty in relationships, as well as give you a safe place to practice and learn.
In your 20s you’re transitioning out of a life where you’ve been told by a teacher what you’ll learn, read, research, memorize, and practice. That’s all you’ve known up until this point and now you’re free to decide those things for yourself. What are you going to do?
Matt Chandler used to call immature men “boys who can shave.” The danger in this transition is that while the rest of your life is changing around you, emotionally and spiritually you can stay who you were as senior in high school.
I believe a young adult ministry needs to emphasize the importance of growth. Growth in knowledge, maturity, talents, passion, and especially growth in your relationship with God. It can help create a culture that celebrates reading, questioning, and reflecting on your life. Honesty will help you recognize your need for growth but you also have to actually set out to do it.
Every day you take a step in the right direction is a day worth celebrating.
Earlier this year I put out a survey to young adult pastors with just one question: What’s the most difficult part of your ministry?" The number one answer by far was: “Young adults are flakes.”
I can see how that would be the most frustrating thing in the world. You plan an event, people commit to being there, and a couple days (or even hours) before it’s supposed to happen, people start DROPPING LIKE FLIES. A bunch of people said “I’ll totally be there! That sounds awesome!” but then only a few actually come out.
That really sucks.
But I think it also proves why a young adult ministry is so important. Yes, they’re flakes, but they’re not just doing that to the church, they’re doing that to everybody. They’re flaking on each other too. Could you imagine if everybody in your life was that unreliable? A young adult ministry can make such a huge impact by being the only consistent voice in someone’s life.
There is a loneliness epidemic in our culture and during this transitional period in your 20s it’s so important to step into the rest of your life with the knowledge of what a real friendship looks like and how to have one. It’s so much easier to strive for purpose, honesty, and growth when surrounded by friends.
When you focus on equipping young adults for their transitional season, I think your less likely to run into the problem of building a ministry that isolates 20somethings from the rest of the church. Eventually they’ll be on the other side of their big transition. You’re giving them everything they need to outgrow your ministry and realize “oh I don’t need this anymore.” That’s the goal.