Building a church that young adults will embrace

Charles Mills

Have you ever wished for the ability to crawl into the mind of a young adult and look around?

Have you ever wondered, “What are they thinking? What do they need? How can I help?”

Welcome to the challenging world of high school/college teachers, worried parents, dedicated youth pastors, and overworked parole officers. They’d like nothing more than to understand what makes a young adult tick.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be attachment to your church or anyone else’s. Gallup polling data, 2016-2018, show that the young adult population, specifically those who care about religion, care much less than their parents do about belonging to a church named “X”.

Seventy-four percent of traditionalists with a religious preference care about church membership. “Traditionalist” is the Gallup category for those born in 1945 or before. For Baby Boomers, born 1946 to 1964, 66 percent of religious people care about church membership. Generation Xers, those born 1965 to 1979, follow closely, at 65 percent. But with Millennials, born 1980 to 2000, there’s an 8 percent drop, to 57 percent, almost half of the total 17 percent overall decline from four generations ago.

Look closely at that young man or woman sitting beside you in the pew at church.

Data like these, drawn from careful research with successive generations, should make it easier for those older to understand those younger. The mindset of youth and young adults shouldn’t be all that mysterious: those with more candles on their birthday cakes ought to be uniquely able to see and grasp the data. The realities in the numbers are complicated but clear. Whatever our age, we can recall the experience of being idealistic, curious, filled with dreams, and eager to be all we could imagine.

But look closely at that young man or woman sitting beside you in the pew at church—bursting with potential and undeveloped talent. Then look around. Do you see the problem? Do you hear the problem? Can you feel the problem? Unless you’re blessed to be a member of a youth-focused congregation, there’s often little to excite that young, beating heart. There are seldom opportunities for them to express their gifts or do what they long to do.

That’s why statistics show that so many young adults in this era are viewing religion in the rearview mirrors of their lives. They want no part of it because, truth be told, organized religion has often said to them—sometimes even with words, “We want no part of you. We don’t trust the way you are, the way you think, or what you might do. Call us when you’re older, wiser, and more stable.”

Big mistake.

Declines and Trends

Christians in the United States aren’t just facing an “our youth are leaving the church” problem. They’re facing an “everyone is leaving the church” problem. And whether you’re 19 or 90, many of the reasons for that long goodbye tend to be surprisingly similar.

Gallup, the polling group which studies trends and conditions covering a wide variety of subjects, recently reported that “U.S. church membership was 73 percent when Gallup first measured it in 1937, and remained near 70 percent for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the twenty-first century. Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline . . . dropping below 50 percent for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 50 percent in 2018 and 70 percent in 1999.” And Barna data on church attendance by generation shows decline among all generations, beginning with elders, Gallup’s “Traditionalists,” who slip from 51 to 37 percent between 2003 and 2020. For Baby Boomers the decline is from 45 to 32 percent. Gen Xers go from 34 to 29 percent, and Millennials, from 32 percent in 2006, the first year of their polling, to 25 percent.

Yes, you read that right. Less than half the people you meet on the street, in the grocery store, or at work—young or old—claim to belong to any type of organized religion. Whatever is driving people out of houses of worship is no respecter of age. Any discussion about why young adults are leaving church membership behind must explain the dramatic loss in older generations as well.

What is it? What’s causing the exodus?

Consider some very real possibilities, with a particular focus on Adventism.

Though I’m still a Seventh-day Adventist in good standing and fully believe that my church of choice has a lot to offer this sin-sick world, I’ll have to admit that I’ve seen a sea change between the church in which I grew up in and the church to which I belong today.

Less than half the people you meet on the street, in the grocery store, or at work—young or old—claim to belong to any type of organized religion.

During my youth, one theme permeated Adventism. Service. We heard that theme preached from pulpits, heralded in our church’s literature, and spoken about in the halls of our wonderful educational institutions. I even graduated from a college that used to have the word “Missionary” proudly included in its name.

Leaders, teachers, and parents told us that service was the light that would guide us through this dark world. No matter our major field of study, we learned that serving humanity was the greatest goal of a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Little else mattered.

I have no doubt that service is still a theme in most of our institutions. But something else has been added as a subtext: Debt. Many of today’s young adults, unable to pay their way through school because of the ever-rising costs of education, hang up caps and gowns after college graduation and find themselves facing a towering pile of unpaid school bills. They discover they must quickly switch from the service mode to the money-making mode in order to survive. They learn quickly that a life of service isn’t typically a life of wealth and comfort. It’s usually a struggle. Just ask Jesus. For many, that reluctant switch to the money-making mode becomes a permanent focus.

Even those who graduate debt-free find that service isn’t as admired these days. The world’s heroes are often billionaires who can fly to space, invent the next big thing, or create the most successful initial public offering on Wall Street. Adventist college and university graduates didn’t grow up sitting at the feet of enthusiastic missionaries, God-trusting colporteurs, or Adventist media personalities who were learning how to reach the world with God’s love while collecting a meager preacher’s salary. 

I was blessed to grow up with those advantages. Those amazing individuals cemented in me the goal of service that I’ve tried to follow all my life. They weren’t about making money. They were about creating avenues of witness and sharing God’s love with others.

Today’s youth and young adults also face something I never had to face. In my youth what I heard preached from the pulpit at church, taught from the lectern at school, and discussed around the dinner table at home concerning religion in general and Adventism in particular was pretty close to identical. Preachers, teachers, and parents tended to be on the same page theologically, spiritually, and culturally, making it easy for me to understand what my church stood for. It wasn’t difficult for me to figure out how I could be of service when God was represented in such a clear, coherent, and consistent manner.

Sadly, that’s not what’s happening today. Parents, teachers, and pastors are often at odds with each other concerning everything from doctrine and church governance to the very character of God. How can young people learn to serve their church or their heavenly Father when there’s no solidarity in the way each is presented and supported? One’s faith seems to be no longer based on the biblical concepts of service and sharing. It’s now based on opinion and personal interpretation of Scripture. What do those differing opinions create? A stream of endless judgment, shaming, and condemnation.

That’s at least partly why many young adults, and the older members sitting next to them on the pew, feel no identity with the church: because the church has lost its identity. Not surprisingly, many of them eventually close their Bibles, rise to their feet, and leave.

Reversing the Trend

So how do we reverse a trend like that? How can your church keep its young and not-so-young adults close to our hearts?

Make no mistake: the Adventist Church of my youth had some very real problems that, over time, it has attempted to address—and continues to do so. It was far from perfect then, just as it’s far from perfect now. But I believe that in spite of its imperfections today, we can carve inroads into the exodus by making a few prayerful adjustments.

First, perhaps we need to rethink our major emphasis—to return to our spiritual roots. The concept of service is a great equalizer. Service gives everyone, from the person with one talent to the person with many, a reason to show up—a reason to plant himself or herself in the pew in the first place. Put someone to work helping the church fulfill its mission, and you’ve got yourself a lifelong member.

I’ve visited churches in which each Sabbath afternoon young adults fan out into the community visiting the sick, sharing the gospel though music, cooking meals, or seeing to the basic needs of those nearby. And through that loving, others-centric work they find purpose for their lives and a reason to remain in the church. They become God’s hands and feet, and they love it.

Why don’t we repurpose our beautiful doctrines, taking into account the core reason for their existence?

Second, maybe it’s time we researched the life of Christ on a level missed by many. How did He relate to others? How did He demonstrate the Father’s love in every interaction, even in chance meetings? We shouldn’t try to fit Jesus into our mold of what evangelism should look and sound like. I believe we need to fit ourselves into His mold, emulating His methods and practicing His modus operandi—even when we go high-tech. Young people need heroes to set the standard. Give them one. Give them Jesus.

Third, why don’t we repurpose our beautiful doctrines, taking into account the core reason for their existence? What was God trying to tell us when He set in place these golden guidelines for worship, study, and living? He wasn’t making hard-and-fast rules to obey or else. He was building a scaffolding on which we can stand as we reach out to touch others in love. People don’t like to feel condemned by a doctrine. They’d much rather feel validated and improved by it. If we can use doctrine to bring hope instead of condemnation to a struggling individual, we’ve done the work they were created to do.

Take, for instance, the doctrine of the Sabbath. “If you don’t keep the right day, you’re wrong, and you’ll be lost for eternity!” we tend to shout at the world. Instead, how about if we said, “You know, science tells us that our minds and bodies need rest. Well, good news, my friend. God has provided just such a remedy. And He promises to bless us as we spend time with Him on His special day. There’s actual healing in those hours. As a matter of fact, why don’t you join us this weekend and rest with us? We’ve got music, Bible study, and fellowship waiting for you. Please spend part of your Sabbath with us! We will make it worth your while.”

I have no doubt that service is still a theme in most of our institutions. But something else has been added as a subtext: Debt.

See the difference? Doctrines can be used as tools for loving evangelism, not tools for judgment or some type of dire warning of impending destruction. I think that’s exactly what they were designed to do. I’ve seen churches present them this way, and it works wonders. Young adults seem to always be a part of such an outreach. They’re included and promoted. It’s a beautiful witness.

Young at Heart

I believe we need to keep reminding ourselves that it was young adults who formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church out of the spiritual fabric of their day. It was their passion and perseverance that made it all possible.

Did they make mistakes? Of course! Did they misjudge, misinterpret, and even misrepresent truth on occasion? Absolutely. But it was their willingness to learn new things (a skill sometimes missing in older minds) that kept the church and its message afloat through the generations.

Now we’re facing a crisis of epic proportions. We’re seeing the future of our denomination pack up and leave in record numbers. We’re destroying ourselves in battles over opinions and political allegiances when we should be building up ourselves in service to humanity. We’re forgetting that God is flexible. He’ll love us and bless us even when we don’t think alike, act alike, or live alike. He asks us only to love alike—as Jesus loved.

When we begin to rebuild our church on the foundation of common ground and let all of those opinions and perspectives coexist in peace, then we’ll become more attractive to young minds and be able to retain the admiration of older folk as well.

The long goodbye can end, replaced by a genuine and loving “Hello and welcome.”

Charles Mills, author, radio show host, and media producer, has published several books, including Religion in the Real WorldRefreshed Parables, and Surprising Nature.

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Charles Mills