There is no question that for most Americans, “church as we know it” is financially unsustainable. The churches our parents helped build through the kind of generosity that disposable income makes possible will become a thing of the past: indeed, their children may struggle to pay the heating, cooling and maintenance costs of the buildings they sit in. Young adults graduating from college carry an increasing amount of debt that will make that kind of giving unlikely. So, even if a local church is not wrestling with what it means to be “missional” or “emergent,” at some point sheer practicality will require a serious rethinking of what it means to be the church. We have shaped our buildings, and now our buildings shape us. The question is: how faithfully does that shape express the mission of God we are called to participate in? The majority of our resources are poured into a structure that is primarily used for a few hours over the weekend, and into staff who facilitate what happens during those few hours. We drive across town to spend a couple of hours in these buildings, and then lament that we don’t really know anybody in them.
This is why I believe young adult ministry matters. But only if it is more than just one of a church’s “life stages” programming efforts.
Many young adults have assessed this way of being the church, and have left the building: some to explore other ways of being the church, most to simply leave. Young adulthood is a time of exploring vocation and career and to imagine what a life with purpose looks like, and increasingly it appears that “church” is not going to be part of that. Yet it is precisely because this is the time when we ask those kinds of questions that young adult ministry matters. Unfortunately – in my experience – much of what we call young adult ministry is geared towards engaging young adults in the existing church culture (thus perpetuating it) rather than being devoted to helping young adults wrestle with the questions they actually have, including what it means to be the church. Rather than being a source of renewal and ongoing reformation within the church, young adults too often are placed in a ‘holding pattern’ in the church while we wait for them to graduate to the ‘young marrieds’ and then ‘young families’ Sunday School classes.
Here’s the thing. Young adults tend to have two things in spades: time and energy. Young adult ministry can and should tap into those two realities, because once we start marrying each other and having children, those two things disappear and we tend to default to church as we know it. Or return to the church we left so that Sunday School teachers can disciple our kids, because the church failed to disciple us so we could do it ourselves. Instead, let’s encourage young adults to experiment, to dream and to help the church understand itself anew in our ever-changing cultural context.