What is the church doing for young adults?

Aug 4, 2014 by and

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A question repeated in the church today is: Why don’t young adults go to church? But that might not be the right question, according to Lana Miller, campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg.

Lana Miller, undergraduate campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., leads a workshop July 25 on young adults at the annual assembly of Virginia Mennonite Conference. — Kelli Yoder/MWR

Lana Miller, undergraduate campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., leads a workshop July 25 on young adults at the annual assembly of Virginia Mennonite Conference. — Kelli Yoder/MWR

A better question might be: What is the church doing to engage young adults?

Miller explored those and other related questions in a workshop, “Where Are All the Young Adults in the Church?,” as part of Virginia Mennonite Conference’s annual assembly July 24-26.

She summarized the findings of a survey of 3,200 U.S. teens regarding their cultural values and faith practices, presented in the book Soul Searching. Five years later, the same young adults, now aged 18-24, were surveyed again with similar questions, and the findings are collected in a second book, Souls in Transition.

Miller did her own additional research, inviting a group of emerging adults to her home to discuss the topic.

When she asked workshop attendees to name barriers they saw to young adult church attendance, responses included: finding community elsewhere, busy schedules, other priorities, irrelevance to their lives, lack of welcome and seeing the church as a place of infighting over rules and self-preservation.

“The young adults I talked to answered almost identically,” she told the group.

She said emerging adults are looking for churches that are authentic and make themselves vulnerable. They like people who ask questions and listen to them. Providing space for building relationships should be a priority.

“If relationships in the church aren’t there, it just isn’t going to work,” Miller said.

She also said there’s no evidence this generation is walking away from the church.

“Emerging adults since 1972 . . . have remained stable in levels of religiousness or even increased somewhat, according to the study,” she said.

Miller addressed five general factors that lead to strong religiosity in emerging adults: having parents who are highly religious, frequent personal prayer, high importance of faith in daily life, not having frequent doubts and having personal religious experiences (such as baptism or a conversion moment).

“If you are religious as a youth, you’re going to be religious as an emerging adult,” Miller said.

Youth ministry and home life are important.

“Parents are not irrelevant,” she said.

Garlan Yoder, of Staunton Mennonite Church, said his church has few young adults but lots of children. He attended the workshop and said it helped him know how better to prepare them for lifetime church attendance.

And as a parent, he said: “It makes me become more aware of the necessity of living out my faith by engaging my children in discussions about why we do the things we do and believe the things we believe.”


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