Building a Young Church: Part One Honest Analysis

Young adults are one of the most attractive demographics for many church and ministry leaders for growth and involvement.

There are lots of reasons for this, but perhaps most significant is that a young church feels like a vibrant church.

As a minister who has, and is, working with young adult ministry, it might be good to have a several part exploration of what it means to build and sustain this idea of a young church. Since my time in seminary I’ve had many conversations with ministry leaders who tell me, “We want to have a church full of young people.” By this they usually mean young adults, ages 20-35. They often mean post-college singles (though a vibrant college ministry is important) to married adults with young children.

Particularly in my home denomination, its almost bragging rights for a pastor who is over 50 years old to say, at your annual convention, or Catalyst Conference, “We’ve reached 1,000 young adults” this year.

While attracting and keeping young adults is a ministry target, what does it take to do this?

To begin this conversation, it is necessary to talk about confronting the brutal facts.

By this I mean, asking several key questions to help determine your perspective. These questions include:

  • What is the average age of our adult (18+) regular attender (2+ times a month)?
  • What is the average age of our senior leadership?
  • What is the average age of our primary platform and public faces?
  • How are we communicating to young adults?
  • What is the age demographic in our immediate zip codes?

 

When a church or ministry leadership team can sit down and provide honest answers to these questions the goal is to allow for a clear picture of reality and to be able to evaluate the actual possibility of reaching young adults.

If the average age of your connected adult (18+) population is above 45 years old, you’re already two life stages away from relationally connecting with young adults. This isn’t an obstacle that isn’t overcome, but it should help create realistic expectations of what reaching young adults looks like. Older churches, generationally, can reach young adults but they must do so with validated experiences that are outside the primary gathering times and which have higher concentrations of young adults per capita. In other words, you have to be willing to pay the price and move outside of Sunday morning to reach young adults if you’re an older church.

PrintThe second question is even more important than the first. The truth is young church staffs are vital in reaching young adults. This doesn’t inherently mean the senior leader must be below 50, but it does mean that as a ministry your only as young as your core leadership core. If that team (which doesn’t have to be only staff people, it can include lay people) have more people over 45 than under 35 you’re not a young staff. A whole host of other challenges come with this, not only the means of communicating inter-generationally. It also means that the leadership can misunderstand (or just simply not understand) the unique challenges and opportunities that young adults in the 21st century face.

Our second question then immediately bleeds over into our third. You can have an older church leadership team and still reach young adults. However, if the primary platform time is occupied by people over 40 years old you won’t effectively connect with 20somethings. This also goes for publications and public events. One way some churches with established leadership teams have made the move to reach young adults is by validating the primary service, or ministry avenue, where they attend and (outside the primary communicator for the ministry) only allowing worship team leaders under 40 on the platform. Young adults aren’t fooled by a faux move towards reaching them by putting one or two young people on stage with everyone else over a certain age. Churches that want to connect with young adults are willing to pay the price and make strategic moves about who and what they validate from a public and platform level.

In asking the fourth question, we are moving more to a sensitive issue (as if the others weren’t.) This is asking if your sermons, publicity, and teaching keep the young adult perspective in frame. Honestly, too many established churches and pastors are convinced that they can communicate the exact same sermon to senior adults as to twenty-somethings. One of the challenges too many of us seminary trained pastors have is that our model for preaching utilizes a deductive approach. However, young adults are used to inductive communication (and possibly even abductive…and no I don’t mean kidnapping them during the sermon.) One time I remember talking to a pastor of a significant church who believed all he needed to do to preach to twentysomethings was take off his suit coat and tie and untuck his shirt while still delivering the exact same content that the previous services had heard. Then he got discouraged when young adults weren’t staying even though they had a great worship environment. How we communicate to young adults is just as important as who have up on the platform.

The final question is one that will need to be looked at more exhaustively, but before we do that here’s a concise point. If you look in your

This is for our next door zip code, notice how the young adult number is significantly lower.

This is for our next door zip code, notice how the young adult number is significantly lower.

surrounding community (doing a demographic study) what is the age distribution look like and where are the concentrations. (You can do this for free through the Census or USA.com reports. More detailed analysis might require higher level experts, but it is often worth it.) I’ve provided an age distribution chart for the immediate three zip codes around Sugar Creek Baptist Church, where I serve. If you’re seeing a higher distribution of adults 45 and above then you’re not in a young community. If there are a lot of young adults below 25 you’re probably near a college. You’re goal here is to understand who is around your church (usually within 15 minutes driving time…note this isn’t miles.)

These kinds of questions begin confronting the brutal facts of who a church is and how they are, or aren’t reaching, young adults. Young adults reach young adults. Now if you only have a small number that doesn’t mean you’re never going to reach more. It also doesn’t mean that going out and hiring a young adult pastor is going to be the best step for you. Tying up $85,000 in a salary and benefits package isn’t always the best stewardship if adjustments to your overall strategy might just need adjusting.

Young adults are kind of the holy grail for a lot of churches. Since the 1980s they have been and many churches today are wondering how they can best reach them. There are plenty of good reasons to reach young adults and keep connected in our churches. I believe that most churches asking these questions deeply desire to reach young adults for the good reasons and not for hubris.

In our next post on this topic, we’ll look at several key factors in building a young church from the internal ministry side.