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 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.


Reaching Twentysomethings

Several days ago a friend of mine, Dean Inserra tweeted this thought:

This is an incredibly important point that comes from a leader who is pastoring a church that is actually seeing 20somethings attend at a high level. Just some background, Dean is pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida. About six years ago, Dean started his church with 24 people and it has grown, primarily by reaching college and 20somethings, to one of the largest and strongest churches in Tallahassee. Dean is a great pastor who understands the essentials of ministry.

Dean also understands that one of the great challenges facing all of our churches is a generational drain that is seeing lower amounts of young adults attending churches. Now this isn’t to say they aren’t attending church…it just isn’t the one they grew up in and it isn’t those using traditional methodologies.

For a while we’ve been hearing about the diaspora of young evangelicals when they go to college and then how they aren’t returning. This data is probably reflecting a number of issues (that I’m not going to attempt to discuss here) but it is highlighting several trends we should note:

  • Young adults are not attending church at the same rates as their generational predecessors. For many once or twice a month to a service (not deeper¬†attendance: service, groups, etc) is sufficient for them to consider themselves “connected.”
  • Young adults are attending churches, but it isn’t the ones they a) grew up in, b) are using older methodologies, and c) usually smaller.
  • Young adults, who attend church, are going to ones that utilize progressive worship, have younger pastors, and are often larger.
  • Young adults who are committed Christians understand their spiritual journey as primary and church involvement secondary.


So, where does that leave us? Well, for starters, it should be reinforced by Dean’s point. If your church is expecting that young adults are going to come back to the church of their youth (or their parents) this is a mistaken strategy. The ministry method here is: let’s hire a young guy to lead the area, expect them to attract these young adults by presence alone, and we’ve always had a strong youth ministry and that should translate to young adult ministry.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. If your church is seeing post-college 20somethings return at a rate of 25% you’re probably doing a very good job.¬†

Dean, and young leaders like him, have realized that in order to extend ministry to 20somethings they have to implement massively different methodologies than established and institutional churches are comfortable utilizing.

One of the greatest challenges is that we raise our children from preschool to high school in highly validated, highly inculturated, highly experiential children and student ministries and then expect them to shift to institutional models of adult ministry without careful guidance. We’ve also drastically underestimated spiritual devastation sexual liberation and experimentation has done to millennials. However, there is still hope.

A couple of recommendations we can takeaway:

  • Talking to leaders, like Dean, about their successes is essential.
  • Be willing to change how we understand spirituality in 20somethings.
  • Creating highly validated, authentic events for 20somethings is important.
  • Allow your “Sunday morning only” paradigm to be questioned and pursue alternatives.
  • Realize that models of last century might not produce evaluative tools for the church of this century.
  • Check out leading thinkers who have published great content like Barna Studies, Gabe Lyons, Dave Kinnaman, Jonathan Merritt, and others.

What are you seeing? What is the rate of return of 20somethings at your church? How are you being successful with this segment? What challenges are we missing?

May 2013