The Church’s Doomed Pursuit of the Elusive Young Adult

Young Adult Ministry
It seems that everywhere you look today, “the church,” especially within historic traditions, is talking about reaching that ever-elusive young adult demographic.  Sometimes it feels like we are on some National Geographic safari trying to observe and conserve some rare creature, but all-in-all I think it’s a great endeavor and worth the effort. At the same time, I am also worried that in our excitement about new ministries, creative initiatives and renewed energy focused on young adults that we are doomed even before we begin.

As I reflect on my own stage of ministry, after 25 years of working in the church including 17 years of ordained ministry, I am keenly aware of my short-comings when it comes to reaching young adults. My Gen X worldview and ecclesiastic experience often cloud my judgement and my aversion to getting old can be a stumbling block to my own continued growth in ministry. I think the church as a living body is not much different in our current stage of life. Over the generations, what the church has done in the world has been amazing and powerful, but those resting on the laurels of those accomplishments often hampers our ability to see the church of the future; one that could have the same impact on the world. So before we journey too far down the path of our young adults expedition, I would offer three faulty assumptions that many of us make when thinking about young adults and the future of the church.

ASSUMPTION 1 –WE can build a ministry for Young Adults.

I find it interesting that most of the conversations about “reaching young adults” take place among people who are distinctly NOT young adults. I think it is a way that many of us try to prove that 40 really IS the new 20 and extend our youth for as long as we can. Sorry folks, but as we age, our roles and perspectives change. I for one do not regret this, rather I embrace and welcome the roles that I will hold in the future. If we are to reach young adults with integrity, then young adults must to be at the table and part of the direction setting in significant ways. Much like we would never plant a Korean American church with a team that was 90% non-Korean, we must not try to create relevant young adults ministries by relying on the musings of even the best intentioned 40, 50 and 60 year-olds. For as hip of a 43-year-old as I fool myself into believing I am, I do not and will not experience the world through the eyes of a 20-year-old . . . and there is nothing I can do to change that. The best thing I can do is to acknowledge this reality and then find the best ways to empower, guide and support that 20-year-old as she/he discovers a place and role in the future of the church. This posture must be taken in all aspects of the journey: planning process, fiscal management, organizational development, etc. if we are to truly create and sustain ministry with and for young adults.

ASSUMPTION 2 -There is such a thing as A Young Adult.

One of the glaring generational differences that seems to take over young adult conversations is the idea that there is “A Young Adult” that can be defined and targeted. Sure, there are ways that we can glean some common young adult characteristics, but unlike previous generations, these definitions are far more DEscriptive than PREscriptive. I can hear it now, “We Boomers are not all the same, how dare you, you disrepectful Gen X’er!” Fair enough, but on this we will have to agree to disagree. I am not saying that previous generations are soulless robots programmed to all like the same things, but I think it is fair to say that in previous generational times more people liked the same things whereas in our today’s niche culture, more people like more things. This diversity within a demographic throws our tried and true methodological approach to ministry all into a tizzy because it means that we will have to deal with diverse expressions of faith. How do we measure and assess these things? How do we fund them? What kind of leadership is needed? All important questions that can only be effectively addressed by taking seriously Assumption 1.

Brave New Films

ASSUMPTION 3 -Young Adults will help the church I love to live on!

If we are honest, the main reason most of us are hopping on the Young Adult Train is because we think we need them to survive and sustain the church that we have been part of.  To some extent that is true and noble if we are thinking about “the church” as a way of being and not a style, ideology or program. However, if reaching young adults is only, even mostly, about self-preservation, we have already chosen a path of death without hope for resurrection. On the other hand, if we are about seeing the end of the particular manifestation of the church as a natural life stage and rhythm of life, then we can move into our death strengthened by the promise of resurrection and new life. Yes, some aspects of the church past are destined to continue in some fashion, but if our primary reason for reaching young adults is to preserve what has always been, then we have already stopped being a church worth preserving at all.

I realize that some will now accuse me of dismissing the importance and presence of older adults in the church. I can’t help if that is your initial and only reaction other than to encourage you to think about your role in helping to define the future of the church as an evolving role and not an abdication of presence. One can be young in spirit and energy until death, but to deny the wisdom that age and experience can offer the future is to deny the work of Christ that has been cultivated in all of us over time. Our role in defining the future will depend on context, but if the only role that you or I can see for ourselves is to be upfront determining the direction of the church, we will fail. To me, this is not an acceptable choice, so I must now learn how to gauge the right time and way to lift and support up young adults who can better and more naturally see the future of, and God’s intentions for, the Body of Christ. This is my shifting roll that I will live and be with all of the youthfulness and vibrancy that this creaky body can muster . . . I can’t wait to see what happens.

Bruce is a native Northern Californian and third generation Chinese/Filipino who has been living in San Francisco since 1998.  Until May, 2011 he was the founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, a church of 20/30-somethings in San Francisco, CA and from 2008-2010 was Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is currently one of those “consultant” types who makes his way, writing, speaking, teaching and drinking coffee. His social networks of choice are  TwitterFacebook and his Blog

This article originally appeared on Bruce’s blog at

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About the Author

Bruce Reyes-Chow

Bruce Reyes-ChowBruce Reyes-Chow is a native Northern Californian and third generation Chinese/Filipino who has been living in San Francisco since 1998. Until May, 2011 he was the founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, a church of 20/30-somethings in San Francisco, CA and from 2008-2010 was Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is currently one of those “consultant” types who makes his way, writing, speaking, teaching and drinking coffee. His social networks of choice are Twitter, Facebook and his BlogView all posts by Bruce Reyes-Chow →

  • Meanwhile, off in an ignored corner of Christianity…

    and I’m not just thinking about after high school to age 30’ish people.

  • Drew

    You hit the ball out of the park with this article! As a young adult under 30, I agree with all of your points.

  • Lance

    My 20 year old was raised in the church and is a religion major at a state university. You have it nailed, especially in Assumption #2. The idea that she will sit before a Methodist ordination committee is worthy of a cartoon.

  • 21st Century Episcopalian

    This article sparked some deep thoughts about how and why we “do ministry”.

    As one who initially bought into the generational (read “try to be hip”) model of ministry, it took me a few years in the middle ’90s to realize it was a faulty philosophy.

    What I’ve noticed over the last couple decades is that those who want to “reach” the younger generation, in trying to make church “cool”, attractive, relevant, authentic (am I missing any of the buzzwords? -smile), they have so LOWERED the bar that it’s actually turned out to be the opposite of engaging (ah, there’s another buzzword).

    What we need is a christocentric HIGH BAR focus. That we would truly be willing to let go of and give away everything, be willing to “die to self” that Christ would shine through us, his disciples. That we would let his Word speak to us, without our self-centered cultural, subcultural, political, and/or ecclesiastical agendas dictating how we interpret.

    This type of life approach, this type of christocentric community, even without alt-rock bands, strong boutique espresso, candles & coolness, would truly change lives and change the world.

  • akiva

    I agree that as a man who is 50 born in the last few years of the baby boomer I will not see the world the same as a 20 something but I would have to disagree with you that the baby boomers all liked the same thing since it was for some of us baby boomers our generation that started to be more exposed to different things because of the things that were being invented and being made available since my teens (in the 70’s). I think the reason the view is different for every generation is due to that the world is different in general the political, economic and cultural enviroments are constantly changing so our world views are colored by how these enviroments were as compared to how they are now. So a 20 year old will not have experience first hand what I did and therefore what he/she is experincing is not affected by what I experienced. However for me what I am experincing now is affected by all that I experienced before. Which unfortunately is not always a good thing since each person responds differently to what they experienced. For me this is why I can no longer see the world through the eyes of a 20 year old nor can the 20 year old see the world through my eyes.

  • Alina

    I have very distinct memories about being a “young adult” and looking for a church. The church that I was most excited to be a part of was one that didn’t have a designated “young adult” ministry. I was welcomed by people of all age groups, and was seen as a “member of the church” rather than “a young adult that needs to be targeted”. In any given week, I’d be invited to tea at a senior member’s house, or a youth group canoe trip, or a mixed-age group choral group. I have always been happiest in churches that included all age groups in special events, Bible studies, and services.

  • Anonymous

    Good thoughts Bruce. I agree particularly with point #2. It seems like a lot of baby boomer Christians think that all young adults want the same thing in church, and it usually boils down to “contemporary” worship and mimicking the culture in which young adults are immersed. “If we just incorporate more high-tech gadgets into our worship service that’ll bring them in…” or “We need to make our church like the local coffee shop…”

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