What can and should we do about the problem of losing “emerging adults” from the church? This is the question that Rebecca Glover posts here. By “emerging adults” she means those aged 18-25. She talks about those
“Too old for the youth group but feeling too young, too out of place really to feel part of ‘adult church’.”
She looks back at her own experience when moving from being a teenager at school to a student and writes:
Picture this. You are nineteen years old, too old for the youth group now. You have spent the last few years leaving the main church service part way through to join the other young people in a programme aimed specifically at those at your age stage. You have learnt key Biblical stories as well as practical life lessons through a varied mixture of role play, discussion, reading, activities and games. There have been leaders around you whose specific job has been, at the most basic level, to take an interest in you. But more than that, these people have been around to mentor you, grow you, and facilitate these learnings.
However, now you are an adult, so you stay in the main service with the rest of the adults. The preacher today is providing practical application for the Scripture, but they keep mentioning jobs and family. You are a student; you’re not yet sure what you want to do for a long term career, and you don’t have a spouse or children. In fact, your parents and siblings are over one hundred miles away, back in your hometown. Ahh home. It’s okay; “I can make this message transferable to my own life, fill in the gaps”, you think to yourself.
Throughout the sermon, there have been a couple of references to popular culture… in the eighties, that is, so these references have gone straight over your head. The sermon is 50 minutes long – almost as long as tomorrow’s morning lecture – so you sit and listen, trying to take notes. But you miss the games and the discussion, even if you were beginning to feel a bit too old for it.
Eventually you stand to sing the final song and you enjoy the lyrics; perhaps you recognise one of the choruses from a psalm you read. But these songs don’t sound much like the music you listen to outside of church, and you are not sure what some of the lyrics mean. Never mind, you make a mental note to Google ‘cherubim and seraphim’ later.
I’ve decided to quote at length to give as full a feel for her description as possible. I have a number of concerns and questions with it and I’m going to set them out now. I want to be clear as I do so that my response is not a criticism of Rebecca who is simply and legitimately reporting her experience. I don’t know what her proposed solutions are yet as I’ve not got a copy of her booklet at the moment and so I don’t know whether I’ll agree or disagree!
However, first of all, it’s worth saying that experiences of church may vary, Incidentally, if the preacher’s illustrations are all from the 80s, then that’s probably a problem for everyone, not just the students. In the same way, you don’t have to be 18-25 to be left cold by application that’s all to do with families, work and children. Preachers should also consider the single lady in her 50s or the retired widower in his seventies, not forgetting that couple in their forties who have not been able to have children.
On the other hand, it is also just as possible for a church in a University area to direct much of the service at students to the detriment of families and older people. However, there is also something to be said for learning to listen to sermons that don’t seem to be immediately about me and a good thing churches can do is equip people to learn how to apply teaching by way of analogy to their own specific situation.
Mt greater concern though is with the comments about being a little too old for youth group but not yet old enough for church. In particular I’m concerned though sadly not surprised at the description of a church experience where the person’s first experience of a whole service without going out to Sunday Club is when they leave to head off to University.
I’m not surprised, because I know it happens and it’s a challenge I’ve had to face wherever we’ve been involved in church leadership. The problem is this: 19 is far, far too old to be just out of the Sunday youth group. My personal view is that children should be sitting in and actively listening to the preaching from at least secondary school age.
There are a few reasons for this. First, because I fear that the process Rebecca describes gives the implication that a young person has done Christianity by 18, they’ve been given everything, it has been like going through Key Stages 1-4 and now they’ve graduated. This misses the point of the gathering not being for an education programme but to share in a spiritual meal together.
Secondly, I believe that it is easier to walk out on a youth group than it is to leave family and essentially that’s what you want to cultivate by having different ages, including teens in together as part of the whole service. You want them to think of church as being their spiritual family.
Thirdly, preachers often get used to preaching to the people in front of them. If they aren’t used to having young people in for the sermon then don’t be surprised if they are uncertain about how to preach to them. So, in fact, the best way to encourage preaching that is relevant to young people is to have lots of young people in the service. And not just as passive. Our expectation should be that those youngsters may well have trusted Jesus and so should be getting baptised and involved in the life of the church, using their gifts for God’s glory.
The answer to the problem with the 18-25’s generation is found therefore not by trying to apply fixes for that age group but instead by going back and sorting things earlier.