My church planting ministry takes me to many places not only in my beloved adopted state of Vermont but across the nation as I recruit church planters, sponsoring churches and raise prayer and financial supporters for these new church plants. In my travels I attend a lot of meetings where it is common to hear people complain how few young adults they have in their congregations. The 18-24 year old age group in particular seems to be missing in many churches. If you listen to what is said in these meetings, it would be easy to believe that the North American church is in trouble and may even cease to exist in another 25 years. But I find myself asking if all this "doom and gloom" is an accurate portrayal of the "big picture" or just the reactionary comments of people who have lost touch with young adults.
In my own interactions with young adults, I find them very interested in spiritual things. They seem eager to experience the reality of God. They are interested in investing time, energy and effort in making the world a better place through a practical expression of their faith. The church where I am an elder is reaching many teenagers and a growing number of young adults for Christ and from our perspective, the future looks bright for the church. But much of what we have done in our own church was more of an "accident" than intentional. I have been looking for some models where churches set out intentionally to make a significant impact in the lives of young adults.
Recently I was blessed to attend Midtown Fellowship in Columbia, SC. This four year old congregation has several hundred young adults who attend one of five services each Sunday. As a 42 year old, I was clearly one of the "old people" in the group. I watched as college students and young professionals worshipped God with passion. While their music was much more energetic than most churches, the focus of the music was on Jesus, not entertainment. I was amazed at how forcibly the congregation was challenged in a biblically based sermon to grasp God's concepts of stewardship and what that meant in the lives of those present. The preacher may have been dressed in blue jeans, but the sermon was not some watered down version of the Gospel, it was a radical call to live like Jesus. After the worship service, several of the staff members took time to go to dinner with me and share what drew them to be a part of this exciting venture. One thing that really drew them was the ability to actually serve the Lord in a key leadership role as a young adult. One young man said, "I'm 25 and my wife is 24 and we wanted to be part of leading ministries to others. That was just not acceptable in most churches, but at Midtown they let us use our gifts in a huge variety of ways." Another young man said that what drew him to the church was the sense of "family." He had attended a very traditional church while growing up that went through a painful three way split when he was in high school. He felt that if people in that congregation had actually known each other, loved each other, and treated each other like family, then the split would not have happened. Midtown has created that family atmosphere. What I took away from that dinner discussion is that two keys to reaching young adults are allowing them to serve in leadership roles and creating a family atmosphere in the church. WOW, that sounds easy!
While the people at Midtown clearly enjoy their faith and have a lot of fun being together as family, everything is not fun and games at Midtown. They shared, with much difficulty, how painful it was to exercise church discipline on a couple who had been part of the core group and how hard it was to have 20 people leave their new mission as a result. But they agreed that their church was stronger today because of their commitment to make it clear that they actually expect their members to live according to biblical principles. That is a concept that many older traditional churches may need to consider.
What blessed me most about this group is that they are not just starting a church for their own enjoyment. They are a church planting church and have multiple interns in the congregation who they are sending out to start new churches in other places. These are young, Spirit filled, biblically based followers of Jesus who are absolutely convinced that God has called them to use their gifts and abilities to change the world with the Gospel. And I believe they can do it. If the North American church is really in trouble, clearly someone forgot to send the young adults at Midtown the memo!