Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Next Generation: Non-Joiners Who Desire to Belong

Earlier this week I had a conversation with a senior adult who told me that when she and her husband moved to a new town, they found a church to attend the very first Sunday. She recalled that she knew within the first 10 minutes that it was the church for them. Three weeks later they became official members of that church and remained active members of it until they relocated to a new city some years later. That ability to pick a church, make the commitment to join it, and then remain loyal to it is indicative of the older generation. But finding a church and making a commitment to it is much more difficult for younger generations.

One study revealed that today's young adults often attend three or more churches on a regular basis and may not be an official member of any of them. Though this is working out just great for the young adults, it is more of a challenge for the churches themselves. Churches survive by participants' willingness to volunteer to lead their various ministries and donate to their various causes. Young people who attend a variety of churches without being committed to any of them are less likely to volunteer or donate. This puts pressure on the churches to continue to provide the very services that the young adults benefit so much from.

Unfortunately, it is not just churches that are struggling with a lack of commitment from young adults. Today's young adults are less likely to join any group than previous generations. Dr. Jean Twenge has done extensive research on today's young adults. She discovered through her research that "memberships in community groups have declined by more than one-fourth since the 1970s. Groups like the Elks, the Jaycees, and PTA groups have all seen memberships fall. Young people would rather do their own thing than join a group."

Since young adults would rather do their own thing than join a group, churches and other service organizations are struggling to survive. What is interesting about this situation is that much has been written about how young adults like to volunteer. Dr. Twenge's research reveals that they like to volunteer ONLY "as long as time spent volunteering does not conflict with other goals." She goes on to reveal that young adults will volunteer "but we want to do it in our own way."

What makes this trend toward being "non-joiners" so ironic is that those very same young adults express a desire to "belong." They feel alone, isolated and frustrated. They frequently talk about the need for more friends and express a desire to be part of a group that will help them feel like one of the family. They are basically non-joiners who desperately want to belong.

Churches must help young adults realize that a meaningful life is not just about being served. Part of living a meaningful life is to serve others. The whole reason that churches, and other community organizations, exist is to serve others. The most effective way a person can serve others is to become connected to a church and one or more of these other service oriented community groups. It is clear that popping in and out is not giving young adults the sense of belonging and purpose they desire. It is going to take a higher level of commitment on their part.

I am reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 10:39, "Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it." Jesus was trying to help His friends understand that a life lived for self is meaningless but a life lived for others will be of great value. From a practical perspective, this means that young adults desperately need to get committed to a particular church and service organization and then get busy serving others. They need to be willing to make the commitment necessary to be a meaningful part of such groups. The church must help young adults move to a deeper level of commitment not just for the church's sake, but for the sake of young adults themselves.


  1. Good info. One category of young adults that we have been blessed to work with are those that are living together outside of marriage. Our church has been accepting as they have been attending, allowing them to participate in service activities. After attending for over a year, several couples have chosen to marry. Some have been saved while attending, some were saved before they started attending.

    This is a group every church needs to decide how they will minister to them since this number seems to be ever increasing.

  2. Jim Wrenn, North CarolinaMarch 15, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    Thanks for the articles that you've been making available. The principles you talk about are applicable to just about any church, these days especially. I've been passing them on to the rest of our staff, particularly our Youth Pastor.