18-22 year olds drop out of church at a rate of nearly 70%. (Research here.)
This is a huge gap in the life of the church that young folks are just falling through.
This post isn't about whose fault that it is or even how to fix it (as if I knew!). It's just a survey of some of the unique challenges of young adult ministry.
Element, the ministry community I lead, aims at ministering to a broad demo of young adults 18 to 30something. That is an intentionally broad range, our stab at reducing the segmentization typical in churches, exposing a transitional generation to people people sort of like them but not like them, and thereby (hopefully) providing a taste of Christian community and easing the transition of "gappers" into the life of the church (along with unhip Boomers and new-hip Builders).
18-22 is different from 18-35, but I have found that the qualities and challenges identified with 18-22 in the research I peruse translates fairly well.
Some challenges we face in general:
-- Young adults, whether in college, graduate school, or just beginning a career, take time to figure out how to balance their life. The newness of "freedom" -- being away from home, being on their own, making their own money, etc. -- can be more overwhelming than they realize. (One stab at prescription: If a young adult only knows church as a program that was part of his family schedule growing up, rather than as a community life that was integral to his family (and that his family was integral to), he is more likely to consider church expendable in this transition.)
-- Young adults are just flaky. Seriously. To put positive spins on this: they are spontaneous, adventurous, experiential. To put negative spins on this: they have trouble committing, and they have trouble remembering. They may tell you "I'll be there" one day, and then forget what you were talking about the next. We have folks who attend our Element worship service once every four weeks, and for them, this is attending regularly. Never put it past a young person to "forget" about a service project because he was chatting at Starbucks with his friends or overslept after a late-night XBox session.
-- Young adults really do want community and they really don't want to be pandered to. They are finding these qualities very rare when they even bother looking for a church in a new environment.
-- Young adults are very, very busy. This is just an observational hypothesis, but it appears to me that each generation becomes more like the hurried, multi-tasked, overworked, overextended generation ahead of it sooner.
Here are some challenges particular to the environment Element ministers in: Nashville, TN. The same challenges above apply, but here are a few unique additions:
-- All young adults are transient, but in Nashville, they are even more so. As in most college towns, kids are here for school and consider their "real life" back home and on hold. They are here for their degree. Young folks come to Nashville to study medicine or nursing at Vanderbilt or music business at Belmont (or whatever), and as this is only a pit-stop for them, there is no real incentive to invest in discipleship here. Factor in all the aspiring entertainers (in Nashville, just throw a rock out your window and you'll hit a musician -- they are like actors in L.A., where everyone you meet is "really an actor"), and the transience compounds. Young adults are here to break into the music business. While they're here, they're busy writing, playing, trying to get gigs, working at Starbucks, and then when it doesn't pan out after a year or so, they move back home.
-- Our particular church is in a suburban area about 15 miles outside of downtown Nashville, which might as well be 100. Better exposure and strategic advertisement can lessen this distance, but young adult life takes place in the heart of Nashville, where the colleges and clubs and coffee shops and restaurants and art venues are, and most young adults are reluctant to travel outside this bubble. Why would they want to just to "check out" a church or young adult ministry? (We are relying on our already invested folks to bring friends, and most of them are.) For college kids without cars, our church may as well be in Alabama. In addition, despite the fact that, according to one church staff member's research, our church is in the area of Nashville with the highest concentration of single twentysomethings, because we have no draw for them (the "mall" is a joke, the restaurant selection numbers about five, no music venues, etc.), young people spend their non-working life outside our area.
These are the unique challenges of ministering to college students and young adults. They are easy to pigeonhole, difficult to predict. And they are a joy to do life with when you can get one to slow down. :-)
I have found it refreshing that most of the young adults I meet are as tired of the self-helpy, mealy-mouthed, buffet-style, consumer-driven church as I am, and they are hungry for substantive teaching, and for the Gospel. Despite consuming media at a rate that dwarfs older generations, they have a low tolerance for "the show" in church.