February 10, 2009
For seven years, I have been a part-time minister to young adults at my church. During that time, we have wrestled with one of the most difficult realities facing churches: Many, if not most, students who were active as youth quickly disappear after they graduate from high school. I have spent many hours thinking and talking about this dilemma, and I have compiled a list of “shift barriers” that make the transition so frequently unsuccessful. These observations are general of culture and not necessarily specific to any particular church. However, I believe that each church needs to understand these barriers and evaluate how intentionally it is addressing them.
I offer this list for three audiences. Personally, it is an evaluation tool. It is an opportunity for me to articulate my thoughts and review my past efforts in the hope of informing my future efforts. For churches, it is a reality check. These issues must be understood if truly strategic young adult ministry is to take place. For young adults, it is a warning. These things all represent temptations that vie for the souls of young professing Christians. Too often, young adults are not aware of the influences upon their decisions. If young adults do not address these issues in one way or another, they will find themselves in precarious spiritual places.
Shift Barriers (in no particular order):
1. Not Truly Converted: The primary motivation for anyone to be faithful in church is a relationship with Jesus. If a young person is not personally compelled to love and obey Christ, community worship will not be a priority.
2. Newfound Freedoms: Many high school graduates are unprepared for the responsibilities of adulthood and especially poor at managing their sleeping schedule. Church involvement is often the first thing to go.
3. Moving Away: Going away for college is a precarious spiritual move for a young person. Without the old familiarities and the guidance of parents, there is frequently a failure to plug into a new healthy church.
4. Church Neglect of Young Adults: Often a church will pour a fraction of the investment into its young adults that it pours into its youth. Young adults receive a sudden lack of attention, planning, finances, and mentors.
5. New Ministry Environment: The familiarity of the youth group suddenly shifts to a new environment. Many young people do not even attempt the shift while others fizzle before solid relationships can be established.
6. Poor Youth Strategies: If a youth group is all fun and relationships with little spiritual substance and biblical emphasis, young people will have a weak foundation for an adult life that honors Christ.
7. Secular Education: Public school education is based on naturalism, secular psychology, pragmatism, hedonism, and pluralism. The negative influence of these forces is hard to overstate.
8. The Media: Add to the classic three of television, radio, and movies the relatively new trio of internet, cell phones, and ipods, and there is an unprecedented arsenal for the mass media to poison young people’s minds away from Christ.
9. Bad Friendships: The peer environment in schools is increasingly decadent. Most students in high school and college are immersed in a swamp of hedonism with temptations on every side.
10. Consumerism: Our consumer society generates consumer church goers. Many young adults, and older adults for that matter, become “church hoppers” who bounce from one place to another based on what’s in it for them.
11. Distractions: Young adults today are busy and connected. Many find plenty of relational fulfillment outside of the fellowship of the church. Some who are not necessarily opposed to church are still way too active to ever show up.
12. Financial Pressures: Many young adults allow their employers to schedule them during church hours. They are busy and poor so they are looking for needed times to earn needed money. They may also be intimidated by their employers about saying “no” to Sunday morning.
13. Passive Parenting: Parents are the most powerful influence upon their children and are commanded to take the lead in their children’s spiritual development (Deut. 6). Too often they don’t, and the effect is a spiritually confused young adult.
14. Superficial Worship: Young adults can detect the superficialities in shallow preaching, fluffy praise, token prayer, and phony piety. If a church environment is not authentic and open, it will be trivial to young adults.
15. The Cost of Discipleship: On the other hand, authentic discipleship can also keep many young adults away because following Christ is costly. Of course, the cost is worth it to the truly converted so this barrier is closely related to the first.
The church must be aware of the various barriers that stand between young people and Christ and should be addressing them strategically. A simplistic analysis of the problem is naïve. A church must work hard to evangelize its young people, to equip them, to relate to them, to invest in them, to protect them, and to care for them.
But the church should also have a healthy understanding of reality. There are influences upon young people that the church cannot control. Until Jesus returns, sin will reign in the unconverted and their world. The cross will continue to be foolishness to most. Therefore, the church should never confuse coddling for caring and popularity for success. Judging the quality of a ministry by the length of the roll is a precarious business. Many young adults are simply not going to make the transition. However, by God’s grace, others will.