If you want to see a thriving church, just look at its young adult ministries — those reaching older high schoolers, college students, and young single professionals. Chances are, the church’s ministries to that “in-between” demographic are thriving too. According to a 2015 research survey by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a healthy outreach to younger people usually means a healthy church overall.
But the opposite is also true. In a lot of churches, these young adults find themselves left out of small group and discipleship ministries aimed at their spiritual growth. There are plenty of younger student, newlywed, and young family ministries. But for many young people who don’t fall into any of those camps, it can be frustrating to try plugging into a church that doesn’t seem to have a place for them.
It’s not surprising, then, that this age demographic has some of the poorest church attendance across the board. If the church is to continue to thrive in the future, young people must remain engaged. Ready to improve your outreach to this often-underserved demographic? Here are four ways to get started.
Establish a college-age or young professionals ministry
A 2019 Lifeway study found that most teenagers who attend church eventually drop out as young adults. Many cite their reason for leaving as starting college, but often, if they leave during college, it’s a challenge to reengage them once they graduate. That’s why outreach to them is so important, especially if you have college students in your city. The first and most obvious thing to do is to actually establish a formal ministry (or two) to them, if you don’t already have one in place. Then assign a paid staff member or a volunteer to run them. If you want them to succeed, you need a point person for them.
Once your ministry is off the ground, raise up leaders out of the young attendees and equip them with the tools they’ll need to go back into their own unchurched peer groups and share the gospel, invite friends to a church event, or just be a positive representative of Christ. After all, Gen Z (those born starting in the late ‘90s) have been called “Culture Creators.” A research study by market research firm Wildness described these young people as “empowered, connected, empathetic self-starters that want to stand out and make a difference in the world.” Send these young people on mission to create a culture for Christ.
Create service opportunities that appeal to a mission-minded generation
We’ve already established that young people are attracted to the idea of mission. As a church leader, it’s your job to link that mission to the Christian life. Show them that following Christ is about more than being saved and going to heaven (though that’s a big deal too, of course!). Christ calls us to partner with Him in the reconciliation of all creation to God, while we’re in this world. So create opportunities for young people to serve in the community. Ask those already in your church to bring their friends along to volunteer.
Unbelievers may be wary of showing up to church on a Sunday, but they’d probably be okay helping at a soup kitchen, planting flowers at an underserved elementary school, or organizing an Easter egg hunt for the kids staying with their moms at a women’s shelter. Once they have a comfort level around church members, they might be more open to an invitation from their friends to attend a Sunday gathering or a special event, like Easter or Christmas, when there are more first-time visitors and it’s easier to blend in.
Increase your social media presence
Would you believe that the average teenager spends nine hours a day on social media? It’s true, according to a report by Common Sense Media. If that’s the space young people are living in, then it’s the church’s job to meet them there. That means maintaining a presence on popular social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Different platforms are popular across different cultures, age demographics, and regions. Figure out where the young adults in your community are spending their time, and decide which platforms play best to your church’s creative strengths. Then assign either a paid staffer or a volunteer to create a church account, post regularly, interact with followers, and basically treat social media like a second public square.
Social media is also a great tool for advertising upcoming events at your church to young adults who might not hear about them otherwise. So if you have a summer block party, a Christmas concert, or an Easter egg hunt following Easter services on your calendar, advertise those on social media so the young people in your community can add them to their calendars, too
Eliminate obstacles to church attendance
Just like reaching any other people group, reaching young adults successfully means understanding what’s kept them out of church and eliminating those barriers. So what do we know about young people? They’re often in transitional stages of life. They might move around a lot. They may not plan to stay in their current city forever. They often have packed schedules with little room to squeeze in church services and activities.
Make it as easy as possible for them to get to church. Hold your events in the evenings or on different days of the week. Offer to drive them to and from events if they don’t have a car. Hold events at different locations around town to eliminate the intimidation factor of walking through church doors. And let young people know you’re happy to have them there for as long as they can stay, even if it’s just until the end of the school year or until they relocate for their next job.
A Few Other Points to Consider
That same study by the Hartford Institute found a few more interesting details about young adults who are engaged with church, and they’re worth considering in the overall life of your church. First, 70 percent of active young adults within a congregation come from families who are already a part of that church. So it’s worth keeping in mind that as the children in your church grow into teens, and then into young adults, you’ll have a better chance of retaining them if you prioritize maintaining their engagement now and as they grow.
Second, the Hartford study also found that half of all young adults attending church participate in church programs and activities besides Sunday worship. That includes things like fellowship groups, church websites, church social media, Bible study, service projects, and recreational activities. Think about the different ways you engage young adults. Are you offering all or most of those other activities to them? If all you have to offer is Sunday worship, your ministry to them may suffer.
Here’s the bottom line: The more intentional you are about reaching young adults, the bigger the percentage of them in your church. So have a plan. Create a written strategy with goals and steps you’ll take to reach, retain, and spiritually grow the Gen Z and Millennial young people in your community. Then act on it!