This is one of four short articles reflecting on my early experiences and discoveries of the US church when it comes to reaching and discipling young adults. I have no assumption that all of these learnings are true for everyone, everywhere, all the time. However, I do hope you find this perspective a helpful challenge. So here’s a bit of insight from an “outsider” from Europe, who’s now living and serving churches and college students here in the US.
I’ve got a friend in Kentucky who is on a new church planting team. The core leaders are all Millennials, a mixture of single and married, all had some level of friendship before becoming a team, and all with a heart to reach young adults and college students. Before Covid-19 presented the disruptive opportunity for local churches to rethink their big gatherings and building-centered activities, this group had already dreamt of planting church communities in homes. So, in the midst of the pandemic, their plans and prayers still prospered. At the time of writing this in November, five house churches are already up and running since September and there’s a sixth on the way.
You know who makes up the majority of these house churches of 15-20 people? Young adults. Students, twenties and thirties are overwhelmingly the ones leading, speaking, hosting and waiting patiently on a list for the next plant to start so they can gather in a covid-safe way in person. The other key thing to note about all these young adults is, there are a lot of Millennials (birthdays ranging early 1980s to early 2000s) who were burnt out by big church, by serving systems and the public roles they were given, and then found themselves homeless from local church, desperate for a break. These new house churches, with a very light touch when it comes to structures, set up, and programs to run, but with the promise of a room big enough to make friends and small enough to be seen and have a voice, seem to be received with utter relief by these homeless young adults. They don’t want to be out of Christian community and regular times of gathering to discover more of Jesus with others. They just can’t help lead one more thing as a cog in a bigger machine right now. And so they’re finding healing in the small, the simple, and the personal places of prayer and teaching, friendship and mission.
In the US (and certainly here in Florida), though many churches may still be gathering large numbers through the big front door of Sunday worship, the back door is just as big, dare I say bigger, for young adults leaving. I am not wanting to discourage the local churches of America by saying this, after all I am one of you now, I am serving in my real life imperfect local church too with some similar struggles. This is why I wanted to write, this is why I feel I am learning something out here. Of course, I am also aware that this country is so large and diverse that the US also has some of the best and most beautiful models for real, deep, formational church in all the world. There is a lot to be thankful for here as well. But, I don’t want to pretend that it’s all just fine. Because it really isn’t, and if you’ve got young adults in your life, you know this already.
The longer I live in the United States, the more young adults I meet who feel homeless when it comes to the local church, even if they still attend one. This has been a huge area of grief and disappointment for me to witness first hand, having moved from the United Kingdom, where we have been seeing young adults say “yes” to trying church, often for the first time, and with remarkable results. I left a land of growing church unity, where leaders in every town and city gather to pray together for and with one another, and often serve together for the sake of mission, especially to those most in need. I left a student culture of openness to spiritual things and with young christians being an enthusiastic minority who were most keen to share their faith with their friends of any age group. I left some great models of churches innovating for the sake of reaching and serving people who would never think to walk into a church building. Right now, I have a mate planting a network of house churches, mates restoring ancient cathedral-like buildings to become resources for whole regions, mates doing church round the table and mates doing church on zoom. Of course the grass of the UK isn’t all lush and green. We have our problems, our church closures, our leaky roofs, our burnt out leaders and our disaffected young adults too. It’s not the full blown awakening we long for. But it is something.
In amongst the US stories of students and young adults experiencing homelessness, their reasons for feeling displaced are varied but perhaps stem from the same thing. In a nutshell: if people become a means to an ends, the church has lost its way and will eventually lose its people. Some have had to leave in the burnout of serving hard, with little support or maybe even dysfunctional older leaders who have hurt them, let them down, or just used them to achieve their goals. Others just can’t work out why the teaching from the pulpit doesn’t match the lives of the people. Some wonder why the words of the Bible seem to be picked and chosen around aligning with the majority in the room and what they want to hear, over what young adults are seeing and experiencing in the world outside the church walls. For some, the lack of work around justice for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the poor and the marginalized was the biggest sticking point to them finding the church to be a place they could see and experience Jesus (more on this in my next article). For others, doubt felt like a dirty word and their questions seemed to disrupt the peace. And so I suppose they left, feeling like troublemakers or the problem person in the room. Still others were so confused and exhausted by the disunity, the infighting, the competitiveness between churches and the politics of it all, that it seems much easier to follow Jesus outside of any formalised group or structures, and certainly less painful.
All these examples are not written to discourage. But they are given to alert us to just a tiny taste of the young adult experience. No church is perfect, and many young people stick at it way longer than they want to because they know this. But in 2020, with life getting harder for many and the future getting more uncertain for most, perhaps young adults feel like life is too short to be out of place and frustrated at the back of church? Their hearts that long for real community, friendship, a place to call home and a space to explore faith, haven’t changed. We all long to belong, to be known, accepted, and to experience love. Jesus has his fingerprints all over us, the kind marks of a hands-on God who hand made us on purpose, for community and relationships with each other and him. It’s not that faith community is uncool or irrelevant these days, so the church doesn't stand a chance. Quite the opposite. It’s actually that, if we want to be a church that:
- does the hard work of making disciples and loving our neighbors,
- brings teaching that disrupts the congregation’s comfort when our lives are at odds with the kingdom,
- grows community built not on programs and serving those programs, but on sharing real life in Jesus with people and alongside people,
- becomes a place that is honest and humble about the fact no church knows it all about God, the Bible, and how to follow Christ in the world, but we are willing to try and live this together as best we can...
…well then we might be the home we long for after all. It will take time, it will take prayer, it will take some scary changes to things we’ve stood by as standard protocol. But for young people to not only not leave the church, but to actually become the church, and want their friends to experience this family and find belonging in Jesus’ community too, change is needed, and has been needed for a while.
To offer an encouragement to us here in the US; I have seen the tide turn in the UK around local churches becoming places of welcome and belonging for students, where they used to be out of touch from the campus and insecure about whether young adults would even want to be part of the family. I’ve seen students shift from expectations of church being entertainment programs and front-led experiences put on to serve them, to becoming places they can serve, lead, get their hands dirty and bring their friends to also encounter this work-in-progress people called the people of God. It feels like we have a long way to go to get to this place here in the US, but then I get a phone call from Kentucky about these fledgling house churches and I remember, Jesus loves his church and wants her to thrive way more than any of us do. He is determined for her to become all that he can see we are made to be. So we have much to be hopeful about here in the US, and I pray that we won’t give up on our young adults, and on listening and learning and innovating for the sake of the ones who are homeless right now but longing for home.
Miriam Swanson has worked for Fusion in the UK and Europe for the best part of a decade. She recently moved to Florida, married an American and is now seeking to help local churches reach college students in the US. To get in touch with Miriam about this, you can use the links below and don't forget to browse the Fusion website for more blogs, resources and stories of God at work through his church in the universities.
Photo by rafzin p on Unsplash