Below are the notes which formed the foundation of my opening remarks for the panel discussion on engaging twenty and thirty-somethings in the congregation. I will be posting more resources as links at the end of this post over the coming days (as well as linking to some of the resources I mentioned but did not provide earlier), and I hope we can have an exchange of some practical ideas that small congregations have tried. I believe the principles I’ve mentioned in my notes are important, but we need to hear about examples where they’ve been put into practice.

Also, this was primarily written via dictation software, and I’m still finding typos, so if you see one, please let me know so that I can correct this version.

So, please share your thoughts, stories and ideas, and critique away!

I’ve been asked to speak about ways of engaging young adults–twenty and thirty-somethings1–in the congregation. From one perspective it makes perfect sense for me to present on this topic, since I’m 31 years old and I’m used to being on the younger end of meetings, events, and congregations in the Episcopal Church. When I started seminary at Sewanee, I was the youngest seminarian, and I think I was still the youngest seminarian when I graduated three years later.

For quite a while, my wife and I were the youngest people outside of the children’s ministry in our congregations.

On the other hand something we have to keep in mind about young adults who attend church, and in particular those who are in ministry positions, whether lay or ordained, is that we’re pretty odd. What I mean to say is that we are not exactly representative of our demographic. So if you want to know how to attract an abstract young adult who is not a churchgoer and whose life is more representative of the entire age group, then it’s not the best strategy.2

But, thankfully, there are no abstract human beings, there are only individual human beings who have an innate need to connect with other human beings over shared interest, experience and need.

Some people might identify based upon their age, others might identify based upon a common interest, or the fact that they went to the same college, or they have children the same age–even though they are a number of years apart in age themselves.

It leaves us with the reality that targeted evangelism–at least based upon something as broad as age cohort–rarely works in a cut and dry manner.  People are too diverse, their interests too disparate, their gifts unique.  Because of this reality, we never really know how ministries we begin will speak to the needs of our congregation and community.

For example, a friend of mine told me about a ministry a priest in Chattanooga had started a number of years ago that attracted a number of twenty and thirty somethings–a “bluegrass Mass.” This priest was later called to a congregation in Virginia, in part because of his strong ministry to young adults. He started something similar in Virginia, and the service attracted mostly people in their fifties and sixties.

Another, less stark example, is that of a large Episcopal/Anglican congregation in South Carolina that sought to address the dearth of young adults in their congregation by starting a contemporary service in the “less formal” environment of their parish hall. After an initial period in which the warnings of the naysayers proved true, and hardly any twenty-somethings appeared at what was billed as the “twenty-something” service, they hired someone with a good deal of experience in youth and young adult ministry. After some time, they did indeed attract some twenty somethings, and thirty and forty and fifty somethings.  Eventually their age spread looked like this3:

This shows that what was envisioned as the “twenty-something” service, was actually a service that appealed to a wide array of folks of different ages. It did indeed attract a cross section of people who’s average age was lower than the traditional service, but I guarantee there were a number of twenty-somethings attending that traditional service. When we do ministry, we should try to do it well and be ready for who God sends. Our task is to reach out to and to welcome all sorts and conditions of people.

Because evangelism and incorporation take place as part of connection and relationship, it makes sense to start with the people you have and figure out how they can connect with the people outside your doors. What sorts of shared experiences, interests, concerns, and values do they have in common with the broader community?

This is why I’m thankful that this topic is focused on engaging young adults in the congregation, which I take to be primarily about focusing on the people who are in, or who are only a few steps removed from, our congregations. From this point of engagement, I think we can draw some inspiration for ways of reaching out to others, but we begin here, within our communities.

It’s because of this idea of starting with your community, with who you are as a congregation, that I believe many attempts at targeted evangelism fail. Targeted incorporation or engagement will also fail, if by that we mean starting a program or ministry for a particular group based upon a generalized understanding of what young adults, children, parents, seniors or anyone else wants, as seen from the perspective of others.

My goal is to set the stage, provide context for the discussion of how to engage people in their twenties and thirties in the congregation and present some ideas and principals for conversation. first in some broad brush strokes I’m going to talk a little bit about where we are in our culture and in our church. Time necessitates that these are statements are brief, so I’ve included more information and resources in your handout. Because of this, I’m just going to make some claims and statements that I won’t necessarily back up in my remarks, but which will be supported by your materials or the suggested reading.

My comments are not intended to cover every circumstance for every individual experience, but instead to put forward the general idea of what I see as our context, our challenges and our opportunities, and specific ways to engage young adults, which our panel can agree with, expand on, critique, as well as offer their own insights from their experiences.

Our context

Those of us gathered in this room, as people who care about the church, who are involved and active, have heard for years about the decline of the mainline/old-line denominations of which the Episcopal Church is one. What we know now is that in many ways the mainline churches were on the leading edge of a demographic and cultural shift.4 The demographic shift was one in fewer children were born into these denominations, and few young people continued attending church and fewer still the churches they had grown up in.5

But the demographic and social shift that the mainline experienced was a bellwether for what Christianity as a whole in the United States, including those successful conservative denominations and mega-churches are now beginning to experience.

Mainline Protestants felt the pinch earlier in part because we were not able, for a number of reasons, to continue to attract the children, and then the grandchildren, of our staunchest adherents. We are a demographically top-heavy church not just because of a low birthrate, but because, as sociologist Christian Smith put it at the first C3 Conference at St. George’s a few years ago: a person is more likely to attend church  as a young adult if they were raised in a non-religious household than if they were raised in a mainline protestant household.6

Demographics are only part of the story as the mainline has declined more rapidly than demographics alone can explain. I believe considering some of the reasons for this overall decline can point toward a way of doing things in our congregations–whatever our size–that can help us thrive.

Some reasons for mainline decline that affect all of our congregations in one way or another are:

Loss of Identity
Ambiguity of purpose & mission
A lack of confidence

When I talk about conflict, perhaps I should say unnecessary conflict. Not all conflict is bad, especially when faced head on and honestly. But, just for a short hand, I’ll say this: the mainline denominations have embroiled themselves in needless and often silly conflicts for fifty years, internally and politically.7 The result of this conflict has been the alienation of members and increased barriers for newcomers.

The biggest determining factor for decline in a congregation isn’t theological perspective, it’s the presence of conflict.8 And we all know we’ve had our share.

Point One:  If we want to engage young adults–or anyone else–in the life of our congregation, we need to take a lesson and intentionally nurture an environment that does not allow for petty conflicts, and deals honestly and openly with important ones.

Secondly, and perhaps even as a root cause of the other problems, the mainline has declined because of a loss of a sense of identity and purpose.9 Congregations that thrive tend to have both of these things. They have a well developed sense of identity and a clearly articulated purpose and mission. Congregations that can’t express what makes them different from any other congregation in their area are prone to be in decline or to begin declining soon thereafter.

Point Two:    If we want young adults to engage in the life of our congregation, we need to be able to articulate what they are engaging in: what to they receive here that they can receive nowhere else. And just as importantly, what can they do and take part in that they can’t do (or do as well/joyfully etc…) somewhere else?

Statistically speaking there’s an adage that has come about to express some of the demographics of Christianity in the US, namely that “most American Christians attend large congregations, but most congregations are small.” If this is true of American Christians as a whole, it is especially true of young adults, who–particularly in the Episcopal Church–tend to cluster in larger congregations. But this is a chicken and the egg situation. Are young adults attending larger congregations because they *are* larger, or because they have effectively engaged diverse people, which had led them to growth? I think the answer is yes to both in different circumstances, but we should be encouraged in small congregations because we can engage young adults and others if we follow the following principals.:

  • Honesty:  Be honest about your congregation. Don’t hide your weaknesses, but don’t dwell on them. Acknowledge your situation, and then emphasize the positives–why are you excited about your congregation?
    Clarity: being clear about our strengths and weaknesses facilitates honesty, and helps us determine priorities for mission and ministry.
    Discernment: To engage young adults in the life of the congregation, we need the gift of discernment. We need discernment in order to recognize our strengths and weaknesses as a congregation, to achieve clarity about them, so that we can be honest about them. We also need discernment so that we may recognize the very begins and talents of those members of our congregation of what ever age.
  • Appreciation: We need to appreciate the gifts and talents of our members old or young.
  • Flexibility:  We can create an environment in which people in various stages of life are comfortable, encouraged, and empowered to take part in the life of the congregation.For example, just as you may look at accessibility issues in order for the physically challenged or the elderly in your midst, so to you may look at the conditions that would be conducive to the involvement of young adults in the life of your parish. By this I mean the consistent effort to make all people feel at home.The willingness of long-time members to turn over important roles and ministries to younger members as well as to incorporate and mentor them in the process. This means inviting people of all ages, who are faithful members of your congregation, to be involved on vestry, commissions, leading Sunday school or using their gifts and other ways, to improve the life of the parish. It may very well mean the incorporation of new styles of music, allowance for childcare parish events, including perhaps vestry meetings, as well as things like changing tables for young families in both men’s and women’s restrooms, or simply a willingness to try new events, studies, or other activities.
  • Peace: as I mentioned,the presence of conflict in the parish means that new folks won’t stay and people on the fringes will avoid deeper involvement (assuming they don’t just leave).
  • Mission: “Come help us do things the way we’ve always done them,” even if the way we’ve always done them is wonderful, is not an attractive mission, particularly to young adults. Nor is “keep our church alive.” We need to look at our communities and find ways of equipping our members, of all ages, for the ministries that fit with their gifts and callings.

Direct links to blog articles coming soon.

Thoughts for Small Church Conference Articles

  1. I should note, however, that it only seems to be in the church that we speak about thirty-somethings as “young adults.” Consider popular culture. The predominant age of FBI & Secret Service Agents (among others) in popular shows is thirty-something, and their youth isn’t commented upon, in part because they aren’t considered particularly young. Society at large could often be said to be “youth obsessed,” but I think our perceptions of age in the church are often skewed, and this has a detrimental impact on our ministry. []
  2. The biggest single determining factor of whether a young adult in their 20’s and 30’s attends church is whether they are married and secondly, whether they have children. If not, they are unlikely to attend, and given rising ages of marriage and parenting, as well as the increasing numbers of people who choose not to marry, there’s a larger issue here for the church to deal with. []
  3. Ross Lindsay, Building a Church to Last, p. 110, preview available here: []
  4. Denominational Decline Related to Birthrates, Societal Changes, []
  5. There’s some interesting work has been done on the origins of non-denominationalism and mega-churches in a type of youth ministry movement. For some quick musings on this, check out Skye Jethani’s blog: or pick up some books by Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute. []
  6. A couple books that deal very well with our overall situation written by sociologist Christian Smith. Some of you may have heard of his book which came out in 2005, called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In that book he introduced the phrase that has come to characterize not only teenage spirituality in the United States but also spirituality in general. One of Smith’s observations was that the spirituality he observed an American teenagers, did not emerge out of a vacuum, and was instead an inheritance from their parents who shared many of these views while maintaining old habits of church attendance etc… The phrase Smith coined was “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” And basically the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is that we Americans tend to believe in a God that wants us to be “good people” whatever that means therefore it’s moralistic, we tend to want of faith that is for us pragmatic, that means we tend to one of faith that helps us do better in our everyday lives. It’s therapeutic, because what we mean by better is simply a sort of self actualization, helping us feel better about ourselves and so forth. It’s deism because this God is not very active in the world the God of moralistic therapeutic theism sort of sits over the world as a divine observer who occasionally offers pointers for a better more enjoyable existence and applauds the fact that we don’t go around killing one another but aside from that simply supports us in fulfilling our identity.

    Smith continued his work with the same group of children now in their 20s in a book called Souls in Transition. Smith talks about a lot of things but something we should take particular note of is the cultural drive away from institutional faith, or any sort of informed of faith in the sense of knowledge of tradition, knowledge of orthodoxy etc., the beliefs held by these folks tend to be quite eclectic. But of course if you’ve hung around the church enough and talk to people enough and Bible studies you know that the beliefs held by many members of the church can be eclectic. []

  7. See the attached book review from The Christian Century entitled “Public Pews” []
  8. For an example of how conflict has affect congregations in The Episcopal Church, you can take a look at the State of the Church Report to the 76th General Convention. I’ve saved a copy on my website here: []
  9. I want to say that I think Smith’s observations are right in many ways, but I think at least in my reading that he misses something that another sociologist hits right on the head which is something is important for us to consider as Episcopalians as Christians in a mainline tradition. And that is Peter Berger, a sociologist of religion who has observed that far from being the losers of our culture the mainline actually the mainline actually “won” in that the values embraced by American civil society, or secular society are predominantly the values of the old mainline Protestant institutions. The problem is this, the mainline could no longer convincingly states to the American public a reason that they needed to attend church, the part of a religious community, or have faith in Jesus Christ in order to be a “good person.” Berger argues elsewhere that the mainline just threw in the towel vs. modernity, rejected key doctrines and became boring social clubs (my words).

    Berger’s observation are at least partly supported by two historians I’ve read, one with a somewhat progressive bent, Rowan Greer, another with a somewhat conservative perspective, Ashley Null. Both Null and Greer contend that part of the origin for the contemporary conflicts not only within Anglicanism in the Episcopal Church, but more broadly in Western Christianity as a whole, is that there was a consensus, which was particularly strong within Anglicanism, that said you can believe what you want, in other words you can be a member or what ever theological party, as long as you act in the right way in society, in other words belief took a backseat to morals, and it became a shared morality that held everything together. With the breakdown of Victorian morals, we arrive at very contentious times in the church because there’s no agreed-upon morality and if morality was the glue that held everything together well things begin to fall apart. The flip side of the conflict in the church is this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If people come to believe that what matters most is how you act and whether you are what is generally agreed upon as a good person well then they will not see the value in church attendance. So, the majority of people in our culture who have this belief and moralistic therapeutic deism, have a fundamental barrier to coming into our churches, which is the fact that they don’t see the point. So the tilt of our culture, to pick up on the theme is no longer towards the church door offered by one of our speakers a few years ago at diocesan convention, but away from it. So those folks who are attending church what ever age category they may be in, but particularly in the case of young adults are already overcoming a great barrier by even coming through the doors. []