Young adult church members—and by that I mean single folks between 20 and 40 years old who are finishing college or have careers—are often challenged to be involved in their churches: to join Bible studies, find mentors, start groups.
But I’d like to argue that church culture has made being an active young adult member difficult.
Here’s one example. When I was 24, I taught at the local high school and was placed on the youth elder’s list of members, along with my students. I was denied a place on the list of adult members because I was not married and was not 25 years old. My 20-year-old brother, who was married, was on the elders’ adult list.
I worked with international students at Calvin College. These students came from many cultures—Honduran, Bengali, Ghanian, Korean, and Indonesian. While studying, they were immersed in a Protestant, middle-upper class, Christian Reformed, United States culture.
These students had to negotiate meaning in their second, third, or fourth language. They needed to understand references to pop culture and American history, and to interpret the myriad idioms that pepper the English language. Friendship required navigating social cues such as body language and word choice. Even the food was different. International students had to work hard to be active members of this culture—but the hospitality of professors, staff, and peers made it worthwhile.
What’s the connection between these international students and young adults in the church?
Young adults also exist in a different culture. The church’s culture is structured around family. Sermons often use husband-wife and parent-child metaphors to illustrate God’s relationship with his people. Women’s groups like Coffee Break and Bible studies often schedule meetings for weekday mornings when young adults are working. Congregations invite everyone to bring their spouse for a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. Children light Advent candles as their parents read the required text. Most church activities are focused on preserving family culture.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with providing Christian families with programs and support.
And yet, young adults can find it uninviting to enter this family-focused culture. Joining a group of similar-age married people with children reveals conversations about child discipline techniques, home improvement projects, cloth diapers versus disposable diapers, and crockpot recipes. Such conversations can be difficult to relate to for people who haven’t had those experiences. Needing a spouse to be considered an adult church member is also disheartening.
Why does church culture matter? One reason is because the church mirrors God’s hospitality. Expanding the culture to make room for marginalized members is hospitable. And a welcoming culture that respects its members retains its members.
Another is that young adults have much to offer their churches. Many have opportunities to travel, study, and work in colorful landscapes, cultures, and jobs. They know that life includes more than mortgage payments, minivans, and making baby food.
So use their experiences and knowledge by adding them to groups and committees. Listen when they share ideas or ask questions. Ask them about their experiences rather than their love life (or lack thereof). Introduce them to everyone rather than just the other single adults in church. Consider them adult members of the church when they reach a certain maturity level: having a spouse or being 25 are not necessarily hallmarks of a mature adult.
And feed them. Breaking bread is an intensely communal act that shouts, “I belong to this group.” When we feast together, we are obliged to become familiar with one another. Let’s expand the family to integrate young adults and watch our church culture change.
About the Author
Leanne Doornbos Nagel, a former English as a Second Language professor at Calvin College, attends Hillside Community Church in Cutlerville, Mich.