Katrine Van Houten grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, went away to college at Michigan State University, and then returned to her home congregation. But it wasn’t until she spent time in Jamaica that she caught the vision for how much fun church can be.
In Jamaica, Katrine attended a Baptist congregation that offered a wide range of activities for and coordinated by young people. “Church in Jamaica was the place to be,” she says. “They had a games and fellowship night. They had music, a Bible study. It was a great place to hang out.”
Among other things, the worship experience highlighted for her the need for her church and others to expand their ministry to young adults—a demographic that experts say is leaving organized religion in droves.
When Katrine returned to her home congregation, Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich., she helped to organize a young adult fellowship group called GROW, which stands for “Gathering Friendships, Renewing Our Faith, Opening Doors, Widening our Hearts.” Resident pastor Rev. Jessica Bratt gives leadership to the group.
The group hopes to help young people feel that they are a significant part of the church. “I think our age group can be undervalued and overlooked,” says Van Houten. “People seem to think if you are single and young that you can get involved in the church once you get married. Churches need to give more responsibility to young adults. They need a place in the church. Don’t snub them.”
The Christian Reformed Church in North America, through its various agencies and its churches, is trying to find how best to include young adults in the 18-30 age group in the life of congregations.
Spurring this attempt are some troubling numbers.
Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30, both evangelical and mainline, who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to a survey published last year in USA Today.
Conducted by Lifeway Research, the study of 1,023 young Protestants found that 34 percent of those who stopped attending church after high school had not returned to church, even sporadically, by the time they reached 30.
“This is a big challenge for the church,” says Shirley Roels, a professor of management at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. “This is a group that is very mobile. They are living in a global world. They don’t put roots down very easily.”
Members of this group do not transition into adulthood as quickly as did their older brothers and sisters, she says. They put off marriage, jump from job to job, and tend to be very accepting of all kinds of religions—even as they fail to practice their own.
“This is a generation of young people who are floating free, and yet they are also deeply vulnerable,” says Peter Schuurman, a CRC campus minister in Guelph, Ontario.
With this trend toward a delayed move into adulthood, “we see a significant change in the landscape for our churches and ministries,” says Howard Vanderwell of Calvin Theological Seminary.
The CRC is in the process of studying how to best address the spiritual needs of this age group. At the same time, agencies such as the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Christian Reformed Home Missions are starting to appoint younger people to their boards of directors.
In an attempt to address the needs of this age group, Home Missions has begun to plant churches in the places where young people tend to live and congregate, which increasingly is in downtown areas of large cities.
Emmaus Road in Seattle, Wash., is one of those church plants. On Sundays, Rev. Eric Likkel and members of his congregation move tables and chairs to open up a space for worship in a downtown Seattle center for homeless youth. During the week, they often volunteer serving food, or connect in other ways with the young people at the center.
The link between the church and the center for homeless youth has been a catalyst that helps members of Likkel’s congregation discover the power and value in reaching out to others.
“We started this ministry because we had a feeling of crisis, of this missing age group in the church. They would graduate from college and graduate from church at the same time,” Likkel says.
He sees reaching out to young adults as a process of friendship, of building relationships, and of giving them the space and the biblical background they need to decide for themselves exactly how they want to walk with God.
At New City Church in Jersey City, N.J., facilitating discussions on hip-hop music and rap poetry are part of the outreach to young adults. Although New City’s main focus is on children and teens, it does reach out to those who are in their late teens and 20s by holding small groups that are theme-focused. Guys who are interested in sports, musicians interested in different types of music, or women interested in nutrition and getting in better shape meet together for fellowship, says Sarah Licata, office administrator at New City.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Rev. Mary-Lee Bouma sees ministry to this age group as requiring patience and a new vision for church—one that doesn’t necessarily mean having a building for worship. Ministry in her model might mean playing softball together, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or simply meeting regularly for conversation and coffee.
“Our goal is to reach people in different ways and to help them believe in and then to follow Jesus,” says Bouma.
Coming Home—to Church
Bradley Bishop grew up attending Protestant churches and youth groups. But his church-going days ended as soon as he started college.
After that, it took many years and a painful divorce to bring him back to church.
Although he still kept his faith very close to his heart, he says, “I only discussed it during conversations with other colleagues concerning philosophy and deeper moments of life.”
A couple of months after his break up with his wife, he decided to take their daughter to Emmaus Road, a Christian Reformed congregation in downtown Seattle.
It was a while before he felt comfortable. At one point, another church member suggested that he try to be more open to the preaching of Pastor Eric Likkel.
“I took this recommendation very seriously,” he says. “With my heart in the right place now, it was like I tripped and fell down the stairs, landing in the Lord’s arms. Emmaus Road has been a new home and a new family for me, exploding with the heart, joy, excitement, passion, love, and inspiration I was looking for.”
He says he felt hungry for more spiritual substance and began attending small groups. Then he started to volunteer for various tasks “and I began to grow personal relationships with other members of the church.”
Through the preaching and the connections he has made, he has once again settled into a pattern of regular church-going.
“Today, my biggest challenge in life is to be the father that I want to be. Every day (more some days than others) I pray to Jesus that I may have the wisdom and patience to be a better father,” he says.
Stephanie Milanowski grew up in the Roman Catholic faith and attended Catholic schools for 12 years.
“I searched within many churches of the Catholic faith, but no matter where I went I never truly felt God’s presence in my life,” she says.
Then a friend introduced her to Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Mich. “It was like coming home. I listened to my first sermon here and it seemed that it had been tailored to exactly what I needed to hear that day,” she says.
She started to teach Sunday school and eventually helped to start a young adult group at the church. That group, called GROW, is now a well-organized group with a broad range of activities, from camping trips to what the group calls “Dessert & Discussions.”
Only recently did she actually become a member of the church. Leaving the Catholic church was “one of the hardest things that my parents and I have fought about,” she says, “but they are finally happy to see that I have a truly strong and loving relationship with Christ.”
Seeing God in the City
Rev. Tim Douma walks along South Dearborn Street in Chicago, pointing out some of the city’s architectural wonders.
The pastor of Loop Christian Ministries has been working in this area for more than 20 years. For him, the amazing variety of buildings reflects the diversity of the city and the people who live, work, and learn here.
Douma is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America as well as a college teacher. He often takes students and members of his church on walking tours of the city. When he does, he talks about seeing God’s hand at work in Chicago’s architecture.
Like the buildings that stretch and soar, creating the face of one of North America’s great cities, faith in God and a grasp of Reformed theology provide a sturdy bulwark that offers an understanding of the past, identity for today, and hope for the future, he says.
It’s a message that seems to resonate especially with young people.
Besides serving at Loop Christian Ministries, which currently meets for worship in a nearby Catholic church, Douma teaches urban ministry for the Chicago Semester, a program that brings in students from colleges all over the Midwest.
When it comes to faith, Douma says, young people want an authentic experience and they want it with a wider community. “Young people are hungry for a history, a system, a culture that they can take seriously,” he says. “They want to be culturally engaged.”
Loop Ministries attracts people from all walks of life, says Sam McClure, an artist and former member of the congregation. “(It) is a place where southside Chicagoans and kids from Iowa can relate and find common ground, where artists, seminarians, dentists, philosophers, poets, businessmen, and college presidents can all share community and brother/sisterhood.”
Douma says his approach has been one of engagement, of linking young people with one another as well as with adults and with the people who live in the neighborhoods that are located in and around the Loop. He has done this through the traditional means: teaching, preaching, fellowship and prayer.
In addition to leading walking tours, he accompanies young people and church members to lectures, poetry readings and concerts, goes with them on leisurely bike rides through the city and meets with them over meals.
Stopping in front of the historic Marquette Building on South Dearborn, Douma talks about its ornate entryway featuring mosaics that tell the history of the founding of Chicago. Moving on, he then talks about the overall focus of Loop Christian Ministries.
“In many ways, it has been an evolving strategy,” he says. “But at the same time, we know who we are as Reformed people so that we can serve as a hub, a catalyst for people, especially young people, to connect and pull lots of things together.”
Walk Your faith
“Walk the Way” (WTW), which recently went on the air, is a daily short radio program with an online video-blog that fosters communication among listeners, many of whom are in the 18-to-39 age group.
The radio feature is a reflection on how God and faith crash into real life, compelling one to live differently. “Walk your faith, don’t just talk it,” says host Jeff Klein. The website, www.walktheway.net, expands on that challenge by inviting community through comment and conversation and offering opportunities to act immediately.
“WTW has touched a nerve in the Christian radio industry,” notes Rev. Steven Koster, English ministry team leader for Back to God Ministries International, formerly The Back to God Hour. “We’re reaching the audience that everyone is trying to figure out how to reach. This is huge for the CRC.”
“WTW is adding new stations rapidly,” Koster reports. “In two months we’ve already met and quadrupled our goal for the first year.” More than 400 media outlets have signed on to air “Walk the Way.”
For more information visit www.walktheway.net.
—Nancy Vander Meer
About the Author
Chris Meehan is a freelance writer and commissioned pastor at Coit Community Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.