Where are all the young adults? Recent studies show that more than 50% of youth who were active in church during their high school years are not returning after graduation. Indeed, many VMC congregations are noticing this dramatic disappearance of younger participants and are wondering what is happening.
Yet in the meta-crisis of a rapidly aging church, it is frequently missed that not all so-called young adults have actually flown the coop. And not many have asked the spring chickens still active why they are, in fact, sticking with church.
Conference Coordinator Sarah Bixler, a younger adult herself, wanted to know more about these counter-trend younger folks still participating in VMC congregations. What keeps them involved? What do they really think about church?
Over the past several months, Bixler and local contacts in Newport News, Harrisonburg, and Waynesboro, Va., invited younger members in their 20s and 30s to evenings of conversation and connection.
What did they say? Church experienced as a family of belonging and support emerged as a commonly binding love. Church is deeply loved as a place of belonging, a place to fit in (even when a person is broken or different), a place to be genuinely wanted as family members in a nurturing community emphasizing diverse relationships and unity. These members also deeply love church as a place to join God’s kingdom where the Spirit is encountered tangibly changing the world. Christ’s powerful reign can be witnessed and joined through the church’s loving service and worship life.
Yet these younger participants who love and remain connected to congregations also carry poignant longings for what the church could yet be. Desire for church with greater openness resounded. They express deep longing for church to be a place of vulnerability and transparency where all are welcomed as they are (questions, brokenness and difference included) to find a safe place of healing. They hope for greater and more open opportunities to belong in an age-diverse community, participate as integral members, and be in supportive mentorships. These adults also long for a church celebrating God’s all-of-life mission in the community, being a discipleship body responding to movements of God’s missional Spirit all week long, reaching out from the church into the whole neighborhood.
The full onus for change was not simply passed off on the wider church, though. Participants owned responsibility for helping the church be what Christ is calling it to. These deep commitments include: “We will model what we long for, not simply calling others to do our work” and, “In our multiple commitments, we will put the faith community first.” Despite the wider societal trends and legitimate reasons for losing hope for God’s church, these younger adult participants offer VMC both solemn challenge and grounds for celebration.
Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard recently worked with Sarah Bixler in a mentored ministry internship. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in April with a Masters of Divinity.
Learn more: Want to hear more about how young adults relate to the church? Don’t miss the “Christian Formation with Young Adults” workshop at VMC Assembly on July 27, led by Sarah Bixler and Inga Mast.