The Truth about Emerging Adults and the Church

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Millennials and Gen Zers are leaving the Christian faith by the millions. Studies show that a gap between young adults and the church exists and it is widening. The Pinetops Foundation recently reported in “The Great Opportunity” that if trends continue, more than one million youth in the American church today will choose to leave each year for the next three decades. Between twenty and forty million youth raised in families that call themselves Christians are projected to no longer claim Christ by the year 2050. This young adult exodus from the church is a big problem. American Christianity is in the midst of a precipitous fall that may determine the state of the church for the next century. It is time to sound the alarm and to address the seismic religious earthquake taking place in emerging generations.

As church leaders, the separation between Jesus and our young adults registers deep within our spirits. Studies like the one mentioned are not just statistics for us. We do not carelessly watch twenty-somethings walk out of the church doors never to return. The emerging adult exodus is more personal than that. Most of us have painful stories of loved ones who are part of this church exodus. Their absence leaves a vacuum both in our communities and in our hearts.

The Heart-Cry of Belonging

A decade of campus ministry has given me the chance to walk alongside hundreds of Millennial and Gen Z Christians. I have prayed, worshiped, and talked with young adults on dozens of university campuses from across the country over the past few years. These students have opened my eyes and ears to the hopes, struggles, fears, and desires of people thirty-five and under.

These relationally bankrupt generations long to be known. And many of them are confused about why this need is not met in their local church. Over and over I hear young adults tell me things like: “I go every Sunday, but I do not know anyone in the church”; “My anxiety was so bad that I could not get out of bed this morning”; “Pray for me. I want to follow Jesus, but I don’t have anyone to encourage me in my faith”; “I am so depressed that I cannot feel God”; or “I need spiritual friends to hold me accountable, but I do not know where to find them. Do you know anybody?”

Churches have given them plenty of options to observe worship by consuming digital content or by attending a seamless Sunday-morning service, but young adults wonder why their church experience stops with observation. They are looking for communities where they belong, participate, and are known. Unsatisfied and restless, many search for a faith community that will allow them to step beyond church observation and into church participation.

Get the book to help you understand emerging generations.

Belonging is the heart-cry of the Millennial and Gen Z generations. This is because they live in the fallout of expressive individualism—the unending quest for freedom and choice. This ethos eats away at emerging adults. They are constantly transitioning jobs, cities, schools, and careers. Their friendships are now managed online and on phones. They struggle to bond with others as they try to establish their adult lives. Twenty-somethings are victim to the ideals of expressive individualism and have become lonely, disconnected, and relationally stunted as a result.

They understand that the relationships offered to them on a daily basis are shallow, and they want their church to present a redemptive alternative. Their desire is for church to be the place where they experience the real meat of life—intimacy with God and others. They want to laugh, cry, celebrate, and mourn together, and to know and be known by other believers. They want to move from church attendance to church belonging.

How Leaders Can Be Digital Farmers

Over the last couple of years, my wife, Maddie, and I felt a growing call to plant a house church network. We announced to our friends and family in March 2020 that we were going to finally pursue the dream. In the five days following the announcement, COVID went from Wuhan to Seattle, and then from Seattle to my neighborhood. All churches were immediately shut down and the only way to worship was in the home. It was like God said, “I’m glad you prefer to plant in homes, because it’s your only option.”

COVID provided plenty of obstacles to starting a house church movement in 2020, but I remember having a conversation with one would-be church-planting expert who didn’t like the idea under any circumstance, good or bad. He told me: “No. Don’t start your church in homes. You’ll never make it. Launch large. Then cut big. Shoot for a thousand people on your first Sunday. You want to create an audience. This will be your base of givers. A church will never succeed without starting with a substantially sized audience of people.”

I gave a small amount of pushback: “We want to plant a church where believers gather in their own homes to worship God, forge Christian family, and reach their neighborhoods through missional living. Our desire is to start with small groups of deeply discipled Christians, and to grow by engaging the unchurched.”

The church-planting coach didn’t mince words when shooting down my idealism: “People don’t want to be in the home. Most want to remain anonymous in church. The majority just need a service that they can attend easily and then leave.”

“What about transfer growth,” I asked? “I don’t want to have the next ‘cool church,’ only to grow with believers from other churches.”

His response: “Don’t worry about people who come from other churches. They didn’t belong in those churches in the first place. Just don’t start in the home. You need a large audience that acts as a base of givers. Collect a crowd from the start and then use the donor base however you need. That’s key to being sustainable. A large Sunday service is your only realistic chance of impacting your city.”

I thanked the coach for his honesty, said goodbye, and hung up the phone. I wasn’t discouraged or surprised. I’ve been in the consumer Christian context long enough to know its attitudes and talking points—and to know that it’s largely ineffective in reaching and forming emerging generations.

You can see the values of expressive individualism in the comments from this church-planting coach. He represents a low-commitment and consumer-friendly model of religion to which America has grown accustomed. This easy-come/easy-go brand of church is prevalent. Emerging adults are choosing the easy-go option, and the pandemic has exacerbated the effect.

COVID forced churches into a digital streaming gold rush. Some have gone so far as to launch phone apps that double as a church campus. These applications aim to replace physical churches with video streaming. You can now attend church on your phone, tablet, or computer.

Viewers can “attend” a digital worship service from wherever they like; stay in the bed and log on to church, watch church from a coffee shop, or go to the grocery store and listen in. The app attempts to replace different aspects of a physical church through digital means. You can “meet” people in a digital “lobby,” sing along with worship, and watch the sermon. However, there is no physical body-to-body relationship with other people, and these digital-driven churches mistakenly reduce church to the act of online content consumption.

COVID has accelerated the growth of this online consumeristic model. Pastors are now forced to be digital farmers, attempting to harvest the screen-time attention of young adults. The church’s pivot toward digital content will become more prevalent as our society becomes increasingly digitized and individualized. This is celebrated by some, but the big problem persists: we are losing roughly one million Millennial and Gen Z men and women every year.

The Reality of Our Hunger for Renewal

It is time for a different strategy. As pastors, leaders, elders, parents, and committed Christians, we see the problem and feel prodded to make a change. We can no longer do church as normal. We want to stand in the gap and contend for renewal. We hunger to see a fresh move of God sweep across our society and to sweep up the next generation in the process. We don’t just believe that God could reach Millennials and Gen Zers, we feel that he must.

Yet, we do not feel equipped to lead into the next revival. The gap between church and culture feels too wide. The lifestyle of young adults has progressed too rapidly to keep up. The new life stage of emerging adulthood is a mystery to many of us.

Connecting with this age group is a matter of survival for our faith traditions, but we struggle to understand the people we are most desperate to reach. This gap has placed a deep-seated anxiety within us. We want to take action, but feel stuck in confusion.

That is why my hope for this book is twofold. First, I want to help readers see emerging adults with clarity. They are experiencing their late teens and twenties unlike any generation in the past. I want us to become familiar with their aches, struggles, hopes, lifestyle, and spirituality so we can empathize with them and lead them in confidence.

Second, I want us to fall in love with a point of renewal that we cannot miss as church leaders and committed disciples of Jesus. That point of renewal is family-like community within emerging generations. We have only begun in this introduction to uncover the damage done by expressive individualism, and a return to early-church community is our only hope of reversing its effect.

The premise of this book is simple: if we can wield the power of intimate community, then renewal could be right around the corner.

Where Forged Family Comes In

David Brooks once used the term forged family to reference communities of individuals that bond together as family in a shared struggle for survival. The term immediately struck me as important for emerging generational ministry. When someone forges metal, they bring two independent metal objects into an intense fire. This fire welds the two separate metal pieces together, making them into one object.

Twenty-somethings are isolated and each of them is in the fire of identity formation. The journey of becoming an established adult will put their understanding of God through a blue-hot fire. Too many of them go through that fire alone, and their faith burns up in the process.

But we can help build communities of young adults who go through the fire together. Give them a vision for a shared life with God, and they will weld together in the flame and be formed into the likeness of Jesus.

We are not referring to blood relatives when we use the term family. We mean the family of God—the brothers and sisters of Jesus—the children of our heavenly Father. Forged families happen anywhere young adults come together in intimate community to support one another in the emerging adult fire of life and faith.

Forged family is more of an idea or concept than it is a rigid structure. I am not presenting a precise model or a quick-fix system. Also, this book is not an attempt to advocate for house churches. I lead a house church movement but am not a house church purist. I am thankful for churches large and small, traditional and contemporary, rural and urban, and profoundly believe that God will use all makes and models to reach Millennials and Gen Zers.

This means that we can use the forged-family principles in this book to establish meaningful young-adult communities within our churches, regardless of tradition or background. Forged families can exist in any community where Jesus followers rely on each other in noncasual and family-like ways.

Part One of this book tackles the community struggles of emerging adulthood. The first chapter gives us the wide-lens view of the impact of individualism and the breakdown of relationships in young adults. Chapters 2 through 5 name the specific idols and barriers that block these young people from Christian community and from each other.

In Part Two, we will learn the ways in which the church can form community with emerging generations. Chapters 6 through 10 will detail how the church can become their relational hub and explore five different movements that we can make together to forge family.

Renewal in emerging generations will not be far off if we can capture the power of intimate relationship. My prayer is that, by the end of this book, readers will feel equipped to forge family with emerging adults in their lives. I’m looking forward to taking this journey into community together.

Get the book to help you understand emerging generations.

Your church or young adult community can buck the trends of the emerging adult exodus by simply listening to the Millennial and GenZ generations, and by cultivating a forged family community that will reach and form them.

Forged equips you to do this by: 1) making these generations alive and personal to you and 2) shedding light on how your church can re-engage them in this moment.

This book illuminates both the darkness that surrounds most emerging adults, and the blind spots that keep most churches from effectively ministering to them. Take a second to look critically at these generations and evaluate how your church can serve them. Some simple but profound changes in how you approach young people may spark renewal. God has called you to lead these generations in this moment. Forged will help you confidently lead your church into a bright and positive future with twenty-somethings.

Perfect for:

  • Campus ministers
  • Mentors to young adults
  • Pastors desiring renewal
  • Family ministers

In these pages you’ll:

  • Rally your church or family to re-engage emerging adults with creative and potent strategies
  • Learn how to plant micro communities that can reach and disciple young adults
  • Learn principles to successfully disciple and develop the next generation of their church leadership

Get Forged: Young Adults and the Renewal of the Church from our store here.

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Austin Wofford is a writer, speaker, and church planter from Lexington, Kentucky. As a ten-year campus ministry vet, he has pastored at local universities and has also established national collegiate ministry networks. Together, Austin and his wife/co-pastor Maddie passionately pursue spiritual awakening among emerging generations and the church.

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