Mary Lederleitner on How You Can Help Young Adults Find Their Place in Their Christian Community

Dr. Mary Lederleitner serves as Managing Director of the Church Evangelism Institute and the Research Institute at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.


In part because of Pew Research findings about “the rise of the nones” and what is happening as many western nations move into a pluralistic and post-Christian era, it is easy for people to begin thinking there is little they can do to turn the tide. For many, there is a sense that we are losing the next generation of young adults because of forces beyond our control—and that there is hardly anything we do which will make a real difference.

However, in my dissertation research I examined what was helping and hindering twenty-somethings from staying engaged spiritually and finding their places in faith communities after graduating from college. Through that research, I realized there are key actions people who care about the next generation can take that will make a significant difference. What follows are a few of those ideas. I have also made the dissertation available for free online for anyone who wants to delve into the research more deeply.

First, intentionally focus on their next transition.

Most churches in the United States have Junior High and High School ministries. While resources for the next stage of life are not as prolific, if young people attend university, then there are thousands of campus workers from groups like InterVarsity, Cru, Navigators, etc., along with a wide array of denominational ministries that focus on helping them grow in their faith. There are also Christian colleges and universities across the country to help them develop as well.

While many people doing ministry in those settings often feel like resources are lacking to adequately address the needs of students in their contexts, what struck me in the research was the profound dearth of resources and focus on the next leg of their journey.

Many twenty-somethings in my sample commented on how people regularly cared and noticed whether or not they were growing when they were a college student, but after graduation no one seemed to notice or care.

Frequently, there seemed to be little or no attention given to their entire demographic. For example, they would go into larger congregations that had groups for every other type of person and find nothing for people like themselves who were no longer in college and were not yet married with children.

That void sent the loud implicit message, “You do not matter to us and we do not expect you to be here.”

Sociologists of religion note that most churches are set up for couples with children. However, trends reveal young adults are waiting much longer to marry and have children. Today, most important life decisions are made after a person graduates from university, when scarce resources are available to help twenty-somethings or early thirty-somethings navigate the profound challenges and decisions they are facing.

Second, measure success differently.

If we truly care about the next generation, we have to start measuring success differently. We can no longer focus merely on what happens within our own ministry silos at the campus level.

While it is important to pay attention to how many people attend campus ministry events or discipleship programs, if we genuinely care about the well-being of emerging and young adults, we have to focus attention and resources towards helping them to transition well. If they fall away from God because they are not able to connect with a faith community in the next leg of their journey, it puts at risk earlier ministry investments in their lives.

Churches also need a longer view when measuring success. Some congregations start ministries for twenty-somethings and later close them because people they seek to help do not stay long-term in their congregations due to job changes or getting married.

However, if these young adults were discipled, they will likely be a blessing to the next congregation. I was struck in my research how tragic it is if many churches take the short view, because inevitably without support, emerging and young adults will not have mentors as they make their biggest life decisions.

Then if they do by chance begin attending a church later in life, it is likely that there will be far more pastoral care issues because key life decisions were not navigated well.

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Source: Christianity Today