Better understanding young adults requires us to listen to them–and to those who serve, pray with, and listen for God’s voice with them. The Wesleyan Church has consistently demonstrated an emphasis on the importance of young adult clergy and laity. Every member of this roundtable is a young adult who also leads others (including young adults) in the church; and each has spent formative seasons in The Wesleyan Church.
Rev. Gabrielle Engle is a preacher, pastor and writer. She’s passionate about cultivating community in everyday life. You can often find her digging in the dirt of her gardens, hosting meals in her front yard, or taking her dog Thurman for a walk in the neighborhood. There’s a good chance she’s cooking up a new adventure to go on and collecting stories to tell along the way.
Nuk Kongkaw is the Director of the Mosaic Multicultural Center at Houghton College. In addition to pursuing her PhD in Counselor Education & Supervision, Nuk is an integrative part of Houghton’s institutional strategic planning and campus programming for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Caleb Dunn is an M.Div student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Beyond his studies, Caleb also serves as a Teaching Assistant of Christian Ethics at the seminary. In the local church, his recent involvement in God’s ongoing ministry has specifically included student ministry, urban development ministry, and spiritual direction. Caleb and his wife, Matlin, live in Wilmore with their son, Abraham.
Travis Trotman is an RD at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Originally from the island of Barbados (where his father is a Wesleyan pastor), Travis earned his Bachelors’ degree at Houghton College, after which he completed an M.A. in Higher Education through Taylor University.
Jordan Rife – Jordan Rife serves as one of the worship arts directors alongside her husband, Daniel, at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana. She graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University in 2012 with a bachelors degree in Psychology and a minor in Christian Worship. She is currently pursuing her masters degree in Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Seminary. Jordan loves the conversation of worship, the Church Year, and getting to work with a large variety of volunteers on a weekly basis.
- When you meet young adults who don’t resonate with the church, what’s often the cause?
NK: “If the Good News really is good news, then we should see transformation in the lives of those we know in church. I know the criticism can go both ways, but I think social constructs and expectations have kept the older generations in church more so than the younger generation. They (young adults leaving church) don’t feel the need to stick around and pretend. The generations before us may say that we have no grit to stick around, and there is something to that, but we won’t fix anything if we just speak disparagingly of the other generation.”
GE: “In a nutshell: less is more and bigger isn’t better. After serving in pastoral ministry for five years I can say the conversation I’ve had the most with all ages (but particularly young adults) that they desire community, but that they can never seem to find their ‘fit.’
A church that simply relies on small group models and doesn’t place the responsibility on the individual to foster real-life relationships is trying to dream up a community that doesn’t exist.
Encourage young adults to invest in the relationships around them. Find people in their wider community that have similar faith values and create or foster friendships.”
TT: “When I meet or interact with young adults who do not resonate with the church, the reasonings often include (but are not limited to): a falling out with someone in the church, they feel as though their needs and their wants are not being preached about or guaranteed by the leaders of the church. Additionally, some of them have their minds made up on what the community of the church should resemble; and if their church community doesn’t resemble this, they disengage or leave.”
JR: “This is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer, but in my experience, the younger generation is asking the important question: ‘what difference does the church make?’ They have grown up under the boom and spread of North American evangelicalism and have seen many of its effects fleshed out and left wanting. What many have been left with is a religion that speaks confidently to emotionalism and intellectualism, but rarely to a participation with the Divine. The younger generation stands at a gap between belief and action in the church today. There tends to be a genuine distrust of leadership and the belief that God will (or can) use the church to change the world.”
CD: “In our increasingly post-Christian cultural landscape, I interact with many young adults who have no real experience with the church outside of maybe being at a service for church holidays (i.e. Christmas or Easter), wedding ceremonies, or funerals. One cause, therefore, seems to be a lack of familiarity with the church-community. Young adults who have fallen away from the church, however, seem not to resonate with the church for other reasons. In my experience, young adults are much more deeply impacted by a sense of belonging in the church-community as opposed to a particular style of church. Whether it be a megachurch or small congregation, contemporary or traditional style, young adults do not seem to care about the model or method of being a church as much as they hope for the church to value their voice in the community, honor their presence as well as their gifts, and empower them to participate in God’s kingdom.”
- What helps some of the young adults you know feel the Gospel is Good News for them?
CD: “The Gospel seems to most effectively land as Good News for some of the young adults that I know when the Gospel is presented as it is genuinely preserved and represented in Scripture. Seeing that God’s self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ is interconnected with difficult political landscapes, complex family dynamics, social injustices, and risk helps people see the nearness of God with us as well as the hope of God’s salvation for us, even us today, in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the power of testimony has proven extremely effective among young adults in the ministries that I have been involved. The Spirit seems to help young adults break through the perfectionist pressures of a social media driven culture through vulnerability with one another as they share where God is present in their lives and what God is doing in their lives. The Gospel lands concretely for young adults as they realize that God is genuinely with them in the highs and lows through the person of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
GE: “They just was honest connection instead of the entertainment. They don’t need perfection; they just want real. They don’t want a Buzzfeed self-help sermon. They want the Gospel. And they want practical content that will help them be better people and engage with the real world around them.The more we can create glass walls in our churches that allow people to see out the more I believe they will come in.”
TT: “I think some young adults, myself included, recognize the gospel as good news when people who are connecting with us; may that be on the pulpit, or in a small group, or in our day-to-day lives. Additionally, when someone speaks from experience that is similar to ours and then ties it back to God makes the good news all the better. I think there are some churches and pastors who become very fixated only on their age group, or only on the teachings they experienced when they were children; they do not have the diverse experiences or skills to reach out to all age groups–young, old, and in between.”
- There seems to be spiritual hunger—and a desire for connection—among young people, filled with everything from meditation and mindfulness to group dinners. How can the church become central in spirituality and community for young adults?
NK: “Recently moving to a new area, I decided that I would give each church I tried a minimum of three months rather than a couple of Sundays. I was looking for consistency and follow through. Each church I went to hand friendly people that would say ‘Oh, we should have you over some time! Let’s exchange numbers.’ Only one church had consistent people that followed through with me. That’s the church I chose. Nothing earth-shattering, yet only one church managed to get beyond surface-level politeness and built a relationship with me. Readers may try to project onto me that maybe I didn’t reach out, or I didn’t offer to contribute anything, and if you knew me you’d know that wasn’t the case. I found a church that there is a reciprocity in relationship, and that’s what we all hope for in building community, right? This last thing answers question three too. The church will become central if the church is willing to be central to people’s lives, which means real relationship and genuine friendship that has spirituality integrated into the relationship.”
GE: “Emerging adults are exhausted by the kind of relational commitment the church is asking of them. The church beckons young adults to ‘join a small group and get in community,’ when they are already (often) in one.
This is the most connected generation of all time. They might have moved away or gone to college, but they still are keeping up with their best friends from the 3rd grade. They don’t always need new best friends. They often need to know how to be friends with those they are already friends with.
Bonhoeffer writes the following (and compelling) point on community: ‘The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.’ Encourage young adults to invest in the relationships around them, and find people in their wider community that have similar faith values and create or foster friendships.”
CD: “In the vast majority of my recent experiences with young adults, it is often clear that young adults have not been equipped by the church-community to connect with God. When asking them to share their experiences with the church (if they have any), young adults often describe discipleship ministries that pertain more directly to merely information about God and salvation without any real space to know God or experience God’s love in their lives. One approach that I have found successful has been to return to the “basics” with young adults and lead them through the practices that God has used throughout time and across cultures, like reading Scripture formatively or embodied prayer methods for example. The spiritual hunger that people note in young adults is real and raw because God is drawing them to God’s self. Perhaps one of the best things we can do as ministers is to encourage young adults in their hunger for God and help them explore that desire through the practices that God has consistently used to reveal God’s self to God’s people.”