Lovett Weems examines the findings of a new report on engaging young adults and shares clues about the types of churches those ages 18–34 are most likely to attend. Perhaps the most important finding of the research is that the characteristics of churches with thriving young adult engagement are virtually the same factors that contribute to overall vitality and growth in a congregation.
What are the characteristics of congregations that attract young adults? A new report, Engaging Young Adults, by Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, draws on the American Congregations 2015 survey by Faith Communities Today. This research provides important clues about the types of churches young adults (18 to 34 years of age) are likely to attend today.
Who Are the Young Adult Attendees?
Young adults are present (at least one) in most congregations, though usually not in great numbers. One of the surprising findings of the research is that, overall, 70 percent of young adult participants are related by family to someone else in the congregation. While this is probably not the case for larger and growing young adult ministries, it is a good reminder that churches might begin their young adult efforts by looking close to home.
Churches wishing to reach young adults must have a passion and deliberate strategy for reaching young adults. But these efforts will not be successful if the church as a whole is not thriving. The churches that young adults are most attending are those that are appealing to others as well.
Young adults today marry much later than in the past. Of those ages 18-24, only nine percent were married in 2010, compared to 45 percent in 1960. Among those 25-34 years of age, 44 percent were married in 2010, compared to 82 percent in 1960. Young adults attending church tend to be married in disproportionate numbers, in that 57 percent are married. This is particularly true in new suburbs. However, the report makes clear that demography is critical to understanding young adult patterns since thriving young adult congregations in downtown urban areas or near universities often reach primarily single young adults.
Where Young Adults Attend
There are several general things we know about where young adults worship in greater numbers than is typical for most congregations. For example, the study considers a congregation with 15 percent participation by young adults as a “critical mass” church. Only one-third of congregations fit this standard. Such churches tend to be located in the South and West, often in downtown areas, newer suburbs, or larger cities, and less likely to be located in rural or older suburban areas.
Young adults are more likely to attend churches with an average worship attendance of 100 or more rather than smaller churches. This is an important finding for many denominations in which the number of churches with 100 or more in worship has been declining for almost four decades. While one can assume that larger churches do better because they have more financial resources, it is important to note that financial resources alone is not a significant variable compared to other factors reported previously. Money helps, but it is not the primary reason for success or failure in reaching young adults.
As one would expect, young adults tend to be found in churches located where there is the greatest growth of the young adult population. Yet, once again, a growing population of young adults is only moderately related to success in reaching young adults. For example, of churches located where there is the greatest growth in young adult population, fewer than 30 percent reached a critical mass of young adults.
Perhaps the most important finding of this research is that the characteristics of churches with thriving young adult engagement are virtually the same as any thriving congregation. While it is clear that churches wishing to reach young adults must have a passion, strategy, leadership, and dedicated time focused on young adults (See “Lessons from Churches that Reach Young Adults,” Leading Ideas, August 3, 2016), it appears that a church could have all these things and still not be successful in reaching young adults if the church as a whole was not thriving. The churches that young adults are most attending are those that are appealing to others as well. Notice these ways in which the churches young adults attend are similar to thriving churches in general:
- Better at incorporating newcomers into the congregation
- More spiritually vital and alive
- More caring and supportive of members
- More willing to meet new challenges
- More social justice oriented
- Different from other congregations in their community
In churches where increasing numbers of young adults attend, worship is central and often seen as innovative in some ways. Young adults give worship high marks in the churches they choose to attend. Coupled with the quality of the worship is greater emphasis on reaching others through worship, incorporating technology, and often modeling diversity.
Participation beyond Worship
While worship is the primary way young adults participate in church, half of them engage in activities beyond worship. Again, this is a pattern that matches members of thriving congregations as a whole. This tends to point to a congregation with a strong mission that elicits passion and participation by all members well beyond the worship service. Young adults tend to worship where there are groups specifically designed for young adult fellowship. Community service also ranks high for young adult participation.
Young adults are far more present in congregations than some might expect, but the decision to attend church for young adults is a deliberate choice that in many ways is counter cultural, certainly among many of their peers. Churches that try to understand and respond to this large and talented cohort can be blessed by them as well as being a blessing in their lives.
The full report is available in a free pdf version at https://www.faithcommunitiestoday.org/sites/default/files/Engaging-Young-Adults-Report.pdf.
Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, author of Engaging Young Adults, is with the Center for Analytics, Research, and Data of the United Church of Christ.