Ministering to the Missing Generation

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When I began as a twenty-seven-year-old pastor of a small rural church, ministering to young adults seemed like an impossible task. Newspapers and magazines often dressed young adults up as greedy slackers, ever-sponging off our parents and never assuming responsible roles in society. I often did not recognize the people our popular culture described. No matter what cause united moms, how much volunteering dads engaged in, or what trends twenty-year-olds began, they were inevitably compared disparagingly to Baby Boomers, the civil rights movements of the sixties, and were eternally dwarfed in that Boomer-looming shadow. How can the church understand young adults if it continually looks at them through the tinted spectacles of older adults? I loved studying books like Soul Tsunami, but I realized the great gulf between where we were as a church and where we needed to be to implement the suggested ideas.

How can the church understand young adults if it continually looks at them through the tinted spectacles of older adults?

It turned out that my small, ancient rural church was the perfect place to effectively care for young adults — a place where years of tradition formed something beautiful. And they came, and they began to join. Over time, we began to weave a rich tapestry of diverse, intergenerational people. We did not discover the formula for a booming Gen X megachurch in just three years; instead, we reversed the trend of lost membership, kept the original members, and had a consistent ten percent growth made up of individuals of various ages. Our congregation became an intergenerational meeting ground, a place for supportive tribes to form, and I began to realize that our mainline denominational church has great assets for reaching out to young adults.

Though young adults came, we realized how easy it was for them not to. It’s no longer important for someone in their twenties or thirties to go to church. Denominational affiliation has very little power in our politics or workplaces. The societal expectation to attend worship is gone. When a young person walks into a church, it’s a significant moment, because nothing pressures her to attend; instead, she enters the church looking for connection — connection with God through spiritual practices, connection with her neighbors through an intergenerational community, and connection with the world through social justice outreach.

The church has been making these vital connections for thousands of years, and we can easily respond to the young, weary travelers in our midst, letting them know that they can find a spiritual home within our worshiping communities and that we will provide a supportive space for them. Even the smallest churches — especially the smallest churches — have the resources to respond to young adults in meaningful ways when they understand their contexts and make a place for them. These relationships take shape when our intergenerational groups of displaced families and single people begin to weave a rich tapestry of familiar space.


Carol is the author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, from which this article is adapted. Copyright 2007 by the Alban Institute. Used by permission.

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About Author

Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), Carol Howard Merritt is a popular speaker, writer, and blogger, especially on the topic of ministering in a new generation. She is the author of Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban, 2010) and Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban, 2007).


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