How can you better engage young adults today? In this episode we speak with Emily Peck-McClain, Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, about ways congregations can connect with young adults more effectively.
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How can you better engage young adults today? In this episode we speak with Emily Peck-McClain, Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, about ways congregations can connect with young adults more effectively.
Intro: How can you better engage young adults today? In this episode Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe, Jr., speaks with Rev. Dr. Emily Peck-McClain, Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, about young adult ministry. They discuss how congregations can effectively connect with young adults.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Doug Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Reverend Dr. Peck-McClain, visiting professor of Christian formation and young adult ministry. Our focus for this podcast is young adult ministry. I just want to start off by asking you a question that I know many of our listeners struggle with. So how do you define young adult ministry?
Emily Peck-McClain: Well, I guess that begins with how you define young adults. And then how you define ministry. So you’ve got two different terms that you’re working with. Young adults can be anything. The young adult literature is what the church calls youth. So that terminology can be confusing.
Doug: So, I could be a young adult even though I’m over the age of 40, we won’t give my actual age.
Emily: Right. Sure. Yeah. It can’t really be anything. But the point is that the term is a little bit nebulous. So, churches define it in different ways. The United Methodist Church defines it as 35 and under. I am a part of a young clergy women’s group and that defines it as under 40. I think, probably, if you’re under 40, you can qualify. If you’re over 40, sorry Doug, you might not be a young adult. Though in your church you could be because a lot of our churches have a lot of older folks in them and it’s the “if you’re under 60, you’re considered young.” So there you go, nebulous.
Doug: Yes. So, using what you just said, do you think we probably should be thinking probably under 35? Under 40 for young adults? And if that’s the case, why do you think those parameters are helpful?
Emily: Generally, if we’re talking generational theory, young adults tend to be millennials. So these are folks who are graduating from college, and the oldest are me. I’m the oldest millennial that there is. But, that’s also a wide range of ages. So a lot happens in life from early 20s to late 30s. Again, I won’t give my actual age. But that’s a challenge for churches. Because if you’re trying to fulfil the needs of and welcome the gift of young adults, you’re talking about people who are just out of college and they’re on their own for the first time. And they’re getting their first jobs. Or they’re in internships that might not even pay. And you’re talking about people who might be ready to start families and who might be married. So even that age range can be challenging for thinking about ministry with young adults.
Doug: So, what you’ve just described is helpful because it seems like then, part of the challenge or struggle for churches is too often, we use this language of young adults in very, sort of, general terms. We just say young adults. But really we should be, sort of, thinking about young adults in categories, if I hear you correctly. Do you think that would help congregations to do a better job of engaging, or do you think there’s some other things they should be considering also?
Emily:Yeah, I think life stage is a good way to think about it. Different ways that different people are living their lives is going to have an impact on what kind of needs they have that the church could meet. Then there are other things like, pop culture references, right? That if a church is – if a preacher is over 40 and all of their references in their sermons are from their over 40 perspective, then that stuff is going to be lost on anyone who is from a different generation. So all of these categories kind of working together, I think help more. So we’re thinking about life stage. We can also think about generations which has a lot to do with pop culture, with technology, things like that. And with relationship to institution. And also faith stage. So, you’ve got young adults who have gone through church, and they have been nurtured, and they have been formed and they know scripture, and they can see God working in their lives. And that’s going to be a different faith stage than a young adult who really hasn’t had a faith upbringing. So there’s all kinds of different things that are working together in the lives of young adults. And I think all of these categories can be helpful, but if we kinda stick with one, then we’re missing out on a lot of the experience of young adults in churches.
Doug: So, for some of our listeners, the generational stage is probably the one that’s most obvious, but let’s walk through what these different terms mean. So, let’s start with the easy one, generational stages. So, many people are familiar with this, but how would you define generational stages, especially as it relates to young adults.
Emily: Generally, a generation is about 20 or 25 years of life. Because that’s the amount of time that it usually takes for a new generation to be born. And so we have, in our churches, we have a lot of Baby Boomers, we have some Silent Generation, or Greatest Generation, they all have different names. I know that, in your book you call the Civil Rights Generation, so we’ve got different names for these generations based on the different experiences of the people who are in it. And then our biggest, kind of younger generations are your Millennials and your Gen-Xer’s. Then you have the generations coming after that which are your teenagers, your children, and your people who are in college. So a lot of people have gotten stuck thinking that Millennials are teenagers and college students and they’re not. Some of them are in their late 30s. That kind of the generational language is about 20-25 years of life for a person and it’s based on different cultural trends and different ways that people are interacting with technology. They’ve had different experiences with movies, with cultural references, things like this that hit one generation differently than another. World events, social justice movements, things like this really shape a generation.
Doug:Alright. And I think what you said was helpful in terms that a lot of people just use Millennials and they keep using Millennial for just all young people in general, but not actually thinking about the generational category of Millennial. But let’s switch to life stage, because you used that language. So how do you define life stage?
Emily: I think a lot of this young adult life is the people who are starting out with their life beyond formal schooling. I also think that a lot of young adults have been lost because we tend to think that kids will go through Sunday school and then they’ll go through youth group and they’ll have campus ministries. Then they’ll be set to join up with “regular church”. Because we’ve tended to separate out ages up until after college. And then we just expect well, if you’re over 21, you’ve graduated from college, you can just do what everyone else is doing. But that means that if you have a women’s group at your church and everyone in it is over 70, then it’s a very different life stage with different needs, with different gifts, with different time availability to offer to the church. Things like this, so it’s a different life stage. Different experiences that people are going through. If it’s your first job, your first house, you’re trying to pay rent. You’ve got student loan payments, you’re trying to apply to graduate schools, this kind of thing is a different life stage than someone who is retired. But we also have forgotten that not all teenagers go to college. And we’ve also forgotten that not all campuses have vibrant campus ministries. And not all churches have campus ministries, if the campus is in town but they don’t have a ministry, maybe we expect that the church will have it, but that might not be the case. So you may have people who have gone through children’s ministry and youth ministry and then have had nothing in college, or who didn’t go to college and the church doesn’t really consider that when they’re shaping their ministries for outreach.
Doug: So, given what you’ve just said, how would you – if you were starting a church, we’re gonna make you – you’re gonna start your own church. And part of your job is to target young adults. Given everything you just said about life stages and generational stages, how would you frame that conversation for the group that was going to start the church with you for how you would try to connect with either a segment or a group of young adults?
Emily:So I’m going to go back just a little bit and change your question. I don’t think that this is specific to starting a church, I think that it’s true that new church plants have different challenges than an existing church in terms of trying to reach young adults in particular, but any church who is trying to reach young adults has to be clear about why that is what they’re called to do. Because targeting is part of the problem. So if young adults feel like they are targets, they’re not interested. What churches need to do is get to know the young adults who are around them, whether they’re a new church or an existing church, listen deeply to the young adults who are in the location, in the community. What are their needs? What are their gifts? What are they interested in? What are their big questions? What are their hopes? What are their dreams? What are their fears? And it’s from those stories, which are not just stories, but a representation of their life, What is it that the church can partner with them in doing in ministry?
Doug: So, I can hear some congregations saying “that sounds great, but there are no young adults around us.” So how do you respond to that?
Emily: I mean, unless it’s a church in a retirement community, there probably are young adults around. So just because young adults are not in the church does not mean that there are not young adults in the community. And if the community is priced in a way that young adults can’t afford to live there, they may well be working there. So, we also have to kind of get out of this box of thinking that ministry is coming to Sunday worship. So ministry is service. It is service to God and it is service to neighbor. It is service to the community. It’s service to the world. So if there are young adults who are working in a community that they can’t afford to live in, then what service can the church provide for those young adults? What service can they offer to connect those young adults to so those young adults can also be a part of doing service? And it may mean that those young adults never come to Sunday morning worship but it doesn’t mean that it’s not ministry.
Doug: I think that you’re right. I think that you hit the key that we often think about worship as the only place that something happens. And we miss everything else that’s going on around the church. I’m going to switch gears a little bit and ask, you have been doing work at Wesley with something called the Innovation Hub which has been studying some of the things that you just discussed. Can you share with us what you’ve learned in working with congregations around that very issue of “how do we actually get much better at practicing and engaging young adults in authentic ways?”
Emily:Sure. So, first of all, we were working with a very small segment of those Millennials. So our age range is 22-29. So, again, when we’re talking about life stage, it may be a different life stage than if we’re talking about people who are in their 30s. And we have had an amazing time working with churches. We are partnering with 18 churches in the DC area. So we’ve got DC, we’ve got Maryland, we’ve got Virginia, and all of these churches have discerned that they are called to do something new and innovative in reaching young adult populations in their ministries. And what we have learned is that when churches are willing to take risks and when churches are willing to embrace this call, they can come up with amazing, creative ideas that they never would have thought of without being given the space and the opportunity to really be intentional about it. And it’s been really exciting. So for me, a marker of success in working with these congregations is that, if they started working with us and they thought they were going to do one thing, by the time they end with us, they could never have imagined that they were going to do what it is that they now know what they’re called to do. And it’s just so exciting to see the Holy Spirit working with these people and sparking creative and innovative ideas. And what we have really learned goes back to what I said earlier about having to listen to young adults, that when you listen to the needs and the gifts of the young adults in your community, and let those guide you, then the ideas are infinite, the ministry possibilities are infinite.
Doug: Can you share a little bit about, without naming a congregation, I’m assuming many of them thought they were listening. That, I’m thinking most congregations don’t come into it thinking “we’re ignoring young adults, we’re not listening to them.” But, how you were able to help them to understand that they weren’t listening in a way that young adults felt like they were being heard. And then the practices, or what you were able to do to help that transformation take place, to help them move forward in a different way.
Emily: Well we have very specific assignments for our churches. So we started by asking them to listen to the people in their churches. To listen to young adults in their churches. But also to listen to older adults in their churches who came there as a young adult. So what was it that, as a young adult, this church did to earn a place in their lives, became important that they could contribute to the life of the church that the church could contribute to their life. And so we had them start with listening in their own churches. And then we told them they had to listen outside of their churches. So if churches want to reach young adults, then that requires listening to the people who are not already in your church. So, let’s say you’ve got 10 active young adults in your church, this is great, we’ll get more young adults. Then we’ll have 20 and we’ll have 30, and whatever. Maybe, but what you need to do is find out why there are not already 30, or 40, or 50 young adults in your church. That means that you have reached the needs of, and are helping the gifts be used of those 10 young adults who are there, but not all the other young adults. So talking to the young adults outside of your church is essential. We’ve had churches who have come up with really creative ideas of how to do this. So, one church went into a bar at happy hour and bought appetizers for everybody. And they said, do you mind if we ask you some questions and just get to know you as you enjoy this appetizer that we bought for you. We’ve had a couple churches who have asked for journaling exercises from the young adults who they’ve connected with in their community. So, given them a journaling assignment, carry a journal around, ask them questions and have them contribute to it. This required a little bit of incentivizing because you’re talking to strangers. And you’re asking “fill out a journal for me.” So they offered gift cards as a thank you for participating in the project. Those were two really good ideas that I thought were excellent. So we had our churches – they had to talk to a certain number of young adults who were outside of their church. We also had them interview what we’re calling young adult experts in their community. So if it is a bar where a lot of young adults hang out, talk to the manager, talk to the bar tender who’s there at the time when young adults show up, happy hour or whatever, and find out what it is that they hear young adults are talking about. Why is it that this place became a place where young adults feel comfortable? Or SoulCycle, that’s another good place. Talk to somebody who owns a SoulCycle studio and find out if young adults are coming there? Why? What do you see it doing for people? So those were our specific assignments. Talk to young adults who are outside of your church after talking to people in your church, and talk to a young adult expert in your community.
Doug: Did you find, or did the churches find that, as they talked to people who are more mature – I’m not going to call them older – people who are more mature, remembering why the church had a place in their heart when they were young, then talking to individuals who are young in the church now. Were there similar stories in those cases or did you see both similar stories and some differences just giving that the context and things may have changed?
Emily:So I don’t actually know because we don’t get the report of the interviews that the churches are doing. They are keeping that as internal research for themselves and then they present it to us in a different form where we’ve asked them to synthesize all of their research together and they give it to us as a visual representation, so I don’t actually know.
Doug: Alright. Do you have any suspicions?
Emily: I mean, I think, for any age group, the church needs to be a place where they feel welcome. And a place where being there matters. So, if people in a church would just as soon be spending time elsewhere, then why go? And I think churches that value the stories and the lives of people who are coming in the door, I think that’s something valuable for every age. You have to matter to the community and the community has to matter to you. So, if you come in and nobody says “Hi” to you, you don’t matter. The church doesn’t care if you’re there or not. If you come in the door and they say “Hi”, but you’re dressed wrong, they don’t care about who you are, they care about what you’re wearing. So I’m guessing that any age, at any time, the church needs to matter to the person who’s walking in the door, and the person who’s walking in the door needs to matter to the church.
Doug: Makes sense. I want to dig a little bit deeper in the practices because I know that you like thinking about practices. Can you share, just from your own research in thinking about how congregations can think about practices in a generational way? Because I think sometimes we mature with who’s in our congregation and we start thinking about things just from this perspective of who’s there and not in a broader way, even if we may not have certain generations with us. But how can we make sure that all of our practices are truly intergenerational. May not mean that we give up the practice but we have to think about our practice differently.
Emily: Yeah. That’s a really big question. I teach a whole course on that. But, there are certain practices that every Christian community probably engages in in some way. Things like music and singing. Things like worship, things like Bible study, things like prayer. These are the core practices of a church, of a worshiping community. But you’re right, that doesn’t have to look the same way for everyone. If we’re thinking about study, for example, and we say “oh, well we’re engaging in the Christian practice of study, it is Bible study on Wednesday night with the pastor.” This is a traditional church Bible study. And yes, that’s exactly what that is. It’s a Christian practice and you’re studying the Bible. But what about the young adult who is in a graduate school program and they are studying molecular biology. I know nothing about molecular biology, so I can’t even say the word. So, I won’t pretend to know what it is that they’re reading, but how can doing their reading also be a Christian spiritual practice? Because what we don’t want to do is say that Christian practices have to happen in the church, in a specific way, with a specific group of people, the pastor has to be there or something like that. What we want to do is live our lives as a Christian practice. So, the young adult who is called to graduate school and studying molecular biology, this is their vocation, this is their call. How is it that God is working in their mind as they are reading this text? How is it that this can become a spiritual practice and not just homework that they do separate from their real Christian life? How can the church Bible study grow beyond the walls of the church and become living the Bible, studying the Bible, thinking about scriptural verses wherever you are in your day? Rather than confining it to the church?
Doug: Alright. Now I’m fascinated. So, what if I have your molecular biologist, an engineer, and a social worker. All of these young adults together and, given what you just said, you’re trying to help them engage and think about how they can live this out daily and not just separate these things? But they’re altogether in the same group. So how do you construct something that speaks to all of them in a way that is helpful to them, but also holds the group together?
Emily: Well maybe I’ll turn to another spiritual practice and think about the Examine, which is a way to examine how your life has gone during each day and set your intention for the day going forward. So, if this group of young adults from their various graduate school programs is hanging out together, then they can certainly share where they saw God during their day. They can certainly share what made them grateful during the day. What made that spark of vocation flame a little bit more that day? They can also share where that didn’t happen. What was it that happened that tried to snuff that flame out? What happened that turned you away from God? These are things that we can share in a group and it’s not about the subject that you’re studying or the walk of life that you’re taking, but it’s a way to reflect on your life and doing so in a group also forms community, which we know young adults crave because they’re out on their own for the first time, they’re not in a college setting, they’re not necessarily near their family, near their friends, they might be taking an internship here in DC with people who come here, young adults, for six weeks at a time. But for six weeks they still want community. So, a practice like the Examine can help them to cultivate that awareness during their lives, during their studies, or their internships, or whatever program they’re doing. And then, how is it that we want to live tomorrow a little bit differently than today? How’s God calling me to be kind in a way that I wasn’t already? Or see someone I didn’t see before? Push me a little bit more towards a just life than I did today. These are ways that a Christian practice can bring a community into being.
Doug: And I’m going to tweak it a little bit, so I want to go to music, and, as you know, congregations often struggle with the “how do we engage various generations to appreciate what we want to offer in music?” So, again, how do you, if you’re trying to be intergenerational, think about how can we really practice music in a way that we truly can worship or find a common space together? Not just “I like country music, you like rock and roll, you like Christian hymns, you like this, that.” Everybody likes their one thing and shuts everything else out.
Emily: Yeah, so you’re asking generally about music or are you asking about worship music – music in worship where you want different generations together?
Doug: Let’s do worship and music.
Emily: There’s a whole lot of stuff out there that the worship wars and about contemporary music that is not all that contemporary because a lot of it was written in the ’80’s and traditional Christian hymns. So, there are way more learned people about that kind of thing. But what I can say is, again, you have to talk to and listen to the people who are part of your community. Or who are not part of your community, but you know you’re called to think of as your community and hopefully create a space for and to reach out to. And so, you might get some surprising answers. So, a lot of people say “we’ll just change our music and then we’ll have young adults flowing in the doors.” First of all, that’s never going to happen because if young adults are not coming in your doors already, you playing music that they’re not there to hear isn’t going to bring them in. They’re not there to hear it. But, hearing from young adults about what they need for worship to feel like worship is a great question to ask. And it may be communion every week, and it may be “I can’t handle trying to find something in a hymnal and in campus ministry I have never had to hold one.” So, even if nobody likes the aesthetics of it, there has to be a screen or no young adults. That’s not an accessible worship. But I have spoken with young adults who are like “I can’t stand any of those contemporary Christian songs that sound like I’m singing ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’.” Right? So, that’s – the music is not the answer, the answer is listening to young adults and hearing what it is that is going to help them worship God. And that may be worship on Sunday morning, but it may not be. It can go even bigger than, maybe we need to worship in a park. Maybe we need to worship in a coffee shop. Maybe we need to worship in homes. Maybe the church is too scary of a building. Maybe the pews make it unwelcoming. There could be all kinds of things. But with music or anything else, you have to listen to people. And when you want to be intergenerational, then all those perspectives matter. It’s not a worship unless I hear How Great Thou Art, then play How Great Thou Art! That’s a wonderful hymn. So it’s about meeting the needs of different people, but not just to target people, but to be truly welcoming and to be truly accessible to all people. Because that’s the point. It’s “let’s be together and worship God and invite the Spirit to change us when we are together and that can’t happen if we’re not all there.”
Doug: Yeah. As we’ve been talking, you’ve been implying a lot about the church, certainly seeking people to come to it, but is going to have to alter its vision and do more things outside of the church and the community. How can the church, because that’s a pretty big ship, if we’re honest. I mean, the church is really used to “we just stay here in our space and do our thing.” So how can the church alter the way that it thinks about spirituality and engaging the community outside of, we’ll say, this building, in a way that is, again, authentic and you’re not just targeting young adults?
Emily: Yeah, I think there are two big pieces. One is that a congregation needs to understand that this is their call. They’re not going to understand that unless they understand the biblical and the theological reasons behind it. So, I like to point to the transfiguration for this. Jesus goes up the mountain with a couple of his friends. And while they’re up there they have this amazing experience where they’re seeing prophets of old and Jesus, and there’s light and there’s this transfiguration. Jesus changes figure. And the disciples say “we should build a church here!” And Jesus says “no, you shouldn’t.” But that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve experienced Christ and we’ve made buildings. That’s not a bad thing unless we say that the building is the only reason that we’re here. The point was to build a building. Because that’s not the point, that’s never been the point. The point is let’s worship God in the church and in the world. We come together in the church to worship God together, to be changed by God, to form a community so that the community can go out into the larger community and do God’s work. So we have to know the biblical and the theological reasons behind this. Jesus didn’t come and build a bunch of churches, Jesus came and connected with people, and he healed people, and he served people, and he taught people, and he taught all of us how to be better people in this world. How to build the Kindom of God. So we need to know the scriptural, the theological reason behind why this is the right way to do church. The other thing that we have to do is to recognize the value of what the church has been. So, a lot of people hear all of this stuff and they’re like “Oh my gosh, we’ve been doing it all wrong and you don’t think that anything we do is good and we should throw it all out.” And that’s a great way to alienate everyone who’s already in the church. The church has something wonderful to start with. We can never stop there. No matter what it is, we’re always being called to do more, to build more, to be closer to God, to help this world be closer to God’s vision, we’re never going to be done with that work because that, in the end, that’s the work of Christ. That’s the end time, the new creation, all of this fulfillment, all we can do is continue to build, but that means we can’t stop. So we have to say, what the church has been for everyone who is there, you know they came in when they were 20, and now they’re 85 and they’re still there. That is such a beautiful thing. That this church has sustained through someone’s life. All of the ups, all of the downs, through illness, through childbirth, through child loss, through infertility, through job loss, through retirement, through spouse loss, that’s a beautiful thing that the church has been able to do. We cannot discard that. That’s not faithful either. So I think it takes those two things, it takes understanding the value of what we have and understanding how we can build from it, and it also takes knowing why it is that we should be changing our perspective and doing something a little different now.
Doug: Do you think, just as a quick follow-up that this is going to mean a really big shift, that the direction we’re heading is not necessarily going to be building-focused, which is going to be a really hard shift for people. That where we’re heading is going to be, possibly, more just to go to the Bible, house churches for people who are meeting in smaller spaces, more intimate engagement and not necessarily coming together in these big buildings that we see taking place now?
Emily: So, I’m not psychic. I don’t know. But, I think that, if we remain with the “How do we listen to the needs of the people around us?” We can say it might look like that. It might look like the church is a building that is there for use for other purposes and worship happens in house churches. But, if your community has a lot of unhoused neighbors, then providing a space inside that is warm and safe for worship is vital. So I think it’s going to depend on the community. I think what is essential is that our churches think of themselves more as a spiritual community center than a one-hour-of-worship-on-Sunday-morning center.
Doug: I like that language of spiritual community center.
Emily: Yeah, so what can it offer? What can it be? Who can it welcome in? What kind of practices can we do together 24/7? Hospitality? Meeting the needs of people who have, you know, hunger and thirst needs? A center for anti-racist training for your community? There are amazing things that a church can do if it can shift the way that it thinks about its operations. So I think the building can be vital, but maybe just have different broader workings.
Doug: As we get ready to draw to a close, I am going to ask you to be psychic again. And, think about where do you see intergenerational ministry moving 5, 10 years from now?
Emily:I hope we stop calling it that. So that’s a hope, not a psychic thing. But I hope we stop calling it that because I think intergenerational ministry is ministry. It’s just what we’re supposed to be doing. Intergenerational worship is just worship. So I hope that we can take off the, you know, descriptor, and just understand that Christian worship looks like people of all different ages worshiping together. That is the biblical example that we have. The way that we got away from that is through a lot of developmental psychology and sociological study, anthropological study. And that was really good because we understood that different people are developing and have different needs. But we took it too far. So instead of saying “oh, well to have children in worship, would be disruptive, so we should give them their own worship.” We could have said, “children don’t sit still in worship because they haven’t had the wiggles wrung out of them yet”, which all of the adults have learned how to sit still except for maybe shaking their leg or whatever, but children haven’t done that yet. So how can we make our worship space wiggle friendly? Because it’s not that they shouldn’t be there, it’s that our space should change.” So, that’s what I hope is that we stop calling it intergenerational worship and we just understand that this is worship.
Doug: Excellent. Thank you, I appreciate the conversation.
Emily: Thanks for having me!
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with Heber Brown, III, pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore and founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, about how pastors can be on the frontlines of community activism while also being faithful to their call.
Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
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