Ministry With Emerging Adults
“As I talk with leaders across North America, I get three prevailing questions a lot,” said Dr. Steven Argue as he spoke to Inspire 2022 attendees on the morning of Aug. 5, 2022.
Argue is an assistant professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and is an applied research strategist with the Fuller Youth Institute. He is the coauthor of 18 Plus: Parenting Your Emerging Adult (Orange, 2018), Growing With: Every Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in Their Faith, Family, and Future (Baker Books, 2019), and Sticky Faith Innovation: How Your Compassion, Creativity, and Courage Can Support Teenagers’ Lasting Faith (Fuller Youth Institute, 2021).
He was asked to speak at Inspire 2022 on the topic “Inspired to Be One . . . Across the Generations.” This theme coincides with the second milestone of the CRCNA’s ministry plan, Our Journey 2025: “Listening to the voices of every generation, shaping us for ministry together.”
Argue said that one of the first questions he often hears is “Where have all the young adults gone?” And this is soon followed by “How can we get them back?”
“These are fair questions,” he said. “And sometimes this leads to leaders looking for the secret sauce – the changing of the music, or ‘If we just move the worship time from 9 to 10 a.m., maybe more will show up.’ A lot of times it becomes a programmatic answer that isn’t always there.”
The third question, he explained, tends to be the most honest and most interesting but is often asked only in hushed and whispered tones: “If they do come back, what are we supposed to do with them?”
“When we invite people into our congregations, when we say that we want a particular people group or age group to come back, we know deep down that it means our whole congregation needs to change,” Argue said. “This isn’t just about changing other people. There is going to be something transformative that has to change ourselves. And that’s the scary part.”
As part of the Fuller Youth Institute, Argue works with others to do academic research and turn that into practical resources that churches can use to become places where young people can thrive and grow. While this research covers all aspects of youth – from ages 10 to 30 – Argue’s presentation at Inspire focused on what he calls “emerging adults,” young people between the ages of 18 and 30.
“Emerging adulthood is generally considered to be between the ages of 18 and 30. Eighteen because that is when, typically, a young person graduates high school, they recognize that they do have some adult responsibilities, and all of a sudden their world opens up to them – and at the same time it is really daunting to them,” said Argue. “The research also suggests that most people in their twenties want to have some traction in their life by the time they hit 30. There is something about that 30 number that is really unique to them.”
Argue explained that this demographic has been shaped by generational things such as COVID-19 and 9/11, by the rapid increase in technology, and by social media. More importantly, though, they are living in a time of flux.
“This is a decade of transition,” he explained. “They are finding their way – and sometimes it is hard and challenging to them. It is not just one transition but lots of transitions – everything from thinking about where home is, to family history, vocational decisions, faith, and doubt.”
Whereas previous generations may have had a typical and assumed pattern to follow – graduating high school, getting a degree, getting a job, getting married, buying a house, having kids – today’s emerging adults are facing a lot more options, hurdles, and challenges.
“Most of their lives are filled with instability,” he explained, adding that this instability makes many emerging adults hesitant to invest in relationships or to commit to a specific community because their lives are always changing.
“Maybe the problem isn’t the young adults but is our inability to see the instability in their lives,” he added.
Argue offered several tips for churches to consider. For example:
- Know that lack of church attendance doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of spiritual interest.
- Seek out young people where they are rather than judging them for where they are not.
- Recognize that the way we frame our challenges shapes our solutions.
- Seek to understand emerging adults on their terms, not yours.
- Offer empathy, understanding, and compassion.
- Empathy is more than good intentions, it is the skill of seeing young people where they are and meeting them where they need us most.
- Listen for their quests of identity, belonging, and purpose. (Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make?)
Argue also said that being more open and honest about our own faith journey can be helpful when engaging emerging adults.
“When we think about faith, sometimes we think about it as an object or a thing – we have it, we’ve lost it, we want to use it – but we need to recognize that faith also has a verb-like quality,” said Argue, coining the term “faithing” to describe this. “Faith is growing, developing, changing, morphing. When we recognize that, it helps us understand the faith journey that our young adults are on.”
Moreover, Argue said that faithing can be contagious. If a young person raises questions or doubts, we often freak out because it raises our own doubts and questions. But, he argued, this is a normal part of the faith journey.
“As young people are working through their faithing journey, we don't get to sit on the sidelines and be spectators. We need to recognize that we are on a faithing journey as well,” he said, adding that being honest about our own doubts can be helpful in building relationships with emerging adults.
“What if the testimonies we offered in church went like, ‘I’m a Christian. I’m working through some stuff. I don’t have all the answers. Help,’” he postured. “Maybe if those were our testimonies, it would invite others to share as well.”
Argue offered these additional tips:
- Treat faithing as a language to speak fluently. Fluency requires practice and grace.
- Invite belief and doubt, answers and questions.
- Note that your reaction to others’ faithing and doubting is likely more about your faith journey than theirs.
Most importantly, though, Argue asked that churches consider the individual people who make up their emerging adult populations instead of thinking of them as a faceless demographic.
“When you hear people in your congregations talk about young people today, gently ask them, ‘Who?’ Force them to name who these young people are. Force them and encourage them to share their relationship with them,” he said. “When it comes to ministry and theology, it always has a name and always has a face. The moment we lose that is the moment we make ministry impersonal, and then we run into problems.”