What Story Are You Telling?: Missional Young Adult Ministry (Super Serial Post #6)

I am nervous about writing this post. I’m nervous because it seems that every child of God with a blog has written a post about young adults and the church.

In full disclosure, I’ve written a few (like this one).

Young Adults are having a moment. Every corporation and organization wants to understand Millennials so that they will buy their products. The church is not immune. Pastors in all denominations and branches of Western Christianity are scratching their heads and wondering where the young adults are.

I just love stock photography.
I just love stock photography.

Folks are looking to blog posts, books, other popular pastors, and anyone else who may help them tap into the young adult fountain.

This blog post is part of a series on missional Christianity, so the question here is slightly different than some of the other blog posts out there. My primary concern is not how to get young adults to go to church or even how to make our churches more attractive to young adults.

This line of thinking represents a model of church that the missional understanding rejects. The goal is not to attract young people to sit in the pews, the goal is to reach out and bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to young adults where they are.

Instead of providing the five easy steps to attracting young adults, I will give you two questions to ask when thinking about young adult ministry in your church or community.

The first question is why do you want to reach out to young adults? What is the goal? Are you hoping that young adults will breathe new life into your congregation? Do you think young adults will make your parish a little more hip? Do you think that young adults lead to young families which leads to church growth?

Everyone has a motive. To be clear, the motives listed above are not inherently bad, but it is important to understand what you want from the young adults you are seeking to reach. Young adults have energy and passion, yes. Young adults are often slightly ‘cooler’ than other generations (myself excluded). Young adults often start families and invite friends to church.

These things are true and they shouldn’t be the reason for reaching out to young adults.

The primary reason for reaching out to young adults (and everyone else) is the Great Commission – the fact that Jesus told us to tell the world that we have something they need.

This brings me to the second question to ask when trying to reach out to young adults. What story are you telling?

Young adults have grown up in a world in which they are constantly being sold things. From phone screens to televisions to billboards to every space in between, young adults are used to weeding through advertising to find the content they connect with.

Advertisers know that they need to tell a story through their marketing. The general story is that there is a problem (whether real or made up) and their product will solve that problem. If you tell the story of the problem well enough, you won’t need to work hard to sell your solution.

Christianity has the proto-story. We have the greatest solution to the world’s deepest problem. That is our story. And yet, many churches are telling a different story and it shows.

One common story that I see churches telling is that we don’t have enough members and we want more, no matter what it takes.

Another story I see churches telling is that there are social problems in the world and the church is an organization that fixes social problems.

Your church is telling a story, that is not a question. The question is whether or not you are being intentional about the story you are telling.

Young adults can tell when they are being sold of a bill of goods or a faulty solution. Too often, church leaders guess the story that young adults want to hear and respond accordingly.

Church leaders think, “Young adults love to hang out in bars. They must love to talk about theology in a bar.” Or they think, “When I was a young adult, I loved acoustic guitars in worship. We need a contemporary service to attract young adults.”

I am not bashing these two examples. I know many young adults who love theology on tap and contemporary services. The trouble arises when church leaders think that either of these outreach methods (or anything else) is the magic bullet that will have young adults flocking.

Young adults do not have a “Spidey-sense” for guitar music and pastors in blue jeans.

Someone is singing "Sanctuary"... I can feel it.
Someone is singing “Sanctuary”… I can feel it.

The magic bullet is not a program or event, the magic bullet is to figure out what story your congregation is telling and tell it well.

As I said in my last post about youth ministry, the greatest thing that the church has to offer the world is meaning through Jesus Christ and meaning is something that transcends all settings, events, and outreach methods.

I think the urge to hold bible studies in bars or to adapt worship music to more popular modes of musical expression is a good one. It is the first step in the missional journey, but we can’t stop there.

A priest walks into a bar...
A priest walks into a bar…

We can’t stop once the young adult is at the bar bible study because once that young adult leaves the bar and comes to your church the story changes. Often, things don’t match up. The story you are telling about your church at the bar on Wednesday night doesn’t match the church they see on Sunday morning.

Authenticity is so important when reaching out to young adults. Don’t tell a story that isn’t true just so young adults will come to your church. Don’t give them window dressing.

The best way to reach out to young adults is to let your community of faith do what it does best. Don’t try to be a social club or a charity or a concert venue, but simply be the church that you are.

You don’t have to change or add new programs to attract young adults. You must simply live your life on purpose and be fully engaged in the mission of God.

You will need to change if your mission isn’t clear and your story is muddled.

You will need to change if your doors only open in. 

Alan Hirsch and Darryn Altclass say, “Remissionalizing [a church is] about gearing the whole community around natural discipling friendships, worship as lifestyle, and mission in the context of everyday life.”

Reaching out to young adults in a missional way means getting to know the young folks that work in your office or that hang around the coffee shop where you do your work. It means listening to the young adults that already attend your church to find out what story they are telling.

It means living out your faith in a way that points to Christ

It means that we must stop guessing what young adults want and go out into our community to find out what they really need.

It means learning our own story so that we can tell it to those around us.

It doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel or coming up with a new story all together.

Michael Frost sums it up by saying, “When we have no impressive buildings and no swollen budgets to sustain our work, often only then do we realize that the best we have to offer this post-Christendom world is the quality of our relationships, the power of our trustworthiness, and the wonder of our generosity.”

Transformative young adult ministry takes time. It takes the long, hard work of building authentic relationships. It takes effort to learn how to best articulate our story. It takes prayer and study. It takes risk.

The Christian story is the most captivating and transformative story in history. For two-thousand years, people who have lived their lives from within the Christian story have done miraculous things and changed the world.

We need to put the spark back in the story that we are telling. 

I’ll leave you with another quote, this one from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, that describes the reframing that must happen for the church to reach out and impact the lives of young adults (and everyone else as well).

Please note, there is so much more to be said about missional young adult ministry. You can rest assured that you will hear more from me about this topic as I begin my work with the people of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia in the next months.

For now, I leave you with these words, “If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work; rather teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.” 

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