By Aaron Earls
It’s the most exciting of times; it is the most worrying of times. At least that’s how pastors seem to think about their church reaching the next generation.
In Facts & Trends’ 2019 Future of the Church study, 72 percent of Protestant pastors told Lifeway Research they expect the attendance of 18- to 29-year-olds at their church to increase in the next five years. Yet the same pastors overwhelmingly said reaching the next generation was their biggest concern.
Four in 10 pastors said they were most concerned about how their church would reach young adults—2.5 times more than the next most frequent response.
Even young pastors are concerned with the prospect of reaching and discipling their fellow millennials and members of Generation Z.
Jordan Rice, lead pastor at Renaissance Church in New York City, said he sees that as a significant issue among his fellow young people who have been shaped by smartphones and social media.
He says many older methods of discipleship aren’t as effective today because young adults “have significantly less trust in the authority of Scripture and less firm belief in truth.”
This has caused him and his church to work on what he calls “pre-discipleship”—instilling the idea of truth and authority where many lack even the basic concepts.
He also pointed to the increasing transient nature of young adults who move frequently. “People in our congregation are there for a year or two, and I constantly feel I’m starting over every fall,” Rice says.
For some pastors, it’s a matter of rethinking their own formative years in church. Joe Martin, pastor at The Cross at Clay Baptist Church in Clay, Alabama, says growing up in a small Southern town provided a lot of church events and many people who embraced the Christian label, “but there was no discernable process or passion for making disciples who made disciples.”
Martin is working to change that in his own congregation today.
So how can churches change and reach the next generation? First, they have to know what young Americans actually believe.
The good, the bad, and the same of young Americans’ theology
Whatever picture you have in your mind when you consider the theological beliefs of the typical 18- to 34-year-old American, their actual beliefs may surprise you.
Lifeway Research’s 2018 State of Theology Study found some positives and negatives among the beliefs of younger Americans. They also found some issues that transcend generations.
When pastors speak about the exclusivity of Jesus and the reality of hell, they may find more younger heads nodding in agreement than older ones.
While 73 percent of those 65 and older believe God accepts the worship of all religions, that number falls to 62 percent of those 18 to 34.
Young adults are the most likely age group to agree even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation and among the most likely to say hell is a real place where certain people will be punished forever.
Pastors may also find more 18- to 34-year-olds concerned about evangelism. They are the most likely to say “it’s important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus as their Savior.”
Among all young adults, 58 percent agree with the importance of personal evangelism. Among evangelicals 18 to 34 years old, 89 percent say encouraging others to trust Christ is important to them.
In other theological areas, however, church leaders may find hard ground among young adults.
Many are likely to discount what the Bible teaches based on their own personal convictions or what they believe science says.
They are the age group most likely to say the Holy Spirit can tell them to do something that is forbidden in the Bible (30 percent) and most likely to believe modern science disproves the Bible (47 percent).
This may be due to the fact that more than half (52 percent)—more than any other age group—say the Bible contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.
Many young Americans also believe their faith is for their benefit and church is for their entertainment, while asserting a separation between God and what happens in their life.
More than 4 in 10 say God will always reward true faith with material blessings in this life (43 percent) and churches must provide entertaining worship services if they want to be effective (46 percent).
Close to that many say God is unconcerned with one’s day-to-day decisions (36 percent) and Christians should be silent on issues of politics (38 percent).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans are the most likely to say gender identity is a matter of choice (45 percent) and the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn’t apply today (51 percent).
In many ways, however, they agree with previous generations on significant doctrinal issues—for better or worse.
Like all Americans, 6 in 10 say religious belief is a matter of personal opinion and not objective truth. Yet similar numbers among young Americans and all adults say, “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.”
Sixty-two percent of all Americans and sixty-three percent of 18- to 34-year-olds say Jesus’ death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of sin.
As they look at the young adults in their church and what they believe, Rice and Martin say they’re taking intentional steps to reach and disciple them. Other churches looking to prioritize the next generation can do so through some potentially unexpected ways.
4 steps to making a young adult disciple
Evaluating what we know, these four steps can help churches reach young adults in their community and keep them in their congregation.
1. Don’t shy away from hard teaching. You may think avoiding issues of sin and hell would give you a better hearing with young adults, but the research shows baby boomers are more likely to be turned away by those doctrines—not millennials and Generation Z.
Younger Americans also prize authenticity. Attempting to hide what you believe are troublesome doctrines only causes them to doubt you more.
2. Challenge them to read Scripture. Many believe science disproves the Bible and others think their own personal religious convictions trump what Scripture teaches. That might be because they haven’t taken the time to actually read and study the Bible themselves.
As you are talking to a non-Christian or a new Christian, ask them to go to Scripture with their questions. Read what it has to say before they react off of what they think the Bible says.
Lifeway Research found Bible reading to be the most effective habit at producing spiritual maturity in the life of a believer.
3. Encourage their evangelistic passion. Once a young adult becomes a Christian, the research indicates more of them will have a drive to share the gospel.
What a great way to reach more young adults: send out their fellow millennials and Gen Zers to share the gospel with them.
4. Give them someone to follow. Relationships carry significant weight with younger generations. Keep young adults integrated with the entire congregation.
Despite being in church his entire life and as a young pastor now, Joe Martin says, “I can count on one hand the number of spiritual mentors I have in the faith.”
Don’t let another generation go through church without having older believers pouring into their lives and cheering them on as they run the race.
Having an excited younger generation and an invested older generation in your church can make it the best of times for your congregation for a long time.
Aaron is online editor for LifewayResearch.com