NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Young adults don’t seem to have a problem with Jesus. In fact, they describe themselves as spiritual. But many of them are looking everywhere for spirituality except the church.
Such topics were at the forefront of a “Connect Conference” sponsored by the Threads young adult initiative of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn.
Geared toward church leaders who work with young adults, the conference included sessions recapping recent statistics about why many 18-34-year-olds leave the church.
Sam Rainer, who co-authored Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts with his father Thom Rainer, LifeWay’s president, offered reasons for what some speakers describe as a “mass exodus.”
“We find that the No. 1 reason young adults leave church is that they simply want a break from church,” said Rainer, noting that 16 is the critical age when most students begin to drop out.
“Our research shows that at around the age of 16 many of the net gains for attendance switch and become net losses,” Rainer said. “Spiritually, the problem begins earlier than young adulthood.”
Rainer also offered solutions to the dropout problem.
“Churches must build a sense of community,” he said, citing data that indicates 83 percent of young adults who have been active in a small group or Sunday School class remain in the church after five years.
“The younger generation goes to church because of the sense of purpose and mission,” he said. “They value authenticity and depth.”
Thom Rainer, also a featured speaker at the Aug. 20-21 conference, outlined three components of depth as discussed in Essential Church.
Depth begins with the pastor, he said. Depth also must come from small groups and Sunday School classes. Finally, depth must come from personal devotion and Bible study.
The Rainers also mentioned three characteristics of individuals who stay in church: Studies show that they come from families who regularly discuss spiritual matters, serve together on a mission trip or service project, and pray together consistently.
Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, reviewed data about how young adults view God and their beliefs about the church.
Stetzer noted that 81 percent of 20-29-year-olds believe that God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists.
He cautioned conference attendees about statistics that portray young adults as unspiritual.
“Don’t believe that young adults, even unchurched young adults, are not interested in spiritual things,” Stetzer said, noting that they are looking outside of the church.
According to a survey released in the book Lost and Found by Stetzer, Jason Hayes and Richie Stanley, 73 percent of unchurched 20- to 29-year-olds consider themselves “spiritual” because they want to know more about “God or a higher supreme being.”
Further, 77 percent of 20-somethings believe Christianity today is more about organized religion than about loving God and loving people.
Yet this is a generation that God could use to change the course of history, said Jason Hayes, young adult ministry specialist at LifeWay.
“For both churched and unchurched young adults, we have found that they recognize that their choices make a difference, and they want to improve the world around them,” Hayes said. “As a result of this heightened sense of responsibility, we can help create a door for service and evangelism.”
Hayes said young adult leaders must teach the whole Bible, foster discussion and answer the difficult questions of faith.
“Offer quality, exegetical Bible teaching and sing theologically sound music that accurately depicts the word of God,” he counseled.
Conference attendee John Oswald, assistant pastor at Grace Baptist Church in St. Louis where the young adult group has grown from four members to 30 in the past five years, attributed the increase to assimilating young adults into the life of the congregation.
“We raised the level of expectation of our young adults and became intentional about how we ministered to them,” Oswald said. “We offered opportunities to go deeper into scripture and began a mentoring program that paired young adults with seniors in our congregation.”
Lee Saunders, associate pastor of Garden Oaks Baptist Church in Houston, credited the Connect Conference with offering information on the importance of dispelling the myths of the younger generation.
“We must correct those myths within our churches and realize that young adults are not hard to reach,” Saunders said. “We have to let the Holy Spirit guide us. God ultimately has to be in what we are doing. It’s not about us, but it is about reaching a generation for Christ and offering spiritual growth and development.”
The Connect Conference included small-group discussions about leadership, the postmodern worldview and the importance of understanding the young adult context. The conference also offered a question-and-answer panel forum.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Shrout is the employee communications editor at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. For more information about the young adult ministry at LifeWay, visit www.threadsmedia.com.)