“We’re really quite happy that our church doesn’t attract any young people.”

It’s a good guess that no one says things like that at your church. We all want young people because to exclude them represent an ecclesial suicide pact.  Without young people congregations literally die out.

Having said that, however, you may have noticed that it is no small task to attract young people, particularly twenty-somethings. That is because, as sociology professor Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame has written, “Most of the cultural and structural features of emerging adulthood [ages 18-29] tend to undermine or marginalize serious, committed religious faith and practice.”

To put it another way, most young people cannot imagine why they would want to attend at your church or any other. And those who come tend to have ideas about what a Christian life looks like that are out of synch with most PCA congregations.

Christian Smith’s research is vital to understanding this generation and to developing a wise and winsome approach to outreach.

The “Adrift” Generation

Five years ago, Smith published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Now he has published Souls in Transition, a look at the same cohort now that they are between 18 and 24. This is the first half of “emerging adulthood,” a distinct developmental phase comprising 18- to 29-year-olds.

According to Smith, emerging adulthood is the result of factors such as the expansion of higher education, delayed marriage and childbearing, and parental support that often lasts well into the 20s. As Scott Seaton, pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Arlington, Va., remarked, “Everyone is either in graduate school or will be.”

Smith writes that while there may be similarities with the generations that have gone before it, the world of emerging adults is “more complex, disjointed, confused, and unstable compared to the same ages in previous generations.” As a result, they live tentatively, trying one thing and then another. While they believe they will one day have “real jobs,” marriages, families, and homes in the suburbs, they are certain that there is no hurry. They can seem adrift because they are adrift.

The preeminent cultural fact working against serious Christian commitment among emerging adults is an individualism, so extreme, that it rejects any authority beyond, “What seems right to me.”

The “Horizontalization” of Authority

Duke Kwon, is a pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church (GraceDC) in Washington, D.C., where emerging adults make up nearly 65 percent of the congregation. Kwon refers to emerging adults as the “Wiki-generation.”

In the past, when looking for information, people would consult the Encyclopedia Britannica or some other authoritative source prepared by experts. But today people run to Wikipedia, which its website says, “is written collaboratively by largely anonymous Internet users who write without pay. Anyone with Internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles.”

As Kwon puts it, Wiki represents the “horizontalization of authority.” What is true is “up to me or possibly up to us” since no greater authority exists.

Bob Baldwin, a ruling elder at GraceDC, notes that many emerging adults “grew up in an environment in which truth is personal. It’s the assumption that comes at us from every medium and most relationships. Self is all we can know so self gets to decide as the final authority. Scripture is one possible source for helping me decide what is true, but there are others as well.”

This exclusively subjective approach to truth and morality runs so deep that the emerging adults Smith interviewed, “had difficulty seeing the possible distinction between … objective moral truth and relative human invention. This is not because they are dumb. It is because they simply cannot, for whatever reason, believe in—or sometimes even conceive of—a given, objective truth, fact, reality, or nature of the world that is independent of their subjective self experience.”

As Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, recently wrote, “The root idea of modernity is the overturning of all authority outside of the self. In the 18th century European ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers insisted that the modern person must question all tradition, revelation, and external authority by subjecting them to the supreme court of his or her own reason and intuition. We are our own moral authority.”

That rejection of outside authority is certainly evident among the Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers, but it has come to full flower among emergent adults—including emergent adults in the church. The big difference between parents and children is that emerging adults are not so much rebelling against outside authority, as they are incapable of conceiving what outside authority means.

Finding a Way Around the Rules

Duke Kwon noted that even when faced with the claims of Scripture, “People are sometimes quick to say, ‘My God isn’t like that,’ or ‘You might believe that, but I don’t.’ They are okay living with conflicting beliefs because, they often assume beliefs cannot be tested against any rational basis.”

Lest this description seem a bit broad, Smith is careful to point out that not all emerging adults are the same. To develop a more nuanced understanding, he and his colleagues have identified six basic types of emerging adults.

  • Committed Traditionalists represent approximately 15 percent of emerging adults. They “embrace a strong religious faith, whose beliefs they can reasonably well articulate and which they actively practice.”
  • Selective Adherents (30%) believe and perform certain aspects of their religious tradition, but neglect or ignore others.” The attitude of so-called “cafeteria Catholics” is now widespread across evangelical and Reformed churches.
  • The Spiritually Open (15%) while not committed to any specific religious faith “are nevertheless receptive to or at least mildly interested in some spiritual or religious matters.”
  • The Religiously Indifferent (25%) don’t oppose religion, but don’t have any interest either.
  • The Religiously Disconnected (5%) admitted to no opinions about religion because they know nothing about, and are not connected in any way, with religious bodies or friends.
  • The Irreligious (10%) are openly hostile to all religion.

One assistant pastor with responsibilities for emergent adults agrees with Smith’s categories. Committed traditionalists, he said, is a good term for the long-time PCA people in his group. These are often graduates of Reformed colleges and many grew up as missionaries’ or pastors’ kids. They understand the church, can articulate and defend its doctrines, and are always able to supply the right answers. But while they are “not relativistic in their philosophy or theology,” many permit themselves a “relativistic permissiveness” on moral—specifically sexual—matters.

“There is self indulgent attitude,” he remarked, “that says, ‘My life is difficult. I have lots of brokenness. I know it’s not right, but … .’”

Ruling Elder Bob Baldwin at GraceDC commented that when it comes to biblical sexuality, “If the rules don’t fit their cultural expectations, they mentally find a way around them, ignoring what they know to be true scripturally. What surprises me most is how carefully they have thought through their work-arounds.”

Smith documents the same pattern with the story of a young woman he interviewed: “In the middle of explaining that for religious reasons she does not believe in cohabitation before marriage, a young evangelical woman, who is devoted to gospel missionary work overseas, interrupted herself with this observation, ‘I don’t know. I think everyone is different so I don’t think [cohabitation before marriage] would work for me, but it could work for someone else.’”

Such bifurcated thinking creates huge spiritual and thus pastoral problems. This is also evident, though without the intensity, in the selective adherents. As a whole, they are “less theologically and morally conservative” and thus more willing to “pick and mix” beliefs into idiosyncratic versions of Christianity.

While committed traditionalists feel guilty about taking liberties with faith and morality (as they should) and hide their sin (as they shouldn’t), selective adherents are willing to bracket whatever they disagree with. A man who attends a mega-church with his live-in fiancé explained to Smith why he felt comfortable ignoring his church’s teaching about pre-marital sex: “I think in my head it’s all personal opinion, whether you’re going to believe it or choose to like it and listen to it.”

Reaching Out With Relationships

The spiritually open emerging adults, one pastor told me, are “pastorally the easiest since they’re not necessarily trying to live a Christian life.” As a result, “Their behavior is consistent with whatever it is they happen to believe.

“And as a ministry of the church,” he said, “we’re trying to reach the religiously indifferent and disconnected through relationships.” When his group goes on ski or beach trips, for example, they advertise publically and bring along anyone who signs up. The trips have no program; the goal is building relationships and a sense of community.

The trips have been successful, which Smith’s research would have predicted since relationships and community are key in reaching emerging adults with the gospel and incorporating them into churches.

Glenn Hoburg, who planted GraceDC, says that the church’s growth can be attributed in large measure to that hunger for community and connection. “One of the questions I had coming into the church plant was about membership. Would younger people join? I’ve been amazed that the desire for connection and belonging draws people into membership—at least up to the fifth question.”

The fifth question asserts the Church’s authority: “Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?” Given the culture, it is small wonder that this would be a speed bump for many.

“Even many of the converted,” Hoburg went on to say, “have a thin, moralistic, sentimentalized faith. Something new happens when they understand the message and power of grace for the first time.” It helps them drop their guard, get involved in small groups, and explore the meaning of grace in the midst of their broken lives, something most emerging adults do not admit to having.

No Regrets They’ll Admit To

Smith writes with amazement that most of the emerging adults he studied say that they have absolutely no regrets. Rather than regret, the consistent response to drug abuse, alcoholism, the death of friends or family, imprisonment, rape, out-of-wedlock births, and other tragedies was, “I learned and moved on.”

“Despite smarting from hard lessons learned,” writes Smith, “most of the emerging adults who were interviewed explicitly denied feeling any regrets about their past decisions, behaviors, or problems. Reinforcing their widespread feeling of optimism about the future, most of the survey respondents … insisted that the past was the past, that they learned their lessons well, that they would not change a thing even if they could, that what’s happened is part of who they have become, and that they have no regrets about anything.”

Nonetheless, Smith believes this is mostly keeping up appearances. After all, to admit regret is to make a moral judgment, admit good and bad, right and wrong. Emergent adults are loath to do that, and so they deny regret. Under the surface, however, they exhibit a great deal of hurt and sadness mixed with confusion. In the context of relationships, this can be an opening for the Christian message.

One pastor has noticed, “There are feelings of guilt, insecurity, and shame—especially shame. The problem for them is that they don’t know why these feelings exist.” In fact, these feelings hint at an authority beyond the self.

Romans 1:18-32 teaches that there are truths about life and God that we cannot not know (to use author J. Budziszewski’s phrase). We may pretend we don’t know them. We may suppress them. We may bury them under layers of carefully constructed philosophical skepticism, but all to no avail. From time to time these truths bubble uncomfortably to the surface.

Ministry to emerging adults should create opportunities founded on strong, honest relationships to explore the truths that will not be ignored, truths that explain the guilt and shame that will not go away. Apologetics begins not with correcting bad thinking, but with listening and helping to dig up the uncomfortable facts of life that, by the grace of God, will not go away.

That’s part of the thinking behind Emmanuel Presbyterian Church’s desire to be a “covenant community of sinners saved by grace.” Founding pastor Scott Seaton said, “We want Emmanuel to be a safe place for honest conversation.”  If emerging adults can feel safe and be honest, the underlying regrets can turn into the basis for repentance and faith.

Michael Bruce, a businessman in his 20s who attends GraceDC, observes that his peers work hard at “projecting competence rather than acknowledging brokenness.

“When someone in a group is willing to admit that he or she doesn’t have it all together,” he said, “it’s amazing how the atmosphere changes and with it the conversation.” If people feel they can be honest, they will take the opportunity.

According to Bruce, the downturn in the economy may be just what is needed to open up a generation he believes has been coddled by parents while growing up during a booming economy. They’ve trusted in themselves so far and it has worked out fine. Today, however, things are different, the self may not seem quite so infallible or even reliable.

Smith points out that emerging adults have nothing against churches. They believe that the purpose of all religions is the same: religion is to make people good and churches are “elementary schools of morality.” While they consider themselves to have graduated, it is likely that once they have families they will return with their children in tow.

“If and when that happens,” writes Smith, “they will bring with them assumptions, outlooks, experiences, scars, and expectations formed largely outside the influence of religious faith and life during the emerging adult years.”

The responsibility to welcome, evangelize, and disciple them when they arrive belongs to all of us.

Jim Tonkowich is Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a Scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD). Before that, Jim pastored Peninsula Hills Presbyterian Church, and served as the managing editor of BreakPoint with Chuck Colson.