The American church has a love/hate relationship with people in the 18-35 year old age range. On one hand, effective outreach to this demographic is a marker of success. Having a thriving college or young adult ministry means that the Christian tradition will (hopefully) continue and be passed on to future generations. I think this is especially true of so many denominations across the country. To put it bluntly, church doors usually close because members eventually die off without adapting to meet the needs of the community.
On the other hand, however, folks often bemoan the supposed moral wasteland of emerging adult culture. People in this age range deal will all sorts of vices: casual, non-committal sex, recreational drug/alcohol use, and pop culture (or, more simply, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll”).
This got me wondering, what are the differences between emerging adults and mainstream American Christianity? Do we have godless heathens on one side and righteous institutions on the other?
Sociologist Tim Clydesdale has some interesting thoughts in his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School.
The dark cloud is this: most American teens do not question whether popular American moral culture provides a sufficient basis upon which to construct individual biographies or sustain shared lives. Can the private pursuit of happiness through personal intimacy and individual consumption, with a dash of patriotism and a sprinkling of theism, sustain these young Americans should daily life be significantly interrupted or permanently altered? I am dubious.
In many ways I feel like the issues surrounding ministry to millennials are sensationalized. Blog posts about “Why Young People Don’t Like Church” may go viral (and are certainly important to discuss), but I certainly don’t think the only problem facing the church is an attendance-related one. Millennials (like me) certainly cling to the values of personal intimacy, individual consumption, and bits of patriotism and theism. But historically speaking, these values have also been central to American faith in general–both for being a model citizen and somewhat-faithful churchgoer. In other words, the supposed “millennial problem” points to something greater, namely that American Christianity can even affirm these westernized values. Maybe the young adult demographic is simply a highly-visible and targetable portion of the population that exemplifies private pursuit of happiness.
Can anyone be truly sustained by these four ingredients? On a surface-level, maybe. But the task of the church is to dive deeper into the Kingdom of God. I think this could be accomplished through promoting a different set of values: relational intimacy, collective giving, properly-located patriotism, and intentional theism.
Ministry to the emerging adult demographic (and everyone else for that matter) would look quite a bit different along these lines.