Church Reflections from a 22-Year-Old

This past weekend, I had the chance to hang out with a 22-year-old for three days. George has been raised in a Christian home. He is a believer. He wants to follow the Lord. He is creative and introspective. His mind races in multiple directions at once, and yet he somehow listens and thinks deeply at the same time. He is not a ministry student; in fact, he’s not yet certain where he’ll land when he finishes college.

God has blessed me to pour into George’s life—but I’m the one who is learning. On the spur of the moment, I asked George what ten things he would like in a church if he could design it. Within minutes, he gave me his response—so quickly, in fact, that I suspect he’s thought about these topics before. Compare George’s responses to the young adults you know.

  1. Sound doctrine that is not watered down – George knows he needs the truth, and he wants the truth. He’s young, but he has so many other options for investing his time that he’s not interested in a church that sugarcoats the gospel.
  2. Genuine opportunities to get involved – Doing insignificant assignments does not grab George’s attention. While he may not yet fully understand the importance of proving his faithfulness while doing the “little things” first, I get his point. Young adults want to make a real difference.
  3. A community for “hanging out” – George recognizes his need to have a community of believers to push him, challenge him – and simply spend time with him. He realizes the importance of Bible study groups, but he sees a need for friends beyond that task. Sometimes believers need friends who gather off the church campus.
  4. A strong commitment to evangelism, particularly locally – He has served on the international mission field – and he’s committed to that responsibility – but George doesn’t want his church to miss the needs in their immediate area. He wants to be sharing the gospel locally, connecting with and influencing the community for God.
  5. Services that are “unrehearsed, naturally flowing, and Spirit-led” – George is a musician, and he knows that preparation and order matter. He simply wants what so many other young adults want: authenticity that validates the message and structure that follows the Lord’s leading.
  6. Hospitality that welcomes complete strangers – The world George has grown up in is much different than my world. The nations live among us. Increasing percentages of non-believers live around us. George would welcome a church that warmly welcomes others – a church that does not cocoon itself around each other.
  7. Bold preaching – This point relates to #1 above. George, like many other young adults I’ve met, wants preaching that “gets in his face” when necessary. He understands his own need to be called to repentance, and he is willing to risk being offended to hear the truth.
  8. A strong worship leader – George’s family is musically inclined, so his background may influence his thoughts here. He wants an effective worship leader who leads the congregation to focus on God – but who also understands that music is not the only component of worship. The worship leader should be strong, yet team-focused.
  9. Variety in worship – Frankly, George admits he is bored easily. Variety (in set up, speakers, worship bands, etc.) would be important to him, if for no other reason than the fact that changes catch his attention. On the other hand, his perspective would also offer opportunities for more believers to be genuinely involved (#2).
  10. Humility and flexibility in facility – Where the church meets would matter little to George; what matters is that the church truly be the church. His ideal church could meet under a tree as long as they truly know God.

George’s responses remind me that I need to have more conversations like this one.

Tell us what you’ve heard from young adults. Better yet, direct some young adults to this site to give their input. Help us all learn.

51 Comments

  • Bud says:

    I’m 29 and was not raised in church, but have served on a church staff an now at the point where I’m in between assignments. I think the list is spot on, number 2 resonates loud and clear.

    I have made myself fully available to serve the church I’ve been attending the last 3 months. Which has allowed me to work the welcome desk 2 times. Not what I really expected. I’ve even requested a mentor relationship with the pastor to better prepare me for my next position, but it to has not progressed any.

    My wife feels the same, so now we are considering visiting other churches.

    Also, beyond my recent experience I strongly agree with 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. Thanks for your post and continued engagement of the church community.

    • In my experience, when we are looking for the chance to get involved, we are often looking in the wrong places. A large percentage of the most effective ministries that I have come in contact with have been a matter of a single person, or small group, just deciding that they want to make a difference somewhere. They may eventually reach out to others within the congregation for help, or look to try to raise some funds through church, but they have rarely been something that was started by the church that people signed up for, or were handed a responsibility for.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Just prayed for you, Bud, that the Lord would meet your needs for service and mentoring.

  • H. B. "Sunny" Mooney, III says:

    Tell George “Thank You.”

    I pray for more young people who will grow to such spiritual maturity and passion for the Lord, His people and the community around them.

  • Scott says:

    Thank you Dr. Lawless for this post. I strongly agree with what George has said here. I’m 24 and go to SEBTS and I’ve seen this type of desire not only here but back home when I was in college. However I have one concern when I read these types of articles about what young people desire to see in church and that is what are they, George and others his age, doing to change the things they bring up? I am not saying George isn’t trying to aid in the sanctification of his church, however with many I hear a desire for change without the person expressing this desire willing to actually get involved and do anything. I desire for my church to be an evangelistic and praying church but I know that this will only happen if I am an evangelistic and a praying person. We cannot simply ask for things to be different without offering to be a part of the change or else we are still a part of the problem. Also spot on about the serving portion, he may want to serve in a large capacity but first we must learn how to serve in the mundane and ordinary.

    • I think that too often being someone who wants to see change, is seen as being confrontational or a threat. Minds that see things out of line, or that could be better, particularly in “laypeople” and perhaps moreso in “lay-young-people”, are too often dismissed rather than encouraged. Seen more as opponents rather than co-laborers.

      This post puts across an attitude of attentiveness to the thoughts of young people and their take on how we gather and live together, but it is not necessarily shared by the whole. There are, unfortunately, power structures in play in many of our congregations, and anytime that you have a power structure change, or even differing opinions create conflict.

      The encouragement that we most likely see within the church is to “get with the program” rather than “be the change you want to see”. Change is scary, and change may not be “a program”.

      • Chuck Lawless says:

        Thanks for the thoughts, Dallas. I want us to hear our young people, even if there are times we ultimately feel we must direct them in a different way.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      I agree with you, Scott. All of us need to be part of the solution. Thanks.

  • Jerry says:

    Thom…I am 59 and would like to see these things in church. My experience has been if I will listen most age groups are wanting the same thing…flexibility, community/connection, local involvement, genuine worship, steady diet of the Word.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      This is Chuck Lawless, Jerry. Your point is well made. Thanks.

    • Connie L. says:

      Jerry I agree. I’m 55 and am looking for these same things. So many of our churches where I live are just there – not growing but dying. I’m looking to serve and be welcomed (which not being raised in this area is a hard egg to crack). I don’t want to be entertained but truly have a worship experience just like George describes. I hope pastors and churches read this article.

  • Gail Marvel says:

    Thom,
    I’m a Baby-Boomer and church leadership today would do well to understand that George speaks for us as well.
    Regards,
    Gail

  • Ken says:

    Try to see this from a pastor’s perspective. I recently tried to involve a millennial couple in my church. I gave them a chance to teach Sunday School, but they found some excuse not to accept. I also put the man in charge of our evangelism team. Not only did he not call any meetings or show any leadership, he recently decided the Lord was leading him and his wife elsewhere. This is not the first time has happened to me. I give millennials some responsibility, and just a few months later they get their feelings hurt over some trivial issue, or they decide our church isn’t “cool” enough for them. I can’t speak for other pastors, but I would find it much easier to entrust millennials with important work if they were a little less flighty.

    • Ken says:

      Lest I give the wrong impression, I realize it’s not fair to label all millennials as flighty. I had a young man working with me for the last few years who is as dependable as any staff member I’ve ever known. However, he shares my frustration with the lack of commitment among people his age.

      • Chuck Lawless says:

        I share that frustration sometimes, too, Ken. I think millennials want to be involved — but I also think we must walk alongside them in the process. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Steve says:

    It creates a perfect storm of clashing ideologies when the youth have this mindset and many churches are controlled by older church goers who value comfort and stability over sacrifice and risk.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      We can work through these issues, though, if we hear each other. Thanks for the thoughts, Steve.

    • Mac says:

      I don’t think older members value “comfort and stability” as stated. I think a lot of them have a lifetime of experience working in the church and have seen lots of “workers” come and go. Older members are often seen as barriers to progress by young and energetic pastors. What some younger pastors don’t realize is that these people have already heard the “new” idea, probably tried it, and it didn’t go so well. Older members don’t have the same enthusiasm that young people do simply because they’ve already been through that stage of their lives. I does NOT denote a lack of spirituality.

      We need to be careful with the use of the term “sacrifice”. Many new methodologies encourage older members to “be mature” and let young people do what they want and encourage them. The seniors in my congregation have always been supportive of young people and encouraging them. Sadly, all to often, they are disappointed when the people that are given everything they want are still not satisfied. I totally relate to Ken’s perspective. And for the record, I’m 46.

      • Marissa says:

        I understand where you’re coming from Mac. The thing that gives me the greatest amount of pause about your comment is that young people “are given everything they want and are still not satisfied.” I don’t think this is a problem specific to your church, as I hear stories about music ministers all around the country being phased out and pushed away from service in favor of someone new and younger with skinnier jeans.
        I think this is a failure of church leadership— of pastors, elders and deacons— more than it is of the young people. Churches react out of fear that they’re losing relevance when they should be trusting in God that, as long as they have sound theology that is being taught with love, they need not worry about targeting demographics.
        You wouldn’t give your children everything they want! Even if they were incredibly passionate about it. Just like kids (but don’t call us kids, please) we need mentorship and guidance. Immature church members need you to respect them enough to teach them, as peers, the lessons you have learned in the past. If they don’t like it, then yes, they’ll go to the seeker driven mega church down the street— But when they’re ready to buckle down in their faith, they’ll probably be back.
        I’m glad that the seniors in your congregation are welcoming and encouraging. Often we are met with unfriendliness when we try to join church organizations and serve with more experienced church members (maybe fear comes back into play here. Fear that we’re going to try and shake things up). What we as young adults need to learn is to sit quietly and listen for a while— to gain trust and experience— before trying to shape our surroundings to a trend we read about in the latest issue of Relevant.
        Mutual respect as brothers and sisters in Christ is all anyone wants. That and to be judged on our own individual merit.

        • Mac says:

          Marissa,

          You possess much wisdom. I have agreed with most everything you’ve said today. All of this is a matter of personal perspective. I’m thrilled that some people have such great things to report. Some churches have experienced a more painful journey through the changes of the last two decades. I became a deacon at age 19. I sat at the foot of many great men of faith and learned a lot. Some of them were a pain and caused general grief, but every church has that. Like you said, young people today can bring a lot to the table. Conversely, young people can learn so much from the patience and wisdom of our mature church members. I was very appreciative that the young man in the article put such a high priority on sound Biblical preaching. That was VERY encouraging to me, especially when I see local churches around me that preach feel good gospel to go with feel good worship. God save us from that.

      • Steve says:

        My comment was probably too simplistic and came across as a gross generalization. I still have my youthful zeal and I would like to think it is tempered by a bit of wisdom of age. I’m at that weird age of 44 where I have twenty years of experience leading in the church so I have seen ideas come and go and I have experienced what works and what doesn’t. My conclusion there is no methodology, program, or system which guarantees success or the lack thereof guarantees failure. You can have a church of twenty year olds or a church full of eighty year olds and it may be either spiritually healthy or DOA. Christ-centrality is the only thing necessary to have a successful church, He creates an elder generation which embraces the youth and mentors them with their experience and at the same time He creates a younger generation which honors their elders and both groups only know how to respectfully and humbly serve through the indwelling nurturing of the Holy Spirit.

      • jonathon says:

        I’m not sure that generalizations based upon an age demographic work here.

        Whilst I’ll grant that it is easier to find congregations that a millenial won’t step into, than a war-bride won’t step into, both exist. In both instances, the cause is the same — you aren’t “insert some silly criteria” enough to worship here. In both scenarios, the only people that can go do things, are those that fit “insert some silly criteria here”.

        There are some things that are non-negotiable:
        * Spiritual maturity;
        * Daily Prayer Time;
        * Daily Bible Study;
        * Personal Hospitality;

        But those are things that can be found as easilly in the 9/11s, as easilly as it can be found in those born during the naughty nineties.

        But most of the rest — age, gender, race — are silly criteria to impose.

        There are some forms of outreach where a millenial is to _old_ to be effective.
        There are some forms of outreach where a war-bride is to _young_ to be effective.
        However, regardless of age, there is some type of outreach for which the person is suitable, and effective. Most of them involve witnessing without speaking.

        There are times when there is a theological discongruency between the church, and the individual who wants to do something for the church:
        * If it is minor, then there still can be a place for the individual to do something;
        * If it is major, then a tactful two-way conversation with the individual, fully discussing the discongruency, might the only appropriate action. (I fully understand how difficult this type of conversation can be. It has to maintain mutual respect, and a willingness to allow all sides to explain how and why they came to the theological conclusion, _without_ condeming the other positions.);

        Sometimes the theological discongruency is so rarified, that most of the congregation won’t even understand the outline, let along the theological reasoning along the way. (For example, why _The Filoque_ is an unscriptural heresy.)

        What I see all to often, is a church leadership that either:
        * literally neither knows nor cares what the talents of the individual members of the congregation are;
        * Is too petrified that somebody will make a mistake, to make use of the talents of those members;
        * Will appoint a person to a fulfill a specific function, but not provide any support to accomplish it. Support is not money, but things like pointing to style manuals for creating VBS programs, Bible Study and Small Groups material, and also being there, when the person feels out of their depth;

  • Marissa says:

    Commitment comes from maturity, Ken, and we’re all in different places on our journey towards that goal. I find that trying to get volunteers to commit is just as much of an issue with the more “experienced” women of the WMU as it is with any other age group— in fact, I am consistently surprised that my most willing and able volunteers are 26 to 37! There is a sweet spot of community involvement that comes right after new parents gain their footing that you could really harness. Don’t lose faith in our generation!

    Also, I would warn everyone against letting personality conflicts color your view of an entire generation.

    To George’s list: Yes! I’m so glad that the tides are beginning to shift away from flash and “hipness”, to Biblical truth and authenticity. My Sunday School class for young married adults was threatening to dissolve under “life application” style teaching. You know the kind of group lead discussions where everyone talks about their life experiences and “Christian” ideas they vaguely remember hearing in youth group? It was killing us spiritually not to hear God’s voice. As a class, we recognized the problem and decided to read through the Bible in a year and really committed to digging into deep theological discussions. It was the best thing that could ever have happened for my walk personally, and our class was strengthened and grew to become a family.
    To that I would add that joy is completely necessary. A lighthearted attitude does not have to equal irreverence, and dourness is not attractive to anyone. Let the love of God project outward in your demeanor towards others, and it will be contagious.
    Also, can we bring back hymnals every once in a while? Please?

    Thank you, Thom, for the article. I’m on the upper end of the Millennial spectrum at 33 years old— but as an adult Life Group teacher and lay minister, I would be interested in continuing the conversation.

    • Marissa says:

      And by “Thom”, I mean Chuck 🙂

    • Ken says:

      “Commitment comes from maturity, Ken, and we’re all in different places on our journey towards that goal.”

      Agreed, but that evades the issue. Is it too much to ask that younger people prove their faithfulness before they’re entrusted with greater responsibility? It seems to me that a number of them are wanting to be given responsibilities for which they are not ready.

      • Marissa says:

        “Is it too much to ask that younger people prove their faithfulness before they’re entrusted with greater responsibility?”
        Not at all! I’d want to be able to trust them, just as I’d want an older adult to show faithfulness to smaller tasks before giving them greater responsibilities. If someone wants to jump straight to the top at the beginning of their relationship with their church, it would make me very wary of that individual, regardless of their age.

        At our church, young adults don’t usually (I’m using hated generalizations here) start serving until they begin to serve in the preschool department. We have a semi-mandatory volunteer rotation for all our parents to serve one Sunday bi-monthly in our classrooms. This is a kind of jumping off point for volunteerism in our church, and the parents who serve here will then filter into other areas of service, more and more likely to say “yes” and grow in their desire to serve their church body as they go. It’s also a good opportunity for staff to see who is responsible, who is loving, who always shows up.
        It’s been a wonderful chance for both staff and young congregants to build a service relationship.

        • Ken says:

          Now that’s a good idea! One of the other problems I’ve run into is from young people who want others to take care of their kids, but always find excuses not to work in Sunday School or in the nursery themselves. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, it was still fairly common for men to teach children’s Sunday School classes, particularly in the middle school and junior high years. I wish our churches could get back to that, especially since so many kids these days don’t have father figures in the home.

    • Mark says:

      “As a class, we recognized the problem and decided to read through the Bible in a year and really committed to digging into deep theological discussions. It was the best thing that could ever have happened…”

      I’m glad you had the guts to start this. I hope that no one is ridiculed for asking questions or having a strange opinion. Having attended a Chrisitian university and taken the mandatory Bible classes, these discussions on theology were generally forbidden or had the potential to be held against one at grade time. This meant no discussions and a fear of ever letting our opinions be heard to the extent that no questions were asked.

    • Amanda says:

      Marissa,
      I am also 33 and lot of what you have posted really resonates with me. I have served in minstry my entire adult life, and l echo your comment about those who have trouble committing. It is an epidemic, and is absolutely not just millenials. I have had just as much difficulty from members in older generations agreeing to help or serve in some capacity and then blowing it off. I am so thankful for members of any age who make a committment and stick with it!

  • Jan Walton says:

    We seem to connect with this age group and do a lot of hanging out in our home.
    Recently, a young adult came back to visit us and told me this
    “I really miss our church.” (It’s a small community church). “I am going to a bigger ministry and it has a lot of great programs, but they keep wanting to put me in with my age group. I don’t WANT to be with single women my age. I want to be included in the life of the church family. And I want to be with women who are older than me active in women’s ministry.”

  • Mark says:

    Just because an idea was tried in the 1980s to no success does not guarantee that it won’t work today. There is a chance that a modified version will work.

    Also, as Chrisitians we are all supposed to be on the same side. So many church problems are the result of the “us vs them” fight. This sometimes means that the young are trashed from the pulpit for even having ideas and are constantly reminded just who is in charge. The young then vote with their feet and are now missing from many churches. Both sides were hurt in this contest and everyone emerged scarred. The atheists and humanists won without even having to fight.I think some of this was modeled after the current ongoing political fight.

  • Wilson Williams says:

    I am 70 and want basically the same things. I don’t think it has as much to do about age as it does about wanting what God wants. I suspect the Lord doesn’t appreciate our church services a lot of times either. Worst part of this is that I am a pastor in a small church that has about a third of participants 5-16 years old (about half from non-church families), cannot get sufficient adult help to effectively teach as we should, and the times of worship are flat. May God revive His church and I would like Him to start with us..

  • Hannah S says:

    I’m 20 years old and was raised in church my whole life. Recently, I have become incredibly concerned with not only how my home church has grown static but churches in general. Churches don’t seem to exist for growth or outreach, they seem to exist to just make us feel good about ourselves.

    Honestly, I’m sick of it. So when I read this article and read these 10 points, I was incredibly encouraged to see that other young people feel the same way I do. I agree with every single one of these things, and in fact have listed them myself at one time or another. I would love to see them become the main foundation of the church’s doctrine and mission.

    Thank you so much for the encouraging article.

  • Tom says:

    Church leaders don’t want to hear how 22 year olds feel about the Church. They want distinguished, and/or trendy boomers to tell them what 22 year olds feel. I think that’s an indicator of the disconnect that twentysomethings feel. They have a voice when someone decides they do, not by virtue of being part of the body.

    • Mark says:

      Exactly. There is a group of people in many churches who rank the members by donation level with age and legacy being factored in to determine whose ideas are better. Basically, if you aren’t in the special group, you can forget commenting or asking for anything. I have seen it taken to the level of denying grace, forgiveness, and pastoral care to those not on the top of the totem pole.

      This is the same method that political parties and universities use.

  • Ron says:

    As someone with 40 years of pastoral and evangelistic experience, I find myself just having turned 60 and crying out to the Lord daily for something to do for Him
    It’s not just young people who are hungry.

  • Andrea says:

    I am 25 and agree with all of these statements. Thankfully, I have been given all kinds of service opportunities from a young age in the churches I’ve been at and it has continued as I’ve grown. I would also add that my husband (28) and I both see such a value in mentor/discipleship relationships. It is Biblical and something that truly helps in spiritual maturity. We have both had mentors since college and as we’ve moved around we always seek out new ones. They have really helped to guide us in our walks with the Lord. I believe that as mature believers we should all be mentoring a younger believer and being mentored by an older/ more mature believer. My husband and I now both mentor teenagers and still have people mentoring us. The only problem I have run into is finding those relationships sometimes. I have found it hard to find older women who want to mentor and have a close relationship with a younger person. However, God always provides and I have always found someone eventually. I just want older people to be open to having those relationships and know that a lot of young people want that guidance. I think we all need to be intentional about having those types of relationships to help in the maturity of young believers. Thanks for wanting to hear from us!

    • Mark says:

      “Thankfully, I have been given all kinds of service opportunities from a young age…”

      But are you listened to? I too had service opportunities (menial tasks) but that did not give me the rights to ask questions or make a comment.

      • Andrea says:

        I would say that I am listened to for the most part. Probably not about everything but my opinion as well as my husband’s seems to be valued by older leaders in the church. I think as we have served at our particular church for years now we have become leaders ourselves even though young. I was even given an opportunity to lead a women’s Bible study that consisted of mostly women over 40 as well as teach on Ephesians 4 to a group of 200 women at our Church where most women were over the age of 40. That is all because a lady who is 74 at our church who oversees the women’s ministry has given me these opportunities. So I would say in my situation as time has gone on we have been shown respect, been valued, and listened to. I know that isn’t the case everywhere and hopefully that can be brought to light. At least there are churches with good situations like these and I am thankful for that.

  • Loved that fresh look at things, Dr. Lawless. I was just at a conference where they said that church is 1/2 sing-a-long and 1/2 lecture. They said, “That doesn’t leave God a lot of room to work.” We all know that God works through songs and sermons, but it did make me think twice about our layout. They suggested that we are creating spectators, not people who genuinely see God move and want to join in the work. Maybe our services do need to include other facets that are more participatory for the congregation.

  • Matthias says:

    I’m, 21 and I could completely agree with this with the added points:
    -Dont readily assume because I’m 21, I have no interest in old hymns, or need everything to be spoon fed to me (some places seem overly excited to show they have things that interest me, without learning I’m actually interested in other things all together)
    – Challenge me. So often it feels as if I’m the only one spurring my desire to learn and grow. I don’t need stale platitudes or a pat on the back, I want to set goals.
    -Disipleship. This would , to me, solve the issues we seem to be seeing in this thread. Sure, some youth might be completely ready to do it all, and some might be overly unrealistic, but processing through discipleship and a personal commitment should prevent those who aren’t ready from just flat out failing the church. I don’t want the church run by 22 year olds (honestly, we can be a bit fresh for that department), but I don’t want a church run by the class of 1889 that insists on familiarity. We should come together as a church and listen to each other.

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