Remember My Name!
The influence of the Protestant church in America – even in the Southern states, the so-called Bible belt – is waning. Churches across the country are closing their doors, dying, or are being “adopted” by nearby larger churches. Parachurches, too, are struggling to ascertain their own future in deeply uncertain times.
That is what at least some of the information we have indicates. Over the last decade, researchers have tracked a rapid increase among Americans who claim no religious affiliation. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated – popularly known as “the Nones” – have increased from just over 15% to 20% of all U.S. adults. This decline in religiosity is most marked among young Millennials and Generation Z, young adults born between the early 1990s up to 2012.
Since 2012, when Pew Research reported the rise of the Nones, researchers and scholars alike have analyzed the process of secularization or “de-churching” of America. Nones are primarily young adults, classified as Young Millennials and Generation Z.
These studies give one reason to believe the first fistful of dirt has been cast on the casket of Christianity in America.
However, over the last three years my research team and I have walked alongside churches and faith-based organizations as they seek to engage these younger generations in new, innovative ways. Although the large, quantitative studies indicate younger generations may be less “religious,” they are not less spiritual. They are simply seeking spirituality in places other than faith-based communities. From the rise of social-physical events such as CrossFit and Color Runs to the proliferation of hip-hop, young adults are seeking meaning and transcendence in unlikely places.
Know Them Well
What are the research-based techniques Christian parachurch organizations can employ to help the younger generations thrive in ministry? What can we do engage them in the mission of the church? The most important, practical way for Christian organizations to engage and retain younger generations is to begin by simply remembering their name. “A person's name,” wrote American author and lecturer Dale Carnegie, “is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
When working with young adults, many said they stayed with a Christian organization because the organization made the effort early on to get to know them well. Even if other aspects of their work was difficult or disappointing, they were loyal to the ministry and motivated to help it succeed in its mission because they felt known, seen and understood.
"It felt as though they didn’t really value me as a person—I felt replaceable.”
In contrast, other young adults described their work with organizations whose mission they fully supported, but within a few months, struggled to connect with their direct supervisor, with upper-level leaders, and even with members of their own team. “I loved my work with the downtown mission,” one young woman recalled, “but after a few months there, I still didn’t feel connected to or supported by leaders. It felt as though they didn’t really value me as a person—I felt replaceable.”
Remembering names and people’s stories can be harder for some leaders than others, especially if one works within a larger organization. Here are two tips to helping young adults feel remembered, known and important within your ministry community:
- Find out their sweet spots. Young adults today have grown up with a great deal of instability, from 9/11 to the 2008 Great Recession to civil unrest to the pandemic. They know they live in a world of need and they long to make a difference. Take the time to inventory the gifts and passions young adults bring to your organization and match them with a mentor and a role that brings them fulfillment and meaning.
- Listen to them. Young adults are often studied, analyzed, and stereotyped by popular culture, but rarely are they truly listened to. Because of their unique life experience, they bring an important perspective to the work and the future of ministry.
Young adults today have grown up in a fractured world.
Young adults today have grown up in a fractured world. The breakdown of the nuclear family, the transiency of the national population, and the increased reliance on technology has left many of them feeling alone and unknown. In 2020, these results were further validated by the pandemic, when we discovered the limitations of technology and how important it is to be physically present with others in order to feel known and connected. Like the theme song from the 1980’s sitcom Cheers, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Halee Gray Scott, Ph.D., is host of the Christian Curious radio show and podcast, as well as the Director of the Young Adult Initiative at Denver Seminary. To find out more about her work, visit www.christiancurious.co.