SBC Life Articles

Understanding and Reaching Younger Unchurched Adults

Bad research travels fast … especially when it relates to the younger generation.

"The end is in sight," bemoans one journalist in his daily column. "Eighty-eight percent of evangelical children are leaving the church shortly after they graduate from high school," declares another publication. One prominent Web site warns, "Christianity in America won't survive another decade unless we do something now."

Unfortunately, people are impacted and swayed by what they hear. And these alarmist statements (all of which have no research validation) lead many to conclude that Christians in America have no future in an increasingly dark world. Reports like these can cause some to question if even a minor presence of Christianity will remain in future generations of Americans. Looking toward the horizon, some might be tempted to conclude that the church looks bleak and dying in a place where it once flourished. If the reports were true, we would be having the same cultural impact as the Amish — great woodworkers but terrible missionaries.

This dim forecast not only comes from those outside of the church, but also at times from those within. Some church leaders have expressed great concern in the apparent demise of the church. In fact, all of the quotes above come from major Christian Web sites or publications. Believers of all ages are finding it more and more difficult to ignore this bad news, especially when it comes from within the church. And the news, according to many, is that emerging postmodern generations are wholly disinterested in Christianity and all young adults are turning their backs on the church.

Amidst all the lamenting and hand wringing, it is important for us to examine the facts about this generation. Too often we throw around false information like it's rice at a wedding reception. And we will do no better reaching young adults if we remain misinformed about their actions, beliefs, interests, and core values. In true missionary fashion, we need good information to help us tell some great news clearly and effectively.

So, what do unchurched young adults really think about God? Well, in a momentary lapse of reason, we decided to ask them. In a recent national survey by The Center for Missional Research (NAMB) and LifeWay Research, unchurched young adults were asked to describe their own personal religious or spiritual beliefs. The younger unchurched adults who said they were "spiritual" but not "religious" was 43 percent. Another 31 percent claimed to be both spiritual and religious. Only 9 percent were religious but not spiritual, and 18 percent said they were neither spiritual nor religious. From these stats, we see that it is quite inaccurate to say that young adults do not care about the spiritual realm. Atheism may sell books, but most younger unchurched adults consider themselves spiritual, despite what we may have heard.

In addition, a majority (81 percent) of younger unchurched adults in America believe that God or a higher supreme being exists. But 58 percent believe the God of the Bible is no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. And though stats like these are concerning, the research reveals that much of the theological beliefs of unchurched people in their 20s are closer to historic Christianity than we expected. In fact, their beliefs are closer to orthodox Christianity than the older unchurched of our culture. (Again, this is despite what some are determined to believe.)

How can these sterile stats affect the way our churches interact with the younger unchurched? Again, we asked the younger unchurched about it. Almost 90 percent of unchurched 20- to 29-year-olds said they would be willing to listen if someone wanted to tell them about Christianity. Three out of five younger unchurched respondents agreed they would be willing to study the Bible if a friend asked them to do so. This is obviously encouraging news that must not be drowned out by the alarmist notions promoted by well meaning people with a book or a conference to sell.

The younger un-churched agree that Christianity is a relevant and viable religion — but not as it is presented in much of American culture. They were harsh in their judgment and an overwhelming majority said that Christianity as they see it currently, is more about organized religion than loving God and people. In fact, only one in six would go to church if seeking spiritual guidance. So we find a generation that has a great fascination about Jesus but a lack of trust in the church as the place to find out about Him. In short, the bad news is that the younger unchurched believe the church is too critical about lifestyle issues, full of hypocrites, and not necessary for spiritual development. The good news is that the younger unchurched clearly indicate they are willing to hear about Christianity and Jesus.

In all of this, it's important to strike a balance between acknowledging the challenge of reaching unchurched young adults and celebrating the truth that God is still at work among them and through His churches. Other research findings offer the insight that both churched and unchurched young adults expressed an affinity towards similar spiritual issues: relational community, content and depth, social responsibility, and intergenerational connection. And while younger adults did frequently speak of these matters, we know they are first and foremost rooted in the scriptural truth that God has placed eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

In this generation, as in all, the God-initiated search for purpose and meaning occurs in a fresh environment of culture. In the search for an informed ministry approach, research is aiding us to understand this new generation but the mission of the church is still firmly rooted in Scripture's directives.

This is a natural resolution for those who might fear focusing on the opinions of the lost in order to reach them. Instead, the beautiful reality is that much of what young adults are looking for is found in the character of God and what our churches are called to be. Our churches have a chance to connect with this generation; now they must capture their opportunity.

The best news is that many churches are already seizing the moment to reach this generation. With a clear focus on the issues of authenticity, transparency, technology, leading with team, and more: they are effectively engaging young adults with the life and message of Christ. They are moving into the culture, seeing the disconnected come to faith in Christ, and incorporating them into the community life of a congregation.

The impact of reaching young adults will stretch far beyond our individual churches. If we can connect this talented, passionate, and educated generation to the cause of Christ, our future will be a bright one and a hope to see a new great awakening powered by the Gospel comes closer to becoming a reality.

The research mentioned above can be found in Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and The Churches That Reach Them by Ed Stetzer, Jason Hayes, and Richie Sanley.

    About the Author

  • Ed Stetzer and Jason Hayes