“Young adults are the least powerful group in your church.”

This is my shock-value phrase when I’m speaking at a church in my role as the Program Director of Pivot NW Research, a research and innovation grant funded by The Lilly Endowment and housed at Seattle Pacific University in the School of Theology. Whether during a sermon I preach as a guest to the pulpit or a time of learning and strategy around young adult ministry and outreach, I use this phrase to bump people out of their thinking about young adults (Pivot NW Research defines the term “young adults” as anyone who by stage or age might be identified as in their 20s).

I write this as the advertising event of the year, the Super Bowl, approaches and I am reflecting on how we as a society have come to think of young adults as a powerful and threatening force. All of our advertising features them. La célébrité du jour comes from their ranks. Articles are written about them killing one industry, lifting another out of obscurity, or coming into other political or economic power.

As you might expect, we make too much of these claims. There are systemic reasons that have been growing for decades why young adults feel powerless in churches and the broader society. It is clear in our political system that no matter how many young adults come into their own power, they are fighting an uphill battle against entrenched and well-funded interests. It is clear in our economic system that young adults are increasingly a day late and a dollar short. Just see the memes that say “clearly in 2006 I should have invested in a ranch-style starter home instead of being a three-year-old who was potty training.”

And as young adults walk into a church, their experience isn’t all that different. Entrenched interests, represented by the chancel choir or the eucharistic guild or the handbell group or the gardening and floral committee, are not seen as permeable groups where one can become instantly empowered, but rather as a group that they might have to invest in for a decade or more until their opinion is trusted and validated. At that point, they’ve been assimilated. The young adult is no longer a foreign body with different perspectives and “wild” impulses that must be rejected, but instead a 30-something who has been tamed, receiving the existing priorities of the church.

Less traditional churches can be just as guilty of entrenched interests. They may have gravity around a celebrity pastor, a traditional family lifestyle or façade, or some other contemporary worship idolatry that tells young adults “to belong here you must fit in here…and to fit in here you must adopt our culture, whole cloth.”

Understanding Young Adults

Going back to my phrase that young adults are the least powerful, allow me to explain a bit more and provide some possible solutions related to scripture. I say young adults are the least powerful because…

  • Most everyone college age and younger has parents or another advocating structure who will ensure their needs are met. Our churches often know how to do children’s and youth ministry in their most basic forms.
  • Many people in their 30s or older have probably begun to put down roots. That means they may be partnered; have a career; own or have a stable living situation; be tithing members of the congregation; be a family unit and an important part of the social fabric of the congregation, etc.
  • Whatever disadvantages 20-somethings have often intersect with other disadvantages. For instance, a 20-something who is already in a low-wage job, lives alone or with roommates, has school debt, may also (and is even likely to) be BIPOC, Queer, disabled, a woman, an immigrant, or someone who has mental health issues, or is lacking education. Or perhaps they are just so concerned with the church’s rejection of those intersections that it is hard for them to fully participate there. Given that every new crop of young adults is more diverse than its predecessor, the possibilities for marginalization grow.

So, what does that mean for you and your churches as you try to interact with young adults who might darken your door? It means you should remember that most often these young adults are not coming in from a place of strength. Even the ones that might seem to have it together have several other concerns that might be less obvious.

For instance, our explosive growth in the Pacific Northwest means a lot of tech workers, engineers, and others have moved here from other parts of the country and are far away from family. So even if they have a spouse, kids, and a house, they may be lacking the network that helps a young family stay sane through the early adjustments of family life.

Or a young adult may have a successful career and a spouse living the DINK (Double Income, No Kids) life in Capitol Hill or Lower Queen Anne, but they are concerned about climate change causing destabilization and migration, their friends who are more marginalized in society and can’t seem to catch a break, and their inability to direct the church’s gaze at these intractable problems.

Some young adults generally feel comfortable at church but feel odd supporting the 20th century missions that they see as colonial while their service job has them interacting with people struggling with homelessness or sex workers who seem invisible to churches. Because these young adults divert their charitable giving to those concerns and feel uncomfortable becoming members, their voices stay marginalized in the churches they attend but never join.

And because they don’t join, churches don’t change. And churches that don’t change tend to die. Sometimes, within that death, they seed new life. Sometimes they just fade into obscurity.

How to Center Young Adults

Given all this, how do the churches of the Pacific Northwest and beyond begin to empower, attract, and—frankly—center young adults?

One way is the Acts 6/caring for the Grecian widows model: create structures that support young adults. Often this looks like creating opportunities for peer relationship-building and intergenerational relationship-building.

It really is a Goldilocks task, but if you can find time, space, and funding for young adults to create relationships with each other where they don’t have to explain themselves, that is healthy and good. However, too much peer siloing can engender a belief that “the church doesn’t care about us” and “we are all stuck in the same issues.” That’s when you need to balance young adult-centric groups with intergenerational connection.

Intergenerational relationships create a sense of hope and provide solidarity and networking that can help young adults gain safety nets and a sense of movement. But if young adults only have intergenerational relationships they can feel lonely and exhausted from always having to explain themselves to people who don’t fully understand what they’re going through. Thus a Goldilocks balance is a way to really serve your young adult population.

A good way to attack this as a church is to create an intergenerational team that includes young adults. This team can ensure these things happen, much like the Acts 6 story of choosing of the seven to care for the Grecian widows.

Many churches wonder whether the lead pastor needs to have a relationship with their young adults. Generally we recommend it, since this fosters connection to power for young adults who then feel like they are seen, their needs taken seriously and attended to. Also, it often means the pastor doesn’t have to guess what would serve them well. In some cases where the pastor isn’t able to relate or is overwhelmed by others seeking attention, that can backfire. Where poor attention reinforces that young adults aren’t taken seriously, sometimes the better path is an honest approach, clearly communicating that the young adults and those supporting them are blessed and sanctioned to act with independence.

A final way of ensuring that young adults feel heard, seen, and valued is to simply elevate them to your church council or other committees where they have a voice and their desire to do church in ways that work for them is taken seriously. Healthy congregations change, even if minutely, every time someone new joins the ranks. This change signals that the newcomer is valued and also that the old way of doing business is no longer normal with this new presence.

A lot of churches assume that by having 20-somethings do something visible, like help lead worship–playing guitar or drums–that will change the direction of the church. But if the same budget priorities are made by the same people attending to the same pet-projects and preferences, eventually the 20-somethings leave, because even if the music changes, the ministry priorities don’t. The church feels like their parents’ church, not their church.

Clearly, a lot of this is easier said than done, and Pivot NW Research has been putting money where its mouth is by sponsoring and incentivizing church change in the Pacific Northwest with actual congregations throughout the region. But $500, $5,000, or even $50,000 doesn’t mean a lot when a church is resistant to change. The biggest decision for congregations is often whether to accept the need for change and prepare their hearts for it.

More information on Pivot NW Research can be found at PivotNW.org. Feel free to reach out, introduce yourself and your congregation to the team, and ask any questions that this article might elicit. We have additional information that goes into greater depth on our website and on our social media (@pivotnw on most platforms). We are also excited about our upcoming book Defiant Hope, Active Love: What Young Adults Are Seeking in Places of Work, Faith, and Community, which will release on July 31, 2024 and chronicles the first five years of our project and a summation of our reflections on the work.

Cover photo credit: Karl Fredrickson



  • Martin Jimenez

    Rev. Martín Elías Jiménez is Program Director of Pivot NW Research and Associate Pastor of Development at Northminster Presbyterian Church. He is a Chicano from the San Francisco Bay Area who moved to Seattle and started his MDiv at Fuller’s Seattle campus where he worked for nine years. Martin enjoys maintaining and learning to sail his vintage sailboat, Warriors basketball, board games, and Dungeons & Dragons. He lives in Greenwood with his wife Ali, daughter Petra, and son Valencio. Martin hopes to steer the church and the great many lonely folks of the PNW together.

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