Reviewed by Jordan Cone | November 20, 2019
Being a young adult in church can be awkward. No longer in high-school youth group but not quite the target audience for most Bible study groups or retreats, it’s easy to fade into the background. As a member of what authors Mark DeVries and Scott Pontier describe as “the generation that’s staying away from the church in record numbers,” I was immediately intrigued by their thoughts on how to get people like me into the pews.
Feeling out of place because we’re not married with kids yet or because we’re away at college much of the year, we do often struggle to stay connected to the church. Truthfully, if it weren’t for my former youth pastor, I would be one of the many millennials the authors call “insider kids”—kids who grew up in the church but are completely disconnected by the time they graduate from college. I am grateful that after I graduated from youth group at Valley Covenant Church in Stillman Valley, Illinois, my youth pastor, Chuck Potts, became a great friend and mentor. He has kept tabs on me throughout my college journey and met with me on breaks, always offering words of wisdom and an ear to listen—which has kept me involved in the Covenant community.
Sustainable Young Adult Ministry can help churches understand the unique relationship young adults have with the church. Written as a conversation between the authors and their readers, this book relates personal stories and life lessons to illustrate its claims. First, it discusses common mistakes the church makes when trying to attract us, and then it offers step-by-step solutions to those mistakes. I found its analysis of my generation refreshing and surprisingly accurate.
My first “That’s so true!” moment was in chapter 2 about how my peers and I “speak a different language” that the church has difficulty interpreting. In response, the authors write, “Few people become fluent in a language from a seminar or book. Fluency comes from actually being with native speakers.” So true! My generation hungers for transgenerational relationships, and DeVries and Pontier recognize that we don’t want to be observed from a distance. We want to be in the mix. We value what older generations have to say and are eager to learn from their experiences. We don’t want to be interpreted by the church, we want to be in communication with the church.
These “That’s so true!” moments occurred more often than I expected. Another instance was when the authors stated that my generation wants to make a difference, and we want to be able to do that in partnership with the church. Contrary to the popular belief that my generation is lazy, the authors write, “Living a life of meaning, a life that makes a difference, profoundly matters to them. They’re committed to leaving the world better for their children…this generation steadfastly refuses to believe that the status quo has to remain in place.”
It is true that we are a large part of the consumer culture, but more than any other generation, we use that in positive ways. We buy metal straws in an effort to reduce plastic pollution, we buy clothing from organizations that partner with nonprofits, we dedicate our birthdays to raising funds for charity on Facebook, and we use social media to bring awareness to causes we care about. We also want to come alongside our churches to make an impact, whether that’s in the church itself or in the world outside it. The problem, the authors say, is that we often don’t have a space within the church to do so.
Though having a young adult program isn’t a bad idea, the authors say it’s not the place to start. Rather, they suggest, churches should start by investing in relationships with us, by including us, by not “waiting until we’re ready” to give us the leadership opportunities we’re looking for. Let us come alongside you in mission work. Let us be apprentices. Let us help you make a difference. This book will teach you how. Yes, there are risks in investing in young adults like me—the authors acknowledge that. We can’t always be trusted to stick to our commitments. We move around a lot and probably won’t establish deep roots in the community. But the good news is that this book offers concrete suggestions for how to address those risks.
Changing the worship style is not going to draw me in. Starting a young adult version of youth group is not necessarily going to get me there. But preventing my voice from being heard or refusing to share the responsibility of shaping the church’s future will certainly cause me to look elsewhere. This book will challenge your perception of my generation, invite you to eschew the idea that we are technology-crazed and entitled, and urge you not to wait to make me a priority until I’m married and have a family of my own.