Challenge to reach young adults sees some success

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Challenge to reach young adults sees some success

March 19, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0816}

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**, Tita Parham and Steven Skelley**

How to reach young adults — it’s an ongoing topic of discussion among United Methodist churches, considering the majority of United Methodists are 45 and older.

Campus ministers say reaching college students — like these participating in an activity with Florida State University's Wesley Foundation campus ministry — isn't about providing the latest or "coolest" style of worship. It's about listening to them, building relationships with them and adapting ministry to the unique characteristics of their generation. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Vance Rains. Photo #08-0777.

A survey by Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that for every United Methodist under age 25 “there are six senior citizens,” with nearly “twice as many senior citizens occupying United Methodist church pews” as adults ages 25 to 44.

A study from the Barna Research Group shows many college-age young adults are “significantly less likely” than any other age group to attend worship services, donate to churches, be committed to Christianity, read the Bible, or serve as a volunteer or lay leader in churches, even if they were active in churches during their teen years.

A Barna poll also notes only about three in 10 20-somethings attend church in a typical week, while four in 10 in their 30s attend and nearly half of all adults ages 40 and older attend.

How to reach that hard-to-reach demographic is such a concern an entire evening session at last year’s annual conference event was devoted to hearing from college students and directors of campus ministries about the needs of students on Florida’s college campuses.

That conversation is continuing. Staff in the conference’s Connectional Ministries office are discussing ideas with the Young Adult Network, formed at last year’s annual conference event, about the possibility of coordinating training sessions and developing resources for local events around the conference.

Challenges, shifting cultures

A video shown during the annual conference session offered a glimpse into the lifestyles of many college students and the things that compete for their time.

A student with Crosswinds Wesley Foundation at the University of South Florida conducts random interviews with students on campus to find out what they believe about Jesus, religion and the Bible. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Smith. Photo #08-0778. Web photo only.

Students were randomly asked how they spend their Sunday mornings. Responses ranged from doing homework and hanging out with friends to sleeping, recovering from hangovers, playing football and going to the movies.

The students were also asked what they think of the Bible. Some struggled with the question, saying only that it is “a big book.” One student said it was a “secondary source with some truth in it.” Another described it as a storybook.

A 2004 survey to gauge religious tolerance and acceptance also reflected a diversity of beliefs. It found that 83 percent of people with no religious background consider themselves to be just as moral as those who are of a religious faith and 64 percent of people believe they can grow spiritually without believing in God.

During the conference session Josh Bell, a student at the Orlando campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, and Sarah Campbell, an active member at Stetson University’s Wesley House, shared trends among young adults 18 to 30. Half have body piercings or tattoos, one in five professes no religious affiliation, and they are twice as likely to have a different set of values than their parents or grandparents.

And here the inevitable generation gap comes into play.

The Rev. Vance Rains, director of the Wesley Foundation at Florida State University and recently hired as executive director of the conference’s Higher Education and Campus Ministry, shared examples of the differences between generations.

He said youth and young adults have a variety of tools at their disposal previous generations never dreamed would exist — e-mail, text messages, podcasts, social Internet sites like MySpace and Facebook — making them much more technologically savvy. And they expect to utilize those tools in most every aspect of their lives.

Students attending an evening session at the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event last June that focused on ministry with young adults stand when statistics related to their generation are read. Characteristics of each generation were highlighted in an effort to show how differences in beliefs and attitudes may impact the approach to ministry that’s required for each. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #08-0779.

Rains said the Echo Boomers, the youngest generation, will be extremely large and dominated by technology, with 80 percent having no church experience.

The Rev. Andy Sistrunk, a deacon at First United Methodist Church, Port Orange, said many young adults under age 35 don’t attend church, but they do possess definite opinions about Christianity and Christians — like his friend Dave.

Sistrunk showed a video in which he broaches a variety of topics with Dave, who in turn gives his point-of-view about each one. Dave said God may or may not exist, he admires Jesus, and Christians are hate-mongers. With each comment, Sistrunk responded “all people matter to God.”

Sistrunk said Dave and others like him care about people. That’s why MySpace and Facebook are increasingly popular — it’s how young adults build relationships. He said it’s important for Christians to reach out to people like Dave and build those relationships, to be the “incarnate of Jesus Christ for them.”

“People like Dave don’t connect with institutions,” Sistrunk said. “Programs will not connect with people like Dave.”

Sistrunk said attracting young adults isn’t about new emergent worship styles or any other “cool” worship experience. It’s based on building relationships one at a time.

“It’s not rocket science,” Sistrunk said. “It’s exactly what we’ve been called to do for 2,000 years.”

Rains says the church must adapt to these changes to both reach and retain young adults before they abandon the church altogether.

How campus ministries are doing

That’s the message from many campus ministry leaders and young adults themselves.

And despite concerns over fewer younger adults developing a strong Christian faith and being active in a faith community, some Florida Conference campus ministries are seeing results from their efforts.

Derrick Scott does believe in God, and he is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ on his campus, the University of North Florida. The passionate campus minister, who serves as director of college/young adult ministries at CrossRoad United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, said he remembers what it was like five years ago to be a college student and hear professors be critical of the church.

Scott spoke at the conference event about students who participate in ACCESS218, a ministry of CrossRoad church. The ministry, which takes its name from Ephesians 2:18, provides space and ministry for students in a variety of settings on a weekly basis.

College students participate in community night as part of ACCESS218, a ministry for young adults at CrossRoad United Methodist Church in Jacksonville. Photo courtesy of ACCESS218. Photo #08-0780.
Scott said students are discovering God, many for the first time. He said one student recently received his first Bible.

“They need to know God has not given up on them,” Scott said. “God has a plan for them.”

Kelly Moore, a staff member in the conference’s Connectional Ministries office who works with youth, young adults and campus ministries, says most of the conference’s campus ministries are “doing a great job with bringing in students and connecting them with the church.”

“We have a lot of students at different foundations that will be going to seminary, becoming missionaries or starting church staff positions when they leave college,” she said.

Steve Hambrick says it’s the younger generations that hold “the keys to the greatest release of the Holy Spirit the world has ever known.”

Hambrick is the former executive director of the Central Florida Wesley Foundation at the University of Central Florida.

He said the campus ministry achieves its vision through community groups that meet weekly to learn about Jesus Christ and build relationships with each other. Students participate in short-term missions trips to Africa, Haiti, Costa Rica and Jamaica. They also help with Downtown Ministry, which focuses on building relationships with and serving those living in poverty in downtown Orlando. The foundation also offers worship services Tuesdays at 7:30 pm.

Rains believes campus ministry is vital to the spiritual life of college students.

“The depth of Christian community — real biblical community — is huge,” Rains said, adding he uses “all of the things you can imagine” to minister to young adults.

That includes on-campus outreach, social events, college-age worship, small groups, retreats and mission trips.

“The point is doing what you do with young adults in mind, using their gifts and abilities, using them as leaders, and allowing for tremendous flexibility with style,” he said. “It has to be intentional and have depth and energy and passion.”

Rains says young adults are the church’s future, but the church has “just about lost them, and thus our future.”

“Developmentally, college is the most formative time in most people’s lives,” Rains said. “I don’t know of any better time to nurture a person’s spirit than during the college years — as they are being formed spiritually, relationally, vocationally. College students are receptive, and their choices will set the course of their lives.”

A band plays at one of the regular concerts coordinated by Crosswinds Wesley Foundation at the University of South Florida. The concerts raise money for food, clothing, and educational and HIV prevention materials that go to two children the campus ministry sponsors through World Vision. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Smith. Photo #08-0781. Web photo only.

Crosswinds Wesley Foundation at the University of South Florida works to reach students on all those levels, particularly focusing on students who do not have a church home.

“We are always running into students who have been going to college for a couple of years, but have still not found a local church,” said Jennifer Smith, director of the campus ministry.

To help students get settled, the campus ministry includes a list of local churches with good college programs on its Web site. Smith said Crosswinds students also invite new students to carpool with them to the churches they attend and volunteer at local churches for special events that coincide with Crosswinds’ mission and vision.

The ministry offers Bible studies each week that challenge students to look and act more like Jesus each day. Smith says students seek out opportunities where they can show simple kindness to other students, as well as people with whom they can connect throughout the day. They also serve at local domestic violence and homeless shelters to “spread the message that all people matter in this world.”

Crosswinds also holds monthly benefit concerts featuring secular bands to raise funds that go to two children they sponsor in South Africa through World Vision.

“We do have two weekly Bible studies called Elevate and a monthly service project called OneLife that we invite all concertgoers to,” Smith said. “Both of these programs are geared toward the seeker and the college student who wants to make a difference in their community and as far around the world as South Africa.”

Smith says the money raised through the concerts goes to feed, clothe, educate and teach HIV prevention to the children.

“We also provide many opportunities for students to use their discontent with social justice issues to fuel change in our community through serving and volunteering,” Smith said. “Students know what is relevant. They know how to reach others their own age.”

Smith said many college students did not grow up in the church and have a negative opinion of religion — “not Jesus, religion.”

“They like Jesus. They just don’t trust the church,” she said. “We need to listen to them and make the necessary changes to be able to reach them.”

Making that connection

College student Natalie Valenti says she has found healing and discovered the importance of a faith community through campus ministry.

“It was scary because I felt that I was becoming vulnerable in front of people and that they could possibly reject me,” she said. “Instead, I was embraced, and that has brought me so much healing. … This community at Wesley is where I turn for strength when I have burdens to bear, and they are the ones I dance with when I have something to celebrate.”

Campus ministers participating in an evening session at the 2007 Florida Annual Conference Event last June that focused on ministry to young adults say campus ministries are providing a place where students can connect and build relationships in the framework of a Christian community. One said many students are learning about God for the first time through campus ministry. Photo courtesy of ACCESS218. Photo #08-0782. Web photo only.

Trevor Johnston says campus ministry changed his future, helping him find “a calling of my own.” He says it enables him to minister to his peers, “the generation that is the most missed by the church.”

“It has provided a home for me and a community of friends that I will have for years and years to come,” he said. “It is the place where I got filled with God’s fire.”

Johnston says students are reaching out to the Florida State University community and others through homeless ministry in Tallahassee, mission work in Florida’s Big Bend area and international mission trips to South America and Africa.

Johnston says having that faith community is “the greatest experience a Christian can have.”

“True community is a beautiful thing because you actually learn to be the body every day of the week, rather than on Sunday mornings,” he said. “Living in community makes you more like Jesus and makes the outside world see what we are really about. They will know we are Christians by our love.”


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla. Skelley is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.

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