The seed for the journey began with one young woman's dream of visiting every church in America.
Heather Stevens was still thinking about that dream when she wrote a blog post in search of an answer to why the church was not connecting with young people. She got nearly 1,500 hits on her blog, many from 20-somethings with the same concern. For her it was a call to action.
"I was passionate about this," Stevens says.
And so earlier this month, Stevens, 21, Taylor Snodgrass, 22, and Maria Martin, 21, set off on a cross-country trip on a quest. They want to find out just what is going on with 20-somethings in today's church.
Stevens is a pastor's daughter who grew up in a United Methodist congregation at Granger Community Church in Indiana. She met Snodgrass last year when both were interns at Cross Point Community Church in Nashville. In his hometown of Edinboro, Pa., Snodgrass attends the nondenominational McLane Church. Stevens met Martin at Radford University in Virginia. Martin's church is the nondenominational Kingdom Life Church in Indiana.
Not every church in America is on their itinerary, but the trio plans to stop in nearly 20 states and visit more than 25 churches. Among their early stops was nondenominational The Avenue Church in Delray Beach, with a congregation of about 400 worshipers, and evangelical mega-church Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale with about 30,000 worshipers.
Other churches to date have been the Church of Eleven22 in Jacksonville and NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C.
The final destination will be somewhere on the West Coast by mid-August. The trio prefers to keep a bit of mystery about just where they can be found on any given day.
This trip isn't about pointing out the church's failures, though the statistics aren't encouraging. The Barna Group found that nearly six in ten 20-somethings who may have grown up in a church opt to walk away as young adults. The marketing research group focuses on issues of faith and culture.
|Maria Martin, Taylor Snodgrass and Heather Stevens are on a mission to find out what makes church meaningful to young adults. Photo from 20sChurch.|
"We looked a little bit at that," Snodgrass says. "We feel a lot of articles want to look at what the church is doing wrong. Until the church knows how to fix it, there is nothing they can do."
So the goal is to highlight what churches do right. So far, what young people seem to want is a church that is real, authentic and intergenerational.
At one of the early church services in Florida, the pastor related a biblical message to what was going on in his personal life. "It was very real, not just fluff," Snodgrass says.
Churches that make it easy for people to be involved, to volunteer and to make connections are on the right track. As one pastor framed it, the church that appeals to young people wants "missionaries, not members."
"The overriding thing is value," Martin says. "It's something our generation is very focused on, as well as authenticity."
These themes are not surprising to Heidi Aspinwall, the Florida Conference's director of Young Adult Missional Movement. For a dozen years, she worked with youth at DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), a mission partnered by Mennonite and Presbyterian churches.
"Young adults don't want to go to a church that doesn't mean something," she says. "It needs to be meaningful to relate to their life. This young generation wants to behave like church action matters to them."
Serving the community and bringing missions to the church, whether it's helping a homeless shelter or foster children, are the motivations for youth, Aspinwall says.
Though it might surprise some, Stevens also believes that forging connections between youth and older generations is something that her generation wants.
"Churches doing it right are good at enabling young leaders," she says. "They are not afraid to have the 20-somethings on stage playing guitars or preaching."
Part of being real and authentic at church is encouraging generational gatherings.
"They have a mix of people they meet in life every day," Stevens says.
That is a message that the Florida Conference's lay leader, Russ Graves, encourages through the Making a Friend program. It is part of an initiative at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach that focuses particularly on encouraging intergenerational friendships.
Youth want to connect with the older generation to learn about life experience, have a conversation and listen, Graves says.
He is having some successes.
Bartow Willingham wasn't certain he would find anything in common with a young man Graves suggested he meet. But what began as a conversation over coffee has grown into a friendship.
"We had more overlapping interests than I would have imagined," Willingham told Graves in a written statement. "We immediately had a number of rich topics to discuss and agreed on most issues. ... But I was most impressed with the fire of the Holy Spirit, which was so evident in everything he does and says."
Stevens, Snodgrass and Martin are moving down the road until the close of summer. Afterward, Stevens plans to write a book on their experience. And there will be more blogging and videos likely for Martin and Snodgrass.
"I'm waiting to see what God has for me," Martin says. "I would love for it to be something with the church and mission work."
-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.