Cole Bodkin ~ The Young Adult Crisis

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“We gotta get those young adults, or else the future looks dim…”

That comment, and its millions variations, is one, if not the most predominant fear choking the older generation in the Church today. This fear isn’t unwarranted. Lots of numbers suggest that we are, in fact, seeing a decline in young adults involvement in church. For some reason, everything we’ve been doing the past several years doesn’t seem to be working? So how do we fix it? How do we reach the Millennials? How do we address this young adult crisis?

There are many answers to this question, but I’d like for us to step back for a second, and consider the unique situation we find ourselves in. First, I’d like to welcome you to the 21st century, which is becoming an increasingly post-Christian context. We live in a time where many in out culture no longer share the same values. Not as many Millenials grew up going to church, or if they did, it might have been a “Chreaster” sort of thing.

I hope that stating the bare facts doesn’t offend some of our non-Millenial readers, but it’s worth the reminder. In fact, I believe that many in our Church today are suffering from spiritual Alzheimer’s, forgetting where and when we are. Having visited folks in the hospital with Alzheimer’s, I don’t say this lightly. Forgetting who we are, where we are, when we are is one of the saddest things a human can experience. It’s heart wrenching. No one wakes up one day and desires to be out of touch with reality.

Many in our pews are living in the 20th century, confused with whom we are talking to and why they can’t see our point of view. We have all sorts of questions: Sunday and Wednesday are no longer considered holy days? People would rather go to football games or concerts than Sunday morning service? Schedules are jam-packed, and there is no time for church activities? Who are these people? Where did they come from?

Before prescribing an antidote, I’d like to hold up a mirror with a question written on it that we all (myself included) have to take a deep breath and answer:

Church, are we making disciples, who make disciples?

If we aren’t helping make (through the power of the Holy Spirit, of course) reproducing disciples, then should we be all that surprised that fewer and fewer young adults step foot inside the Church today?

What we have going on currently is a classic Whitfield conundrum; in the famous exchange between George Whitfield and John Pool, Whitfield asks regarding John Pool if he was still a Wesleyan. Pool affirms this and Whitfield replies:

John, thou art in thy right place. My brother Wesley acted wisely; the souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in class, and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand. 

Both Wesley and Whitfield were tremendous preachers, who were fully capable of gathering great crowds. Many came to faith as a result of their preaching. Wesley, however, knew that consistent and intentional discipleship was essential if the Wesleyan movement were to survive. Whitfield neglected this, and as a result his people were like “a rope of sand.”

How is this related to our spiritual Alzheimer’s?

Since Billy Graham, and probably even more so with Bill Bright, the presentation on the “gospel” in the Western world has been crafted in such a way as to lead to the decision.

Here’s a general set-up beginning with the problem: God loves you, but you are a sinner. Because of your sin, you have been distanced from God.

Here’s the solution: Jesus died and rose on your behalf so that you can have eternal life.

Here’s the decision: Believe in him and you will spend eternity with Jesus in heaven.

Given that, who wouldn’t want to make the decision to believe in Jesus? Once you have laid down the get-out-of-hell-free card, you are in. No more worries. Whew. Safe and sound.

We’ve bought into a soteriologically-packaged gospel that doesn’t require discipleship. Did you know that 90% of children in evangelical homes have made a decision to receive Jesus into their heart, yet by the time they are 35 (the tail-end of the young adult age-bracket) only 22% are following Jesus? Staggering. We must ask ourselves about the relationship between the gospel and discipleship. With the former, are we faithfully patterning the biblical witness (the biblical data)? And the latter, are we faithfully patterning the biblical witnesses (Jesus and the apostles)?

Many in our pews are still living in a Graham-Bright era of Christendom. But, many in the millennial generation no longer share the same cultural values that have been assumed for so long. Now, surely all the blame shouldn’t be cast upon Graham and Bright. These great preachers, like Whitfield, didn’t want to see people become like “a rope of sand.” Yet, 21st century Church, look behind us. Do you see the Millennial generation following us as we follow Christ?

I don’t want to end on a downer. Contrary to the overall perception, there are Millenials who want to follow Christ, but they want to experience Jesus up close and personally, not just in the pews after hearing a convicting, rhetorically-driven soteriologically-based gospel presentation; rather, they want to brush shoulders with those who imitate Christ and embody Him.

So, I’d like to encourage you with examples of folks who are putting in the hard work, who are making Millennial disciples-who-are-making-disciples in the 21st century.

What if we took a pledge to actually do what Jesus says? Well, that’s what Randy Harris, professor at Abilene Christian University, envisions and challenges the young men that he disciples to do. They read and commit to memory the Sermon on the Mount. Then they faithfully live the life that Jesus calls us to. They take to heart Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

And then there is the legendary Soup. Roy A “Soup” Campbell is a middle-aged African American in Memphis who makes disciples. I’ve heard stories of young, Caucasian men getting Soup’s number and calling him to see if he would disciple them. One story goes that after a few weeks (this guy is busy making disciples), Soup calls back and tells the fellow that he will have to meet him at the stoop of his house (which isn’t in a “safe” area of town) at 5:00 a.m. Sounds sketchy, right? But he came, and many continue to do so. Why? Soup is making disciples who are making disciples. People literally wait in line to be discipled by Soup, and Soup is dead serious about discipleship. He makes people covenant with him if he is going to disciple him. Soup isn’t especially theologically trained, didn’t go to seminary. No, he counted the cost and has followed Jesus, and as a result people want to know this Jesus that Soup follows.

Church, there is hope. But we have to look back further than the 20th century. We have to look back to the trailblazer Himself. And we have to show young adults Jesus and how he is moving in the 21st century.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Maybe many of us haven’t really tried following Jesus, and it’s time. It’s difficult, but it is the most amazing adventure we can ever be part of. Let’s ensure that our ropes aren’t sand, but are sturdy, and built for the journey towards the Promised Land.

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Cole is the Director of Young Adult Ministries at Collierville United Methodist Church. In his spare time, he enjoys hanging out with his wife, Lindsay, playing basketball, and disc golf. He blogs at colebodkin.com.

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