Evangelism and the Under-Thirty Crowd
by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook
A November 2009 issue of The Week featured a story, "Losing our Religion," that focused on the rapidly growing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States, the so called Nones, and asked if organized religion is fading. Younger than the general population, many Nones believe in God yet are skeptical about organized religion. The article quotes recent statistics suggesting that if this trend continues, cohorts of nonreligious young people will replace older religious people and account for one-quarter of the American population. Another recent article in USA Today concluded that young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s, approximately 72 million people, want to make an impact and are socially-conscious yet do not relate to traditional institutional structures. A decreasing number of these young adults view churches as places to make a difference or to develop their leadership skills.
The fact that nearly every major denomination is aging and losing members has been a concern for the last thirty years, yet institutional efforts to reverse these trends and to capture the religious imagination of young adults have been limited. Mainline denominations, historically and culturally self-conscious about evangelism, are further challenged to proclaim the good news in today's religiously pluralistic nation and world. What then is the role of evangelism with young adults today? What are some of the ways that the Christian church can better respond to the spiritual questions of young adults in a religiously pluralistic age? How might congregations better respond to the gifts and skills young adults have to offer?
"One of the reasons many churches don't do evangelism well is that their motivation is self-serving," says Tom Brackett, church planting specialist for the Episcopal Church. Brackett believes that a focus on evangelism primarily as a church growth strategy is counterproductive, especially with young adults, and at a time when the world is longing for evidence that God is with us. A more positive approach to evangelism for many, he suggests, lies "in pointing out the ways that God is already active, transforming lives, and connecting us to each other."
One judicatory that is intentionally reaching out to young adults is the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. In 2008, the diocese initiated the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project, a ministry designed to find out what young adults ages 18 to 30 value deeply, how they experience their faith journeys, and their perspectives on faith, spirituality, and the church. The project defines relational evangelism as "a life-long spiritual practice that is the ministry of all to recognize the power of God in Christ to transform our lives and communities, and then being willing to share those stories of God's grace in others." The project came about as a result of multiple gatherings around the Boston area of young adult clergy and others who were already engaged in young adult ministry. Arrington Chambliss, the director of the project, comes to it with a long history of engagement with young people through faith-based and community organizations. Interested in young adult ministry that "truly listens first," Chambliss says that the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project is about engagement, not conversion. "It is God who does the converting," she says, "relational evangelism is about us having a deep enough relationship that others want to join with us."For the rest of the article click here