Mission Begins at Home: A Conversation With Dr. A. Allan Martin
Why relating to the young adults in your church is imperative to reaching unchurched Millennials
A. Allan Martin, PhD, is the teaching pastor for Younger Generation Church [ygchurch.com], the vibrant young adult ministry of the Arlington Seventh-day Adventist Church. Martin serves the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists as the point person for the Growing Young Adventists [#GYA] initiative, GrowingYoungAdventists.com
What does reaching the young adults in our home churches have to do with reaching the secular, unchurched young adults in our world?
“Want to reach out to unchurched Millennials? Begin by listening to the young adults in your church, or at least the ones on your church record books. How can we reach out to young adults we don’t know, if we don’t even converse with the young adults we know or know of? Generally, young strangers aren’t interested in you talking to them, especially about church or religion, without some type of relational context. However, if you take the time to build relationship, to listen, to be authentic—Millennials are very open to that. Listening lets us step into the shoes of this generation.
In Fuller Youth Institute’s book, Growing Young, this is one of the main commitments young adults find attractive: Empathize with Today’s Young People. Our church members assume that secular, postmodern young adults are ‘somewhere out there,’ outside of our church circles. However the truth is, our young people live and breathe in the current cultural milieu. Listening to our own is a great first step to building relationships with next generations.”
“We understand so little of the complexities of growing up in the 21st century. Adventist adults may not realize the tremendous difference between the world they grew up in compared to the one that young adults live in today. If you remember using a rotary dial phone—back then, would you have ever imagined using a phone to edit videos or give you directions while you drive?
It’s more important to relate than to reach. Take time getting to know next generations and their world. Spend time hearing their heart. This need not start overly religious. Begin with things you may have in common. Food is always a great place to start. Maybe you share interests in sports or music. Use shared activities to really listen and learn about their lives. As you do life together, the Holy Spirit will give you a heart for the young person, and inevitably, conversations about God will come up. Faith will come up. Questions about life will come up. Millennials are not projects, they are persons. Start with listening. Listening itself is a form of Good News.”
Speaking of not understanding the younger generations, why are young adults leaving the Adventist church? Is this generation particularly rebellious?
“So let’s be real. If a waiter ignored you or treated you poorly, how long would it take before you stopped going to a restaurant, no matter how good the food is? Aren’t we fairly quick to sense whether or not we are wanted or needed? In most cases, young adults may make the unconscious decision to part ways with the church long before they become young adults.
Author and LifeWay Researcher, Ed Stetzer, quips that youth ministry can often be ‘six years of detention with pizza.’ If our approach to children and youth ministry is to put them in a room somewhere – “out of sight [and sound], out of mind” – how can we expect next generations not to ‘catch our drift’ early on?
In some cases we may have a youth pastor or leader—and we’ve now ‘sub-contracted’ all the young ministry to a sole person or small team. Unintentionally or intentionally, we may expect youth ministry to just keep those young people busy and apart from church life. No wonder some of our youth graduate from church when they graduate from high school.
‘Do you want me or not?’ ‘Am I important to you?’ ‘Do I belong here?’ ‘What purpose do I serve?’
I’m afraid too often the church has sent pretty clear non-verbal messages to these important questions for Millennials. You don’t have to be a young person to get the hint that you are not necessarily wanted or needed. In light of such messages, I don’t think leaving can be considered ‘rebellion;’ just an honest reaction to the excluding culture of some churches.”
How can we involve young people in our ministries when past experience has taught us that young people are unreliable? Are millennials just a flaky generation?
“We too quickly forget our own inconsistencies and immaturity when we were young. Hopefully, in your young life, there were caring adults who were patient with you as you made mistakes and matured. We need those types of adults in the lives of Millennials too.
There was a time when all you could ever know could be found in a set of encyclopedias. In this other-worldy technological media age, there is exponentially more information speeding by young people than ever before. Each information byte presents multiple options and choices, so I don’t really blame them for the whiplash of options they have to choose from daily if not moment-by-moment. When we were ‘youth,’ we all had older adults who thought we were ‘flaky.’
Technological age notwithstanding, I believe today’s church leaders and caring adults have a responsibility to expect excellence, value commitment, and foster a sense of accountability in next generations. Discipleship is a learning, growing process that requires loving correction as well as mercy and grace.”
So how do we develop intergenerational relationships between the older and younger generations in our churches, so that no generation is excluded?
“All generations benefit when we build relationships with each other. Secular youth culture has deceived adults into thinking that young people don’t want or need adults in their lives. The research has made it abundantly clear that Millennials and next generations crave meaningful relationships with adults.
Older adults, you have wisdom. You have patience. You can pour goodness and grace into this next generation. Millennials crave authentic relationships with older generations. They want to hear your stories and share theirs. Be yourself; you don’t have to ‘act or be like them.’
Jesus’ illustration of the body is so helpful here. Each part of the body needs the other parts, and the body doesn’t benefit from every part being identical.
Personally speaking I can’t do what young adults do staying up till all hours with energy to spare. At my age, I need my sleep. But I can listen to your grand stories of all-hours exploits for the sake of GOD’s kingdom. I can cheer you on, even pay for a late night pizza run. . . Just bring me the receipt in the morning. Every part of the body is valuable as we honor Christ Jesus, and we are different on purpose. The body doesn’t function well if any part is excluded.
If the church is going to grow, it will need to change, but change need not exclude anyone. It may call for courage, generosity, patience, and a listening ear. It may also require self-sacrifice from all ages. But it’s important to remember, ‘we need each other.’”
• Register for the Reaching Millennial Generations Conference on April 12-14 to hear Dr. Martin speak about doing mission to younger generations!
• Discover strategies to help young people discover and love your church at https://churchesgrowingyoung.com
• NEXT STEPS: Empowering Young Adult Ministry is a free online course offering a relevant approach to young adult ministry by exploring the Adventist Millennial Study conducted by the Barna Group.
Photos courtesy of Younger Generation Church and Fuller Youth Institute