GUEST POST: Why even bother with Young Adult Ministry?

The following is a guest post by Tim Atkins.

Tim is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, is 28, and has been a UU for the past five years.  He is a proud and active member of the 20/30s group at the Unitarian Univeralist Congregation of Atlanta, in addition to having served on the Stewardship Committee and served as a RE teacher, youth adviser, and greeting team leader.

Why even bother with Young Adult Ministry?

by Tim Atkins

The future of our faith is at hand, here and now.

That may sound like hyperbole to some, and it may sound scary to others.  But it’s the truth.  Young adults represent the future of our faith, the future of our denomination. In the years and decades to come, the strength of our denomination will come from the labors that we put forth now.  If we want our denomination to have a sustainable future, we must grow sustainable young adult groups within our congregations.

Far too often, young adults walk through the door of a congregation, see no one like them, encounter subtle but significant resistance to their desires of community building and deepening their faith, and don’t return.  Their spiritual needs are not met and they look elsewhere.  They feel isolated, they feel like a token, and they feel unwelcome in the congregational clique that has developed.

They are yearning for a community of like-minded people to bond with, to grow with, and to worship with.

Young adults need this spiritual connection to a community that we can provide. All signs are pointing to the current generation of young adults being among the most disconnected from society in history.  We may have a lot of Facebook Friends, but we are looking for a true, deep, beloved community.  And the place we look for it?  At church.

Yes, there are some congregations with a thriving Young Adult ministry program, but they are in the minority of our Association.  Our congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, is a large congregation with an active Young Adult group that is fully integrated with our congregation.  In the years 2007-2009, 131 out of 240 new members of the congregation were in their 20s or 30s.  Our congregation’s growth is in part tied to the growth of our Young Adult

Research is beginning to show that our faith is in a great position for Young Adult growth.  The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s report, “Religion Among Millenials,” shows a number of interesting trends for young adults nationwide.

“According to the 2007 Religious Landscape Survey, almost twice as many young adults say homosexuality should be accepted by society as do those ages 65 and older (63% vs. 35%). Young people are also considerably more likely than those ages 30-49 (51%) or 50-64 (48%) to say that homosexuality should be accepted.”

Unitarian Universalism is in a unique position to establish itself as a meaningful religious movement for the Millenial generation. Because, in part, young adults are more progressive with their social values that other generations.

According to a study done by the Center for American Progress in 2009, 67% of respondents aged 18-24 and 59% aged 25-29 believe that “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights.”

Young adult values are more in line with traditional Unitarian Universalist values than any other age cohort.  But they are among the least represented in our congregations.

The report from the Center for American Progress also states that,“research on the Millennial Generation shows that, like previous generations, they value spirituality and faith but are far less likely to embrace organized religion.”

Young adults are intrigued by our creedless nature, and young adults are looking for a faith community where they are encouraged to find their own spiritual path.  We have something to offer young adults, and young adults have something to offer to us.

We aren’t living up to our promise if we exclude, intentionally or unintentionally, young adults from meaningful participation in congregational life (ranging from worship to committees to leadership.) We aren’t building a community if we aren’t welcoming to all members of the community. We aren’t making sure our denomination is sustainable in the future.

Young Adults want to belong.  Isn’t it high time we let them?

We’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism.  Fifty years from now, what will our faith look like?  If we don’t make the commitment today to build up young adult programs in our congregations, our faith will look, well, empty.

What will you do, what will your congregation do, to make sure our faith is stronger than ever in fifty years?

In this post Tim reminds us of the critical need for Unitarian Universalist congregations, clergy and lay leaders to work to integrate Young Adults into their ministry.  And while they are at it, youth!

Our association is in desperate need of a leadership & ministry make-over.  No small patches or quick fixes, but serious, comprehensive reform.  Many youth and young adults have expressed to me that they wish there would be more national initiatives.  I think our success will come from more people like Tim sharing ideas, connecting, inspiring and leading the way.

  • If you have questions on starting up a Young Adult group, Tim invites you to contact him at atkins.timothy at gmail dot com.
  • If you are a youth or young adult leader and have ideas and opinions to share, please join our conversation.  We can’t have a comprehensive UU growth discussion without you.
  • Check out the “Generation Yes: News & Spirituality for Unitarian Universalists Under 40” blog by Jen Shattuck, my district’s young adult ministry consultant.

– Peter

4 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Why even bother with Young Adult Ministry?

  1. I have been saying much the same for months. When I joined my congregation, we had a small YA group with a pair of very serious problems: 1) Women weren’t showing up! There were more single men under 35 than women, and even the spice of the men involved didn’t come to the events unless they were hosting them. 2) The poor economy meant that most of them had no disposable income for events or even snacks, and several of the members, amounting to over half of the core of the group, ended up moving away, several of them out of state.

    The thing is, most of these Young Adults came to our church as UUs. We didn’t bring them in; they found us. That’s a great thing, but when we aren’t bringing in new members, and we see our members not being energized or retained, what kind of future can we build?

    My church has some growth in families a bit older than 35, and more as the ages go up, and that serves us well, from the financial and “man power” points of view. It still saddens me to see Young adults who do still come to services not being engaged in the church as a community.

    My own situation is not such that I can step up, just yet, to build solutions. I am working on that, but it often feels like I am doing so all alone in my congregation.

  2. A lot of young adults find out about UUism on our own. We find out through the web (before I first attended my home congregation 5 years ago, I had not only taken the beliefenet quiz, I went to each congregation’s website in the area, read all kinds of info on, and did research on the web) What kept me coming back was the young adult group. After I got comfortable there, I got heavily involved with the other aspects of church life.

  3. Too often our ministries for youth and young adult founder on the wish that we (the oldsters) can get away with one-size-fits-all age-based offerings. This completely contradicts our theology/’philosophy of lifespan science, which honors the natural desire of adolescents to define themselves more particularly. A healthy Coming of Age class will produce a collection (not a group) of youth and young adults whose interests, priorities and talents are just as diverse as those in the adult congregation.

    Yet the stage of life these folks are in socially and economically. Young adults are trying to set up foundations for accomplishment, while we oldsters are either interpreting and enriching a life built on such a foundation, or worrying about how to keep up what little our foundation supports. This means young adults are not in a position to participate in the committees and religious education structures we have designed as settled households.

    At the beginning of the 20th century, our parent denominations had thriving young adult programs. On the Unitarian side, Unity used aggressively diverse programming to bring young adults together in a mixture of ways, the same night every week. There was food. Sometimes there were literary presentations, sometimes citizenship, sometimes they did something for the community. There were presentations followed by discussions, on issues of pressing pastoral concern for that stage of life. There were courses on denominational theology, history and structures. They had dances. It was time intensive, expensive — and successful. This all took place under one roof, up here in Burlington, Vermont, leaving documented evidence that it occurred.

    Only when our denomination recognizes the need to fund and support folks who are not in the peak years and moments for financial giving will we break out of our generational and class-based rut. We have only just learned that we need to fund staff to help young adults with the difficult task of parenting young children; how much longer before we hear their plea that this is only part of what they want to do with these years of their lives?

    1. Thank you! Great to have you commenting here on the UU Growth Blog. So what do you think our collective next steps should be? I’m feeling like we need a serious revolution…

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