What motivates young adults to reach their peers for Christ?
The story of Lift Church is one I would like to see replicated 100 times over in North America.
Robin Wallar, 32, has served as lead pastor for the past eight years. He was a 17-year-old student when he helped start the church as a small college ministry.
The university-based Lift Church now includes 43 “simple churches” led by students from six university campuses in the greater Toronto area. These simple churches are similar to small groups or house churches. They gather in dorm rooms, campus meeting spaces, coffee shops, and homes.
Lift Church is part of the SERVE Campus Network with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC), strategically partnering to reach Canadian university campuses.
However, this movement isn’t unique to Canada. We’re seeing young people start simple churches and missional communities across the United States through different networks from various traditions and backgrounds.
Wallar says today’s young adults are looking for an orienting sense of purpose. And like generations of Christians before them, many are discovering that the kingdom of God is about more than just religion; it is worth a lifetime of devotion.
Young people are increasingly joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones.” In 2015, 23% of all U.S. adults, and more than one-third of millennials, said their religion was “nothing in particular,” according to Pew Research Center.
In a 2018 Barna Group survey of Generation Z teenagers, 35% claimed to be atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated. The share of atheists among Gen Z was double that of the U.S. adult population (13% vs. 6%).
In his forthcoming book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, political scientist Ryan Burge examines the complex cultural and sociological forces driving the rise of the “nones” and their characteristics within generational cohorts.
Burge points out that while it’s common to see people in their 20s leave their childhood religious traditions, many baby boomers returned to church in their 30s and 40s. So far, that has not been the case with aging millennials (the oldest of whom turn 40 this year).
Burge makes this observation:
Dozens of books on church growth have tried to glean insights from the way the baby boomers drifted in and out of a religious community, but the reality is that this was a unique moment in American history, and strategies for evangelizing millennials shouldn’t be based on the findings derived from prior generations.
We can’t expect to reach this generation of young adults by using all the same methods from previous generations. We also can’t expect to mobilize them with the same missional narratives.
By “missional narratives,” I mean the stories that create urgency and motivate people to engage in evangelism. For example, boomers and Generation X responded to stories about church decline in the West.
We can’t expect to reach this generation of young adults by using all the same methods from previous generations.
According to this narrative, the European and North American world was predominantly more Christian at one point in history. Having declined in influence and numbers, churches needed to regain this lost ground, take back the culture, and lead the nation to repentance.
One of the strategies was to grow churches by increasing Sunday worship attendance, especially among the unchurched and de-churched. For several decades, this motivation and strategy seemed to work well in mobilizing boomers and Gen-X leaders to innovate Sunday services and develop new kinds of church facilities.
However, to Burge’s point, tackling the decline in church attendance may not be the motivating factor for the younger generation as it was for previous generations.
A New Narrative
Today’s generation is waiting for the Church to empower them for outreach. They want to be participants and leaders in a global movement of God. They want to engage in community and bring hope to hurting people, locally and globally.
This is a different motivator than church decline. And it is not the same as the social gospel. It’s about starting and leading missional communities.
This narrative doesn’t hearken people back to a golden age. It calls them out to create better futures and to pursue a way of living and being that is different from the world around them. It’s missional and monastic. It’s evangelistic and existential. It’s about changing priorities and changing lives.
The globe has become this generation’s context. World issues are just as pertinent as local issues. Some young people believe, rightly or wrongly, that global Christianity is more authentic than American Christianity.
Technology and social media have made this generation more aware of issues that are important to the Church around the world — from Christians dealing with persecution in Iran to ministry leaders working to stop sex trafficking in India. This is the Church in action, and it often looks different to young adults than the church they experienced growing up.
Empowering young people to participate in the Church’s mission isn’t a strategy as much as a culture-shaping value. It’s an intentional decision to stop treating them as consumers and instead invite them to become contributors and creators. It’s an expectation and a conviction that young people are capable and eager to do what it takes to see the lives of their peers transformed by the gospel.
As pastors, leaders and mentors of young adults, the story we tell them should be the same one Jesus told His disciples when He said, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).
Let’s encourage Spirit-filled young people to take the message of Christ not only to their friends, but also to their world. It’s not a matter of saving our traditions and institutions, but of saving people for eternity.
We can unleash a powerful movement by mobilizing and empowering our young people. It’s time to move beyond church growth methods and toward relational discipleship in environments that instill a deep sense of destiny and Kingdom responsibility.
Stories like Wallar’s give us hope, and should stir us to imagine the possibilities of what God can do through young adults. We’re seeing a new generation of leaders who are passionate about advancing the Kingdom.
Jesus didn’t invite His followers to become passive consumers filling stadium seating. He commanded them to, “Go and make disciples.” Similarly, the call for today’s young people to evangelize their generation must be less about “come and consume” and more about “go and create.”
This article appears in the January–March 2021 edition of Influence magazine.