Attracting Young Adults to Sunday Morning
The Rev. Hank Peirce can look out over the Sunday morning congregation at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Medford, MA (109 members), and about half of the 75 or so faces will be those of young adults, a demographic that eludes many congregations.
It helps that Peirce himself is 39, not that far removed from the 18-to-35 age grouping often used to define young adults. But Peirce believes his success at attracting these folks lies entirely in treating them the same way he treats other adults, understanding that they all come to church for the same reasons––to find community, to seek a connection with something greater than themselves, and to be inspired.
He recommends that lay leaders think about language. “I stay away from questions like ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ “ he says. “And don’t assume young adults know ‘church language.’ Many grew up unchurched. They want community but don’t always know how it works. Last year I had three people ask me how potlucks work.”
All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, OK (1,100), which has a large young adult population, uses a range of music experiences such as classical, gospel, and Broadway tunes, plus vocal and instrumental soloists in its services. Readings are often done as drama. Some use video or Power Point illustration.
Sermons are similarly creative, says ministerial intern Debra Garfinkel. Some are done as dialogues or as a first-person character. “Worship is very much a team effort to bring the worship experience alive with possibilities for people of all ages,” she says. “The more creative we are and the more excited we become, the better the response.”
At the UU Church of Bloomington, IN (365), cominister the Rev. Mary Ann Macklin says the most enriching way she has found to create services that attract young adults is to have young adults involved and participating in the service––doing a reading, offering a reflection, providing a gift of music, or doing a children’s moment. “If a young adult has the time, I like to co-create a worship together,” she says, but adds that many are too busy for this level of time committment.
Many congregations have instituted contemporary evening worship services aimed at young adults. A popular model for these is Soulful Sundown. Despite the success of these services, labeling an evening worship service “alternative” can create the perception that it is not as good as Sunday morning service. Michael Tino, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry (youngadults [at] uua [dot] org), encourages congregations to work toward making all worship services fully intergenerational.
Says Tino, “Just like older adults, young adults want worship that speaks to their experiences in life, that challenges them to develop deeper relationships, and connects them to things that are beyond themselves—be that in human relationships, struggles for justice, or a connection with nature or God or any other profound mystery.”
Tino recommends multiple voices in services. Many young adults will not be far removed from sitting through endless high school or college lectures, he says, and probably won’t find long sermons very spiritually uplifting. Try interspersing chunks of the sermon among the other worship elements.
“Most of all, young adults want to be invited—into worship, into relationship, into community, into membership in your congregation. Without that explicit invitation, they will largely assume that they are not who you are reaching out to. Never underestimate the power of invitation.”