Stages of Young Adult Ministry

Graph of stages of Young Adult Ministry in congregations.

Young Adult Ministry Self-Assessment

Adapting our existing congregations to become more welcoming and affirming for the Millennial generation (born 1982-2001) is an essential priority for our faith. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has developed a model and accompanying self-assessment for congregations, based on five stages of development of young adult ministry, to help them understand where they are and what effective strategies would be for moving forward.

Take the self-assessment for your congregation (PDF).


The stage which the UUA terms “young adulthood” is defined as ages 18-35. However, in practice this group is quite diverse, and generally encompasses two themes:

  • Developmental Needs—These are the common transitions that most people go through at some point in their life. Though these are mostly the same for adults of all ages, traditional markers like marriage, children and home ownership are in flux. If young adults go through these transitions at all, it may be in a different order or on an unpredictable timeframe. However, the desire to connect with peers, the need to tap into interpersonal networks in our congregations, the struggle with discernment over hard decisions related to work, career, partners and families, and other needs persist across life paths and choices.
  • Generational Shifts—In 2013, the Millennial Generation makes up most of the young adult cohort. There is a wealth of research on the systematic differences between how Millennials interact with religion and the religious practice from previous generations. Though theological beliefs are relatively similar across generations, 33% of Millennials today claim no religious affiliation whatsoever, a dramatic increase in the last two decades. These differences conversations about the future of church, exploring new types of faithful communities, committing to value-based witness and activism, and opportunities for spiritual deepening are where the most energy arises, whereas conversations about who has authority, power, standing and access seem to hold less interest, matching the Millennial emphasis on action over structure.

Read an in-depth report (PDF) of this analysis.

Stages of Young Adult Ministry

The stages of this model were created by observing the patterns of growth of various young adult populations and groups within Unitarian Universalist congregations. Despite the fact that every group and congregation is different based on the and what mix of developmental needs and generational shifts of the young adults that are present, these groups share a common trajectory. In deciding how to apply the strategies presented in the model, congregations will need to recognize that young adults range from college students to working adults to young professionals to young families. Each congregation should consider their unique set of young adults involved in determining how to be more supportive and accessible to young adults as members of our faith communities.

The model takes a critical mass approach to young adult ministry, and assumes that to sustain a community that is welcoming and valuable to people of any age there must be an appreciable number of generational peers present. The median age in our congregations is in the mid 40’s and getting older, much like many other churches and faiths, and Baby Boomers tend to be the dominant generation in the culture present in our congregation. It is up to the generation at the center of congregational life to make room for other groups of people, because the cohort who exerts the dominant cultural influence is the one who controls communication, resource access, leadership, worship and interpersonal styles. The model is therefore focused on the climate of the congregation as a whole, and benchmarks the stages of development based on observed levels of participation, inclusion and cultural marginalization or normalization.

Congregations take many forms, and it is possible to think of them on the two axes of integration and innovation (see the graph in the upper right of this page). In the lower left-hand corner of the graph are congregations which are traditional in religious practice and are culturally dominated by a single group or generation, often the Baby Boom generation in our congregations. Moving up the axis of innovation are congregations which engage in ministry on college campuses, support independent gatherings of young adults in conferences or retreats, or experiment with new types of worship services in different times and venues. The stages of this model are oriented along the axis of innovation, or welcoming young adults into the heart of traditional congregations. Though the strategies for moving to the next stage are based on becoming more integrated, the final stage suggests moving towards high innovation, high integration congregations.

Also, though this model is linear, congregations may move up and down the spectrum as the young adults who are present grow and change. These cycles are normal, and can serve as helpful reminders of how to adapt and revamp a congregation’s approach to ministry with younger generations.

The stages identified by the model are: