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Finding the ‘missing generation’

What more can the church do to reach young adults? asks Phil Knox

It was 22 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The atmosphere was electric. We stood together, our voices hoarse, our hearts full, our arms outstretched, and our spirits soaring. The presence of God was so real, so close. We were a youth group of around 15 teenagers. We were determined to change the world.

If only I were able to tell you that we all had spent the last couple of decades doing just that. Today, I don’t know where most of my peers are at in their walk with Jesus, but I do know there are only a handful of us still going to church. Zoom out from this snapshot and see a wider panorama where a decade ago we began to label young adults as a missing generation’ in our churches. The statistics around church attendance among young adults and the stories break my heart. Because I love the church. I love Jesus. I love my generation. And I believe that we can fi nd the missing generation. We can help a blind generation see. We can see the so-called snowflake’ generation become a youthquake’ generation. But, to do so we need to pray for a dynamic move of God and we need to read the signs of the times.

Every generation faces the challenge of contextualising the timeless truth of the gospel to their times. Our recent years have seen rapid cultural changes that have left all of us scrambling to keep up. As a church, our ability to listen to the culture and adapt necessarily will determine our effectiveness amongst this age group. I love the moment where the 200 sons of Issachar join King David and it is said of them that they were men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). With each societal characteristic we must ask ourselves what this means for how we do mission, our posture and practice as church, or whether the trend is unhealthy and needs calling out and challenging as such. There could be a feast of features to chew on, but here are a few appetisers to taste and reflect on.

1. The future belongs to the poets and the storytellers

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I don’t think I need to convince you that in the last 30 years the way that we communicate and access information has dramatically changed. Billions of pixels have been programmed, crafted and coded, telling the story of the digital revolution. Its effect on younger generations has been seismic, and there are many implications for us as the church beyond having a website and high definition sermon PowerPoint slides. For young adults, a significant change has been in the way they receive and process information. The interlinked matrix of the web and the colourful short bursts of social media ignite the parts of our brain associated with creativity, imagination and metaphor. This means that if we are to connect with younger generations we need to tell more stories and think more innovatively about the way we communicate the gospel.

2. From consumption to community

This is the most connected generation in history. The presence of a mobile device in almost every pocket and by most bedsides means personal networking happens 24 – 7. More than half of millennials would rather lose their sense of smell than their technology. But, sheer quantity of connections does not equal quality; and whilst they crave to be hyper-relational, there are many young adults who are lonely and lack depth of friendship. As a church, we must think about how we provide more than just a service for people to consume and invite 20s and 30s into authentic relationship with Jesus and His church. Do we give as much energy, thought and leadership to smaller, more intimate expressions of local community as we give to our Sunday gatherings?

3. Access is the new ownership

For young adults, the desire to own a house and car has been overtaken, as the founder of Airbnb suggests, by the theatre of Instagram and the experiences we are having in the world”. DVD collections have been replaced with Netflix subscriptions. Why learn to drive when you can order an Über? There are some profound implications here for faith, and this is a narrative that must be challenged. Being part of the church is not a network to plug in and out of, but a family to join and a community to be rooted in.

Reasons to be hopeful

Ten years ago, 96 per cent of church leaders said reaching young adults is amongst their top priorities, but only 11 per cent felt well-resourced to do so. The same challenge remains today. But, while reaching people in their 20s and 30s is one of our greatest challenges, it’s also a massive opportunity. This is a generation that is rejecting the institution of religion but remain spiritually hungry. According to a 2018 Comres survey, 60 per cent of British adults say miracles are possible, but the percentage is higher than any other age group (almost 75 per cent) for 18 to 24 year olds. Reaching this generation with the good news of salvation in Jesus is possible if we are prepared to listen, innovate and change some of our ways of doing mission and being church. As I travel across the nations, I am seeing many churches grappling with the issues, taking risks and consistently seeing young adults become Christians.

At the Evangelical Alliance we are committed to serving and resourcing the church to reach and keep this crucial age group. Our latest initiative in this area, the young adult conversation, is an opportunity for church leadership teams to explore current culture in depth and begin a conversation about how to be more fruitful in this area. If this is something that would be useful for your church, please get in touch with me at p.​knox@​eauk.​org. I pray that in your context you will see God move powerfully amongst and through 20s and 30s. I am full of hope that in the years ahead we can see a church full of people of all ages and significant numbers of young adults coming to know Jesus. Join us in praying that this becomes a reality.

About the author

Phil Knox is the head of mission to young adults at the Evangelical Alliance. He lives to see people come to know Jesus and Christians inspired and equipped to share their faith. He has a passion for his generation, the local church, loves learning and has degrees in law and mission and evangelism. Phil is married to Dani and they have two sons, Caleb and Jos. He is an avid runner and footballer, a proud Aston Villa supporter and battles a mild coffee addiction.

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