This article is part of our Is the missing generation’ still missing?” report to find out more click here.

Towards the end of my second year at university, I opened the front door of my shared student house to find a young man, clutching a carrier bag. As I opened my mouth to greet him, he looked left and right down the street, shoved the bag in my hands, whispered, I didn’t know what exactly you wanted, but I hope this helps,” and then scarpered. I didn’t even get his name.

Believe it or not, there were two boxes of tampons and three different brands of sanitary pads in the bag. I was co-president of Just Love Durham and our termly campaign Giving: Strings Attached involved collecting money and sanitary products for local charities to help women who couldn’t afford their own. We put a collection box in every college, a handful of local churches and some student houses around the city. 

It resulted not only in awkward situations such as these, but also a series of conversations with fellow students from across the faith spectrum about why the church would care about period poverty.

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We had similar, but somewhat less amusing, encounters as we trawled up and down the student streets at the end of term, knocking on doors and filling suitcases with leftover food for the foodbank, or as we stood outside the students’ union for 24 hours straight to raise awareness of the problem of slavery with International Justice Mission (IJM).

It was when we were doing something that we showed we believed what we said and what we read in the Bible. People paid attention, stopped to ask questions and wanted to know we cared so much about the inherent value of all human beings, including those on the outskirts of society, those who were hungry, those in poverty. 

The same was true when local churches got involved – painting fences, campaigning for change, gardening, delivering meals, clearing litter. As Leslie Newbiggin writes in The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, The only possible hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation which believes it.”

For a generation that is famous for valuing authenticity, it makes sense that 20s and 30s would be particularly drawn to church communities that are actively involved in social action. We have grown up becoming ever-more connected, acutely aware of our own privilege and the inequality around us. The reach of social media and the levels of deprivation exposed amid coronavirus pandemic have only heightened this awareness. Celebrities like Marcus Rashford campaigning about child food poverty has brought to the fore the grave inequalities in our society whilst simultaneously showing young people that they can make a difference. 

In my work at IJM I am seeing more and more of my generation joining the mission to see the end of slavery, rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in when it comes to the very real struggle for freedom and justice. This stuff matters to us.

Whether in the local community through foodbanks or drop-in centres, or more broadly engaging in prayer, activism and support for global justice movements, to have a faith that does not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18) is especially attractive to young adults.

This is evidenced in the recent report commissioned by Theos and Church Urban Fund, Growing Good: Growth, Social Action and Discipleship in the Church of England. It found that social action can be a route to church growth in both numerical and spiritual terms. It is one of the key ways in which congregations can build wider networks of relationships which can result in people initiating a faith journey and joining the church.” (Growing Good, p. 14)

This is particularly the case for young adults (18 – 35s). Hannah Rich, lead researcher and author of Growing Good, points out that people are often attracted to the church by the goodness of its social action and pursuit of justice, and this is especially true for young adults”. She notes that those who get involved are not people who would have articulated an interest in faith or responded to a direct evangelistic invitation, for example, Alpha, but had been drawn in by the opportunity to do good’ or give back’ and in the process met Jesus through the life of the church community”. 

It’s not just the case for outsiders coming in. Plenty of young adults who are a part of a church already want to find ways to engage with social justice – they’re just waiting to be invited: Discipleship is deepened when people find in social action a new way of expressing their gifts and their faith, even when they have been part of the church for a long time.” (Growing Good, p. 122)

Inviting young adults to get involved with social justice in your church community doesn’t have to involve donating sanitary items (although, don’t let me stop you if that’s what you’d like to do). Here are five steps you can take to get started:

  1. Start somewhere: A foodbank collection point, a clothes swap, hot drinks for those commuting or doing the school run, social action doesn’t have to be world-changing to make a difference.

  2. Invitation: Extend a personal invitation to people to get stuck in. Just like you would encourage your congregation to invite their friends to evangelistic courses such as Alpha or Christianity Explored, encourage them to invite friends along to volunteer in social action as well – chances are, they’ll love the opportunity to serve and discover a community of people that ends up feeling like family. 

  3. Give permission: This is the justice generation’. Ask your 20s and 30s what they would like to see happen. What needs do they see? What are they passionate about? You may be surprised by how many ideas they already have, and the drive they have to get stuff done if they’re given permission to take a risk.

  4. Dream big: This generation is a connected generation that already cares deeply about global issues. Why not look into partnering with the work of justice globally in a way that impacts us locally? IJM’s Champion Programme is a great example of building a national movement of volunteers that’s committed to championing a cause in their communities through their time, talents, networks and influence. Organisations such as Tearfund (anti-poverty), Open Doors (serves persecuted Christians) and Home for Good (encourages fostering and adoption) are also brilliant places to start.

  5. Pray: Whether you’re feeding 500 people a week through your drop-in centre or are offering one person a helping hand, the most important thing you can do is pray. Pray regularly about the needs of your community, our country and our world. It is prayer, after all, that ultimately changes things – personally, locally and globally.
Is the ‘missing generation’ still missing?

Is the ‘missing generation’ still missing?

A brand new resource for every church to be encouraged and to facilitate a conversation around making young adult disciples in this season Find out more