The younger generations are largely absent from the Church. Lost and Found by Stetzer, Stanley and Hayes is a study into the 20-29 year old un-churched population that aims to help Church leaders better understand the mindset, values, and culture of this generation to better reach them for Christ. The results of their surveys and studies are surprising. Although underrepresented in the Church, the 20-29 year old generation is more likely to be interested in God and spirituality than any generation before. What is keeping them out of the Church and what can the Church do to better reach them?
Lost and Found is divided up into three parts, beginning with the presentation of Data. The Center for Missional Research and LifeWay provided polls of a large group of young adults as well as conducted interviews. Many churches that are reaching young adults were interviewed through various forms. From the presentation of Data the authors moving on to what they call “Listening” (Part 2). This is where they set down with all the responses and boiled them down to four markers of what defines the 20-29 year old age segment. The final Part, (3) “Reaching” describes Churches that are reaching this age group and what they are doing. Lost and Found is organized in a logical way that presents the data and offers ways to act on it; the book is not so much a collection of statistics but a window behind the statistics to see what is really going on in the lives of young adults.
The survey produced some surprising results. 81% of the age group believe in God or a higher supreme being (p.21); four out of five. 57% believe that it is the God of the Bible; a majority of the unchurched surveyed (22). 66% believe Jesus died and came back to life (27). The numbers turned south as they asked about the Church. Only 39% believe their lifestyle would be accepted by Christians, 67% believe the church is full of hypocrites, and 90% believe that they can have a relationship with God without being involved in the church (32). It is clear that the unchurched young adults do not have a problem with God or Jesus; they have a problem with the Church.
What is most interesting about the age segment is that although they were opposed to the Church they were open to hearing about Jesus; 89% would be willing to hear about Christianity, 61% willing to study the Bible with a friend. These numbers are encouraging. The problems seem to lie in a few different areas; 63% would be willing to try Church if they presented truth in an understandable way (38) and 58% would come if the church “cared about them personally”. Most surprising is that music is not the problem for the vast majority; only 31% said they would go if the church played music similar to their favorite type (38). From reading the responses it seems to indicate that the 20-29 year old segment finds “contemporary” praise music shallow and boring; they prefer hymns.
Part two contains some “Markers” of the 20-29 year old generation. The first was community. At the deepest level, young adults want to do life together, they want to travel along and know that they are not alone. In some ways this may be recoil from the individualism prevalent in modernity. Everyone wants to be a part of something; they want to feel connected to other people. Lost and Found believes that the church will have to experience a radical paradigm shift to move to a community driven model. The Church is supposed to be a model for community; with God and other people. Sadly many churches do a poor job at creating the kind of deep, personal community that young adults want and Christ intended. The authors believe that the church has operated under a “behave/believe/belong” model for years (83) that will not reach postmodern generations. Many want people’s act cleaned up before they come to Church whether they will admit it or not. They say that to reach young adults we have to move to a “belong/believe/become” model (84); letting people come and be a part of what is happing, be accepted, then come to faith and growth on their own terms.
The second marker is depth. The 20-29 year old segment is educated and informed. Growing up surrounded by information and connection, “If they were ever to make a decision for Christ, then it would be an informed, educated one (88).” They want personalized, deep content. Most sermons that middle aged individuals latch onto are simple with four points and a poem; the young adults don’t want it easy. Young adults want something more, “they are hungry for the unanswerable (92)” and want to struggle with content, not be told what to do or think. Older generations have typically reasoned from a, “tell me what to do and I’ll do it” faith (practical then reflective), younger ones want the content to sort out on their own. The depth of content is “about engaging people at every level – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and even physically (95).” The responsibility here lies squarely at the feet of preachers. Preachers are not reaching younger audiences because they are not connecting with them.
Marker three is responsibility. 20-29 year olds have a strong desire to make a lasting impact on the world. They want to serve and help others and be responsible for the environment. This is excellent news for the Church; there is a willing army of volunteers what want to change the world, we just have to reach them and point them toward something eternal. 66% say that “the opportunity to meet the needs of others (locally and globally) is extremely important in their lives (111). The key for young adults is where the service and responsibility is; they are not interested in handing out bulletins or passing plates, “Opportunities for responsibility must extend beyond the walls of the church building (116).” Lost and Found even proposes that “we must focus our efforts toward establishing social action as a major element in the strategies and programs of our church (117).” The modern church must recapture the heart of service that Jesus had if it wants to connect with young adults.
The fourth marker is most surprising, cross-generational connection. Young adults deeply want to learn life skills and spiritual disciplines from experienced Christians (127). They want to learn life from someone who has already been there; they are looking for places to turn in difficult times. It seems that some of this is due to the absence of their parents at younger ages. Young adults are interested in things that have stood the test of time. “An appreciation for hymns and liturgy is resurging among younger adults and the churches that are reaching them. Things of substance and age are being embraced (131).” Un-churched Americans prefer Churches that look like traditional medieval cathedrals compared to the mall like mega-churches 2 to 1. Young adults want to be a part of something that will outlast themselves and has come before them. This is the place the Church needs to step up; we desperately need older believers who want to mentor younger ones. It is the Biblical model.
Overall, younger generations are more open and willing to investigate Christianity than any other generation of our time. The real question is; do we have Churches with leaders and believers who are willing to step up, and out, to meet the needs of people passionately seeking real significance in life or will we be content to sit and hope they just show up one Sunday? The 20-29 year olds are waiting on you; care for them, engage them, invite them, hug them, serve with them, show them incarnational love.
Lost and Found is one of the most revealing and thought provoking books I have read in some time. It has given me insight not only into others but into myself. This book should be read by someone in leadership at every Church. If you have ever looked around a Church and asked; “where are the young people?”, then you need to read this book. The more you understand the culture, thoughts, needs and attitudes of this group the more effective you will be in reaching them. It is time for Churches to make a commitment to younger generations. Don’t do it because you want their tithe, don’t do it because you want their service, don’t do it because you need to fill a seat. Do it because they are searching for something that only Christ can give them; Life, and life to the fullest.
Ed Stetzer is a writer and researcher of culture and Christianity with LifeWay Research.
Richie Stanley is a team leader with the North American Mission Boards Center for Missional Research.
Jason Hayes is the young adult ministry specialist at LifeWay.