Wednesday, April 23, 2014

3 Types of Young Adults in Your Church

Photo Credit: Rollan Budi (Creative Commons)
There are three key elements for a young adults ministry at your church. So what is a young adult? We hosted a "young adults" Christmas banquet this past year at our Church, with a table of 18-year-olds who had just graduated from high school, and 30-year-olds who were already in grad school or well into their careers. Are they both welcomed to the table? Absolutely. But they're also in very different stages of life.

What does it mean to be an adult? Is adulthood an arbitrary age? I remember my college professor in adolescent psychology class going through the various ages when we could, perhaps, be considered adults (at least in the USA): 

  • At 13, you lose the discount at movie theaters and theme parks for being a "child." 
  • At 16, you can drive a car and get a job.
  • At 17, you can see an R-rated movie by yourself. 
  • At 18, you can smoke, vote, and join the military. 
  • At 21, you can purchase and drink alcohol.
  • At 25, you can rent a vehicle without financial penalty. 

Car rental is our ultimate cultural marker for adulthood? These markers change depending on context--you can't get a full driver's license until about age 19 in Canada, which is the same age you can start buying and drinking alcohol. The average age for getting married in North America is around 27, and steadily getting older. With emerging adulthood as an increasingly present sociological phenomenon in our culture, defining young adulthood has become more complex than ever.

Since taking on the role of overseeing young adults ministry at my church, our leadership has noticed three unique categories of young adults in our context (ages are approximate):

Age 18-24, Single: University Years. Whether they're actual university students or not, these years are a deeply formative season of life. This is the beginning stage of adulthood, the first venture into significant autonomy from parents, and a time where questions of identity, vocation, and affinity feel ever-present and urgent. This can be both a paradoxically lonely and social stage of life, with the constant interaction of dorm life or the isolation of a basement apartment.

Age 24-30, Single: Emerging Adulthood. Beyond the college stage, these young adults have had some significant life experience, whether or not they've gone to university or post-high school education (most have). Beginning graduate school or starting the process of finding a solid career path--or completely starting over and exploring vocational options again--this stage of young adulthood feels like the most complex, and the stage that struggles the most with finding a sense of belonging in a church community. This is also the widest maturity range for young adults--some are struggling with extended adolescence and still heavily reliant on their parents, while others are solid and secure in their identity and direction in life.

Age 18-30, Married: Young Marrieds. When a young adult gets married, everything changes. Whether we like it or not, being married in our culture is a significant cultural marker of adulthood, and even the youngest married couple can *feel* chronologically older than their single counterparts. Yet they're still young adults who need mentors, a community of friends and peers, and a place to contribute  with their gifts.

We want to love and embrace every young adult, beyond types or categories. These have just proven helpful in understanding the unique mini-stages in the expanding stage of emerging adulthood.

Do you see these different types of young adults in your context? How is you or your church/community intentionally loving and embracing each type of young adult? What can the church do to combat extended adolescence and offer a place of belonging for every young adult it encounters?


  1. I think that young adults can be one of the most challenging and illusive groups to understand and minister to effectively. If you read much of Jeffrey Arnett (he coined the term Emerging Adult and has been the first and strongest proponent of it as a distinctive life phase) he would say that adulthood in N. America has historically been marked by five "tasks": completing education, getting married, owning a home, establishing a career, and having children (on the other side of marriage). Sociologists now frame the arrival into adulthood in far less objective terms and have said it is marked by: taking responsibility for one's self, financial independence, and making decisions for yourself. As you can see, these are far more subjective and open-ended. If emerging adulthood is a developmental term vis-a-vis a generational term, then it would likely span the 18-30 age range because the principle developmental tasks are increasingly occurring throughout the span. For what it is worth, I think the developmental factors guide and are more salient to the discussion than generational but I recognize that not everyone sees it that way.
    Sorry about the riff. I had a few minutes on my lunch break and thought I would jump in. Thanks for all you do.

    1. Love your thoughts, Rob! Arnett's stuff on emerging adulthood has been helpful in framing and understanding the sociological phenomenon, as has Christian Smith's work. On the other side of the spectrum, Robert Epstein has focused on the negative aspects of extended adolescence, and his book "Teen 2.0" has some interesting conclusions about this phenomenon. In any case, it's happening; the question is, "how can we respond in healthy ways and lovingly embrace and equip young adults in the name of Jesus?"

  2. True. Epstein, I think, sees teens (adolescents) entering a time of great strictures which promote keeping them "child-like" for an extended time. Emerging adult sociology is built largely on Erik Erikson's and by extension James Marcia's proposal that the task of identity formation has been delayed and often remains suspended (moratorium) because there are too few guiding strictures and voices. "The world is your oyster" sounds better than it ends up being. Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice has some interesting thoughts on how choice actually limits us. However, I think Epstein is right on the money (at least from what I know) in that you get what you shoot for. If you expect a child, you will get a child. As a parent of two teens, the data is conclusive! Appropriately higher expectations are good and work to everyone's benefit and growth.