Back to the future: What does the young adult ministry of the future look like?

By Rich Atkinson

“It’s time for a revolution – a revolution that changes those ever-depressing facts we hear about youth and young adults walking away from the church.” I’ve sat in so many meetings and conferences where I’ve heard someone (or been someone) giving this rallying cry. It seems we all agree that it’s time for something different that stems the tide of decline of young adults in the church.

Yet I sit here wondering … what on earth would that look like?

What does the youth and young adult ministry of the future, the one that brings in this fantastic revival, look like? How is it different from what we are doing today? What changes? In short, what does church for youth and young adults need to be like to see God bring in the next great revival?

I think that, to look forward, we need to look back.


We often think that the way to reach this generation of youth and young adults is to play a catch-up game with the world. We attempt to take on the entertainment industry and provide the latest in cool, hip, and culturally relevant church. Church places itself neatly into the entertainment box for youth and young adults, and then we sit around scratching our heads about how we created a generation of young people who walk out of the church to the nearest bar when they realize that the bar has better music!

As the young people leave our churches, we think long and hard about music styles, lighting shows, and youth buildings with the latest technology. The sad truth is that we apparently think that we need to make church look as little like church and as much like the world as possible. We figure that the future must look totally different, but since we struggle to re-imagine it, we base church entirely on the models the world offers us.

The problem is that what we have to offer isn’t about entertainment… it’s about changing lives. When we play the entertainment game, it’s like we have a bag of gold to give to a poor man but, instead of offering him the gold, we see the stale bread he holds in his hands and desperately attempt to make the gold look as much like his stale bread as possible.

This is why that I don’t believe the answer to the church of the future is in the future.

I wonder if, rather than constantly trying to re-imagine the church, we should learn to look at some of the successes of the last 2,000 years of church history.

I believe this generation of youth and young adults is called to be the generation that rebuilds the church in the western world.  We use Isaiah 58:12 a lot at St. Thomas Philadelphia in Sheffield, England, to help guide us as a generation attempting to build:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins

This generation of youth and young adults needs to be challenged and charged with the task of rebuilding the ruins of the church. This isn’t a challenge to build church separate in some way from other generations but rather a call to roll up our sleeves and get into the task of recapturing the essence of what this church thing was all about in the first place. (That’s life-changing following of Jesus, in case you’re wondering.)

And will raise up the age-old foundations

This is where we need to choose to learn from the past in order to build into the future. I don’t believe we’re supposed to be a generation that totally rethinks, re-imagines, and remodels the church in the future from a blank slate. We are called to build something new, but we are supposed to do so by building upon the foundations of the great saints who went before us.

At the moment I’m really struck by the lessons we can learn from the ministry of John Wesley. During his lifetime, a movement of people called the Methodists started and saw hundreds of thousands turn their lives over to Jesus at a time when the church was largely considered irrelevant to the lives of the everyday man, woman, and child.

Ring a bell?

So what were the keys to the Wesleyan revival? What is the Wesleyan foundation which we can recapture as a foundation from which we can to build? There are many, but I will start with one fundamental lesson we can learn: a lesson of grace and discipline.

The Wesleyan revival sparked out of a movement called the Methodist church. The Methodists were famous from day one for strict discipline and rules that helped them grow in faith. However, when John Wesley started his ministry, he attempted to live by these rules with his friends in order that he might secure his salvation. His misguided hope was that, by strict observance of the rules, he could somehow obtain security in his salvation.

As a minister in the church of England, he decided to travel to America. While he was on the ship to America, a great storm blew up, and the whole ship was threatened with death. John was terrified and became awestruck by a group of Moravian Christians who were totally unafraid of death because they were certain of their salvation in Jesus. Upon his return to England after a disastrous attempt at mission in America, John found some Moravian Christians to help him discover this certainty of salvation. When praying, John finally received this certainty as he encountered the grace of God for the first time. He famously described his heart as being “strangely warmed” so that he indeed was sure of his salvation by grace alone.

The curious genius of John Wesley was that he didn’t walk away from this amazing life-changing encounter with the grace of God and conclude that he should drop all of the rules he had created. Quite the opposite. John realized that, although these strict disciplines would not gain him salvation, they would help him and others continue to grow in their walk and discipleship with Jesus.

John Wesley was inspired to ride around the United Kingdom and America on his horse and preach the Good News of the grace of God. As hundreds began to give their lives to Jesus, he organized them in a way that enabled them to grow (but that’s a thought for another time) and gave them a structure that enabled them to grow. The discipline and rules by which the Methodists lived enabled the new converts to grow quickly despite the fact that many were from uneducated backgrounds. The amazing outpouring of God’s conviction and grace through the preaching of Wesley and others was followed with strict discipline, and this mix enabled the Wesleyan revival to burn through several generations.

If we want to rebuild a movement that burns through the generations instead of dying like a flash-in-the-pan encounter with God, then we need to enable people to translate the amazing encounters they have with God into life-changing discipline.

So as we look back to look forward… I see the future of youth and young adults ministry being marked by a generation that recaptures the truth that they have been transformed entirely by the amazing grace of God and then works that out with intense focus and discipline.

Maybe then our generation’s recurring comment will be, “The only response to the outrageous grace of God is a life disciplined to be totally orientated toward Him.”

Rich discusses these topics and Isaiah 58:12 in this video that St. Thomas Philadelphia created to promote an upcoming young adults weekend. 


Filed under Rich Atkinson

7 responses to “Back to the future: What does the young adult ministry of the future look like?

  1. Not sure if saying that the church is in ruins is a fair assessment. There are some denominations that are growing and even independent ones doing the same.
    I do agree that change in perception is needed to help disciple the younger people of the church.

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  5. I have been working on this problem for the last 10 years hands on with young adults. It has been a real process of discovery and I am very blessed to have understanding and patient elders who give me freedom to try new things without being afraid of the results. I still have a lot to work on but I feel like I have learned a lot and continue to learn and see what this can look like. I have written about this extensively at my blog and have a link at the top for 20s & 30s ministry where you can see what this looks like in our ministry.

    There are several things that need to happen. The revolve around balance, paradigm and mission.

    First, we have to find balance. If we become attractional and infocused instead of going out we miss the boat. If we get all missional with no place for the disciples to grow we miss the boat. We have such a hard time finding balance. We just can’t seem to find the biblical balance of reaching out and in.

    Second, is paradigm. I think we are very confused as to what “church” even is any more. Older generations have one view that is not compatible with what younger generations think it should be. But what vision for congregational life does the New Testament give us and how are we living it out? We have to appeal to the Bible over tradition, not to say that tradition is bad but it can get in the way and distract at times. We have to know the difference between negotiables and non-negotiables.

    Third is mission. The mission of the church is not to perpetuate its own institutional existence. This goes back to our identity. Who do we believe we are and how is that reflected in the things we do and does that match the biblical precedent and priorties laid out in scripture?

    If you can examine these things with the freedom to seek the truth, without being squashed by church leadership some really great things can emerge on the other side that are exciting, godly and beneficial for making and growing disciples. We have an identity issue, a culture gap, and an ill-defined mission.

    To your point about looking back to find answers, I think that is absolutely correct. I taught a ladies’ class on Tuesday with many of our older ladies and we started talking evangelism. They brought out their stories of how people used to know each other and study the Bible with each other and people were being brought to faith at that time. We have lost it, missed it or abandon it. It is sad really. But we aren’t without hope.

    I haven’t really addressed what all this actually looks like in our ministry but I would be glad to talk more about that some time.

  6. Very meaningful post. Thank you. I agree with the fact that our mission shouldn’t be to try and keep with the trends. I have always believed that a solid theology of what the church is and should be is a good foundation for any ministry. Putting that into practice and putting things in place for people to partake in this theology is the difficult part.

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