Upon graduation from Mount Vernon Nazarene University and landing my first youth ministry gig on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, I (Chris) also launched into my first real encounter with young adult ministry as I was elected to the district NYI council to be the College & Career director. Since I had just finished college, I thought that part should be easy to figure out. But the “career” thing intimidated me as my own experience with a career was still in its infancy. However, I left that first council meeting determined to succeed in this uncharted territory. Twenty-nine years later, I’m still determined…but success is elusive in this area of ministry, right?
After about 12 years of youth ministry (during which time I mostly ignored anyone over 18 besides parents and board members), I found myself intrigued once again with how to reach and disciple college-age young adults. And for the past 14-plus years, I have spent much of my time pairing coffee and campus ministry at the University of Cincinnati. If I have learned anything at all during the nearly 30 years of full-time ministry now, it is that the transitions are super tricky! But when it comes to helping recent high school graduates launch into post-youth-group life, there are a few key steps that can make all the difference.
Build Relational Bridges
When you think of the journey from adolescence to adulthood within a faith community, I don’t think it’s overstating the situation to say that a rugged relational ravine lies between those two points. And the only way across a steep ravine is often a well-constructed bridge. But for the bridge to be helpful, first we need to encourage someone to actually cross it. Spend some time with recent graduates (one-on-one or in a group setting), helping them cast vision for where God is leading as well as convincing them that the best way forward is to cross the bridge…not to stay camped out on the familiar side of the ravine. Then identify key relationships with those on the other side of the bridge who come half-way and begin to guide them across. During that first summer between high school graduation and whatever’s next, organize opportunities for the 17-18-year olds to socially engage and connect with other young adults, potential mentors, and leaders.
Create Ministry Moments
Create an ongoing weekly connection point for high school grads, college students, and young adults to “check-in” with your worship community. For our church (Kenny), it is a Sunday morning drop-in snack space between worship services hosted by volunteers from various generations. For you, it might be Sunday school, a small group, or a service opportunity in or outside the church. This could be facilitated online as well (minus the snacks), which helps connect with those who have grown up in church and those walking in the door the first time. Leveraging this “expectation-free” time and space to network young adults together to connect informally outside of a formal church gathering is one of the goals. Whatever the format, what we all desire, one way or another, is an authentic connection with Christian peers and people to share life with and learn from in genuine friendships.
Empower and Release
Churches can often make the mistake of sidelining or stalling the emerging adults as they attempt to find their voice and make impact. GenZ is a diverse and entrepreneurial generation, and if we fail to empower and release them into ministry, chances are that they will often look elsewhere for engagement and meaningful community. So placing a high value on their input and their potential to lead now will help eliminate some of the drift that is so typical of 18-20-year-old folks in the church. Be prepared to provide a bit more guidance and instruction for this generation while being careful not to talk down to or over-parent them in the process. This generation longs for the beauty of the gospel to redeem all things and transform the world.