Who Qualifies as an Adult?

By Scott Hughes

I can't adult today - face down dogBy now you’ve probably seen memes like the one I’ve included about “adulting.” I’m not sure when adult became a verb, but it has. “Adult” has become equated to mean something like “responsibility” instead of chronology. During my parents’ generation, adulthood seemed to begin at graduation from high school. For my generation, adulthood began with college graduation and/or marriage. Today, well…I’m not sure any one is really sure. Instead of one specific milestone, adulthood today seems to be marked by several life transitions, whether those be marriage, divorce, career advancement (as opposed to just getting a job), having children, and so on.

None of this is probably new information. It does often leave me, the Director of Adult Discipleship, scratching my head. Who exactly is my audience? Just because a person has crossed the threshold into the thirties (or forties), does that mean that the noun “adult” fits? And if that boundary line is fuzzy, when a person becomes an older adult seems equally as porous. Is it when a person qualifies for AARP? I have been getting AARP materials and senior benefits mailings for well over a decade (part of the joy of sharing a name with my father). I had congregation members in one appointment who were adamant they were not “older adults,” even though many had been retired for about as long as I had been alive.

What does this shift in thinking about adulthood mean for the church? More specifically, what does it mean for how local congregations minister to adults across the many milestones and life stages that come with being an adult? Here are a few quick observations:

  • As was stated at a workshop I attended with Vibrant Faith a couple of weeks ago, “We often do adult ministry as if all adults are in the same ‘season.’”
  • Organizations focusing on adulthood, such as Vibrant Faith and Lifelong Faith Formation, have started speaking about four seasons of adulthood: young adults, mid-life adults, mature adults, and older adults. Is that a perfect model? I don’t think even those organizations would say so. But it does give us some categories to think through the various experiences and milestones that adults are likely to have during a particular season.
  • By focusing on ministering to each of the seasons of adulthood, church leaders might shift how they plan for ministry with adults. Being more intentional about focusing on the milestones and life transitions that adults are likely to experience could help churches think creatively about what new ministries need to be started (as well as think about what might need to end). For example, local churches might ask: “How are we helping parents transition to being empty nesters? How are we ministering to singles who are staying unmarried longer?”

Thinking about adulthood in terms of season can help a church that is looking to evaluate its ministries from a different perspective, and it might also lead to ministries that are more incarnational.

Reflection Questions for Church Leaders

  • How does your church minister to different adult experiences?
  • What is one adult milestone that your church might focus on?

Optional Exercise

Gather a group of adults according to a particular season (young, mid-life, mature, older). Ask them what life transitions they are going through. Ask them where the church might help minister to their needs.

Other Resources