Shifting Adult Ministry
By 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 come to mean something akin to “responsibility” rather than a chronological marker. A few decades ago, adulthood seemed to begin at graduation from high school. Just two decades ago, adulthood was usually marked by college graduation and/or marriage. Today, well…I’m not sure any one is really sure where the boundary lies. 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.
This new reality often leaves 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 of my observations:
- Despite popular descriptions, being an adult is not synonymous with being independent, autonomous, financially sustainable, able to meet life’s demands competently, and having completed certain life tasks, such as identity formation.
- 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, midlife 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 seasons 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.
Even within these seasons or categories of adulthood are subcategories and even overlapping experiences. For instance, a couple or a single adult might be an empty nester while still in midlife. Caring for children (or even grandchildren) can occur during mature adulthood.
The idea that adults are still developing and growing necessitates that churches shift out of the predominant educational model of formation (if they haven’t already). The fine folks at Vibrant Faith contrast the traditional (education) approach with a networked approach. A traditional approach focuses on classroom, curriculum, and the church hall. Contrast that with a networked approach that focuses on formation, life experience (50+ years as adults), and on- and off-campus resourcing. While this is not the only way to think about this shift, it is beneficial. Perhaps another way of looking at this shift is the move toward a much more incarnational model of formation that focuses more on the lived experiences and transitions that occur during adulthood. This model will be more demanding on church staff than offering classes, small groups, or Sunday school that will generically appeal to all adults. It will require churches to be more relationally minded to determine the needs that exist within the church community.
Another change that Kevin Watson (The Class Meeting) and Thomas Hawkins (Apprenticed to Jesus) as well as others are observing is the need to move away from curriculum as the center of formation. For many small groups and Sunday school classes, the predominant question is “What are we going to study next?” The shift toward a formation model that focuses more intently on adult discipleship should aim more at experience and relationships. So instead the question might be, “What experience, topic, or activity might we need to help us grow in love of God and neighbor?”
Education, especially in a church setting, can too easily be equated with “head knowledge.” Formation is aimed at holistic transformation. Formation happens through the total life of the church: worship, nurture, and evangelism. Focusing on formation gets us closer to the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ, which is certainly more in line with the goal of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
While this article has focused on the trend (back?) toward faith formation, there are other cultural and global trends that affect how churches should process adult ministry. There are many, but here are four particularly relevant ones:
- No longer is identity constant throughout adulthood. With the rapid pace of change in technology and globalization and the many new opportunities that come with these, a fixed or stable identity is elusive.
- In past generations, a person often launched into a career not long after graduating from high school or college, or after completing service in the armed forces; and that career lasted a lifetime. Today, adults change jobs and even careers several times over their lives. Defining life by what we “do” is not adequate.
- Adults are living longer and have more active lifestyles. This is both a blessing and a curse for congregations. The blessing is that we have a wider range of experiences to draw on: Most congregations have nine decades of life experience present! Mature adults are more active today, which can be beneficial to the congregation. However, it might mean these active older adults are away on vacations and visiting geographically distant relatives.
- With the rise of the internet, we have more information at our disposal than ever before, and adults are constantly learning (and often doing so apart from their connection with a church community). Adults can learn at their own pace and based on their personal interests. No longer is learning synonymous with degrees and certifications.
There are certainly more trends that we could name, but the list above should be enough to help churches begin to evaluate their ministry to adults in new ways.
If the church did start focusing more on experiential faith formation aimed at the many seasons of adulthood, there are at least six implications of this shift:
- Begin with adults’ experience: An effective way to engage adults in discussions is to begin with their experiences. The range of experience present in most adult classes can open up conversations to new insights. To be sure, there are dangers when starting from experience. If left only with experience, it is easy for the group to end up with “collective ignorance” or interpreting Scripture solely through the lens of our limited experiences. Other downfalls include engaging only in familiar Scripture passages or ones that seem immediately relevant. However, for some adults, taking advantage of their wisdom and life experiences might be the only door they are willing to walk through when engaging theological inquiry or Scripture. From there, it will take crafty leadership and/or mentoring relationships to develop a healthy encounter with Scripture and theological exploration. (I’ve often wondered what a sermon might look like if the opening 3-5 minutes were spent asking the congregation what questions, thoughts, and feelings arose as they heard the Scripture read!)
- Focus on life transitions: Adult ministries should be more intentional about ministering to adults during their milestones and life transitions. This will require church leaders to think more in terms of experiences instead of simply offering classes. Both normative and non-normative life transitions are times when adults are open to learning new skills and formation experiences. Normative life transitions are events common to adult life, such as marriage, birth of the first child, empty nest, retirement. Non-normative life transitions could be the loss of a child, divorce, dealing with stepfamily integration, career change, caring for aging parents (the latter two increasingly becoming normative), and so on.
- Teach for adults: This shift also has an impact on how we teach adults. The church’s formation efforts should draw upon what adults already know. It is imperative that churches move away from “teacher imparting wisdom to students” models of formation to models that might be summed up as “a willing guide who shares experiences, good and bad, to promote self-discovery, ultimately guided by the Holy Spirit.” This will not only be more attractive to adults in terms of where they are motivated to grow, but will aid them in seeing God’s grace operative in their own lives. (This shift toward experience might begin with activities and skills, but not at the expense of basic content that adult disciples need to learn. Rather, the content is arrived at through different channels.)
- Include interactivity: Adults increasingly express a desire for more interactivity. The church should offer options and events that allow people to express their creativity and engage in mission and social justice activities as part of their faith formation. These activities should be seen as part of the faith formation of an adult disciple. (For example, seeing worship as an essential part of our formation, what interactive elements might be included in worship to engage adults at different seasons of their growth?)
- Think smaller and wider: This shift toward experiential faith formation should enable local churches to think smaller and wider. We need to offer more options and experiences for adults in small-group settings instead of offering big events designed for maximum attendance. With the rise of portable “smart” devices, adult faith formation plans should also incorporate digital platforms. Faith formation that is 24/7 should help adults connect formation experiences in their local church with their everyday lives as disciples – whether at work, home, or leisure. Whether the incorporation of online platforms means links to articles or social media for online conversations, planning for adult formation must also include plans for adult learning that do not require attendance in a building.
- Plan for intermediate size groups: A challenge with this shift in formation models will be connecting the particular needs of adults while also addressing the growth of the whole congregation. Intermediate-size groups, primarily designed for fun and fellowship, could be a beneficial and fairly informal way for adults throughout their seasons (as well as other generations) to share testimonies. Groups such as these also have the benefit of deepening congregational trust. Additionally, such gatherings become ways of learning the needs for and promoting new formation opportunities for adults as well as intergenerational learning opportunities.
- What do the offerings (classes, experiences, etc.) of your local church for adults say about how you think of adult formation?
- How dependent are your adult classes on finding the best curriculum?
- How could your church help adult teachers or facilitators envision their role as “guides on the side”?
- Does your church link missions and worship with faith formation?
- Gather a group of adults according to a particular season (young, midlife, mature, older). Ask them what life transitions they are going through. Ask them where the church might help minister to their needs.
- Plan one new group that focuses on a life transition for adults. How might there be an online component to the group?
- Plan an intermediate-size gathering focusing on opportunities for adults to share their testimonies and envision where they hope to grow in faith over the next six months.