Should Churches Have a Separate Ministry for Single Young Adults?

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In this video, Alex Choi, Michael Lee, and Steve Bang Lee talk life-stage ministries, community, preferences, and preaching to people who aren’t in the room.

The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check the video before quoting.

Alex Choi: Personally, I’m not a fan of hyper-specializing life-stage ministries, but at the same time, you know, there is an aspect of it that’s necessary. So I think it really matters, for example, if your small group ministries are just geographically based, and it’s not life-stage based. I do think it’s nice to be able to have some kind of ministry where that life-stage demographic can kind of get together.

But I do get concerned about hyper-specialization in life stage ministries just because I think it can kind of produce consumers because they’re so well targeted. The affinity is so strong. There must be a sense of coming out of self to be a part of a community, so I think it presents a little bit of challenge there.

But I think if you do have specialized ministry, then I think it’s important for church to find intergenerational connections. And if you don’t specialize, just find opportunities for them to connect.

Michael Lee: I totally agree with that. Especially as Asian-Americans and growing up in a Korean-American church, there were so many departments, and so many different life stages that chopped up our adolescent child experience. And so when you’re just used to spending three years in this ministry, four years in this ministry after college, that becomes a habit. That becomes the way you view church and ministry. You always want to be with your peers whether it’s the single adult, married without kids, married with young kids, married with older kids, empty nesters, all of these things. And I definitely think that there’s danger in chopping up the church in too many different pieces.

So at our church, we always warn our members about preferences. We don’t want the church to be Steve-shaped, or Alex-shaped, or Michael-centered, but we really want to encourage our members to be servants and to belong to a greater body and a greater community that’s multigenerational.

At the same time, we know that we need to address a lot of people’s felt needs. We can’t just ignore them and be like, “Hey, singles, it’s not about you, it’s about Jesus. Come serve in this ministry, and be part of the church.” We have to address those needs in a way that enables them to experience community, but then hopefully, lead them to see the church is bigger than just a three-year, four-year department, but it’s a multigenerational body.

Alex Choi: It’s about meeting people where they’re at and taking them where they need to go, but where do you meet them at? What’s that point where you come and incarnate and then disciple them to this place? It’s always hard.

Steve Bang Lee: Yeah. And I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all model. Churches are at different evolutionary stages. Some churches might need to collapse and fold their young adult ministry. Other ones might need to create stronger culture.

I have a question for you guys. Let’s say there’s a church pastor listening to this, and man, it’s hard for him to get single adults. What are some onboarding needs, the felt needs that you guys were mentioning? What are some things that you feel maybe need to be addressed to help reach that demographic? Any thoughts?

Alex Choi: Do a sermon series on marriage, singleness, sex, and dating. Our church used to grow when we did stuff like that. I feel like that’s meeting them where they are. They’re interested in those things. They’re thinking about those things. And then just maybe taking a break especially if you’re an expositional preacher or a book-by-book, verse-by-verse preacher. Sometimes just take a pause and address biblically the very things that they’re thinking about. You know, because sometimes we as pastors, we’re addressing the problems that they don’t actually struggle with, but maybe we need to get to the heart of what they’re going through. And that’s a whole new world because of Coffee Meets Bagel, Tinder, and all the dating apps. It’s a different world, and so we have to redo our stuff to be able to minister to them and shine some light of the gospel on their reality.

Michael Lee: We were trying to grow our singles ministry as well in our church, and it just began with questions. I asked, “Why do you come to our church? But then what about your friends? Would they come? Would you invite them?”

And they said, you know, “I grew up here. I’m loyal here. I’m faithful here, but I would never invite my friends.”

And I asked them, “Why?”

And they were pretty blunt, they’re like, “Because we kind of suck.”

“Then we have to change that.” And so it was important that we realized that there are certain things that an emerging generation, a millennial generation, values in the church experience. And it was also important that we took the time to ask questions, having the leadership, and vision, and courage to reshape a couple things. And over the last four years, we’ve really seen the group grow, but it began with questions that we asked the young adults.

Alex Choi: And I would also add—I don’t know if I learned this from Steven Um or Tim Keller—”Preach and speak to the one who isn’t in the room.” And so I remember when our church was 10 people, and I would say things like, “Those of you who are Buddhist . . .” and our core members were like, “Hey, you know, we’re not Buddhist, why do you keep saying that?” And I said, “If I don’t speak to the Buddhist that isn’t in the room, you won’t bring them. If I don’t speak to the atheist or if I don’t speak to the LGBTQ community that isn’t in our church, then you will never think to bring those.” It was a very strange thing to speak to the one who wasn’t there.

Alex Choi: But, you know, another interesting thing for me as an Asian-American is, what do we mean by young adults, right? Because in Korean churches, “young adult” meant singles ministry from 22 years old to 40-year-old (if you’re still single). When I went to Barnes and Noble, young adult books were middle school, high school kid’s books. And so I think even culturally how we define young adult.

I actually was wondering that with this question. I didn’t know we were talking about youth students, and single post-college, or are we talking about singles? That’s another thing for us to think about, how do we define “young adults.”