Merritt: Young adults 'missing from our congregations'
Written by Eric Anderson
July 2, 2011

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

One by one, people stood to describe what formed their generation: the Vietnam War for those in their 60s; Watergate and the crisis of trust in institutions for those in their 50s. Those in their 40s recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the personal computer.

Thirty-somethings had microwaves and computers, but started to fear that they would be the generation who would fail to surpass, or even achieve, as much as their parents had. Those in their 20s observed that they have lived with a sense of insecurity:  ten years in a nation at war, tragedy after tragedy in the news, and, of course, "glued to their cell phones."

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian pastor and author of Tribal Church and Reframing Hope, used these memories to establish the landscape of shifting cultures experienced by the generations.

Young adults live in a particular landscape of their own, one which largely does not include life in the church. "All across the board," she observed, "this generation is missing from our congregations."

Young adults - defined in the UCC as those between ages 18 and 30 -- experience profound insecurity of employment, said Merritt. Large numbers work in part-time, short-term jobs, and more than half of temporary workers are young adults. The average time in a single job for them is just 2.7 years.

Before the age of those who could be covered by their parents was raised, 30 percent of young adults had no health insurance.

Employment insecurity contributes to financial insecurity Merritt explained. College students graduate with enormous debt loads and have struggled, in the midst of the housing bubble, with sky-high housing costs, as salaries have remained stagnant or declined. Over half of young adults under 24, Merritt said, live with parents to make ends meet.

Young adults delay commitments, since they still have the expectation that financial stability must precede marriage and parenthood. "You're not whipping out the engagement ring," Merritt said, "when you're living in your parents' basement."

She invited churches to take a look at themselves through the eyes of a young adult. In many congregations, nearly everything she sees is oriented towards families: children’s classes, activities, and recognitions. "If that’s all we're doing, and that young adult walks into our church, we're telling her something: become something else before you come back here."

What young adults are doing well is making connections. Motivated by a great desire for relationship, they have formed "urban tribes," and they support those circles, in part, through emerging technology. They highly value connection with God and crave deep experiences of spirituality. The disciplines of contemplative prayer have found wide appreciation among young adults.

Merritt sees great possibility for churches like the UCC. "Our church is known for connecting with the world, our social action, feeding the hungry, feeding the homeless," she said.

"It's a very exciting time, because in our denominations it’s a very creative time."