UM congregations band together to reach young adults


Kara Witherow, Editor

The headlines are alarming: “Millennials leaving church in droves, study says,” “Can We Stop the 70 Percent of Young Adults Who Drop Out of Church?,” and “5 Possible Reasons Young Americans Are Leaving Church and Christianity Behind.”

If believed, one might think that young adults rarely step foot inside a church or want anything to do with organized religion. What statistics do show, however, is that about 70 percent of young adults ages 18 to 22 stop attending church regularly for at least one year.

In a nutshell: after they graduate, the students in your local church’s youth group will likely “drop out” of church for a short time.

There are a lot of reasons why: they leave home for college, they want a break from church, their work schedules conflict with worship times, or they don’t agree with some of their church’s stance on issues.

Another reason? They didn’t fit anywhere.

After graduating high school and aging out of youth group, young adults typically only have adult Sunday school classes as options for Christian education and discipleship, but many don’t see them as a great fit for their stage of life.

“The Church doesn’t have much built in for them,” said Ben Lee, Director of Student Ministries at Warner Robins First United Methodist Church. “There’s this fertile soil and all these seeds that have been planted and are growing, but I feel like we’re still failing as the Church.”

Six years ago he heard alarming statistics about the number of high school graduates who leave an organized life of faith. Concerned and feeling called to serve them, he spoke with his then-senior pastor, Dr. Jimmy Asbell. Together they decided to do something to reach the 18- to 26-year-olds in their community.

“We called the ministry The Space Between because there’s a gap between high school graduation and young adulthood where the church, overall, is failing,” said Lee, who now also serves as the ministry’s director.

Other area United Methodist Churches quickly took notice and jumped on board, and the ministry became a collaborative, community-wide ministry to college and career young adults. It’s funded by three UM churches – Warner Robins First UMC, Bonaire United Methodist Church, and Trinity United Methodist Church in Warner Robins – and staff from those churches plus Christ United Methodist Church in Warner Robins rotate teaching duties.

When The Space Between began, Trinity UMC didn’t have a young adult ministry in place, Bonaire UMC wanted to start one, and Christ UMC had a small ministry of about a dozen young adults.

“We decided to combine our efforts to really have some energy and it took off pretty quickly from there,” Lee said. “It doesn’t belong to any one local church; it truly is a conglomerate.”

The ministry’s focus is on teaching and discipling young adults and helping them grow in their relationship with Christ. More than a grown-up youth group, The Space Between is a place where young adults can be challenged in their faith and grapple with tough questions.

“We’re trying to disciple them and transition the students from that youth group mentality into the young adult mentality, where their faith is their own and where they can explore what they believe and why,” Lee said.

Young adults are drifting from the church, in part, Lee believes, because their faith isn’t personally meaningful to them. Part of the ministry’s goal is to give them a first-hand faith and a place to grow it.

Connor Henderson, 22, and his fiancée, Mindy Spengler, were unable to find their “home” in a traditional Sunday school class.

“(Classes) go right from high school to a class where the youngest couple is in their mid-30s,” he said. “I love my church and the people, but when you’re in two very different walks of life … it’s hard.”

A former member of Lee’s youth group at Warner Robins First UMC, Henderson now leads worship at Bonaire United Methodist Church.

The Space Between is a place where Henderson can voice his doubts and concerns, share his life with people his age, and grow in his faith.

“We’re all looking for something real, and The Space Between, for me, is that,” he said.

The Space Between meets at 7 p.m. on Thursdays at Warner Robins First United Methodist Church. Check out their Facebook page here.

May 4-6, 2017, the Southwest District and Next Step Ministry will sponsor a conference at Veterans Memorial State Park in Cordele for clergy and laity. The purpose will be to aid churches in attracting and engaging young people in our congregations. Click here for more information.