Prior to launching a college campus ministry, I spent the last 7 years on staff at a church as the young adult pastor. From my vantage point, more churches than ever are making intentional efforts to reach 18- to 30-year-olds. Across the nation, a variety of models are working to engage and equip young adults to become a part of the lifeblood of the local church.
When it comes to young adult ministry, I haven’t invented anything. The focus is to go make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. However, there are some things most successful young adult ministries do. Here are 10 steps to launching an effective young adult ministry:
1. Find Someone to Champion the Ministry
Someone needs to step up and be the leader. This could be a volunteer or a part-time or full-time staff member. I’ve seen churches where the youth or worship pastor also serves in the young adult capacity. I know of one church where the lead pastor and his wife host the young adult small group in their home, personally discipling this age group.
Maybe God is nudging you to be a champion for this cause in a leadership or support role. If so, start a conversation with your pastor.
2. Start With Prayer
Nehemiah, the King of Persia’s cupbearer, cried, prayed and fasted when he heard that Jerusalem was in ruins. When I started, I felt like Nehemiah, not knowing what to do. I couldn’t bear the thought of America’s young adults becoming a forgotten and unchurched generation.
A few people at our church gathered one night to pray. After the prayer meeting, we decided to get together over the next few weeks. After a few times of just praying, we began meeting as a small group — to regularly pray, read God’s Word, eat, and engage in open discussion just like the Early Church did in Acts 2:42-47.
Individual and corporate prayer times are the birthplace of burdens, dreams, visions and promises from God for our lives. Our group began with a few young adults on our knees, calling out to the God of heaven and asking Him for wisdom on what to do and whom to invite.
Since that time, the group has grown exponentially. I can trace everything back to our starting point — on our knees. There’s something about two or more gathering together before God, asking Him what He wants.
3. Build a Team
You’re on the winning team — God’s team! It comforts me to know that I’m never alone. At the end of the Great Commission, Jesus makes a great promise: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
What if you could build a dream team to reach the next generation of young adults in your community for Christ? What positions would you need to fill? Business writer Jim Collins calls these “the right seats on the bus.” Who from your church would fit best in each seat on your bus?
This is where you pray the right people onto your team, asking God to send workers for the harvest (Luke 10:2). As you pray and God puts people on your heart, begin conversations with them. Share a compelling vision, starting with why: Why would someone want to volunteer?
4. Serve a Vision
So, you feel called to pioneer a new young adult ministry. That is awesome! It’s time to think and pray about what this ministry could and should look like. Is there a picture you can see or imagine of the ministry’s future? That is your vision. Visions are visual.
If you’re in a local church ministry, you’re there to support the existing vision of the lead pastor. Even if God gave you a vision, you’ll want to run it by the leader of the church. As a support staff or volunteer, your vision should always complement the church’s vision — not compete with it.
5. Find Mentors
Proverbs 13:20 says, “Walk with the wise and become wise.” There’s value in seeking counsel from more experienced people. Don’t settle for just any person who’s older than you. Find someone who has been where you want to go and can offer advice to help you get there.
Find the experts. Read their books. Reach out to them. Call, email, and chat over a meal if you can. That’s what mentoring is all about. Ask as many questions as possible. Learn from their successes, failures and observations.
I couldn’t bear the thought of America’s young adults becoming a forgotten and unchurched generation.
These mentors don’t have to be people you know personally. Paul — yes, that Paul — is one of my favorite mentors.
Go find your own mentor who has been where you want to go. Ask questions. Learn from that person’s successes and failures. His or her wisdom is more valuable than you realize.
6. Create Regular Small Groups
Consistency is an important part of creating a successful young adult ministry. The lives of college students, 20-somethings and young couples are transient. That means ministry leaders who focus on this age group need to be pillars of consistency in the midst of a changing culture. One way you can do this is by setting up small groups.
My ministry uses small groups — communities of people who meet weekly to support one another, study and discuss the Bible, and pray. Consistency matters because having a stable group of people builds trust and brings confidence to your life, despite an uncertain life stage.
Discipleship results happen best when groups meet consistently and intentionally, just like fitness results are most effective with scheduled, frequent gym visits.
For more information about building great small groups, check out Small Group University by Brad Lewis, the Chi Alpha director at North Dakota State University.
7. Identify and Equip Natural Leaders
I love to watch people magnets — you know, those who naturally attract and engage others. Every ministry has natural-born “people people.” They may not have official titles or roles on your team, but you can bet they’re inviting dozens of people over for a bonfire or movie tomorrow. They’re the thermostats who change the temperature in a room.
The person leading a young adult ministry can’t do it alone, and these people magnets are an essential part of ministry to young adults. If you recognize them in your own ministry, encourage them! Call out their leadership skills, and ask them to keep engaging others.
If your ministry needs some of these people, pray for God to send them. He can use them to expand the influence of your young adult ministry and raise up and empower other leaders in your ministry. They will turn your ministry into a community.
8. Bring Everyone Together
As your group outgrows a living room or table in a restaurant, it’s time to consider a space for larger gatherings. A large gathering is an on-ramp and invitation into deeper community. Some meet weekly or monthly, and others quarterly. Find the model that works for you; there are so many thriving young adult ministries.
I don’t know what’s best for your ministry. It may be formal or informal, programmed down to every detail, or more unplugged. As long as you start with prayer, God will lead you to pastor and care for people’s souls, no matter the format. That’s what matters most.
9. Partner With Youth Ministry
Within your church, think beyond just your department. As a college pastor or young adult ministry leader, you should develop a great working relationship with the youth pastor. You can work together to help and sharpen one another.
Think strategically about transitions: youth to college to young adults. Team up with your youth leaders to facilitate these transitions. The students they currently lead will one day become young adults.
As a church body, are we helping equip young people to thrive spiritually when they get to college? Do we know where they are going after high school, whether to college, a branch of the military, or a workplace? If so, can we connect them with campus ministries and churches in those places?
10. Develop Key Relationships
Get to know other people who are passionate about reaching young adults. Build bridges of connection with local college pastors and ministries. Chi Alpha and other campus ministries exist to reach students on college and university campuses.
Young adult ministry leaders should help students make ministry connections so they can successfully transition into the local church during and after college.
Think of a few people locally who share your passion for young adult ministry. They might be campus ministers or young adult pastors. Get together with them for coffee, and partner in prayer for a move of God in your city. This is so much bigger than you, your ministry or your community. It is about the kingdom of God.
Can you imagine what would happen if every church in America had a successful young adult ministry? What would our world look like if every church had at least one young adult small group, where young people could find hope in Jesus and encounter life-changing, Christ-centered community?
As today’s young people begin their adult lives, we can influence them for eternity. How will your church respond to this opportunity?