Why Young Adult Ministries Don't Work Well in Asian American Churches
If you've ever visited an Asian American church, you'll notice that most of them tend to be segregated by different age groups or life stages. This can be seen either on a Sunday where the different age groups have their own separate service or on a weekday where these life stages meet together for fellowship. Whether you agree with this strategy or not, the overall purpose is to help promote fellowship through something they have in common: their stage in life.
What's interesting though is that quite often, you'll hear about an Asian American church's vibrant Children's Program, growing Youth Group, or stable Family Ministry. But have you ever heard of an Asian church with a thriving Singles or Young Adult Ministry? Yeah, me neither. I'm sure there's a church out there that can boast about the amount of young adults that they have. But I think it's rare to see a church have a successful program that's catered for the singles at their church.
Why is this the case? Why are Asian churches able to develop great youth and college programs but struggle to minister to people after they graduate? Do our college ministries not prepare them well enough? Are our young adults simply not spiritual enough?
Well, personally, I think the answer simple: the young adult life stage just doesn't mesh well in an Asian Christian context. There are barriers that exist which make it difficult to minister to this group. And as a result, Young Adult Ministries often exist but rarely thrive in Asian churches.
But why is this the car? Here are a couple of proposals.
1) Young Adulthood is a Difficult Season of Life
One of the main reasons why Young Adult Ministries struggle is because the young adults are struggling. That's because of all the stages of life, the young adult stage is probably filled with the most uncertainty. I mean in college, your life is full of potential and you're simply preparing for what awaits. In marriage, your life is established because you've likely discovered your career and the people whom you’re going to spend the rest of your life with.
But young adult life? It's challenging because you're trying to establish your career, meet your future spouse, and fulfill your potential. You're worried if this job is for you or if this relationship is going to work out. While young adult life may not be the busiest season of your life (wait till you have kids), it’s probably the most anxious time.
As a result, young adults tend to be the least religiously committed group of people in any age group in the United States. They're so stressed trying to establish themselves that they often feel like they have no time for their spiritual lives or church because they don't think they have room for such things. Therefore, Young Adult Ministries struggle because they simply aren't a priority in the life of an anxious young adult.
2) Unrealistic Spiritual Expectations
During college, most Asian Americans tend to be heavily involved in their church and campus ministry. They'll serve in leadership positions, attend annual retreats, and go on short-term mission trips. They'll hang out with Christians everyday and will always be engaged doing radical things for God’s kingdom. This is often why the college years tend to be the most active and sanctifying years for Christians: there's so much hype surrounding the faith.
But once you graduate, you'll realize that college was actually one, long unrealistic spiritual high. I mean, Christianity doesn't normally operate in a context where you have time to do ministry every day and travel the world every year. Rather, Christianity tends to operate in the context of a 9:00am-5:00pm job, frustrating relationships at home, and devotional times with your Bible. But since collegians aren't used to applying their faith in such normal ways, a lot of them struggle transitioning into young adult life.
So what will they do? They lament about the state of their spiritual lives; they'll wonder why Christianity seems so boring now; they'll try to recapture their faith by volunteering at their old campus-ministries. In other words, Young Adult Ministries are often filled with a bunch of spiritually disgruntled Christians who are used to climbing Mt. Everest but are now told to enjoy a hike around the local park. Even though Christianity is far more "ordinary" than they think, many young adults reject this reality and struggle to move forward in their faith.
And this is why Young Adult Ministries struggle. The people in it are often too used to the "highs" and will reject the ordinary things your Young Adult Ministry has to offer.
3) The Lack of Commonality
The whole point of a church having a life stage is to gather people who have something in common in order to better relate to one another. This is why college ministries work: everybody who participates is about 18-21 years old, attends a local university, has a lot of energy, and is generally happy about life. This is also why family ministries work: everybody who participates is married, works a full-time job, has no energy, and is generally tired in life. Community is easily built in such a context.
But what do the young adults at your church have in common? Some young adults are twenty-one years old while others are thirty-one; some attend school while others have a career; some have a lot of energy while others have no energy; some are happy while others are miserable. The one thing that they have in common is that they're single - and since some of them are dating, even this isn't necessarily true.
So the lack of natural commonality makes it confusing on why churches are trying to group this group of people together in the first place. And if the only thing you can point to is their single status, then that leads to my next point.
4) Singleness is an Unappealing Identity Marker
I think one of the main reasons why certain life stage ministries thrive in church is because these life stages are appealing to rally around. For example, most Asians enjoy being a college student because most of them attend prestigious universities. Therefore, they enjoy being part of a church's college ministry and identifying with other collegians. Similarly, most Asians want to get married and have kids. Therefore, they enjoy being part of a church's family ministry and mingling with other married couples. These life stages are easy to rally around.
But singleness? Most Asians don't seem to enjoy this stage of life. I mean think about all the Asian weddings you've attended where during the bouquet toss, the MC calls up all the singles ladies up to the front. Think about how long it takes for any singles to get up participate. Just look at their despondent faces as they begrudgingly walk to the front to proclaim their singleness to the rest of the world - all while Beyonce's "All the Single Ladies" is blasting in the background. What's supposed to be a fun wedding tradition turns into a super awkward moment of shame.
You see for Asians, being single feels almost like wearing a scarlet letter that becomes more and more visible with age. That's why if a church has a Young Adult Ministry, they tend to be populated with mainly recent college graduates - because this life stage is trying to rally people around an unappealing stage of life. But nobody wants to be single. And the older you get, the more self-conscious you are about remaining in this life stage and being that creepy 35-year old guy who's being told by the church to share life with a bunch of 20-year olds at your church. Who wants to do that?
5) Asian American Churches Are Often Unprepared to Minister to Singles
Why do so many Asian American churches have thriving youth and college ministries? Well, it's because we know how to minister to them. Most pastors grew up in first-generation churches serving in youth groups and campus ministries. Therefore, we know how to set up a good program to help high school and college students grow. But young adults? Well, we simply lumped them together in the English Ministry (EM) along with the rest of the families. There was no training ground on how to minister to a group of older, single people and create a ministry around them.
In other words, Asians haven’t figured out a good system to minister specifically to single Asian Americans. It's almost treated as this weird, temporary life stage that you're supposed to hurry up and grow out of by getting married and having kids. Churches tend to treat marriage and family as a natural markers in life and singleness as this strange aberration that's supposed to be dealt with in your mid-twenties. And that's why a lot of Young Adult Ministries end awkwardly for older singles whose friends have all married and "escaped" to Family Ministry. As a church, we haven't put enough thought on how to minister to our singles.
Can Young Adult Ministries Succeed?
Again, some of you may read this and think this is why churches shouldn't be separated by life stages to begin with. Maybe. But I know realistically, some churches are just set up this way and it's too difficult to turn things around. So what should a church with a Young Adult Ministry do? Are they all doomed for failure? Or is there any way they can thrive? To be honest, I’m not really sure. But there are a couple of things I think churches that want one need to consider.
First, I think young adults need way less organizational gatherings and need far more organic ones. From my experience, formalized events work really well with youth, collegians, and even families. But young adults crave meaningful relationships to help them through their difficult seasons of life. The organic aspect of ministry must be prioritized over the organizational aspect.
Second, I think young adults need to mingle with married couples more. If your ministry is filled with disgruntled singles whose only escape from this ministry is to get married, then how on earth will your singles not idolize marriage? A mingling of married couples is necessary so that they can see that a) Marriage is not as great as they think and b) Paul was right - singleness has its advantages.
Lastly, I think the only way a young adult ministry can succeed is if the young adults at your church really want a ministry for them. Again, I think collegians and families naturally want a ministry catered around their life stage because they enjoy this life stage. But young adults don't naturally like being young adults. So why force them to participate in something they don't want?
But here's the thing: If young adults did want to do something, there's so much potential. In my opinion, young adults are the most capable to make an impact for the kingdom. Unlike collegians, they have careers and money. Unlike married couples, they have time and energy. But it takes them rallying together around something greater than their singleness in order to unleash this potential. I really hope churches - especially Asian ones - can figure this one out.