News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Jessica Petzold, Shannon Hagar and Sarah Brown worship during Epoch at Decatur Baptist Church.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Jessica Petzold, Shannon Hagar and Sarah Brown worship during Epoch at Decatur Baptist Church.

Are they outside church looking in?
Churches trying new gatherings to reach today's young adults during a time when accountability is lacking

By Melanie B. Smith 340-2468

The setting wasn't a sanctuary with padded seats but an upstairs room with trendy corrugated metal walls and black and white tile floors.

Two young men, one on guitar and the other on an African-style drum, led praise songs.

Shawn Vance on the djembe and guitarist Joel Stutts lead praise and worship songs during Epoch.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Shawn Vance on the djembe and guitarist Joel Stutts lead praise and worship songs during Epoch.
Another young man spoke for about 15 minutes about real friendship to "twentysomethings" sitting around small tables.

"It's harder to fall into sin if you have someone ask, 'What are you struggling with this week?' " Jay Schug told the group of about 40.

The room's multiple mounted monitors showed a video clip about mistakes people make when making friends. On screen, a bumbling guy dressed as Darth Vader hides near people he admires. One person tells the "Star Wars" villain, known for his rasping pant, "You need to get a new breathing device if you want to be a stalker."

The audience laughed. They grew up with the movie series and parodies of it, so they immediately got the joke.

The Sunday morning meeting at Decatur Baptist Church, named Epoch, is one successful local outreach to young adults — the age group that researchers say is hardest for churches in the United States to reach.

The Barna Group found in a survey last year that six of 10 twentysomethings had been "churched" at one point during their teen years but now are spiritually disengaged.

Only a fifth of young adults have maintained the spiritual activity they had in high school, researchers said.

Schug, 30, knew his audience.

He didn't use only the "Star Wars" reference to contemporary culture in his illustrations. He asked how many in the room had text-messaged, e-mailed or called friends during the week. Almost all hands went up.

Schug said many people their age have e-mail "buddy lists" with 1,000 people in them.

"Even if it's superficial, it's important to have friends," he said.

He used David and Jonathan as biblical examples of friends whose relationship had depth and spiritual significance, something he said every Christian needs. Epoch tries to fill a gap in the lives of twentysomethings and in the church, Schug said before the gathering.

"The word epoch means a significant time that everything else measures back to," he said. "It's an important time when people decide their majors, meet their mates and choose whether to serve God or not."

Schug's own experience shows what such a group can mean. His involvement led to his conversion at age 21, he said.

'No accountability'

More churches are offering twentysomething ministries. They typically feature praise and worship music, informal settings, Bible study and small-group sessions.

In Athens, Friendship United Methodist Church has Pulse on Thursday nights for young adults out of high school through their early 30s. Twelve to 25 attend, married and single, said leader John David Crowe.

"Our goal is to build faith in Christ and relationships with other Christians," said Crowe, 30, who is also Friendship's contemporary worship leader.

He said a young adult focus is absolutely needed because studies show over and over that when someone graduates out of a youth group, he or she won't be active in church again until having children.

Churches traditionally put their resources into children and teens and have nothing for young adults, Crowe said. The result is that when twentysomethings taste freedom away from parents and face temptations, there's no accountability for them, he said.

The struggle for people to take their childhood faith to maturity with them isn't new. Crowe said he went though a brief falling away and has seen others do the same. Crowe said when he was in college, he got involved in a ministry that helped develop his faith and provided friendships so he didn't need to look elsewhere. A former youth pastor, Crowe said he's encouraging Pulse attendees to show up at Friendship youth gatherings to mentor teens. He said doing that trains young adults to minister, which is Friendship's goal for all believers, and helps reproduce the faith from one generation to the next.

Need to fit in

Margaret Feinberg, author of "Twentysomething" and a speaker about contemporary faith, said in an e-mail interview that churches must respond to young adult needs. Churches should make sure that when twentysomethings walk in, there's a place for them, "and that's not the singles group."

She said a baby boomer wants to know what's going on at a church. They ask, "What's the history, what's the denomination, what's the pastor's focus?"

But a twentysomething asks, "Who's here?" she said.

"They're looking for authentic community and a place to connect where their faith can find its tread," Feinberg said.

Today's young adults marry significantly later — about age 27 — so there are many years between graduating from high school and starting a family, she said. Those years are when young adults wonder where they fit in. Church brochures they are handed typically promote marriage retreats, youth groups and children's Sunday school, Feinberg said.

At, Feinberg advises people wanting to reach twentysomethings to be "your real, flawed self 100 percent of the time." She said young adults expect this and want to discuss the difficulties and complexities of the gospel.

"This generation is attracted to wonder, struggle and even issues that offer no resolution," she wrote.

She said workers with twentysomethings stress being creative, experiential and connection-oriented, among other factors. But each successful group isn't necessarily like another, Feinberg said. Schug wound up Sunday's Epoch gathering with a question: Do you have a true connection in your life today?

Joel Stutts, 25, the guitar player, said he got involved in the group as an outgrowth of teenage involvement at Decatur Baptist after his family moved to town.

"This has met needs of my life. God has used it to help me grow," he said of Epoch.

Alisha Sherman, 28, said she and her husband met through the ministry. They taught in the high school department of the church but are now helping support Epoch's leadership, she said.

Schug said Epoch is promoted not as an event but as a time and place to build relationships, "to hang out." He said he was "saved" through that approach. A friend from high school, Kenny Lopez, shared the gospel, and David Anderson got him involved in Epoch when it had only 10 or 15 people, Shug said. The relationships showed him that Christianity was real and exciting, he said. Now the group has 60. Epoch meets after Decatur Baptist's morning service, and most who attend Epoch also go to that worship, he said.

A new twentysomething group in Decatur is Flow, which meets the second Friday of each month at First Baptist Church in The Loft.

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