I had rehearsed what I was going to say and had a response for each of the objections I was sure my pastor would enumerate. I waited until the waitress brought us our coffee, and then I began to share a bit of my heart with this man who had watched me grow up and in recent years had become more of a mentor.
I was in my mid-20s and a seminary student, eager to serve my local church. And I was also lonely. Church had always been a place of relationships. Thinking all the way back to my vacation Bible school experiences as a young child, I could remember friendships that helped to shape my identity. But as a single adult, I was too old for youth ministry but felt too young for many of the small groups and Bible studies the church offered. Single moms had a place. Seniors had a few, too. But there was little for the post-college adult looking for a place to belong.
As I discussed my desire to begin a young adult ministry with my pastor and friend, I was relieved to hear that he knew such a program was missing at our church. He encouraged me to start something and offered to help in any way he could.
And so with my pastor’s blessing, I began to plan and to dream. I came up with a theologically rich but catchy name for the group (complete with a logo), put together promo videos and posters, and talked up my new ministry to every unmarried 20- and 30-something I knew.
The first Thursday came. But no one else did. A week went by, and again, no one else showed up for the young adult Bible study I had planned. Eventually, I just gave up. It seemed no one else really wanted to create a community for singles at my church.
Looking back, I can see that the problem wasn’t with anyone else; it was with me. Instead of reaching out to other singles and young adults, I built a program centered on my own needs and wants. Of course, there was a part of me that truly did want to invite others into community. But instead of seeking Jesus’ way of ministry, I took a page from Field of Dreams and believed, “If you build it, they will come.”
As I read through the Gospels, I am struck by the fact that Jesus created no programs, nor did He command His first followers to do so. Instead His instructions were based on compassion for the lost and hurting: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). Before ascending to the Father, Jesus didn’t just tell His disciples what they should do next; He told them what they should do next for others.
The Same Recipe for Making Disciples
“Love is the key,” says Jill Monaco, the founder of Single Matters, a ministry devoted to helping Christian men and women become all that God created them to be for single life or in preparation for marriage. She points to Philippians 2:3-4, where Paul tells us, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
When I asked Jill Monaco for young adult ministry tips, I was expecting her to offer up a unique set of tools — a paradigm distinctively suited for reaching singles in their 20s and 30s. What I received instead were the convictions of a woman who is passionate about helping post-college adults grow closer to Jesus Christ.
There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to find a place to belong — I believe that desire often comes from the Lord — but if that longing doesn’t grow into empathy for others, it’s difficult to avoid building our own kingdoms. As it turns out, the real perils of ministry spring up when we walk in our own strength. But making disciples — whether they are young married couples, families, or our young, single-adult friends — happens when we walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
Jill tells anyone looking to start a ministry for singles or young adults at their church, first of all, to pray: “Ask God to show you where you are called. Pray and ask God to give you confirmation from others. Pray and ask God to open doors no one else can open and shut doors that will keep you tied up in distractions.” Then, Jill adds, we should look for others who will join us in prayer. “Get an intercessory team together to pray for you. Find a leadership team who can pray with you and help you in areas where you may not be particularly gifted.”
Prayer helps us stay focused on God’s priorities. When our hearts are completely given over to the Father, we will soon find our plans align with what He’s already doing in the world. Prayer helps us become people prepared to join God in His work, rather than men and women attempting to find ministry success on our own.
“What we believe in our hearts about ourselves, about God, and about others comes from knowing who we are in Christ,” Jill says. “We act out of those beliefs. We teach others from those beliefs, too. So if we aren’t looking to God for our identity, then we can’t make disciples for Jesus — because we aren’t experiencing that same discipleship in our own hearts.”
It may be a good idea to step up in other areas of church life before attempting to start an entirely new ministry at your church. Not only will this give you valuable experiences from which to draw upon, but it will also demonstrate to your church’s leadership that you can be trusted with more responsibility. “Offer to help lead where there is a need,” Jill advises. “Prove yourself faithful first. Then present your ideas for young adult ministry. That way, everyone will know your heart is to be part of the solution, not just one more voice complaining. Offering to serve and submitting to authority is a great start.”
A Unique Opportunity for Kingdom Impact
Thinking back to my own failed attempt at starting a young adult ministry — and all that I’ve learned about serving my brothers and sisters in Christ since then — Jill’s words fill me with hope. There is no magic recipe for building community, no secret trick for being used by God. But if young men and women will lean into the Lord with their full weight, there is no limit to what the emerging generation can do for the kingdom.
“We are in a new season in the church,” Jill reminds me. “There are more singles in the church now than in any other decade in modern history. I think there is a need for singles ministry because fellowship and discipleship options for singles are often few and far between. Singles left to themselves are more vulnerable to temptation, and accountability only works if there are deep connections.
“I see a great need for singles to connect in the same way married people connect — both socially and spiritually. Yet in most churches, there are more opportunities for married people. If the church doesn’t provide opportunities for singles, I believe young people are more likely to make unhealthy connections or to isolate themselves. Both options yield fruit that is unhealthy, affecting the foundation of family in our society — because those singles often get married and bring their unhealthy habits into those new relationships.
“What if we looked at singles ministry like preventative medicine to help us avoid the triage that often happens in marriage ministry? I believe that if we focus on helping young adults get healthy and whole spiritually, we will see a decline in divorce and stronger family units.”
For those who have sensed a calling from the Lord to begin a ministry for young adults at church, Jill offers this advice: “Ask lots of questions and try to remain teachable. Take time to plan, don’t launch before you’re ready, but don’t feel the need to make it perfect either. Be humble to admit your needs and mistakes. Your age doesn’t disqualify you. Have fun. And remember this is God’s work that you are privileged to manage.”
Copyright 2015 John Greco. All rights reserved.