Jason Garver reached a crisis on a summer day at age 18, when he came to the end of his peanut-butter-and-cracker food supply in a house on the brink of foreclosure.
His hopes for a steady job had just crumbled. Nearly every company where he had applied for work had recently called to turn him down. Garver thought: Why does God hate me so much?
He texted that question to his former pastor. Except that Garver wasn't sure if there was a God. If there was, he thought, maybe he had written off the high-school dropout as a "bad kid" for using drugs and alcohol. His father had moved out of state for work, leaving Garver to survive on occasional grocery deliveries from friends.
"It was the hopelessness of not having any food, not getting a job, not seeing people," Garver said. "I wasn't in school. I didn't have friends coming to see me ever, and I couldn't go out to do anything. I was so hungry I didn't want to do anything."
After receiving the text, Garver's pastor, Corey Magstadt, asked to meet with him. Magstadt told Garver that he didn't have all the answers. But he did help Garver get back on his feet and invited him to the new Launch Ministry for young adults near Chaska, southwest of Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota.
Garver, now 22, belongs to the so-called millennial generation (born from 1980 to 2000), a group numbering 80 million that surveys show is beyond the reach of many traditional churches. According to a recent Pew Forum survey, millennials are the least religiously affiliated Americans of any living generation.
Young adults who go from high school to a four-year university or military service have specialized ministries tailored to them. But few ministries exist to address the distinct needs and spiritual concerns of millennials who drop out of high school, go straight into the workforce, or attend a community college.
"There's a cultural expectation of what a college student is," said Magstadt, Launch Ministry's executive director. "But if you're that age and not going to college, you fit into a different box, and the church doesn't know what to do with you."
Launch is one of the few ministries in the country serving 18- to 25-year-olds who aren't pursuing four-year degrees. Without Launch, Garver says, he might easily have fallen into a deeper financial and spiritual rut.
When Garver needed short-term housing, Magstadt invited him into his home, and when he needed a car to get to work, Magstadt gave Garver his old one. He also encouraged Garver to turn to Scripture amid his spiritual struggles.
Garver has since obtained his GED and nursing assistant license, with his eyes set on a bachelor's degree in physics.
And he doesn't think God hates him anymore. "Now I can say, being a Christian—that's how God helps," Garver said. "It's not a big glowing hand coming from the sky. It's people like Corey."
Trend Reversal: Going It Alone
As the author of the 2009 book, Souls in Transition, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has studied the religious lives of the millennial generation and their halting transition into adulthood. His research has found that millennials who don't go to college tend to be even less religious than their peers—a trend reversal since the 1990s.
"It used to be that college corroded religious faith. That has changed," said Smith. "Something about just graduating high school or not graduating high school and just working seems to be associated with less believing and less church involvement."
Smith said there are a few possible reasons for this trend. First, social class is a correlating factor—Americans who have bachelor's degrees and therefore are in the middle class are more likely to attend church. Second, working young adults tend to be more socially isolated and less connected to any type of community institution, including the church. Third, religious organizations typically overlook groups of college-age adults who aren't at four-year institutions.
"If you're trying to set up a ministry for young people, colleges make the most sense," Smith said. "They're accessible. Students are away from home and are most susceptible to being changed by a message. Ministries view college-bound people as more attractive because they'll be more influential in society as they get older."
But the noncollege-bound are a sizable group to overlook. Of the nearly 4 million U.S. high-school graduates in 2011, about 68 percent had enrolled in college by that October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those college-enrolled students, only about 60 percent were at four-year institutions. In an economic downturn, many millennials have opted to attend more affordable two-year colleges, which are less likely to have robust on-campus Christian outreach.
Meanwhile, working millennials are more vulnerable to poverty and unemployment, Smith said, meaning they face some of the hardest obstacles transitioning to adulthood.
Realizing this, Magstadt started Launch Ministry. As the senior pastor of the River Church in Chaska, he saw that many youth-group graduates had disappeared from the church's regular worship. After stepping down as senior pastor, he soon discovered just how serious some of their problems were.
About 20 young adults showed up to the first Launch Bible study in February 2009. As they went around introducing themselves, Magstadt saw many were dealing with crises: the first person had lost his mom the night before, the second person had just found out she was pregnant, and the third person was her boyfriend, who was addicted to meth.
"We quickly realized we were in over our heads," Magstadt said. Although he had envisioned the Bible study to be like a youth group for young adults, the need for a supportive community was more urgent.
An Environment to Grow
Launch started developing practical programs to meet young adults' basic needs, such as one-on-one mentoring and life skills classes, which teach career skills such as building a résumé, applying for a job, and taking the ged.
The mentoring program pairs about 20 young adults with volunteers from local churches. The mentors help young adults set and achieve their goals in both spiritual and practical areas of life. It's this personalized attention that results in change, Magstadt said.
"Young adults are crying out for someone to pour into their life, especially those who don't have much parental support," Magstadt said. "They need guidance that is much more direct and personal."
Most recently, Launch opened a transitional house called the Launch Pad, where eight young men stay for a monthly rent of $150, and they hope to start a house for young women. After committing himself to the Christian faith, Garver is now helping to manage the Launch Pad.
Magstadt said creating the Launch Pad was necessary because young adult homelessness was on the rise in their area.
"All their basic needs were taking up so much of their time that they couldn't focus on other things, like school and developing their spiritual life," Magstadt said. Recent national surveys show that 2 million people ages 18 to 24 had experienced homelessness during the previous 12 months.
Even while they don't have ministries that specifically target noncollege 18- to 25-year-olds, some churches have successfully reached millennials. In the past few years, Sunrise Community Church in Austin, Texas, has seen millennials gravitate toward their ministry, and now pastor Mark Hilbelink estimates that half the congregation is under the age of 40. Hilbelink came to Sunrise in May 2009 at the age of 26, succeeding a 65-year-old pastor.
Hilbelink describes Sunrise as half blue-collar and half white-collar, with a young adult population that faces struggles like out-of-wedlock children, alcoholism, drug abuse. He said such issues require a brutally honest church atmosphere, where young adults can own up to their failures rather than hiding them from the public eye.
"We want you to lay out your dirty laundry and then we'll walk with you through it and deal with it, rather than forcing you into the closet with it," Hilbelink said.
Sunrise emphasizes the importance of missional small groups to create that intimate atmosphere; in fact, said Hilbelink, if you have to choose, skip church and go to small group. Chad Valls, 28, had never been to a small group before Sunrise. But when he joined one he found himself opening up about his fear that he wouldn't be there for his 5- and 7-year-old daughters, fathered out of wedlock—just as his father wasn't there for him.
Valls said he told his small group everything before going to his pastor, but he eventually saw that it was okay to tell Hilbelink too. "It's hard to talk to a pastor, because you think he's this guy who's right with God," he said. "Is he going to judge me if I tell him about this? But after I went to a small group, I realized it wasn't that bad."
Coming into their Own
Sometimes young adults take it upon themselves to reach out to their peers. That's the case with the Mission, a new Texas-based community-college ministry to 75,000 students in the Lone Star College System.
The Mission isn't affiliated with any church or religious organization. It started in September 2011 when a few Lone Star students in Montgomery County in southeast Texas decided to create a Christian club. Prior to the Mission, there had only been a small Bible study group active.
Many on-campus ministries tend to focus on four-year schools, where students live in the dorms and are gathered in a central location. At community colleges, students commute and are less accessible.
The response to the Mission was overwhelming. Natalia Gaggero, a 22-year-old Lone Star student who helped start the ministry, said more than 80 people showed up for the first meeting, and they had 120 members in the first month. Since then, the Mission has expanded to two other Lone Star campuses. Members are constantly praying for Lone Star students; 48 people pray for a half hour every day, covering the full 24 hours.
"We're very oriented toward prayer and intercession, crying out to God for our campus, for the Lord to break the walls of apathetic reactions to him," Gaggero said.
Other millennials have risen to leadership within existing ministries. Sunrise has several young worship leaders, including 22-year-old Ashley Rico, who sings and plays the keyboard.
When Sunrise asked her to join the worship team, Rico was hesitant. Between raising her 2-year-old son (now 4) and working, she had a lot on her plate. She also wasn't sure if she was ready for the spiritual responsibility of leading worship and representing the church.
"I had to make a decision when they asked me to lead worship, if I was going to be 100 percent in my faith," Rico said. "I knew I wasn't going to get up on stage if I wasn't."
After much prayer, Rico decided to go for it. Soon after, she started reading the Bible more and looking up the biblical origins of worship songs. At first, Rico was nervous about speaking in front of the congregation, but the previous worship leader reminded her that as long as her heart was set on worshiping God, everything would be okay.
"Every time I do practice or a worship service, I'm reassured and know that's where I'm supposed to be," Rico said. "I feel like a better person, not because of what I'm doing, but because I'm part of something."
Catherine Newhouse (soon to be Catherine Knarr) is the editor of Faith Driven Business, a new online network of Christian entrepreneurs.
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