Photo by Dave Haas, Jr.
Belong: Making Space for Young Adults
By: Laura Poff
Jovanie Smith once thought about leaving The Salvation Army. As a busy college student studying exceptional student education at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, she was burned out on the expectations placed on her by the corps. She would wake up on Sunday mornings and not want to attend church. She would see her busy week ahead and not want to attend night programs, either.
“A part of me always thought about leaving the Army,” Smith said. “I wondered what that would look like and who would keep in touch with me.”
During this time, Lieutenant Cherika Gage, then the assistant corps officer, maintained a relationship with her. She attended Smith’s school functions and kept in touch, offering encouragement and support. Essentially, the two formed a genuine mutual friendship.
Because of her relationship with Gage, Smith stayed connected to the corps, eventually taking a position as territorial young adult and mission deployment coordinator in the Youth Department in 2015.
“If there were more people like Cherika Gage, who intentionally invested in me, we wouldn’t have a problem of young adults leaving the church,” she said.
According to research by the Barna Group, six in 10 young people will leave the church permanently or for an extended period, starting at age 15. In response to this trend, the Youth Department has revamped teen and college ministry programs and encouraged corps to be more innovative in creating an environment of worship, teaching and fellowship that is attractive to students.
In 2013, the Youth Department launched Mind the Gap, a program that provides funding and support to corps interested in starting a college ministry. Since then, many corps have taken advantage of the funding, with seven currently enrolled in the three-year program. The age cap for young adults is 35. What happens to Salvationists when they are no longer students?
“We’ve done a lot to strengthen ministry to kids and teenagers, but we get a little thin with our young adult ministry,” said Captain Sarah Nelson, associate territorial youth secretary. When she and her husband, Captain Dan Nelson, visit corps around the territory, they notice that in many cases, “a generation is just missing from our corps.”
Smith accepted her position at territorial headquarters so that she could advocate for her peers as a member of the territorial team and as an influential young leader. “I want to be an example of a young adult involved in the Army, but with boundaries.”
Relationships, not programs, will keep young adults invested in the church, Smith said.
“I want to encourage young adults to form organic community with people they are already around, without putting expectations on them,” she said. “Even (with) something like ‘Taco Tuesdays,’ or hosting dinners in their homes – we need to be more intentional about building community and connecting with, and investing in, the young adults that we do have.”
In October 2016, Smith was invited to a territorial young adult retreat in the USA Eastern Territory. As a delegate, she felt a freedom to worship, learn and connect with her peers that came from not having to be a leader. When she returned, she wanted to bring that same experience to young adults in her own territory in hopes it would affirm and inspire them.
“I needed to reevaluate my role as an advocate for my peers,“ she said. “It’s convenient to use young adults as leaders, but we don’t really invest in them like we do other groups. I felt a burden to supply that for them, and I made it a major goal.”
Several months later, she began planning the Southern Territory’s first young adult conference, scheduled to take place in Atlanta, Jan. 12-14. The conference is intended to provide a space for adults ages 18 to 35 to gather with like-minded people for teaching, worship and fellowship.
In another unprecedented move, delegates do not need corps approval to attend. This allows non-Salvationists and former Salvationists the opportunity to connect with each other and with The Salvation Army.
“My hope is that our young adults will feel wanted,” Smith said. “I hope that the outcome of this conference is that we see and recognize a generation that has been pushed out. It is so important that they be acknowledged.”
Smith said that often, when someone stops attending a corps, there’s a tendency to assume something has gone wrong in their lives instead of examining what might not be working at the corps.
Captains Nelson acknowledge that early adulthood is a time filled with choices, and some of those choices will lead people away from The Salvation Army even when nothing has gone wrong.
“Young adults are living in varied situations; some are more focused on careers, others on relationships or starting families,” Captain Dan said. “It’s a formational time in a person’s life, full of transitions. We recognize the circumstances they have going on and want to help them.”
The captains hope that, through inclusivity, some former Salvationists will feel comfortable returning.
“But you can’t start to strengthen a generation just by appealing to their preferences,” Captain Sarah said. “We have to aim at helping them truly pursue the Lord. These are people of great depth. And we don’t want to isolate other groups by reaching young adults.
“We want to create an inclusive intergenerational experience. We want this conference to be a demonstration that we are trying. We are affirming, incorporating and empowering them to start things tomorrow.”